From nearly the moment Kamiyah Mobley entered the world, her life was defined by two women who cradled her.
One was her biological mother, Shanara Mobley, who was only 16 when she gave birth to Kamiyah in Florida on the hot morning on July 10, 1998.
The other was a mysterious stranger who appeared in the Jacksonville hospital’s newborn ward that same day, dressed as a nurse in a blue floral smock and green scrub pants. She carried a pocketbook.
For about five hours, the supposed nurse stayed with Shanara Mobley and her newborn in their room, helping take care of the baby.
About 3 p.m., the woman said Kamiyah needed to be checked for a fever and whisked her away, still swaddled in her white hospital blanket.
For more than 18 years, that would be the last Shanara Mobley saw of her baby.
Devastated, she pleaded tearfully with whomever had taken Kamiyah. “Will you please, please bring me back my child?”
— Jax Sheriff's Office (@JSOPIO) January 13, 2017
The brazen abduction of Kamiyah Mobley — and the fruitless search for her over nearly two decades — would grip the attention of Florida and much of the nation.
It would later lead to a lawsuit and prompt several hospitals to tighten security procedures for newborns.
For Kamiyah’s parents and family, it would spawn years upon years of compounded heartache.
The child’s paternal grandmother called police minutes after the supposed nurse disappeared with the baby. For at least a decade, Velma Aiken would blame herself for not acting on her suspicions: Why had that nurse been carrying a pocketbook? she said she had wondered after passing her in the hospital.
Police said the impostor had been roaming the Jacksonville hospital for 14 hours, asking about the Mobley baby.
The abduction was so sudden — Kamiyah was only eight hours old when she disappeared — that missing posters had to use an artist’s conception of the baby.
Authorities sealed the hospital, stopped every visitor, halted buses and put airport police on alert for a baby. Row by row, trains leaving Jacksonville were searched. Room by room, the hospital was combed.
The newborn and her abductor were never found. Still, officials maintained an optimistic outlook.
“There’s a high percentage in getting these babies back,” a Jacksonville sheriff’s spokesman told reporters the day of the kidnapping. “We want to put our hands on that baby.”
Posters of Kamiyah were plastered all over Jacksonville in the first year of her disappearance.
And the next year.
And the next, and the next. Authorities never managed to locate Kamiyah — despite a $250,000 reward for her recovery, at least three appearances on “America’s Most Wanted” and a search across multiple countries.
“Investigators have traveled as far as Puerto Rico, Seattle and Nova Scotia checking leads,” the Associated Press reported after the baby had been gone a year. “They’ve taken footprints from 15 babies and have done DNA testing on two others. None matched.”
“We can’t give up hope,” a case manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told the wire service then.
‘I wonder what she would look like’
As each day passed, Kamiyah’s family never stopped wondering whether she was alive.
Craig Aiken was in jail during his daughter’s birth and abduction. He served an eight-month sentence for impregnating Shanara Mobley when she was 15 and he was an adult, according to the Florida Times-Union.
“I wonder what she would look like,” he told the paper from lockup in 1999. He had recurring dreams of holding his baby, playing with her, but could never attach a face to his child.
“The only thing I have to remember her by is her name,” he told the paper at the time. “Kamiyah.”
The child’s family sued the hospital, later settling in 2000 in a case that prompted hospitals across central Florida to tighten security for newborns, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2000.
Meanwhile, the bereaved teenage mother worked babysitting jobs between conversations with detectives — her dreams alternating between nightmares and visions of Kamiyah’s return, she told the Times-Union around what would have been Kamiyah’s first birthday.
An unbearable number of birthdays would march by.
“Shanara Mobley spends part of every birthday of her firstborn cutting a piece of sheet cake, putting it on a paper plate, wrapping it in aluminum foil and sticking it in the freezer of her Jacksonville home,” the Florida Times-Union wrote July 10, 2008 — the 10th anniversary of the child’s abduction. “Kamiyah Mobley has never been around to take a bite.”
A decade later, Shanara Mobley had three more children but could never stop thinking about her first.
“What does she like? What kind of food?” Mobley told the paper then. “What kind of colors? How smart is she? Does she have long pretty hair? Does she have my eyelashes?”
She said she prayed to God every day. Please send me a sign that my baby is still alive.
— Jax Sheriff's Office (@JSOPIO) January 13, 2017
‘She has a lot to process’
A little more than 18 years after the disappearance, authorities visited Craig Aiken’s home with a shocking update, WJXT News reported.
They had found Kamiyah, 200 miles away. She was alive.
“It’s a case like we have not seen in this country in a long time,” Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams told reporters Friday.
Last year, tips led authorities from Florida to South Carolina, where they found a young woman with Kamiyah’s birth date but a different name.
Investigators realized that the teenager’s identification papers were fake, the sheriff said, and called in other agencies for help.
On Thursday, DNA tests confirmed that an 18-year-old in Walterboro, S.C., was in fact Kamiyah Mobley. To protect her privacy, authorities won’t release her other name.
She had been living with Gloria Williams, 51, who was arrested on charges of kidnapping and interference with custody.
Mobley had thought Williams was her mother, the sheriff said.
Only this week, he said, did she learn who she was — and what the woman she called her mother is accused of doing.
The sheriff did not elaborate on how long Kamiyah had been aware of the investigation but said she had an “inkling” from about a couple months ago that she might have been involved in the case.
“She’s taking it as well as you could imagine,” he said. “She has a lot to process. She has a lot to think about, as you can imagine. I can’t even begin to comprehend it.”
Velma Aiken, Kamiyah’s paternal grandmother, was overcome with emotion and the feeling that the family’s prayers had been answered when authorities delivered the news, she told First Coast News.
“I prayed and said, ‘Lord, let them be that they found the baby in good health,’ ” she said.
Craig Aiken told the news station that he had never given up hope that his daughter was still alive.
“Every day you get up, there’s always hope,” he said. “When I wake up, I believe she’s awake, too. There’s always hope.”
Nearly two decades later, that hope was borne out on a tiny screen.
Kamiyah Mobley met her biological mother, father and paternal grandmother though FaceTime on Friday, according to the New York Daily News.
They marveled at how intelligent and respectful she sounded.
She “doesn’t act like we’re brand-new people,” Velma Aiken said, according to the newspaper. “She acts like she’s been talking to us for a long time.”
The sheriff said authorities had also made some other calls after the DNA test confirmed Kamiyah’s identity: to detectives who had worked on the case 18 years ago but who had since left the department.
“This case has been passed off. It’s been so long since this it was really active,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people who were heavily invested on Day One that are not here anymore. They’re retired.”
He described Kamiyah as “clearly a victim in this case” who was otherwise in good health and living as a “normal 18-year-old woman.” It would be her decision to reunite with her biological family, he added.
“A lot of that is up to them. The ability is there for that to happen,” the sheriff said. “Again, imagine the gravity of what she’s dealing with.”
In a South Carolina courtroom
As her biological parents celebrated the news, the teenager born as Kamiyah Mobley sat Friday in a stark jailhouse courtroom in South Carolina.
In front of her was a judge. Next to the judge, on the other side of a caged window, was the woman Kamiyah knew as “Momma.”
Gloria Williams quietly acknowledged the judge as she described the crimes alleged against her. Williams waived her extradition rights. The judge did not set a bond.
After the hearing, Kamiyah broke down in a wailing sob and was consoled by those around her. Amid the tearful scene, the judge allowed the teenager to walk behind her desk and up to the window so that she and Williams could hold hands through the screen, WJXT News reported.
Williams blew Kamiyah a kiss.
The teenager said she would pray for her.
“I love you, Mom.”
An emotional reunion
On Saturday, Craig Aiken and Shanara Mobley made the drive from Jacksonville to Walterboro, S.C. This was the day they had hoped and prayed for over so many years.
At the Walterboro Police Department, they saw their daughter again in real life in a private reunion that lasted about 45 minutes.
Emerging from the police station, Aiken told reporters that he was still in shock — and that he had told Kamiyah he loved and missed her.
“First meeting was beautiful, it was wonderful, couldn’t [have gone] better,” Aiken said, according to WSCS News. “She was glad to meet us.”
Shanara Mobley still could not comment.
“It’s a feeling that you can’t explain — it’s hard to put it in words right now,” Aiken told the news station. “We’re trying to process it. Eighteen years. It’s going to be hard to make that up.”