Celeste Nurse simply thought the woman was trying to help.
Nurse lay in a Cape Town, South Africa, hospital bed, groggy from the morphine masking the pain from her cesarean section three days earlier. In a cot next to her lay her newborn, a bushy haired girl. In her medicated haze, Celeste spotted a woman sitting near the maternity ward door.
“Your baby is crying,” said the woman, who was dressed like a nurse in a beige top and maroon pants. “Can I pick up the child?”
Celeste assented, watching the woman scoop up the child, Zephany, before she fell back asleep.
When Celeste awoke again, it was because another nurse — a real nurse — was frantically shaking her.
“Where is your child?” the nurse asked urgently.
“What do you mean?” Celeste answered in confusion. “The nurse was just here with the baby.”
Horror suddenly sharpened Celeste’s cloudy mind. She tore the IV from her arm and, despite her fresh surgical wound, began running around the hospital’s halls, desperately searching for her missing baby.
But Zephany, which means “the Lord has hidden” in Hebrew, was nowhere to be found.
She would remain lost for almost 18 years.
“I thought that someone needed to wake me up because this was not happening to me,” Celeste said Tuesday, nearly 19 years after her nightmare began. “I thought that it cannot be true.”
But it was true. And on Tuesday, Nurse came face to face with the person who prosecutors say is responsible. The woman who allegedly stole Celeste’s baby and raised Zephany as her own is now on trial.
It is an incredible crime, made even more remarkable by its unbelievable climax.
For almost two decades, the bizarre story of the vanishing baby with the biblical name has made headlines in South Africa. Although the country has been plagued by similar crimes, Zephany’s disappearance was special.
Her fate seemed written into her very name.
A biblical name, a bewitching case
Celeste and Morné Nurse both grew up in the predominantly nonwhite township of Mitchells Plain, outside the scenic city of Cape Town. He was powerfully built. She was pretty and whisper thin. They met as teenagers, and within a year, they were married and expecting their first child, a daughter they decided to name Zephany. Soon, the young parents-to-be got over their shock.
“It was all very exciting,” Celeste Nurse told the Cape Argus newspaper three years ago. “We always wondered what she’d be like.”
Zephany was born healthy and with a full head of hair on April 27, 1997.
— IOL News (@IOL) February 22, 2016
Three days later, Celeste was shaken awake to find that her daughter was gone — taken by a woman posing as a nurse. All that was left were a few traces of the child: Zephany’s clothes, a handbag with no hint about its owner and a pillow — allegedly used by the thief to fake a pregnancy — abandoned in a disused tunnel leading from the maternity ward to the outside world, according to the Cape Argus.
“We ran everywhere in the hospital,” Celeste said on the witness stand Tuesday. “The baby was nowhere to be found. Missing. Gone.”
The young couple was distraught.
“I was crying my heart out in the fetal position,” Morne testified Tuesday.
The hospital called the police, but they didn’t turn up any more clues. When the parents learned that there was no security at the hospital and no leads on their daughter’s whereabouts, their terror turned into anger.
“I went ballistic,” Morne told the Cape Argus in 2010. “I even knocked over a medicine cabinet and all the bottles broke on the floor.”
“We came home to nothing,” Celeste said in the same interview.
For days, the couple clung to the hope that the nightmare would somehow end and their baby girl would be returned to them. Their grief was amplified by the baby gear in their house. Everything reminded them of their Zephany.
“At night I lay in bed and heard the cats crying,” Celeste said. “Sometimes they sounded just like a baby.”
Several leads emerged, only to unravel. Shortly before Zephany disappeared, another mother had caught a woman holding her baby and walking toward the hospital exit. When the mother confronted the woman, she handed the baby back and said she was just trying to “soothe” the child. But the mother couldn’t identify the woman.
When one of the Nurses’ neighbors suddenly showed up with a newborn, despite having never appeared pregnant, police investigated. But the baby turned out to be a boy.
It would be the last lead for more than a decade.
The Nurses had three more kids — including a daughter named Cassidy — but never forgot their missing firstborn. They celebrated Zephany’s birthday every year, often making public appeals in newspapers or on television begging the kidnapper to return the girl.
Then, at 3 a.m. on July 17, 2009, the Nurses received a phone call that revived their hopes.
“I know about your daughter,” the female caller said in a hushed tone, according to the Cape Argus. Then she demanded 500,000 rand (about $33,000) for information on the girl’s location. She told the family to bring the cash to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Mitchells Plain.
The Nurses called the police, and seven hours later, Morné showed up at the fast-food joint wearing a wire. But the caller never showed. Instead, police traced the calls to a woman who lived near Celeste’s mother and arrested her for attempted extortion.
“I’ll never ever give up hope,” Morné told the newspaper in 2010. “I can feel it in my gut — my daughter is out there and she is going to come home.”
Zephany was still being hidden. But the girl didn’t even know it.
An unbelievable breakthrough
Everyone kept telling Cassidy Nurse about her doppelganger. Cassidy was a first-year student at her Mitchell Plains high school, but one student after another told her she bore an uncanny resemblance to a senior. They had the same light-brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, broad nose and ample lips.
Cassidy felt strangely drawn to the older girl, and they became friends. When she told her parents about the supposed similarity, her father became intrigued. Morné arranged to meet the older girl at a local McDonald’s.
“We went to McDonald’s and I started questioning her,” Morné told the court Tuesday, according to the Daily Mail. “I asked what her date of birth was — her birthday was the date my daughter was abducted.
“She said she didn’t look like her own folks, and she told me that she had thought about that over and over,” he continued. “I asked her why she thought she looked like me and Cassidy. She laughed and said she didn’t know, she said she felt confused. I didn’t want to scare her. I wanted to protect her at all costs. I left with the information I was looking for. I went onto Facebook and got more information on this girl, I scrutinised her account. I saw pictures of her and she resembled my kids completely.”
— EWN Reporter (@ewnreporter) February 23, 2016
Then he pulled a photo of the girl’s supposed mother from Facebook and sent it to someone.
The person, Shireen Piet, said she recognized the woman. She said it was the same woman who she had caught “soothing” her baby shortly before Zephany was stolen in April 1997.
Morné didn’t tell Celeste at first. He didn’t want to break her heart for a second time.
Also, the pair had split up a year before. Celeste had battled cancer and won. She also had also met another man to whom she would soon get engaged. But she and Morné remained united in their passion to find their firstborn.
Eventually, Morné sent Celeste a photo of the girl.
“I just — I got that feeling inside, I just grabbed my heart and said this is my daughter,” Celeste told CBS. “This is my daughter.”
Once Morné felt he had the evidence he needed, he took it to the authorities. Police took DNA samples from the girl. And after six excruciating weeks of testing, the results came back in late February of 2015.
Finally, Zephany had been found.
She had a different name, but she had grown up barely a mile from her biological family.
Celeste finally met her daughter on Feb. 26, 2015.
“I burst out into tears when I saw her,” Celeste told CBS. “And she kept me like this, in her arms the first time when she saw her dad, and when she came to me I just — I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop crying. I said, finally, I found you. For 17 years I’ve been looking for you.
“I found you finally. You’re mine again.”
One mother’s relief, another’s arrest
A day after Celeste was reunited with her daughter, the woman allegedly responsible for the 18-year rift was arrested. The woman, a 51-year-old seamstress, has not been named because of South African law. She has been charged with kidnapping and fraud for filing false paperwork regarding her daughter’s birth and identity.
Zephany’s adopted name also as been protected by court order.
The trial began Monday in Western Cape High Court.
The woman has pleaded not guilty. In a 35-page document explaining her plea, she painted herself as an unwitting victim of a shady middle-woman.
The accused said she had been abused and raped as a child, and beaten by boyfriends so severely that she suffered a series of miscarriages. She had even lost a six-week-old daughter, she claimed. When she suffered another miscarriage in 1997, she hid the news from her husband. Instead of telling him, she secretly arranged to adopt a newborn, she wrote.
She met the middle-woman at a bus station in Cape Town and was handed an infant wrapped in a blanket, she wrote. She then told her husband, family and friends that the dark-haired girl was her own.
“I had on occasions thought about telling Michael and Zephany about the adoption but they had a very close relationship and did not want to destroy it,” she wrote in an apparent reference to her husband.
She said she had trouble loving the child.
— Eyewitness News (@ewnupdates) February 23, 2016
“I initially struggled to be close to her,” she wrote, according to the Daily Mail. “It took me years to accept her as my own daughter.
“Although I was not her biological mother, I raised her as my own child. I recall sitting with her, brushing her hair, bathing her and always wondering where her parents were and why they did not want her as I found her to be pretty and cute,” she continued. “I thought I was helping a child who was not wanted and would not be cared for sufficiently by her biological parents.”
In fact, the child was very much on the minds of her biological parents. And it’s unclear if there really was a middle-woman.
“She [the middle-woman] told me that the baby’s mother is a young girl who wanted to give her child up for adoption. … I was told that the baby was mine and the documentation will be sorted out later,” the accused wrote in her plea. “I had a bad feeling that something was wrong.”
Incredibly, Celeste has said she is prepared to forgive the woman — even if the legal system cannot.
“When I see the woman that took her, I would like to give her a hug,” she said last March, after the woman had been released on bail. “When I see her I want to say thank you for what you’ve done. You’ve done a good job, look at my daughter, she’s beautiful inside out.”
On Tuesday, the two mothers — one accused of kidnapping the other’s child — shared a strange but tender moment during the trial.
Celeste told the court how she had given Zephany her first bath in the hospital, marveling at her tuft of dark hair.
“She looked like Simba the lion from ‘The Lion King,'” Celeste said, drawing a smile from the woman accused of kidnapping her child. “She was so cute.”