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Sunday, October 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Decades after woman finds baby buried alive in shallow grave, the 2 reunite

Azita Milanian is reunited with Matthew Whitaker, 20, the newborn baby she found abandoned on the side of a trail in Altadena 20 years ago. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Azita Milanian is reunited with Matthew Whitaker, 20, the newborn baby she found abandoned on the side of a trail in Altadena 20 years ago. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
By Brittny Mejia Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – In 1998, a jogger found a newborn baby buried alive in the foothills of Altadena, his umbilical cord still attached. The baby, not more than a few hours old, hovered near death.

For decades, Azita Milanian would wonder what happened to the boy after he recovered at a Pasadena hospital and was put up for adoption. This week, 20 years to the date of when she found him, the pair were reunited.

“I was waiting for you for 20 years,” a tearful Milanian said as she hugged Matthew Whitaker.

It was a reunion that came about in an unlikely way, after a friend’s mom wrote into the KIIS FM radio station explaining Whitaker’s story and asking for a 23andMe DNA kit so he could learn more about his ancestry.

Whitaker agreed to take the test and have the results revealed during the “On Air with Ryan Seacrest” program. When one of the show’s producers read a 1998 Los Angeles Times story of Milanian finding him, she decided to try and reunite them.

Ahead of the program’s taping Wednesday morning, Milanian waited anxiously in a nearby room, with a bag filled with clothes that she had brought for Whitaker. In the bag was a card, with an envelope reading, “Happy Birthday! Baby Christian Mountain Angel Mathew.”

When Milanian walked into the studio and saw Whitaker, she began to cry, sobbing into his shirt as he hugged her and called her an angel.

“Finally, all my dreams came true,” Milanian said. Many in the studio cried.

On the program, the Iranian immigrant shared the story of how she found Whitaker on a Saturday night when she had been invited to go dancing, but decided instead to go running.

One of her dogs, Tango, had stopped to smell and scratch at the dirt on the trail. Milanian went to investigate and saw two feet coming out of the ground. At first she thought it was an animal, but then she heard the infant cry.

When she started digging, she found Whitaker wrapped in a blue towel. She lifted him onto her arm and began digging the dirt from his nose and mouth.

“All I said to you (was), ‘Please don’t die. I will never leave you. I love you,’” she recounted, taking Whitaker’s hand in hers as she spoke.

“I love you too,” Whitaker said.

After she found him, Milanian dialed 911 but was disconnected several times before she finally flagged down a motorist, who drove to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department station to tell deputies about the baby.

While she waited, Milanian said, she tried to comfort him.

“He grabbed my wrist and stopped crying,” Milanian said in a 1998 interview. “It was very emotional. What kind of sick human would do something like that? He still had his umbilical cord hanging from his stomach.”

Whitaker’s body temperature had fallen to 80 degrees and when he arrived at the hospital he was immediately treated for severe hypothermia. Doctors believed the baby’s size – he weighed 7 pounds, 12 ounces – enabled him to survive.

The baby showed remarkable recovery and, at the time, the neonatal medical director at Huntington Memorial Hospital called it “really almost a miracle.” Hospital nurses named him “Baby Christian.”

Milanian was reunited with Whitaker days later, gazing with tears in her eyes as the infant lay sleeping on his belly in an incubator. She did not adopt him herself, because she had been on the news and worried someone could easily find him.

Still, Milanian had hoped to maintain contact, and after her visit said she repeatedly reached out to child services to see Whitaker. Finally, after a year of attempts, she was told he had been adopted and she would not be able to see him.

“It was the most frustrating experience,” Milanian said. “I was hoping that he would find me, the same way we found each other that day.”

Whitaker grew up in a loving home in Gardena, never knowing the story of how he had been found. The only commemoration of that time lay in his middle name: Christian.

It was not until he was 17 that he unexpectedly learned from a family member that he had been adopted. A year ago, his godmother told the story of how he was found.

“I’m here today, I’ve lived a great life, I was adopted into a great family. I couldn’t ask my parents for any more,” Whitaker said.

He doesn’t dwell on the person who left him.

“If this was your best idea, to leave me here, then thanks,” he said. “Because you weren’t mentally fit to raise a child.”

The day they reunited, Milanian drove him to the hiking trail where she found him. As she walked with him, she called him by the name she knows best – Christian.

As Whitaker stared through a chain-link fence at the spot, he grew quiet, a visible change from the jokes he had been making most of the day.

Back in the car, Milanian asked how he was feeling.

“This could have been my grave,” Whitaker told her.

Milanian repeated to him the words she had written in his birthday card: “You were wanted.”

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