On April 28, 1997, Celeste Nurse gave birth to her first daughter in the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. She and her husband, Morné, named her Zephany. The mother, who gave birth by Cesarean section, was heavily medicated but she remembered, as only a mother can, the touch and smell of her newborn. She also remembered a woman in burgundy pants and an oatmeal-colored smock top like the Groote Schuur Hospital nurses wore take her baby from her arms as she was dozing off. Then, hours later, when a different nurse asked the mother where baby Zephany was, a nightmare that would span 17 years began.
The Nurse family later had three other children, and, unbeknown to them until last month, their oldest daughter, Cassidy, 15, would prove to be the heroine of her missing sister’s story. When Zephany, who was renamed by the woman who abducted her, started this semester at the same school where Cassidy was enrolled, the two became fast friends. They shared similar tastes in clothing, music, and even boys, according to the local South African press. They also looked alike—so much so that students started talking about the strange resemblance, and soon Zephany’s biological father started to investigate. He joined the two as they ate at a Cape Town McDonald’s and eventually invited the oddly familiar-looking girl to the family home. He told investigators that he was immediately sure the young girl his daughter had befriended was the child who had been abducted 17 years before.
Zephany’s aunt Berry told local reporters how the strange coincidence played out. Because the Nurse family had celebrated their missing daughter’s birthday every year with a cake and candles, they were all aware that the new girl at school could be their missing sister. But because they had to be sure, Morne Nurse insisted that they not raise the alarm until authorities could be called in, lest the kidnappers run. “It was the first day of school and the other kids told Cassidy, ‘There’s a girl who looks just like you,’” Nurse’s sister said, according to The Guardian. “When she saw Zephany, she said, ‘My God, she looks just like me.’ Cassidy gave her a hug and it started from there. When Zephany’s brother saw her, he knew instantly.”
Covert DNA tests taken from Zephany confirmed the Nurse family’s suspicion, and the teen was taken from the family who raised her. Their names have not been released due to South African law, nor has the name her fake family gave her. But police have said the Nurse family lived only a few miles from the family who abducted their daughter. The woman who allegedly kidnapped the 3-day-old infant back in 1997, who is described by local press as a small 50-year-old, and her husband have been arrested and remain in police custody. They will appear in court March 6 to face charges of kidnapping, fraud, and contravening South Africa’s Child Protection Act, according to the Cape Argus newspaper, which has followed the saga of the missing child for 17 years.
The accused kidnappers have no children of their own, and their relatives, who raised the kidnapped girl under the false premise that she was their relative, reacted in astonishment at a brief arraignment held last Friday. According to press reports from the time of the abduction, a pillow that could have been used to fake a pregnancy was found in the missing child’s bassinet at the hospital, but there have been scant details about the woman who allegedly took the Nurses’ infant. “She has been part of our lives forever,” the sister of the woman charged with kidnapping Zephany told Cape Argus. “And now she’s just gone. We have had no contact or anything. We have no idea where she is.”
As hard as it may be for the extended family who raised her, the family who lost her has felt an undoubtedly even more acute pain. “Over the years there was negative talk from people outside about her being killed, but not in the family,” a relative of the missing girl told local reporters at the arraignment hearing. “We knew she was alive. We had birthday parties for her every year. She’s back now, and we’re going to have a big party for her next birthday.”
The kidnapped girl has been told that Cassidy is her sister and that the family she knew was a lie. She also met with her biological family to begin the slow and complicated process of reuniting with them. She remains under the care of South Africa’s Child Protection Unit as counselors help her sort out what can only be a confusing revelation for a girl on the cusp of her 17th birthday. There have been no reports about how she has taken the news or whether she has asked to see the parents who raised her.
In 2010, the Cape Argus paper ran a story to commemorate the anniversary of Zephany’s kidnapping, as it often did throughout the years. Apparently, on July 17, 2012, a mysterious caller phoned the Nurse home at 3 a.m. and said, according to the paper, “I know about your daughter.” The caller then demanded a ransom of 500,000 South African Rand (approximately $43,000). Zephany’s family called the police and made arrangements to meet the kidnappers at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in a nearby town. With police ready to pounce, they waited for hours. No one showed up, but police eventually traced the call to a woman named Glenda Doubelle, who was charged with extortion. Police are now looking for a connection between Doubelle and the woman charged with abducting Zephany.
In the same anniversary article, Zephany’s father said he would never give up the search for his missing daughter and predicted that their other three children could prove instrumental because of the strong family resemblance. He had no idea how right he was. “I’ll never ever give up hope,” he told the Cape Argus. “I can feel it in my gut—my daughter is out there and she is going to come home.”