Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope

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Mistaken Identity
Mistaken Identity book cover.jpg
AuthorDon and Susie van Ryn; Newell, Colleen and Whitney Cerak; and Mark Tabb
CountryUnited States
PublisherHoward Books
Publication date
March 25, 2008
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
617.4/810440922 B 22
LC ClassRC1045.P78 M57 2008

Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope is a best-selling non-fiction book[1] describing an incident in which the identities of two young female casualties were confused after a vehicle crash. It was published by Howard Books on March 25, 2008. The book lists its authors as Don and Susie van Ryn; Newell, Colleen and Whitney Cerak; and Mark Tabb; the former the parents of Laura van Ryn (the woman believed to have survived the crash but actually deceased) and the latter the parents of Whitney Cerak, initially declared deceased in the crash but later found to have survived. Mark Tabb is a former pastor whom The New York Times described as "the go-to guy when a collaborator is needed on books with spiritual themes."[2]

Both the identity mix-up [3] and the book's release received worldwide media attention:[4][5] was the subject of a two-hour episode of Dateline NBC, a program of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a segment featured on The Today Show.[3][6] The book was ranked 1st place for two weeks on the adult non-fiction New York Times Best Seller list in 2008. The incident prompted the states of Michigan and Indiana to pursue legislation concerning stricter guidelines in the process of identification of bodies by coroners.[7][8]

On April 26, 2006, a Taylor University van carrying nine students and staff members collided with a tractor-trailer being driven by Robert F. Spencer on Interstate 69 in Indiana.[6][9] Five people riding in the van died at the crash scene: Elizabeth Smith, Laurel Erb, Bradley Larson, and Monica Felver, and a young blonde woman the coroner identified as Whitney Cerak.[6] A similar looking woman who survived but was unable to communicate was identified as Laura van Ryn.[10] For several weeks, the van Ryn family kept a bedside vigil over the patient they believed to be their daughter.[10] However, into five weeks of hospitalization the identity of the surviving woman began to be questioned. She was found to be Whitney Cerak, not Laura van Ryn.[11]

Some physical similarities existed between the two women but the severity of the injuries, which included severe head trauma and the immediate inability to communicate led local government officials to mis-identify the casualties, the hospital to carry through with the unfortunate action and caused both families to respond in a manner appropriate to the situation of each casualty: Cerak was taken care of by the van Ryn family in the belief that she was their daughter. Meanwhile, Laura was interred in a marked grave at a funeral with 1400 people in attendance. Five weeks passed before incidents arose that caused suspicion about identity: she made comments about things and people that were inconsistent with facts pertaining to Laura; and a university roommate also reported some physical discrepancies. "Laura" confirmed that it was 'Whitney Cerak' that had survived when asked by hospital staff to write down the patient's name, which was then confirmed by dental records. The tragic mix-up appeared to have been caused by the similarities of appearance of Cerak and van Ryn, and the confusion at the crash scene. Neither family spoke publicly about the incident for nearly two years.[12][13]

During the Dateline interview, it was noted that the van Ryn family suspected for several days something was amiss with the patient before the concerns were shared with the hospital staff: the van Ryn family noticed the patient's teeth; navel piercing (which van Ryn did not have); the patient called herself Whitney (not Laura) when she emerged from the coma; the patient accused "her" parents of being "false parents"; and the patient told "her" sister their parent's names were Newell and Colleen. The van Ryns admitted that their duplicity in sustaining the misidentification for a month was reinforced by reassurance by the hospital staff of the patient's identity and the distress of the situation.[14]

Fiction resembling the incident[edit]

Several screen productions since the events have featured stories of mistaken identity under similar circumstances:


  1. ^ "Whitney Cerak, crash survivor in ID mix-up, writes book". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  2. ^ Garner, Dwight (13 April 2008). "Inside the List". The New York Times. p. 26. Retrieved 13 November 2010.
  3. ^ a b Families speak about switched identity ordeal. MSNBC. By Mike Celizic. March 27, 2008.
  4. ^ "Mistaken identity has family keeping vigil over wrong woman". CBC News. 2006-06-01. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  5. ^ "Coma woman mix-up pains US family". BBC News. 2006-06-01. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  6. ^ a b c Taylor 'Mistaken Identity' case relived in book. WBBM Newsradio 780. March 28, 2008.
  7. ^ "Summer Study Committee Presents Ideas for Laws". Indiana House Republicans. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  8. ^ "State Representative tries to prevent future identity mix-ups". WZZM13 NEWS. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  9. ^ "Case of mistaken identity stuns families". USA Today - Theodore Kim. 2006-06-01. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
  10. ^ a b Crash survivor is mistaken for dead victim - and cared for by the wrong family. The Daily Mail. March 27, 2008.
  11. ^ 'Mistaken Identity: Two Families One Survivor, Unwavering Hope' Gaylord Herald Times. March 1, 2008.
  12. ^ Kim, Theodore (2006-06-01). "Mistaken ID stuns family". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  13. ^ In Loving Memory – Taylor University
  14. ^ Celizic, Mike. (2008-03-27) Victim of mistaken identity draws faith from it – TODAY: People – MSNBC.com. MSNBC. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
Preceded by
Beautiful Boy
by David Sheff
#1 New York Times Best Seller Non-Fiction
April 13, 2008 - April 20, 2008
Succeeded by
by Julie Andrews