PHOENIX – Members of an Arizona family that raised a 7-year-old girl abducted from California as a toddler say it's not uncommon in their Gypsy culture for families to take care of children born to other couples.
The man who acted as a father to the child legally named Amber Nicklas says his family took excellent care of the girl they called Sandra.
"We are guilty of loving a child," Peter Gutierrez said during a sometimes tearful interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "That's how I feel in my heart, and it hurts. I want my baby back."
Gutierrez said he had nothing to do with the girl's abduction in California. He and his father, Bill John, described how the girl came to live in Arizona.
They said Amber's biological grandmother brought her to Phoenix, said her name was Sandra, and asked Gutierrez's wife to watch her for a short time while the grandmother looked for work.
It's a typical arrangement for Gypsy acquaintances, they said, and parents never leave their children in the care of non-Gypsy families.
A week became a month, then two months, and the woman never came back for her granddaughter, John said. After about eight months, the grandmother called and told the purported mother she'd have to keep the baby because the girl had been abducted.
The family's attorney, John Blischak, clarified that the family didn't know it was a criminal abduction, but assumed that she'd been legally taken away from a biological mother who was addicted to drugs.
"We don't blame her. She wanted a better life for her," John said.
Gutierrez and John said the family never knew the biological aunts who allegedly orchestrated Amber's abduction from her foster parents at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant outside Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2003.
Authorities last week took Amber from the central Phoenix home and palm-reading business where she'd been living with Gutierrez, his wife, Shirley Frank, and their two biological children — a 20-year-old man and a four-month old girl.
"We're just a loving family," Gutierrez said. "That's why we took her in and loved her and raised her as our own, because in our culture that's what we do."
Investigators said the couple kept Amber out of school in an attempt to hide her, and when police arrived, Frank tried to hide the girl in a bathroom shower under a pile of clothes and towels.
The family disputed the account given by authorities, saying the girl was never hidden from police. They said she didn't go to school because they didn't have the documents needed to enroll her.
The girl was scared but quiet as about a dozen police officers milled around the home, Gutierrez said. She didn't cry and she cooperated when officers asked to take her footprint to match it with one on her birth certificate.
"She was quiet, she was very scared," he said. "She sat by me and she clung to her Barney. That's her security toy she's had all her life."
Gutierrez said the girl was "bright for her age" and he tried to teach her numbers and the ABCs.
He said she was just like any other young girl — she loved YouTube and pop superstar Justin Bieber. And he hopes to someday get legal custody of her, but he knows that's a long shot.
"She loved us, and we loved her too," he said, fighting tears. "It's very hard to say because I feel like I lost my daughter."
The couple have not been charged with a crime, though authorities say it's possible they could face charges of keeping her out of school.
Officials say she's now living with an undisclosed foster family in California, knows her real name and is undergoing therapy to cope with the trauma of leaving the only family she remembers.
Investigators were trying to discover how Amber wound up in Arizona. They were expected to present the case to prosecutors by early next week, Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Patrick Maxwell said Monday.
They have not been able to contact the original foster parents, Maxwell said. The whereabouts of the girl's biological mother and father also are unclear.
The two biological aunts spent time in juvenile camp for the abduction. Maxwell said the motive for the abduction remained under investigation.
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.