Crash victims' identities mixed up


Grand Rapids, MI - In a stunning case of mistaken identity, a young woman once thought killed five weeks ago in the Taylor University van crash is alive in a Michigan Hospital.

Four Taylor University students and one staff member died in the April 26th crash on Interstate 69. Ever since that time, officials at Taylor University believed that one of the dead was 18-year-old student, Whitney Cerak.

But Wednesday, those officials confirmed that Cerak is alive and has been in a Michigan hospital recovering from very serious injuries. She had been mistaken for 22-year-old Laura VanRyn.

Grant County Coroner Ron Mowery also confirmed the mix-up, and told the media Wednesday night that a deputy coroner and chaplain drove to Michigan to inform Cerek's parents of the identity confusion in person.

Mowery said the women were identified by a combination of "the protocol of the Grant County Coroner's office, with the assistance of law enforcement, EMS personnel, other victims of the accident, as well as some members of the Taylor staff."

Mowery described how Cerak's body was transported to a Ft. Wayne hospital accompanied by VanRyn's ID.  It was there, according to Mowery, where VanRyn's parents "made visual identification of (Cerak) as their daughter."

"We trusted the same processes and policies as we always do," he said.

Mowery said VanRyn's body, with Cerak's ID, was identified as Cerak by his office and Taylor University personnel.  Nobody from Cerak's family, according to Mowery, made a positive identification.

In apologizing for the mix-up, Mowery said, "Ordinary procedures did not fit the extraordinary incidents" surrounding the accident.

VanRyn's remains were mistakenly identified as those of Whitney Cerak. The Cerak family buried VanRyn in Gaylord, Michigan several weeks ago, in a closed casket, according to Mowery.

The VanRyn family has been at the bedside of Whitney for the past five weeks, believing that she was their daughter. It was only this week, when Whitney emerged from a coma, that they began to have doubts about her identity.

The revelation is causing a wide range of emotions for all of the young women's families and friends. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the staff of the brain injury department at Spectrum Hospital said they'd had no reason to doubt Laura VanRyn's identity when she was admitted May 18th.

VanRyn had been identified near the crash scene near Taylor University, and she was accompanied by her family when she arrived in Grand Rapids. The crash victim had the blond hair, height and weight that corresponded with Laura VanRyn's description. As far as the hospital was concerned, she was Laura VanRyn. No one thought to check dental records until the young woman started waking up from her closed head injury. She started to say more things, and the things she said made the VanRyn family wonder.

"She was saying that her name was Whitney. Whitney had more moments of clarity as she was recovering from her traumatic brain injury. She had said a couple things that led them to believe that maybe this wasn't their daughter," said Bruce Rossman, Spectrum Hospital. "People have to keep in mind here that these two young women bore very striking similarities in their appearance, the same color hair, the same height, same body type, very similar facial features. It was understandable how this might have happened. But it happens so rarely and the fact that everybody's making such a big deal out of the story shows that it doesn't happen very often and do some sort of genetic testing to verify everybody that comes in your door when it's not necessary would not be a good use of resources."

The Cerak family drove from their home in Gaylord, Michigan to confirm the person in Grand Rapids was Whitney Cerak.

The VanRyn family is now planning a funeral for their daughter Laura. The Ceraks are arranging for continuing care for their daughter Whitney.  The hospital also says the two families are very friendly and very supportive of one another.

The hospital said it notified the VanRyn family Tuesday night that it was not their daughter in the hospital. The Ceraks were notified Wednesday morning after additional dental records were checked.  Mowery said VanRyn's boyfriend called attention to the situation as Cerak emerged from her coma.

Mowery said Cerak had already been transported to Ft. Wayne before coroner's personnel arrived at the crash scene the night of the accident.  He said he could not identify who among the emergency personnel on the scene may have placed VanRyn's ID with Cerak's body when it was flown by helicopter to Ft. Wayne.

Mowery, a former law enforcement officer and mayor of Marion, said the two girls were very similar in appearance but their IDs were switched.  "In hindsight...there are things we could have done," Mowery said.  "At the time, it seemed that all of those procedures were followed."  He also said officials in Grant County will now review their procedures and make recommendations make sure a similar mix-up does not happen again.

Also killed in the crash were students Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, from Mount Zion, Ill., Bradley J. Larson, 22, from Elm Grove, Wis., Laurel E. Erb, 20, from St. Charles, Ill., and university employee Monica Felver, 53, from Hartford City, Ind.

Prosecutors are weighing criminal charges against the truck driver, saying he may having fallen asleep at the wheel.

Services for VanRyn are scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday in Grand Rapids at the Kentwood Community Church, 1200 60th St. SE.

VanRyn statement
The family of Laura VanRyn wrote about the mistaken identity on their website.

"What may come to us as a shock, does not shock the One who made us. We have some hard news to share with you today. Our hearts are aching as we have learned that the young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura, but instead a fellow Taylor student of hers, Whitney Cerak....Over the past couple of days, as Whitney had been becoming more aware of her surroundings, she'd been saying and doing some things that made us question whether or not she was Laura. Yesterday, we talked with a Spectrum staff member and began the process of making a positive ID. We now know without a doubt, that this is Whitney," VanRyn's family wrote.

The VanRyn family said they met with the Ceraks, who are from Gaylord, Michigan, to discuss what steps would be taken. "We were also able to share with them some of the great things we have seen Whitney accomplish over the past month. It is a sorrow and a joy for us to learn of this turn of events. For us, we will mourn Laura's going home and will greatly miss her compassionate heart and sweetness while knowing that she is safe and with her King forever. We rejoice with the Ceraks, that they will have more time on this earth with their daughter, sister, and loved one," VanRyn's family said on their website.

"One can only imagine what impact this new development has had upon the VanRyn and Cerak families as they process this information. Taylor University is cooperating fully with the Coroner's Office," the university said in a statement. "We ask that prayers be offered for the VanRyn and Cerak families, and also for the families of Laurel Erb, Monica Felver, Brad Larson, Betsy Smith, as well as the Taylor Community including students, faculty, staff and administrators deeply affected by this development."

Read Taylor University's statement

A Taylor University memorial page for the crash victims lists Cerak as one of the students who died in the crash.