An Iowa couple last week won $3.25 million in a malpractice lawsuit against their former lawyer after the baby boy they were in the process of adopting was reclaimed by his biological parents — and then murdered by one of them five weeks later.
Rachel and Heidi McFarland were awarded the judgment on Tuesday against Des Moines, Iowa, attorney Jason Rieper, who they said acted negligently in not getting the child’s biological parents to sever their parental rights (a characterization Rieper’s attorney disputes).
“The release-of-custody never got signed by either birth parent,” Rachel McFarland tells PEOPLE. “Obviously our child and us weren’t a priority to [Rieper]. We are just happy he was found negligent. That was what our goal was. We will not see any money from this.”
The McFarlands, who filed suit in August 2014, had planned to adopt a son from the daughter of one of Rachel’s nursing home co-workers. They were present at his birth, in December 2013, and had named him Gabriel.
“Adoption wasn’t ever our No. 1 choice, but because it was private it seemed tailor-made for us and we thought this could be our chance to become parents,” Rachel says. “We didn’t know if we could do artificial insemination, and it seemed like a route we could afford. The birth mom didn’t care if we were a same-sex couple. It just seemed too good to be true — and it was too good to be true.”
But, at the time, she says, “Me and Heidi were super excited. We thought it was destiny. We felt lucky.”
The couple was ecstatic when baby Gabriel was born at 9:34 a.m. on Dec. 28, 2013.
“We coached her through labor,” Rachel says of the biological mother, Markeya Atkins. “I cut the umbilical cord. He was in our arms and care the second he was born. We both wanted a boy and both wanted to name him Gabriel. It is a strong name. It is my favorite story from the Bible.”
But the couple’s joy soon turned to sadness when they found out from Rieper on March 3, 2014, that Atkins had decided she wanted the baby back. Gabriel was returned to his biological parents 10 days later.
“[Rieper] said there is nothing left for us to do: She wants him back and you have to give him back,” Rachel recalls. “It was horrible. There are no words. We had him for 78 days. We loved him from the first idea. We cut his little mohawk off. All we have left of him is his hair, and little did we know that would be all we had left of him.”
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In late April, five weeks after losing Gabriel, Rachel says she and Heidi were watching television when the news of his death was broadcast on the local news.
“It didn’t say his name, but we had received a bill from the guardian ad litem and it had the address on it. It was this normal report that a baby was found dead at such-and-such address,” Rachel says. “Heidi was screaming, and I looked at the paperwork and it was the address. I texted [Atkin’s mother] and she confirmed it was him.”
Gabriel was killed on April 22, 2014. At the time, Atkins told police that she had discovered him in her apartment “alone, pale, wet and foaming from his mouth and nose” after leaving him with his birth father, Drew James Weehler-Smith, the Des Moines Register reports.
A medical examiner later determined that Gabriel died from head trauma.
Weehler-Smith, now 20, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2015 and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, according to the Register.
“It is a life sentence for all of us,” Rachel says.
Biological Mom Speaks
Rieper’s attorney, David L. Brown, tells PEOPLE he is disappointed with the jury’s verdict last week. The civil trial reportedly focused on Rieper’s involvement in the adoption case and not Gabriel’s killing afterward.
“We are certainly exploring all of our options to challenge this result,” Brown says, arguing that Rieper wasn’t negligent in the adoption and had no control over Atkins’ decision.
“You can’t control the emotion of a birth mom, and you can’t control the emotions of a 16 year-old birth mom,” Brown says. “At the end, the kid wasn’t going to do it and the suggestion that Jason was to force her to do it would be unethical for him.”
Brown says his client “isn’t responsible for this homicide.”
“I don’t believe he did anything inappropriate at all,” he continues of Rieper, “and I think if he forced the issue and forced her to sign away her rights, I think someone could make a case that it was inappropriate.”
Efforts to reach Atkins have been unsuccessful, but she told the Register in 2014 that she chose to take Gabriel back because she felt the McFarlands had grown distant since getting him and that she was afraid he would no longer be a part of her life.
She said then, “It’s like after I gave the baby to them, they didn’t care.”
Atkins also told the paper that she had planned on a new start for herself after giving birth. “God, I can’t even describe how much I loved him,” she said of Gabriel.
Rachel and Heidi were approached not long after Gabriel’s death by another pregnant woman, from whom they adopted a baby girl, London. Heidi later gave birth to another daughter, Vienna, according to the Register. But Rachel says she and her wife will never get over the loss of the boy they had hoped to raise as their son.
“He was just a sweet baby,” she says of Gabriel. “He smelled good. He loved music. Our cats loved him and our dogs loved him. He was just a sweet and beautiful baby boy. He was learning how to smile when we gave him up.”