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Roxanne Conlin: Ankeny couple gets $3.25M after adopted son killed by birth father

The Des Moines Register Aug. 16, 2017 


The lawsuit filed by Rachel and Heidi McFarland in August 2014 said that their adoption  attorney, Jason Rieper, allowed the couple to believe that he'd gotten the baby's birth mother's signature on a crucial release-of-custody document — but he actually had failed to get the signature.

The baby was later returned to his birth mother and was killed by his birth father.

A jury unanimously decided on Tuesday that Rieper's actions caused $3.25 million worth of emotional distress to the McFarlands, court records show.

This verdict doesn't fix everything, as the McFarlands can never get their son back — but the jury's decision reassured the couple that they did everything they could for their first child, they said in an interview Wednesday.

"I don't know exactly what moving forward is, but I know both Heidi and I feel a lightening. A weight has been lifted," Rachel McFarland said.

The 3-month-old baby, Gabriel McFarland, died April 22, 2014, about five weeks after his birth mother, Markeya Atkins, got him back from from the McFarlands, whom he had lived with since birth. Police charged the child's father, Drew James Weehler-Smith, 17, with murder after Atkins found the baby "alone, pale, wet and foaming from his mouth and nose" in her apartment.

Weehler-Smith pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in January 2015 and received a 50-year prison sentence.

The trial for the couple's civil lawsuit against Rieper unfolded in the last two weeks, bringing up painful memories, they said. And the couple said they found it frustrating that they were not allowed to testify about their son being killed, because the civil case focused solely on Rieper's actions, not the aftermath.

"His negligence set our baby up on a course that was irreversible," Rachel McFarland said in the interview.

But the McFarlands are grateful for the jury's decision, saying that it brings them a feeling of validation.

"We weren't wrong," Heidi McFarland said. "We were totally correct in being concerned for our child."

Rieper did not respond to a reporter's call seeking comment on Wednesday morning.

"God bless the civil justice system for holding people accountable for the damage they do to others, and to this jury who came to the right conclusion even without all of the evidence," Roxanne Conlin, who represented the McFarlands in the civil lawsuit, said in a statement after Tuesday's verdict.

After Gabriel's death, the McFarlands adopted a daughter, and Heidi gave birth to their youngest daughter. London McFarland is now 3 years old, and Vienna McFarland is 2.

But the couple will forever remember Gabriel, and they frequently tell their daughters about their older brother, they said.

"He is the baby that made us mothers," Rachel said.

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Rachel and Heidi McFarland with their adopted daughter London McFarland, 3, and Vienna McFarland, 2. (Photo: McFarland family/Special to the Register)
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