On a hot May night last year, two boys lay burning with fever in their Omaha home
Their mother, Maria C. Vargas-Bautista, watched them deteriorate, and when their fevers spiked to 103 degrees, she called 911.
An ambulance took them to the Nebraska Medical Center emergency room. Doctors told her that the boys, Enrique and Cristian, were critically ill with throat infections. She fainted.
Vargas-Bautista spent the night at the hospital, too. The next afternoon, she got some visitors: Three Douglas County sheriff's deputies.
They said they'd come to arrest her on an eight-year-old fugitive warrant. Later, she would learn that it was connected to a gruesome child abuse case in which the mother gave birth at home and hid the newborn in a closet.
No, Vargas-Bautista tried to tell the deputies through a language barrier. She tried to tell them they had the wrong person, that she didn't have a daughter named Luz, that she needed to stay with her boys.
But the officers persisted, taking her downtown and booking her into the Douglas County Correctional Center. "I was very worried for my children," Vargas-Bautista said Tuesday through an interpreter.
Four days after her arrest, she was released without explanation, Vargas-Bautista said.
Vargas-Bautista shares a similar name and date of birth — and country of origin — with the woman named in the warrant. The other woman, Maria L. Vargas, is still a fugitive.
Now the episode could end up costing Douglas County.
Her story of trying to get help for her sick children — and then finding herself behind bars — is detailed in a tort claim filed last week by her attorney, Christopher Roth of Omaha. Vargas-Bautista wants the county to pay her $100,000 — $25,000 for each day she spent in jail.
Roth said officers working in the Omaha area should know that Maria is a common Hispanic name. The deputies who arrested Vargas-Bautista "ignored the clear indications that it was a wrongful arrest," he wrote.
According to police reports and World-Herald coverage at the time, Maria L. Vargas was arrested in 2005 after giving birth at home and hiding the newborn baby in a closet. Vargas, who was 18 at the time, was taken to the hospital after she began vomiting blood.
Though she denied it, doctors determined that she had recently given birth. Police rushed to her home and found the baby under some clothes — oxygen-starved but alive.
Vargas was booked on suspicion of felony child abuse. Court records show that she failed to appear for a pretrial hearing, and in 2006, the judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
Eight years later, Vargas-Bautista was arrested on that warrant. She said Tuesday that officers never read her her rights or asked for identification. She said her fingerprints were taken twice — once when she was booked into jail and again two days later.
She said the ordeal left her confused and shaken. Her husband, Pedro Garcia Lopez, had to take time off work to care for the boys while she was in jail, she said.
Like Vargas, Vargas-Bautista is originally from Guatemala, and she also has a daughter. But she didn't move to Omaha until 2007 — two years after Vargas was arrested — and her daughter, Micaela, is only 5.
A deputy arresting someone on a warrant will attempt to verify the person's identity, Chief Deputy Sheriff Tom Wheeler said. They typically will check people's identification, but without that, deputies can compare photos or known physical descriptors, such as scars or tattoos, and if necessary compare fingerprints, Wheeler said.
It's not clear what steps were taken in this case. Wheeler declined to answer questions about Vargas-Bautista's arrest because of the pending claim. Douglas County Corrections Director Mark Foxall did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The county's risk manager will review Vargas-Bautista's claim, and the County Board would ultimately decide whether to pay it. Left unresolved, such claims often precede litigation.
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