Zephany: A tragedy 19 years in the making
Cape Town - It was a case that closed after 19 long years on Monday when the woman convicted of abducting Zephany Nurse was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
In between, the kidnapper was the only mom the teenage girl knew while her real family yearned to find their missing child.
Two years ago there was the first glimmer of hope following a chance meeting between Morne and Celeste Nurse’s daughter and the child who had been snatched from them when she was three-days old. The two girls later became friends.
An investigation ensued and DNA confirmed the friend was Zephany, who is now 19.
The Lavender Hill woman Zephany knew as her mother would be arrested for kidnapping. But for the Nurses, instead of a reunion with their long-lost daughter, it marked the beginning of more heartache.
The dramatic events that unfolded in the two years since the “lost baby” was found culminated in the Western Cape High Court on Monday when Judge President John Hlophe sentenced the woman to 10 years in prison.
The woman, convicted of kidnapping, fraud and contravening sections of the Children’s Act, accepted her fate as her legal representative, defence attorney Reaz Khan, said his client would not appeal the sentence or conviction.
On Zephany’s 14th birthday, the Cape Argus covered yet another birthday party the Nurses held in Zephany’s absence.
Celeste used the occasion to plead with the person who took her baby to bring her daughter back. It was a ritual Celeste performed every year since this newspaper reported on the newborn’s abduction from Groote Schuur hospital on April 28, 1997.
At the time, a tearful Celeste said she forgave her baby’s kidnapper.
“The only decent thing she (the kidnapper) can do is bring her back home. It’s been a long enough.”
Celeste Nurse in hospital with Zephany before she was abducted.
It would only be three years later, when Zephany was 17, that a twist of fate crossed her path with her biological father which ultimately sparked a Hawks investigation.
On February 25, 2015, a 52-year-old seamstress was arrested after she was found with Nurse’s “lost daughter”.
During court proceedings, it was revealed the woman had several miscarriages and could not conceive a child.
Instead she and her husband - unwittingly raising the child as his own daughter - were the only parents Zephany had known.
The kidnapper - who was never named to protect Zephany - told the court she paid R3 000 for the “adoption” of a baby she believed belonged to a young mother who could not raise her.
She said the baby, with its umbilical cord still attached, was handed to her at an abandoned Wynberg train station by a woman she identified as “Sylvia’’.
She decided to carry on the “ruse” by pretending to be pregnant and lie to her husband about giving birth to the stolen child.
On handing down sentence, Judge Hlophe did not mince words. Speaking directly to the woman in the dock, he said: “Your crime was premeditated. You went out of the way to steal (State witness) Shireen Piet’s child, dressed in the maroon and oatmeal uniform of a nurse, and when you were unsuccessful, you picked on Celeste Nurse who was recovering from a caesarean section.
“You had all the time in the world to return her, and did not. I view this as a very serious crime.”
Hlophe said that if the Zephany’s kidnapper pleaded guilty for her crimes, she would have had the court’s sympathy, and had she shown remorse, it would have been counted as a mitigating factor in her sentencing.
“But you decided not to show remorse,” he said as he ordered the police to escort her to the holding cells from where she would be transported to Pollsmoor Prison.
“I love you,” were the last words to her family as she was led down the steps to the holding cells to start serving her sentence - away from them, her husband and the daughter she raised.
But even though justice has been served, the tragedy is far from over.
The relationship between Zephany and her biological parents is strained. Celeste, Morne and Zephany’s kidnapper have admitted as much on separate occasions in court.
A family member of the kidnapper spoke of the alleged indifferent attitude the Nurses had shown toward their daughter.
“Zephany will miss her mother (the woman who raised her), but she wants nothing to do with Celeste and Morne,” said the family member.
“They have not clothed her, fed her or asked how she was doing emotionally. They do nothing for her, it’s all about the cameras for them.”
For Celeste, rebuilding her relationship with her daughter will arguably be the hardest thing for her to do - perhaps even harder than the 17 years she didn’t know where her child was.
During the trial she told the court: “My daughter, the one I gave birth to, will forever be lost to me.”