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Search for daughter never-ending

By Bianca Capazorio and Leila Samodien

When Celeste Nurse arrived at Groote Schuur Hospital, her belly was big and round. After months of imagining her first child, she was finally going to give birth and hold her baby in her arms.

And she did. Celeste spent three days with her child - time enough to name her, to form a bond, to imprint the infant's face in her memory.

But Celeste never took her baby home.

She and her husband Morne remember the nursery they'd prepared. It was decorated in blue, yellow and white. There was a crib, and all the bottles, lotions and powders had been bought - everything a baby would need.

But the crib remained empty. On April 30, 1997, aged three days, Zephany Nurse was snatched from the maternity ward at Groote Schuur Hospital.

Thirteen years later, no one knows where Zephany is - or even if she is alive.

There are only the most elusive of clues.

Still foggy after a caesarean section, Celeste faintly remembers seeing a woman - the woman she believes kidnapped Zephany. But she cannot recall enough to put a face to the blurry outline.

She had been lying in her hospital bed, drowsy from pain medication, when a woman wearing maroon trousers and an oatmeal coloured top floated into her view. Maroon trousers, oatmeal top: the uniform worn by the nursing staff at Groote Schuur. To all appearances, a maternity nurse at work, holding in her arms an infant in her care, perhaps jiggling Zephany, bringing up a wind.

Certain that Zephany was in the safe hands of a Groote Schuur nurse, Celeste fell asleep. When she was woken again, the nightmare had already begun.

"Where is your baby?" the nurse asked.

Celeste, confused, said she'd seen a nurse holding her.

All that was left were traces. Zephany's baby nest - a zip-up baby garment - a handbag with no clues as to its owner; and a pillow found abandoned in a corner of the tunnel leading from the maternity unit to the road outside the hospital.

The Health Department says that the tunnel provided access to the hospital's old main building, the psychiatric department and the out-patient section.

It is intended to provide women in labour a short-cut directly into the labour ward. This time it had provided a handy exit for the kidnapper.

Access was unrestricted at the time, but after the kidnapping it was closed off.

It appears the kidnapper took precautions in moving through the ward unnoticed. The pillow, the Nurse family believes, had been used to fake a pregnancy. And no one questions what a pregnant woman is doing in a maternity ward.

Also, the maroon pants and oatmeal top the kidnapper wore were part of the hospital's nursing sisters' uniform - if, in fact, there was only one kidnapper, and the "nurse" had not been an accomplice.

The woman dressed as a nurse apparently made an effort to befriend the mothers-to-be in the ward.

Celeste said one of the expectant mothers - the only woman who remembers the kidnapper's face - had spoken to her briefly, and said she had been very friendly.

On one occasion, the mother in question found the alleged kidnapper holding her baby. When the mother asked what she was doing, the woman replied that the baby had been crying; she was comforting it.

"Her intention was to steal a child," says Celeste. "She didn't care which child it was."

The hospital contacted the police who searched the hospital from top to bottom. They found nothing to give hope to the Nurse family.

Morné and Celeste were called to the hospital's boardroom to hear the bad news.

"I went ballistic," Morné remembers. "I even knocked over a medicine cabinet and all the bottles broke on the floor."

The question on his mind was: "How did she get in here?" But what weighed on him even more was how a woman managed to leave a hospital with a baby that was not her own.

More questions. No answers.

Five days after Zephany's birth, the Nurses went home without their daughter.

"We came home to nothing," says Celeste.

For days after that, Celeste still clung to the hope that what was happening wasn't real, that it might all be some kind of sick joke, that somebody would bring her daughter home.

"At night I lay in bed and heard the cats crying. Sometimes they sounded just like a baby," she says.

In the beginning, there were a few strong leads.

In one instance, the neighbours of a woman, who they had not seen pregnant, called the police to say she now had a baby.

Police followed up, and while the baby had a striking resemblance to Zephany - light-skinned, black hair - it turned out to be a boy.

The trail went cold, and the investigation lay dormant for a decade.

Then, at 3am on July 17 last year, the phone rang and hope leaped in the Nurses' hearts that Zephany would finally be coming home.

"I know about your daughter," the caller whispered. Then she demanded R500 000 for information on Zephany's whereabouts. It was arranged the money would be paid over at a meeting at KFC in Mitchells Plain town centre at 10am the same day.

It was the first time the Nurses had heard anything in almost 12 years. They were overwhelmed - they didn't sleep that night.

The family immediately contacted the police, who took control. Morné, wearing a wire and carrying money the police had given him, went to meet the caller, but she never arrived.

Using phone records, police traced the call to Glenda Doubell, who lived a few houses away from Celeste's mother in Delft. Doubell was arrested and charged with attempted extortion and is currently out on bail.

Following the Doubell incident, the police's Organised Crime unit in Bellville has taken over the case, but it has not had any breakthroughs, or even new leads.

This has not discouraged the Nurse family, who are now planning another massive campaign aimed at finding their daughter.

Their arsenal includes posters and a new identikit being compiled by police of the alleged kidnapper.

There is also the possibility that the couple's three other children could be instrumental in the search for their big sister.

The other three Nurse children, Cassidy, 9, Joshua, 4, and Micah, 2 - all born at Groote Schuur - bear a strong family resemblance.

Morné believes Zephany might look like them.

"I'll never ever give up hope," says Morné. "I can feel it in my gut - my daughter is out there and she is going to come home."

  • Anyone with information that could help the police find Zephany can contact Superintendent Mike Barkhuizen, 021 918 3484, or Crime Stop on 08600 10111.
  • You can calso contact Weekend Argus at investigations @inl.co.za

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