Maria Mancia has spent the past 21 years not knowing whether her son was alive or dead.
She came home from work one day in 1995 to the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., house where she lived with her baby and his father and immediately knew something was not right. She thought they'd been robbed. But then she noticed what was missing: her child's things, along with every photo of him, even her ultrasound. He was taken by his father, Valentin Hernandez, and Ms. Mancia never heard from them again.
That is, until this past Thursday when Mancia was reunited with her son, Steve Hernandez, a 22 year-old law student living in Mexico.
"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 two were reunited in an emotional meeting at the San Bernadino County District Attorney's office. Mr. Hernandez wiped tears from the face of a woman he had been told abandoned him and his father when he was a baby.
The reunion has been a long time in the making. The county District Attorney's Child Abduction Unit picked up on the cold case in 2011 and has been working on it ever since.
A vital tip came in February, pointing investigators Karen Cragg and Michelle Faxon to Puebla, Mexico, where Hernandez was living. They located the man they believed to be the missing child, but they proceeded with discretion.
"We didn't want him to know what was going on," Ms. Cragg, who was the senior investigator on the case, 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 investigators needed a DNA sample from Hernandez to confirm that he was indeed the child. Hernandez's father had gone missing, so investigators pretended that they needed the sample in order to help locate the senior Hernandez. Craig and Ms. Faxon waited anxiously while the Department of Justice rush processed the DNA sample.
It was a match.
Cragg and Faxon drove to Mancia's house together to tell her.
"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."
When investigators approached him with their finding, Hernandez was shocked.
"I didn't know if she was alive or not and to get a call that says they found my mother and that she had been looking for me, it was like a cold bucket of water. But it's good. It's good," he told the AP.
Now that the two are happily reunited, Hernandez, who is an American citizen, has no plans to return to Mexico. He'll join his mother's four younger children and plans to continue his education in law here in the United States.
Daniel Martinez, Mancia's 8-year-old son attended the reunion and shyly met his old brother for the first time. "He said the first thing he wants to do with you is to take you to McDonald's," Mancia told Hernandez, her oldest son – finally home.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.