There was no trace left of Steve Hernandez in his family’s Rancho Cucamonga home after his father abducted him in 1995.
While his girlfriend was at work, Valentin Hernandez absconded with their 18-month-old son, taking the boy’s clothes, family photos and even the ultrasound image of the developing child in his mother’s womb.
Maria Mancia reported her son missing, searched and waited – her hope fading with each passing year.
To never see the child and to be reunited after 21 years: It was just an amazing, amazing moment.
— Karen Cragg
She clung to the only image of him that she had: a grainy photograph that she had once mailed to relatives in El Salvador. Her family sent the photo back to California after the boy was kidnapped.
On Thursday, after more than two decades, Maria Mancia finally embraced her now 22-year-old son after he was escorted across the border from Tijuana by investigators with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.
“To never see the child and to be reunited after 21 years: It was just an amazing, amazing moment,” said Karen Cragg, a senior investigator with the district attorney’s office. “She had never given up after all these years, but had accepted the fact that she may never know her son.”
For years, San Bernardino County authorities tried to locate the boy. Leads poured in from across the U.S., with several pointing to the boy being in Oregon. Each time, the tip didn’t pan out and the trail grew cold.
In February, Cragg and other investigators got a very credible tip that Steve Hernandez was in Puebla, Mexico, about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City.
Investigators received information that Valentin Hernandez had disappeared and likely died, Cragg said. Authorities still have not been able to confirm his passing.
“We weren't positive we located the right person," Cragg said. "So we used a ruse and told Steve we were conducting an investigation related to the disappearance of his father.”
After talking with him, they realized the account of his past overlapped with that of the missing boy. He knew he had been abducted, but he did not know the circumstances; he believed his mother had abandoned him, Cragg said.
To confirm the match, investigators sought a DNA sample, telling him it would help them to eventually identify his father. Mexican government officials and the U.S. Department of Justice helped to obtain the sample.
The DNA was compared to Maria Mancia’s, and after Cragg persuaded the lab to expedite the processing, the match was confirmed on May 31.
Cragg and her colleague Michelle Faxon hastily drove to Maria Mancia’s home in Rialto, asked her to sit down and broke the news.
To convince her that they weren’t lying, Cragg showed her the DNA test results, saying, “This is him. We promise.”
Her tears poured out: Her son was alive.
“It’s a moment I cannot describe to you,” said Cragg, calling the case a highlight in her 31 years of working as a police officer. “I’m a mother myself. I just couldn’t let this go.”
Investigators now believe that Valentin Hernandez took his son to Mexico shortly after abducting him.
To bring Steve back to the U.S., investigators tracked down a copy of the boy’s birth certificate.
Although he is an American citizen, he did not have a passport. The Department of Justice arranged for him to easily walk through the immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, Cragg said.
At their reunion Thursday in San Bernardino, Steve Hernandez stood a few inches taller than his mother -- no longer the toddler she last saw 21 years before.
As she held his hips and cried, he dabbed her eyes.