Authorities focus on couple who raised abducted Calif girl for 7 years
NORWALK, Calif. – The tears in Amber Nicklas' eyes as she realized she would be taken from the only family she ever knew was enough to make Detective Jerry Saba's stomach churn.
The girl, abducted at age 1 from her foster parents in California seven years ago, was found this week at a Phoenix home where she was being raised by a palm-reading couple.
The Los Angeles County sheriff's detective was among a host of authorities who went to the little white clapboard house that doubled as a psychic business and told the man and woman raising Amber they were taking her into protective custody.
The blonde-haired girl began to cry but eventually calmed down as she was led away clutching her Barney doll.
"I felt horrible for her," Saba told The Associated Press on Friday. "Here she is at age 7, being taken away from the only family she knew."
Amber was brought back to Los Angeles on a sheriff's plane while she played Rock Paper Scissors with the detectives and was even shown Disneyland as they flew over Anaheim.
She remained in protective custody Friday as authorities investigate what role, if any, the Phoenix couple had in her abduction.
The couple, who were originally from Romania, were using a different name for Amber. When police arrived at the home, the purported parents seemed resigned to losing her, Saba said.
"I think they had suspicions we would be coming," he said. "They weren't asking the types of questions I would expect from true parents, they weren't offering up any resistance."
The couple, whose names were not released, were detained then released after questioning. A second woman elsewhere in Phoenix was also questioned and released. Saba said he hoped charges will be filed, but was unclear of a timeframe, in part because of the complexity of a case spanning jurisdictions in two states.
The couple's attorney, John Blischak, told The Arizona Republic they did not know Amber had been kidnapped. Blischak did not immediately return a call to the AP Friday afternoon.
Amber was abducted Sept. 21, 2003, by three juvenile aunts — one of them as young as 13 — who went with her and her foster parents to a Chuck E. Cheese in nearby Norwalk. Two of the aunts created some sort of distraction while the third got away with Amber.
Saba said investigators at the time worked hard to track the girl but the case went nowhere. There were a couple leads saying she was in Arizona but, despite searches by authorities there, she was never found.
Two of the three aunts served time in juvenile detention for the abduction, but Saba would not comment on what investigators gleaned from interviews with them or if they remained part of the investigation.
Amber appeared to have been living in the Phoenix home since soon after she was abducted, Saba said. It was not clear how she ended up there, but authorities say the couple in the house knew one of the aunts. Saba did not elaborate on the relationship.
Gustavo Lom, who owns a sandwich and taco shop across the street from the couple's house, said he remembered when Amber was a baby and often saw her and the couple outside together.
"I thought they were a normal family. They seemed to treat her as affectionately as any parent treats their kids," Lom said. "I'd see him carrying her in his arms, kissing her on the cheek, sitting on the porch together."
The couple were also raising a baby girl and had a grown son. Those children appeared to be their own, authorities said.
Authorities originally planned to put Amber into protective custody in Phoenix but worried her pretend parents would try to find her.
"She's been abducted once, we were afraid if she remained out there, they would abduct her again," Saba said.
Amber appeared to be well nourished and the house was clean and tidy, Saba said. The couple raising her had kept her out of school in an attempt to hide her and when police arrived, the purported mother tried to hide Amber in a bathroom shower under a pile of clothes and towels.
Authorities gave Amber enough time to change out of a pink skirt and into a pair of cotton pants before being returned to the care of Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Saba said. That agency declined to confirm it was looking after Amber or provide any details on her original abduction.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report from Phoenix.