Newell and Colleen are the parents of Whitney Cerak who was mistakenly identified as deceased at the scene of a tragic car accident in the spring of 2006. A month later, it was discovered that Whitney was in fact alive, and another family, thinking she was their daughter, had been caring for her all that time. While the Ceraks were overcome with joy that Whitney was alive, they soon found that their happiness was met by the despair of the other family newly grieving a month old loss of their own daughter.
In March, 2008, the Ceraks along with the Van Ryns released a book about all these events and their emotional struggle called Mistaken Identity. This New York Times #1 Bestseller brings to life the joy and pain of two families who have over come so much, and in the midst of it all, point to God’s love as the source of their strength.
On April 30, 2006, Colleen Cerak woke up crying. Her husband, Newell, held her for a few moments. "I never knew I could hurt this bad," he said. It was their daughter Whitney's 19th birthday. It was also the day of her visitation.
Just four days earlier, Whitney, along with five other college students and four employees from Taylor University, had been in an automobile accident. They'd been returning to the Upland, Indiana, campus following a banquet when a semi-tractor truck had struck their van, killing four students and one worker.
The coroner had called Colleen the day of the crash to tell her Whitney had been pronounced dead at the accident scene. Colleen and Newell had agreed not to identify the body themselves, haunted by the words of a friend who'd recently lost her daughter: "I can't shake the image of her lying in a casket." The Ceraks preferred to remember their vibrant daughter active and laughing.
A month later, on May 31, Colleen woke at 2 a.m. to a ringing phone. It was the coroner again. When he said, "We believe your daughter may be alive," Colleen was stunned—and skeptical. Doctors now thought the surviving student they'd believed to be Laura Van Ryn was actually Whitney.
Soon, Colleen was on her way to the hospital. There, officials explained that questions about the patient's identity had arisen as she'd healed from facial injuries and regained speech and dexterity. When asked to write her name, she'd scrawled, "W-H-I-T-N-E-Y." When asked her parents' names, she'd replied, "Newell and Colleen." Growing suspicious, doctors had checked Laura's dental records. To everyone's shock, the records had confirmed the person in the bed wasn't Laura. Soon after, the coroner had called the Ceraks.
When Colleen finally entered the room labeled "Laura Van Ryn," she took one look at the girl in the bed, and whispered, "It's Whitney." Dental records soon confirmed Colleen's words.