A Chatsworth high school student who was surfing the Internet during class came across a photo of himself attached to a shocking story: When he was a toddler 14 years ago, his mother kidnapped him from his father’s home in Canada.
The teen, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, told a teacher about what he discovered on a website devoted to missing children. That set in motion a federal investigation that ended with the arrest of his mother last week and ignited hopes among his father’s family of a reunion they feared might never happen.
On Tuesday, the 17-year-old was under the care of the Los Angeles County Children and Family Services Department and was poised to be reunited with his father, an electrician in Ponoka, Alberta. His mother, meanwhile, was awaiting extradition to Canada to face charges of child abduction.
The teen’s grandparents on Tuesday said they and their son were thrilled at the prospect of getting to know him. Berni Steinmann remembered his grandson as a stocky 3-year-old with light brown and blond hair. He can’t imagine what the boy looks like today.
“We are happy something is finally happening,” he said. “My son has been worried for the last 14 years. We’d like to give the young fellow all the support we can.”
According to authorities, the teen’s mother, Gisele Marie Johnson, now 45, and father, Rodney Steinmann, 43, shared custody of him in Red Deer, Alberta. Shortly after Steinmann was awarded sole custody in 1989, Johnson reportedly failed to return her son after a visit and disappeared.
Johnson and her son -- whose name was not released -- are Canadian citizens who were living in the U.S. legally. Jinell Griffin, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, said the mother had been working in an administrative office of the Los Angeles Unified School District for four years and had lived in California since 1995. He said the mother and son had lived in Mexico for at least four years, but that he was not sure whether the mother moved there immediately following the alleged abduction.
Johnson had been married twice since the boy was allegedly abducted and changed her last name, making it difficult for relatives and authorities to track her down, Griffin added.
The father, authorities said, had learned almost a year ago from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that his son might have been in the Los Angeles area. But it wasn’t until the boy came across his photo and told his teacher about it that U.S. authorities got involved, Griffin said.
Johnson was arrested by U.S. marshals on Feb. 11, a few months after her son made the discovery on the Internet. She was about to go to work, and her son was preparing to leave for school, when six deputy marshals appeared at their doorstep with a warrant for Johnson’s arrest.
“She was upset, crying,” said Griffin. “The boy was upset and distraught, especially since he had to be turned over to the county, since there’s no other family members [in the area].... And he was seeing his mother taken away in handcuffs.”
Deputy U.S. marshals immediately separated the mother and boy, Griffin said. “She said repeatedly that she wanted to call Canada to ‘straighten things out,’ but we couldn’t allow her to call. She was being taken into custody,” Griffin said.
Johnson is being held without bail at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.
Johnson and her son lived in an apartment complex in Chatsworth, where friends described her as a devoted mother who earned extra money by cleaning homes.
“She worked very hard and everything she did, she did for him, to put him through school, to make sure he had a good education,” said apartment manager Rina Rio.
Rio said Johnson called her from jail a few days after her arrest. “She said, ‘Rina, I can’t tell you [what happened], it’s a long story, it’s something that happened many, many years ago and it’s come back to haunt me.’ ”
Andre Neudorff, assistant manager of an exotic-pets store where the teen once worked, said the youth was confused about what had happened when they spoke two days ago.
“He doesn’t know what’s going on; he worried about what’s going to happen,” he said.
Neudorff said the teen told him that his mother had always claimed that his father deserted them. “Whenever he brought him up, she just changed the subject,” he said.
He will turn 18 in June. As excited as his father’s family is to see him, they said the passage of so many years will make the reunion somewhat awkward.
“The family is more than willing to meet with him and look after him,” said the teen’s grandmother, Linda Steinmann. “He’s welcomed with open arms if he shows. But basically, that’s his decision, but it sure would be nice to see him again.”
Steinmann said her family is upset that it took a year from the time Canadian authorities knew about the Los Angeles connection for Johnson to be arrested.
“There’s lots of problems to be sorted out,” Linda Steinmann said.