NBC’s ‘Dateline: Mistaken Identity’ narrates the astonishing yet tragic tale of the aftermath of an accident near Upland, Indiana, in late April 2006. Amongst the five casualties was a survivor — Whitney Cerak — who was mistakenly mixed up with another dead woman. While Whitney’s family buried the other deceased female’s body in her hometown, she was cared for by the parents of the other girl. If you wish to learn more about the case, including how Whitney dealt with the situation and her current whereabouts, here’s what we know.
Who is Whitney Cerak?
A tragic van crash near Upland, Indiana, led to a case of mistaken identity involving two young women, Laura VanRyn and Whitney Cerak, on April 26, 2006. The bloody accident claimed the lives of five people, including Laura, a 22-year-old Taylor University student. However, a young woman survived and was initially believed to be Laura but later identified as Whitney Cerak, then 19, a fellow student from Gaylord, Michigan. Laura’s parents, Don and Susie VanRyn, believed the survivor to be their daughter in the weeks after the crash.
The VanRyns cared for Whitney, believing her to be Laura, during her recovery at a rehabilitation center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But they began to have their doubts as the swelling on her face began to recede, and the survivor looked less and less like their daughter. Even her behavior and responses were inconsistent with what Laura would have said or done. The hospital staff noticed that she repeatedly responded to the name “Whitney” instead of “Laura.” The officials eventually used dental records to confirm the survivor was Whitney.
In a heartbreaking conference in mid-2006, hospital officials informed Whitney’s mother, Colleen Cerak, and the VanRyns about the tragic mix-up. It was revealed that Laura VanRyn had tragically died at the accident scene. A hospital spokesperson, Bruce Rossman, stated, “This was a very uplifting moment also. These are two families of great faith. These families have both gone through varying ranges of emotions in the last 24 hours.” Police sources revealed the confusion stemmed from the chaotic aftermath of the accident.
The purses and wallets strewn at the accident spot contributed to the mistaken identification. Whitney, who had prevailed in the crash, was airlifted from the scene mistakenly with VanRyn’s tag. She was initially transported to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne before being shifted to the Michigan rehab center on May 18. The unwitting erroneous information was passed along, leading to the incorrect identity mix-up. The revelation brought a blend of emotions to both families.
The Cerak family experienced a blend of happiness for having their daughter back and grief for the VanRyns’ loss. On the other hand, the VanRyns, who had been posting updates on a blog throughout the ordeal, shared the difficult news with their readers and expressed their sorrow for the tragic turn of events. Whitney’s recovery continued as she received rehabilitation at the Michigan Health Center and immediately recognized her mother, Colleen. Meanwhile, her father, Newell, expressed sorrow for the VanRyns.
Where is Whitney Cerak Now?
An associate pastor at the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church in a sparsely populated town 200 miles north of Grand Rapids, Newell said, “There’s joy at the news, but it is tempered by the sadness that this other family’s daughter is here now, that they’ve lost their daughter. We feel that burden.” He added, “We did everything for Whitney — the service and memorial; she was buried here in town. We’re still struggling.” Since then, the Cerak family has tried to move on and leave the past behind.
Whitney (née Cerak) Wheeler addressed a crowd during a chapel service at Rediger Chapel/Auditorium on the Taylor University campus on April 27, 2016. The event marked the 10th anniversary of the accident and its tragic aftermath. She said, “My family had a funeral for me. A lot of people wonder what others will say about you at your funeral. I know.” Whitney recounted lighthearted moments such as discovering her lack of sports prowess and her sister’s opinions.
But her emotions were discernible when remembering the accident, her uncertain identity in the hospital, and the Van Ryn family’s continued care even after her true identity was revealed. Whitney returned to Taylor University four months after the accident and graduated with her class in 2009, though she recalled how the process was riddled with difficulties. The injuries had left her body and voice heavily impacted, and she struggled with shifting identity and feelings of guilt and anger.
Whitney emphasized her reliance on the Taylor community, family, friends, and her faith, which guided her through her recovery. She stated, “To be honest, I coasted by my first 18 years of life. I was doing all the right things, but that’s where it stopped. Tragedy has brought me closer to the Lord.” Whitney, now in her mid-30s, resides in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband, Matt Wheeler, and their three children. Her social media states she works for the Traverse City Area Public Schools. She has also written a book about her ordeal.