Snatched baby finds real mother after 24 years

One of New York's most enduring and baffling cold cases that began with the disappearance of a 19-day-old infant from a Harlem hospital 24 years ago seems finally to have been solved – by the victim herself.

Astonishment has given way to ecstasy for Joy White, the mother who made headlines across the city on 5 August 1987. The day before, she had taken her then baby girl, Carlina, to the hospital with a high temperature. She left the ward for two hours only to find on her return that the cot her child had been in was empty.

With no credible leads and in spite of an offer of a $10,000 reward for anyone providing information leading to an arrest, efforts by the NYPD to trace tiny Carlina eventually petered out. Members of the distraught White family said at the time they had seen a woman in a nurse's uniform dawdling near where Carlina had been left and suggested she may have been responsible for spiriting her away.

But now it is Carlina herself who, with some diligent internet sleuthing, has brought the agony of the lost years to an end, identifying Ms White as her birth mother and rushing to New York to be reunited with her.

"Carlina was a missing link and we have gotten her back in the name of Jesus, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah," Pat Conway, White's godmother, said after Carlina flew on Wednesday from Georgia, where she has been living, to New York and into the arms of the extended White clan.

Now 23 years old, Carlina was raised as Nejdre Nance in Bridgeport, Connecticut, an hour northeast of New York and after that in Georgia. She has told police investigators that she had long harboured doubts about the woman who purported to be her mother if only because they didn't look alike. Her concern deepened when she had her own baby and no one could give her papers like her own birth certificate.

"Nejdra Nance was very suspicious of who she was and what family raised her," Lieutenant Christopher Zimmerman of the NYPD. "There was no paperwork to follow her such as a birth certificate or social security card. In her late teens she became suspicious of who she was."

At one point in her late teens, she even wrote to Oprah Winfrey, the American television presenter, asking for help in establishing her true identity.

It was the internet that eventually provided the key to resolving the mystery of her identity and, in particular, the website of a group called The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

Looking at pictures from missing baby cases that matched her own age she soon saw a photograph that looked very much like others she had seen of herself as a baby. She was looking at Carlina White. Or rather at herself.

It was with help from the Centre that she was then able to trace her real mother, separated nowadays from her father, in New York. She travelled to see them for a first time last weekend before returning to Georgia. After DNA tests confirmed on Tuesday what she already knew in her heart, she flew back to New York again on Wednesday.

"I'm overwhelmed. I'm just happy. It's like a movie; it's all brand new to me," she told a reporter from the New York Daily News after emerging from La Guardia airport. As the second meeting with her daughter got underway, Joy, Carlina's birth mother, could only say: "Is it really happening? I always dreamed this."

Only Carlina deserves the credit for solving the riddle of her birth insisted Ernie Allen, the president of the Centre whose website had led to the reunion. "This young woman gets all the credit," he said "She felt it. Now she could have been just wrong – but in this case, we were able to help her get to the truth."

The woman who raised her, first in Connecticut and then Georgia, was identified as Cassandra Pettway.

She has refused to speak with reporters and so far the police have not said if they plan to lay charges in the case or even if they are certain that it was Ms Pettway who took the small baby from the hospital crib all those years ago.

"We have our suspicion, but not enough probable cause to make an arrest," NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told reporters.