When news broke last weekend that Kamiyah Mobley, snatched from a Florida maternity ward in 1998 when she was only 8 hours old, had been found alive — apparently raised by her accused abductor — many heralded it as a happy resolution.
After years of heartache, Kamiyah’s birth parents prepared to celebrate. Her paternal grandmother called it the day the family had “hoped and prayed” would come.
Kamiyah’s birth mother, Shanara Mobley, remained too overwhelmed with emotion to comment.
“This really is a joyous outcome,” said one former Jacksonville County investigator who had been involved in the case early on, according to First Coast News.
But for the abducted child, now an 18-year-old woman living in Walterboro, S.C., a world of conflicting emotions and glaring attention was just beginning.
The only mother she had ever known, 51-year-old Gloria Williams, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and interference with custody. In a stark South Carolina jailhouse courtroom recently, the teenager wept and called out “Momma” after Williams quietly acknowledged to a judge the crimes alleged against 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.
“I love you, Mom,” the girl told Williams.
Authorities said they would not release Kamiyah’s other name, in an effort to shield her privacy.
Still, some news outlets and those who raised her unveiled Kamiyah’s other identity. The man who had believed her to be his daughter appeared on ABC News to speak of his “heartbreak” and reveal the name he had picked out for her.
And in the days after the shocking revelation, the teenager reportedly took to Facebook repeatedly to post about the developments. In one post, she defended Williams as “no felon.” In another, she lashed out at the man who had appeared on ABC as someone who had done little in her life but pay $40 weekly in child support. Her posts attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of comments — with prayers, words of encouragement, unsolicited advice — from those who had heard her story.
Finally, she appeared to shut down her Facebook page entirely.
On Wednesday, the girl born as Kamiyah Mobley spoke publicly in a televised interview for the first time. The first thing she shared was the only identity she knew growing up: Alexis Manigo.
“Your whole life, you’ve been known as ‘Alexis, Lexy.’ Now it’s like, people are referring to you as someone else — nationally,” Alexis told ABC News reporter Eva Pilgrim. “This attention is very overwhelming.”
In the exclusive interview that also aired on “Good Morning America,” Alexis said in a soft voice that she acknowledged what Williams did was wrong but said she was a “great mother.”
“From that one mistake, I was given the best life. I was. I had everything I ever needed, wanted. I had love, especially,” she said. “I will always love her.”
This week, a woman who had grown up believing she was Alexis’s half-sister told People magazine that Alexis had actually found out about her real identity two years ago after she applied for a job but couldn’t produce her birth certificate or Social Security card.
“Lexy kept being hard on her mother, like ‘Momma, where is my stuff? I want to get this job,’ ” Arika Williams told the magazine. “Then Miss Gloria just broke down and told her this is why right here, you can’t do this. I kidnapped you.”
An affidavit for an arrest warrant, posted online by the Florida Times-Union, indicates that the teen has known she was snatched from a hospital for several months. The documents state that in August, an anonymous tip came in to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children with information on the case.
“The tip stated that the victim told her friend that the victim was kidnapped when she was a baby, and listed as a missing person,” the warrant reads.
A few months later, in November, the center received another tip, which claimed that Williams admitted taking the child from a hospital. According to the tip, Williams said she renamed the girl and “claims her as her daughter.”
Two detectives arrived in South Carolina in January and discovered that Alexis Manigo’s birth certificate and Social Security card, which were obtained from a high school, were fraudulent, according to the affidavit. They interviewed a male witness, who said that about a year and a half ago, Williams “confessed to him that she ‘stole’ a baby” from a hospital in Florida, and that baby was Alexis.
A second witness was interviewed by the detectives, the documents state, and that person “provided a sworn statement that approximately a year and a half ago, Alexis Manigo told her that she had been kidnapped from a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, when she was a baby. Alexis said her mother, Gloria Williams (suspect), told her she was Kamiyah Mobley.”
Authorities obtained oral swabs, which were compared to Kamiyah Mobley’s DNA, according to the documents. Those results matched up.
Alexis did not want to address when or how she found out she was kidnapped, according to the “Good Morning America” interview. She was afraid that anything she said could have an effect on Gloria Williams’s criminal case and still wants to protect the woman she knew as her mother, her attorney said.
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 of 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 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 Mobley saw of her baby.
Devastated, she pleaded tearfully on local news stations with whomever had taken Kamiyah. “Will you please, please bring me back my child?”
The brazen abduction — and the fruitless search for her over nearly two decades — would grip the attention of Florida and much of the nation. 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. 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.”
An unbearable number of birthdays would march by. A decade later, Mobley had three more children but could never stop thinking about her first.
“What does she like? What kind of food?” Mobley told the Florida Times-Union around what would have been Kamiyah’s 10th birthday. “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.
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. Alive. After she was found, DNA tests confirmed that 18-year-old Alexis Manigo in Walterboro, S.C., was in fact Kamiyah Mobley.
“She’s taking it as well as you could imagine,” Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams 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.”
On Saturday, Craig Aiken and Shanara Mobley made the 200-mile drive from Jacksonville to Walterboro. At the Walterboro Police Department, they saw their daughter again in a private reunion that lasted about 45 minutes.
“First meeting was beautiful, it was wonderful, couldn’t [have gone] better,” Aiken said, according to WSCS News. “It’s a feeling that you can’t explain — it’s hard to put it in words right now. We’re trying to process it. Eighteen years. It’s going to be hard to make that up.”
From that meeting emerged what appeared to be a selfie Alexis took with her newly discovered biological parents.
It’s a relationship she has said she is open to developing.
“I feel like I do owe them that, to give them a chance, you know? Get to know them,” Alexis told ABC on Wednesday. “I’m not saying they weren’t going to be good parents. I’m not saying that at all, but it would have been a different life. When you find out you’ve got another family out there, it’s just more love.”
She said she wasn’t too concerned about being called a different name than she was used to.
“It’s all a bit much for me, but if you know me by ‘Alexis,’ continue to call me ‘Alexis.’ If you know me as ‘Kamiyah,’ then you can call me that, too,” she told the news station. “I’m not really specific right now. I haven’t even thought about that. I’m just taking it one step at a time. I don’t want any malice with anybody. … Regardless of what you refer to me to, I know who I am, I’ve never questioned myself. I know who I am as a person.”
Who Alexis Manigo is on paper, however, will take some legal finagling to sort out. Justin Bamberg, an attorney who has been retained to help Alexis navigate the wake of this unprecedented case, said their first priority will be to obtain “the basic documents that someone needs to be an adult in America in 2017.” A legitimate driver’s license. A Social Security card.
Last year, tips led authorities from Florida to South Carolina, where investigators realized Alexis’s identification papers were fake and called in other agencies for help.
“Throughout Alexis’s life, what she did is she just relied on Ms. Williams. She got her shots as a baby. She went to her doctor’s office. She has braces right now,” Bamberg said in a phone call with The Washington Post on Wednesday. “It’s weird speaking about Alexis as though she was a lost child because she’s had a very real life, albeit a life that was created for someone else. But no, I’ve never seen this situation happen this way.”
Williams was extradited to Jacksonville and appeared briefly in court Wednesday, where a judge ordered her to be held without bail, the Associated Press reported.
“Some people have criticized Alexis for still caring about Gloria,” Bamberg said. “Some people don’t understand that, but you really got to look at it in terms of her own life and what if it was you? Love is an emotion that is not [scripted] for television. You just don’t turn it off and turn it on. She does still love Gloria.”
Bamberg said they are also exploring the legal possibility of filing a lawsuit on Alexis’s behalf against the Florida hospital where she was born. Her birth family had sued the hospital shortly after the abduction, later settling in 2000 in a case that prompted hospitals across central Florida to tighten security for newborns, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2000.
Infant abductions are extremely rare and have declined significantly over several decades, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Between 1983 and 2016, a total of 308 infants (from birth to 6 months of age) were abducted by nonfamily members in the United States. Of those, 12 remain missing.
While no two cases are alike, for the small number of families an abduction has affected, both patience and time are important in dealing with the aftermath, according to Lanae Holmes, a family advocacy specialist with the nonprofit group. Often, the lives of everyone involved have changed dramatically.
It can help, she said, to think about reunification as a process, rather than an event.
“One of the most important aspects of this is to honor and recognize that this will take time,” Holmes said. “We suggest that families really slow down and they don’t make big decisions right away.”
For the abducted child, a sense of “divided loyalty” often develops, as well as trust issues and feelings of insecurity. The joy that a searching family feels upon being reunited may feel overwhelming and foreign for the child, depending on how long he or she was kept away, Holmes said.
“What we see happening in cases like this over time and right now for Kamiyah is this is so new and so fresh that she will need significant time to process what’s happening to her,” Holmes said. “Her loyalty to the Williams family will likely remain for the rest of her life. But she is learning that she has another completely separate family that has searched for her for 18 years and have lived their lives with this empty spot.”
For the searching family, it can be difficult to “fast-forward” through so much of a child’s life. The sense of loss they felt while searching, Holmes said, is not erased just because a reunion has taken place. And acknowledging that a child’s life progressed with an abductor can be one of the most difficult steps of all.
“We really encourage them to honor the experience that their child is coming to them with,” Holmes said. “It does more harm to insist on the child denying the last, in this case, 18 years of her existence. It doesn’t work that way. … They cannot re-create the past 18 years. They can move forward.”
For Velma Aiken, years of anger she felt toward her biological granddaughter’s abductor seemed to evaporate after she saw she was alive and well. Now, she says, she has forgiven Gloria Williams.
Aiken recently spoke to Alexis on FaceTime and marveled at how intelligent and poised she seemed. Her heart broke after seeing news reports of Alexis sobbing at the sight of her “Momma” behind a mesh screen at the jailhouse.
“I know she’s going through some things right now because she learned to love those people,” Aiken told People. “She has been in South Carolina for a long time, since she was taken from us when she was 8 hours old. She’s got all of those friends and relatives she has accumulated over the years. I wouldn’t dare ask her to leave that behind.”
Aiken added: “The only thing I would tell her is that she’s got to pray.”
Avi Selk contributed to this report.