NEW YORK – A woman stolen as an infant from a hospital crib two decades ago spent Thursday at a Manhattan hotel with her long-lost mother as investigators sought the evidence they need to identify and arrest her kidnapper.
No suspects were ever identified in the 1987 disappearance of Carlina White, the 19-day-old infant who vanished from Harlem Hospital. The hospital had no surveillance video. Her parents left the hospital to rest after the baby was admitted in the middle of the night with a high fever. She was missing when they came back.
The parents, Joy White and Carl Tyson, said a woman who looked like a nurse had comforted them at the hospital. She disappeared afterward and apparently never worked there, family said.
As the years went by, it turned out, the best investigator on the case was Carlina herself, living under the name Nejdra Nance in Bridgeport, Conn.
She had long suspected she was at least adopted because the person who raised her, a woman who went by Ann Pettway, could never provide her with a birth certificate. She didn't look like anyone she lived with, police and her family said. And Pettway was abusive, family said.
"Carlina knows best, but she said the woman put her footprint on her face. I don't understand how you could do that," said Lisa White-Heatley, the woman's aunt.
A telephone message left for Pettway, who has had recent addresses in Bridgeport and Raleigh, N.C., wasn't returned.
A relative in Bridgeport told The Associated Press he was shocked by the story that Nance had been abducted.
"I don't know too much about this," Kapel Pettway said. "It stuns me. It hurts me. After all these years. I thought (Ann Pettway) was her mother."
Periodically, Nance would check the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, looking through photos of missing infants in Connecticut, she told the New York Post. She left Connecticut for Atlanta years ago and has a 5-year-old daughter of her own, her family said. Her family said she worked as a dispatcher and hoped to have a modeling career.
Meanwhile, Joy White never gave up hope that she would find her firstborn.
"She always knew she was alive," White-Heatley said.
On Jan. 4, Nance, now 23, checked the website again, but searched this time through New York's missing children, and saw a baby photo that looked nearly identical to hers, police said. She contacted the site, who contacted Joy White. The two exchanged photos and talked. After a DNA test, it was all confirmed.
Authorities are looking at whether federal officials should take over because the statute of limitations may have expired in New York, said chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. There is no limitation in federal missing children cases. FBI officials in Bridgeport were looking into the case there.
Nance was too young to remember if the woman who raised her was with her the entire time, police said. Investigators aren't saying whether they have identified any suspects, but the White family believes Ann Pettway is the kidnapper.
"We have our suspicions in this case, but you need more than that for probable cause," Browne said.
Authorities have interviewed Nance, her biological parents and want to speak to Nance again. It wasn't known if they interviewed Pettway.
White's family said they want the kidnappers found and punished. But right now, they are focusing on having their daughter back.
Joy White and her family met Nance before the DNA test was confirmed because she felt sure Nance was Carlina. Nance was in New York from Friday until Tuesday with her daughter but returned to Atlanta.
"We took pictures, Joy cooked. We had a good time," said White-Heatley, Joy's older sister. "Everyone was so happy. It was like she was never missing."
After the DNA test results came back Wednesday, Nance returned to New York and was with her mother at a hotel. Calls from the AP to Joy White and her daughter were not returned.
But Nance told the New York Post in an interview posted Thursday that reuniting with her family was like a dream.
"I'm so happy. At the same time, it's a funny feeling because everything's brand-new. It's like being born again," she said.
Associated Press writer John Christoffersen in Bridgeport, Conn., contributed to this report.