LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California mother was reunited Thursday with her abducted son, laying eyes on him and wrapping her arms around him for the first time in 21 years.
Maria Mancia had been left with just a single photo of her son since his father took him in 1995. The boy she last saw when he was just 18 months old is now a man.
Steve Hernandez, 22, was found living in Puebla, Mexico, and on Thursday morning was brought to the U.S. to meet his mother for an emotional reunion.
"Now this anguish I've carried is gone now that I have my son back," Mancia told KABC-TV. "I spent 21 years looking for him not knowing anything."
The San Bernardino County District Attorney's Child Abduction Unit had been looking for Hernandez through the years, searching for him in several states. Investigators then received a strong tip in February that he was in Mexico. The father, Valentin Hernandez, is missing and believed to be dead, authorities said.
Investigator Karen Cragg, who led the search, said they had to approach Steve Hernandez delicately.
"We used a ruse to contact him. We told him we were investigating his father and we needed his DNA to help locate his father," Cragg told The Associated Press on Thursday. "We didn't want to scare him off. We weren't sure what the circumstances were down there. We had to tread very carefully."
The two parents and their toddler boy had been living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, in 1995. The parents were having relationship struggles. Mancia came home from work one day to find both the elder Hernandez and their son missing.
The father had even taken all of their photos of the boy, including an ultrasound. Mancia had to write to a relative to get a picture.
"That became the only photograph she had of Steve for the last 21 years," Cragg said.
She immediately reported the boy missing and the investigation had been active ever since, first with the Sheriff's Department, then with DA's investigators.
Neither the mother nor her child was told when Steve Hernandez was first found, lest false hope be created.
Once the DNA sample was obtained in February, Cragg asked the Department of Justice if they could hurry on the test, knowing it could take several months.
"They called me in two weeks and said it was a match," Cragg said.
Cragg and her partner drove straight to Mancia's house.
"It was like she didn't believe us at first," Cragg said. "She began to cry. She said she couldn't believe he was still alive."
Because Steve Hernandez is a U.S. citizen, there were no immigration troubles returning him to the U.S., Cragg said. Authorities in both countries were hugely helpful in making it happen.
He had no personal documents at all, but his mother had his birth certificate and more.
The boy's father had told him that his mother abandoned the two of them.
He now knows that wasn't true. And he now knows his mother.
"I lived all these years without my mother, then to find out she's alive in another country, it's emotional," Hernandez told KABC. He said he plans to stay in the U.S. and hopes to attend law school, which he already started in Mexico.
He hugged his crying mother when he finally met her. Then wiped tears from her eyes.