IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Families write about shared tragedy

"Mistaken Identity" recounts the true story of two college students, Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak — one buried under the wrong name, one in a coma being cared for by the wrong family — and the heart-wrenching discovery five weeks later that their identities had been mistakenly reversed. Now coming together two years later to write about this amazing drama, the Van Ryns and the Ceraks descri
/ Source: TODAY

"Mistaken Identity" recounts the true story of two college students, Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak — one buried under the wrong name, one in a coma being cared for by the wrong family — and the heart-wrenching discovery five weeks later that their identities had been mistakenly reversed. Now coming together two years later to write about this amazing drama, the Van Ryns and the Ceraks describe the unthinkable agony endured by their two families. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter One

Colleen Cerak woke up with a start to the sound of the phone ringing. Her eyes could barely focus as she tried to make out the alarm clock on the nightstand. It was nearly two in the morning, Wednesday, May 31. When she finally reached the phone, she thought she recognized the voice on the other end as a man identified himself as the Grant County coroner. The same man had called five weeks earlier, telling her that Whitney, her eighteen-year-old daughter, had died in an accident along with three other Taylor University students and a university employee. That call also came late at night. Why would the coroner call me in the middle of the night now? she wondered.

“The county chaplain is monitoring this call,” the coroner told her. Then he asked what struck Colleen as a very strange question. “Are you alone?”

“What? Yes. I mean no,” she said. “Carly, my daughter, is home with me.”

“Would you please ask her to listen in on this conversation?”

If she hadn’t been so asleep, Colleen might have asked why it mattered if she were alone, and why the coroner had called at such an ungodly hour. But she didn’t. Her body was awake, but her mind hadn’t caught up with it yet. She climbed out of bed, walked across the hall to Carly’s room, and woke her up. “I need you to listen in on this call. I’m going downstairs to get the other phone. Don’t hang up,” Colleen said.

Carly was sound asleep when her mother threw the cordless phone on her bed. “What? You want me to do what? Why?” Carly asked, but Colleen had already started down the stairs. Half asleep, but already panicking, Carly put the phone to her ear. She listened as her mother asked the man to identify himself again. The moment she heard him say he was the coroner, Carly felt sick to her stomach.

“We now know,” the coroner said, “that the accident survivor in the hospital identified as Laura Van Ryn is not in fact Laura. This fact was confirmed earlier this evening through her dental records.”

Carly listened upstairs while Colleen was downstairs on the main extension. Neither of them said a word, their minds unable to comprehend what they were hearing. Then the coroner dropped his bombshell. “We have reason to believe your daughter may be alive.”

“No. No. That’s impossible. We buried her,” Colleen said. In her half-awake state, she thought the coroner was saying that Whitney had been alive when she was placed in her casket, meaning the family had buried her alive. The thought horrified her. The coroner quickly clarified what he meant. “We have reason to believe that the girl identified as Laura Van Ryn is, in fact, your daughter Whitney Cerak.”

The moment Carly heard the coroner say that Laura was Whitney, she threw down the phone and stormed down the stairs. “No, no, no!” she screamed. “Hang up the phone, Mom. hang up! I can’t believe someone would be so cruel as to pull a prank like this. This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard of in my life!”

“What did you say?” Colleen said to the coroner. She could hardly hear his response.

“Mom, listen to me!” Carly yelled. “There’s no way that isn’t Laura. Her family and her boyfriend have been right at her side for five weeks. Five weeks! Don’t you think they would have noticed if it weren’t Laura? A lot of my friends have seen her. Kelly was there! Mom, don’t you think my own roommate would have noticed something as obvious as this!? Whitney doesn’t look like Laura. Why would someone do this?” She began crying. “Mom, hang up the phone. Hang up, hang up!”

Finally Colleen asked the coroner, “May I call you back? I really need some time to think.”

The coroner seemed taken aback by her question. “Mrs. Cerak, this is a very serious matter. We need you to bring your daughter’s dental records to the hospital in Grand Rapids as quickly as possible so that we can make a positive identification.”

“I understand that. What’s your number there?”

“Mrs. Cerak!”

“May I please have your number?” Colleen’s mind could not process what he was telling her; she was in shock. Maybe Carly is right. Maybe this is nothing but a cruel, cruel hoax. Once Colleen had the phone number, she hung up the phone and sank into her chair. Carly sat across from her on the sofa, fuming.

“Who could be so cruel?” Carly asked. Colleen didn’t respond. She checked the phone number and discovered that the call had, in fact, come from Marion General Hospital in Indiana, the hospital to which Whitney’s body had been taken on the night she died.

“That doesn’t mean the call was real,” Carly protested. She looked over at her mother. “Mom, you don’t actually believe this garbage, do you?” She threw up her hands in frustration. In her mind, Carly believed she had to be the voice of reason in the family. Her father, a youth pastor, was in New York with a group of high school seniors for their annual graduation trip. With him gone, she kicked into full big-sister mode. “Mom, believe me. I know that the girl in the hospital is Laura, not Whitney. I know what I’m talking about. Who are you going to believe, your own daughter or some stranger making prank calls in the middle of the night!?”

Colleen didn’t know what to do next. She hesitated to call and awaken her husband, Newell, when she didn’t yet have any firm information. Going on this trip had been a hard enough decision for him. It was his first step toward something approaching normalcy in his job since they’d lost Whitney five weeks earlier. If this was in fact a hoax, Colleen saw no reason to make him suffer through it as well. Unsure of where else to turn, she called Newell’s best friend and coworker, Pastor Jim Mathis, who had walked with the family through the tragedy of Whitney’s death. “Jim, we have a situation here,” she said, “and I don’t know where else to turn. We just received a phone call ...”

“A fake phone call!” Carly shouted in the background.

“We just received a phone call from someone claiming to be the Grant County coroner. He said ...” — Colleen could hardly believe the words were coming out of her mouth — “he said that Whitney may be alive.”

“What?” Jim said. “How?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if the call was real. Would you check it out for me? I don’t think I can.”

“Sure. What’s the number?”

Five minutes later he called back and said, “It looks like we need to go on another road trip.”

As soon as she hung up the phone, Colleen called the family dentist for Whitney’s dental records, which he said he would bring over right away. Only then did she call her husband. The moment Colleen said his name, Newell knew something was wrong. “Not Carly,” he said. “Please tell me that it’s not Carly.” With Whitney gone, he couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to their only surviving daughter.

“No, no, no. Carly’s fine. It’s uh ... it’s about Whitney.”


“I just got a call from the Grant County coroner’s office, and they think ... they think Whitney may be alive.”

“That’s impossible,” he said. “We buried her. She can’t be alive.”

“Let me talk to him,” Carly yelled in the background and then grabbed the phone out of her mother’s hand. “Don’t believe any of this, Dad. The phone call said they think Laura is Whitney, but she can’t be. My friends saw her. They know Whitney. Believe me, Dad, this is impossible!”

“I know, Carly. I know” was all he could say in response.

Colleen got back on the line. “Jim is going to drive us down to Grand Rapids so we can hand over Whitney’s dental records to the hospital. I’m sure it’s nothing but a wild-goose chase, but we have to go.”

“Be sure to call me as soon as you get there,” Newell said. Then he hung up the phone and tried to sleep, to no avail. His mind spun out of control as he lay in the dark. He replayed all that had happened since Colleen had first called him on April 26, 2006, and told him that Whitney had been in an accident. He had been away on a ministry-related trip that night as well. Since then he’d carried a hole in his soul that could not be filled. Yet it wasn’t a grief without hope. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitney was in the very presence of God in heaven. Yet now the family was told she was not in heaven, but alive in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Unbelievable,” he repeated over and over.

As he tossed and turned in his bed, one thought raced through his mind: How can this even be possible? If a mistake had been made, someone would have noticed in the first couple of days. But five weeks? Five weeks?! Impossible. How could the Van Ryns not have realized this girl wasn’t their daughter? She must be horribly disfigured, since it wasn’t just the immediate family who would have to be mistaken. Her boyfriend and all of Laura’s closest friends had also visited her in the hospital, and not one of them had alerted authorities that there might be a mistake. How could no one have noticed they had misidentified the person in that bed?

Neither he nor Colleen had seen Whitney’s body after the accident. It had made sense at the time, but now a wave of self-doubt washed over him. We didn’t want the image of Whit lying in a casket burned in our minds, he reminded himself. Colleen and I agreed that we didn’t want that to be the first thing we thought of when we thought about her. Not once had they questioned their decision. Now, for the first time, Newell wondered how the authorities had identified the bodies at the scene of the accident. That opened the door for the biggest question of all: Could Whitney really be alive?

While Newell tossed and turned in bed at a campground in New Jersey, the rest of the family got ready for what Carly later called “the worst car trip of my life.” Colleen told her, “You should pack some clothes to take with us. If this really is Whitney, we’ll probably stay down there for a while.”

Carly shot her mother a look. “Would you be realistic, Mother? I told you. My friends have been down there. They’ve seen her. They all know it’s Laura. If it were Whitney, don’t you think Laura’s best friends would have noticed?”

“Carly, please, we just have to make sure. Okay?” Colleen said.

“We already know for sure,” Carly said and stormed off. She refused to entertain even the slightest hope that her sister could be alive. If she did, and those hopes were crushed, it would feel like the night Whitney died all over again.

Colleen went downstairs and woke up Sandra, whom the family lovingly called “the girl who lives in the basement.” Sandra Sepulveda had moved in with the Ceraks during her sophomore year of high school after her family moved away from Gaylord. With time she became like another sister to Carly and Whitney. Colleen shook her and said, “Sandra, we’ve got to drive down to Grand Rapids. Right now. Tonight.”

“What? Why?” Sandra said, still half asleep.

“The coroner called and told us Whitney may be alive,” Colleen said. The words struck her as absurd even as they left her lips.

“What? How?” Sandra yelled as she jumped out of bed and raced up the stairs after Colleen.

“We don’t know. That’s why we have to go to GR,” Colleen said. Sandra peppered her with questions, but all Colleen could say in response was, “I’ve already told you everything I know.”

Colleen, Carly, and Sandra climbed in Jim’s car and drove toward Grand Rapids, four hours away. No one said much of anything for a very long time. Carly sat in the backseat next to Sandra, still fuming. Finally she said, “What will the Van Ryns think when we come barging into Laura’s room?”

“They aren’t there,” Colleen said. “I was told they left the hospital some time on Tuesday after the hospital confirmed the girl in the room wasn’t Laura.”

“What?” Carly’s head spun. “None of this makes any sense. There’s no way they could have gone this long thinking it was Laura if it wasn’t her. No way.” No one argued her point.

Silence filled the car for the next hour. By this time Carly had cooled off. Although she didn’t want to talk about it, she’d spent that hour considering the news that the Van Ryns had ended their constant vigil. They haven’t left Laura’s side for five weeks. Why would they leave now? What if ... ?  “Did they tell you why the Van Ryns left?” Carly asked, as if the earlier conversation had never ended.

“All they told me was the hospital now knows the girl in the room isn’t Laura,” Colleen said. “The Van Ryns left the hospital after dental records confirmed this fact. If it was Laura, they would still be there.”

“That still doesn’t mean that it’s Whitney,” Carly protested. “I can’t believe it’s not Laura, but if it isn’t, it could be some random girl they put in her room by mistake.” Even as she said the words, she realized how foolish they sounded. Carly didn’t want to admit it, but she, too, had started to believe Whitney might be alive.

Colleen told the girls, “You know if Whitney is alive, Hollywood will have to make this into a movie.” Everyone laughed, even Carly.

“And, if they do, Jennifer Lopez will have to play Sandra,” Colleen joked. “After all, they’re both Puerto Rican.”

“I think Robert Redford will have to be Newell,” Colleen said.

“Watch it, Mom. We know how you feel about Robert Redford,” Carly joked.

“Stop it,” Colleen laughed. “They’d have to have Kate Hudson play Whitney. I’ve always thought they kind of looked alike,” Colleen said. “And Mel Gibson for you, Jim.” Everyone roared with laughter when she said that.

Colleen, Carly, Sandra, and Jim pulled into the parking lot of Spectrum Health Continuing Care Hospital around seven in the morning. Two hospital employees met them and tried to explain the situation and then asked if the Ceraks had any questions. They had only one: Where is she? As the women led them down the hall, Carly began to shake uncontrollably. She could hardly breathe. Colleen led the way, with Carly and Sandra hanging on behind. Jim respectfully lagged back several steps.

When they reached the room with the nameplate “Laura Van Ryn,” Colleen took a deep breath and pushed the door open slightly. Although the lights in the room were dim, there was no mistaking the girl lying on the hospital bed. Colleen let out a sigh of relief and whispered. “It’s Whitney.”

Carly lunged past her mother and rushed to her sister, with Sandra and Colleen close behind. The three of them started hugging Whitney and burst into tears. It really was her. Her blonde hair, her blue eyes, her nose, and the shape of her mouth; beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was Whitney!

Whitney slowly opened her eyes, wide and expressionless. Although her neck brace restricted her movement, she nodded her head yes over and over as her sister and mother repeated her name. Carly fell to the floor sobbing, her body unable to contain her overwhelming joy. The women who had escorted the Ceraks to Whitney’s room rushed in and tried to quiet the three of them down. “She can’t handle this much stimulation,” they said.

“But my sister is alive. My sister is alive!” Carly said and the celebration continued.

Colleen pulled out her cell phone. She could barely see the numbers due to the tears in her eyes. “Newell,” she said, “I’m standing here and it’s Whitney. It really is Whitney.”

Newell could not believe what he was hearing. He thought he must be dreaming. “Hang up the phone and call me right back,” he said, just to make sure this was real. Immediately his cell phone rang again. “I’m standing here and she’s as beautiful as ever,” Colleen said. Newell fell to his knees, crying like a baby.

“What does she look like?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with her?”

“No.” Colleen replied. “There’s not a mark on her face. It’s really her.” Then Newell heard a sound he thought he would never hear again. Through the phone he heard the daughter he believed he’d said goodbye to for the final time five weeks earlier say in almost a whisper, “I love you, Dad.

Excerpted from "Mistaken Identity" by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission of Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Hardcover. All rights reserved.