It was 25 years ago this week that a female intruder dressed in a nurse’s uniform brazenly snatched a fever-stricken baby named Carlina from a New York City hospital, after comforting the child’s parents and assuring them that “everything’s going to be all right.”
The punishment for that crime was handed out in a Manhattan courtroom Monday when a judge gave Ann Pettway a 12-year prison sentence for the kidnapping of the infant.
For two decades, Ms. Pettway, now 50, had raised the abducted girl as her own, naming her Nejdra Nance.
It was only in late 2010 that an increasingly suspicious Ms. Nance contacted a missing-children hotline and discovered her real identity: Carlina White.
Within days, she would be reunited with her parents and the woman she thought was her mother was arrested.
As Ms. Pettway met her punishment this week, she left behind two families struggling to come to terms with the exceptional consequences of her crime.
Carlina, who says she bears no resentment againt Ms. Pettway, is nevertheless confused about her identity. She didn’t show up for the court proceedings so she wouldn’t have to confront her divided loyalties.
Carlina’s birth parents remain bitter about losing their first born. They split up after her abduction and lived through years of anguish and nervous breakdowns.
Ms. Pettway also has a 14-year-old biological son, Traevon Teele, who will be raised by relatives while she is behind bars.
“I feel sad that my mother is not her [Carlina’s] mother, but I don’t want anyone to take away my mother from me either,” he said in a letter to the judge, seeking leniency for Ms. Pettway.
The tale began, according to court filings, because in the mid-1980s Ms. Pettway was in the throes of a severe depression, having gone through several miscarriages and two stillbirths.
Around that time, in August of 1987, in Manhattan, 16-year-old Joy White and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Carl Tyson, an auto parts salesman, gave birth to a daughter, Carlina.
Years later, Ms. White would recall bathing her first born and putting bows in her hair.
However, 19 days after her birth, Carlina had a fever and her parents took her to Harlem Hospital Center.
The child received antibiotics and was placed under observation on a 17th-floor ward. According to newspaper accounts of the incident, at around 3 a.m. on the morning of August 5, Ms. White was in the hospital hallway when a black woman dressed as a nurse approached, offering tissues to dry her eyes and telling her “Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Ms. White and Mr. Tyson were told that they could return in the morning.
Moments later the mysterious woman shut off Carlina’s intravenous machine so the alarm wouldn’t sound when the tube was disconnected, then the little girl was taken away.
New York police assigned 40 detectives on the case, flew helicopter searches, put potential witnesses under hypnosis to jog their memories. A suspect was questioned in Baltimore but she had an alibi.
At home, Carlina’s parents were left with an empty crib in a corner of their apartment. They put up 3,000 posters with pictures of their child but no word came back.
After a year, they separated. Mr. Tyson moved upstate, ran a freight company and had another daughter. Still, Carlina’s disappearance “took a big piece” out of him, he later told officials.
Ms. White worked for a financial brokerage and had two other children but suffered nervous breakdowns. In 2004, she told the New York Times that she still used Carlina’s name as her email address.
Ms. White and Mr. Tyson sued the city of New York and were paid $750,000, which they put in a trust fund. Meanwhile, Ms. Pettway raised Carlina in Bridgeport, Connecticut, telling friends and relatives that the girl was her daughter.
“I was a very sick and selfish person who felt the urge to fill that empty void inside me,” she said in a letter to the judge filed last month.
Carlina, who grew up as Nejdra, says that Ms. Pettway was not an abusive mother.
“I was brought up well. I didn’t get mistreated,” she said last year, in her only in-depth interview, with Atlantic radio station V-103.
Still, according to court documents, Carlina told her biological relatives that Ms. Pettway once hit the her “with a shoe so hard that it left an imprint on [her] face.”
“I don’t have no anger about it . . . I still have love for her,” Carlina said about Ms. Pettway.
In 1998, Ms. Pettway gave birth to a son, Traevon Teele. He and Carlina grew up as brother and sister, though, because of the 11-year age gap, she helped with the babysitting.
Within a few years, Carlina started getting suspicious.
She became pregnant at 16 and needed her birth certificate to apply for pre-natal care. Ms. Pettway, however, was evasive when Carlina asked for her papers.
According to court files, Ms. Pettway later told the FBI that she had tried to create a fake birth certificate but was never able to create a convincing forgery.
She eventually told Carlina that she had been adopted after being given up by a birth mother who was a drug addict.
Eventually, Ms. Pettway registered Nejdra as a foundling, telling Connecticut officials the same story about having adopted her daughter from a drug addict.
Carlina moved to her own apartment to raise her daughter, Samani. Doubts kept gnawing at her as she wondered if Samani was her only blood relative in the world.
Eventually she went on the website of the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children.
She looked at pictures of infant girls who had gone missing in the late 1980s. One looked a lot like baby photos of Samani.
She called the centre’s hotline and, according to ABC, said “I don’t know who I am.”
In early January, the New York police took DNA samples from Carlina and from Ms. White and Mr. Tyson. The results came in on Jan. 18. It was a match.
“My heart stopped when I found out,” Carlina recalled.
By the end of the month, Ms. Pettway was in FBI custody while Carlina White, who until then knew herself as Nejdra Nance, travelled to New York to meet her parents.
It was a four-day visit, a confused, emotional time, as she learned that she now looked like Ms. White but that her childhood pictures showed she used to look more like Mr. Tyson.
“I felt home,” she would later say.
Ms. White told NBC, “I was floating in air I was so happy. And that moment was so great.”
Still, Carlina also felt loyalty for Ms. Pettway’s relatives, who had also been hoodwinked and still considered her a kin. They had shared memories and, since she was raised by a single woman, she considered her erstwhile uncles and male cousins her father figures.
“It feels sometimes you’re in between. You’re fighting for whom you should be,” she said.
She also tried to deal with odd new realities.
For years, she was told her birth date was July 31, 1987. Now, she learned that she was actually born two weeks earlier. She wasn’t sure which birthday she should celebrate.
Her daughter had never called Ms. Pettway “Grandma,” preferring a made-up name, “Binkie.” This made it easier to introduce Ms. White as “Grandma.”
She also wanted to talk some day with Ms. Pettway and ask her about the abduction.
“You’re supposed to forgive. I forgave her. `I know what you’ve done’ – I want to know the reasons and how it did get done.”
But she declined to speak either with prosecutors or with Ms. Pettway’s defence counsel. She wanted to have peace of mind. She had movie-deal offers.
She also denied that there was a rift with her biological family because of monetary issues.
Ms. White, however, told NBC that her daughter had asked about the trust fund but the money was now gone.
As Carlina and her relatives faced their tricky feelings, Ms. Pettway’s sentencing Monday concluded with Judge Kevin Castel saying: “Let the healing begin.”