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article imageS. African woman convicted of kidnapping baby in 1997

By Lawrence Bartlett (AFP)     Mar 10, 2016 in Crime

A South African woman was convicted Thursday of kidnapping a newborn baby and raising her for 17 years before an astonishing coincidence reunited the girl with her biological family.

"You must have been the person who removed the child from hospital," High Court judge John Hlophe told the woman, who claimed to have been handed the baby at a train station after entering into a private "adoption" programme.

"Your story, if anything, is a fairy tale and the court rejects it with the contempt it deserves."

The 50-year-old kidnapper, who cannot be named to protect the new identity of the girl she stole, remained grim-faced, staring at the judge.

The girl's biological mother, Celeste Nurse, 36, sobbed loudly as the guilty verdict was handed down while chants of "Yes! Yes!" were heard from the public gallery.

The kidnapper was denied bail and taken into custody ahead of sentencing on May 30. Onlookers clapped as she was taken down to the cells.

She was also convicted of fraud and offences under the country's Children's Act for registering the girl as her biological child.

The judge said she could face a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

Celeste Nurse  the girl's biological mother  sobbed loudly as the guilty verdict was handed dow...
Celeste Nurse, the girl's biological mother, sobbed loudly as the guilty verdict was handed down at the High Court in Cape Town, South Africa
, AFP

The girl's real identity came to light in February last year, when her younger biological sister began attending high school and pupils pointed out her remarkable likeness to a final-year student.

The younger girl told her parents, who met the older girl and immediately believed she was their long-lost baby.

They called the police, and DNA tests confirmed that the girl was indeed their child, whom they had named Zephany Joy Nurse.

Without knowing it, the Nurse family had been living within a couple of kilometres (miles) of their kidnapped daughter, while celebrating her birthday every year and never giving up hope of finding her.

- 'We were like family' -

During the trial, Celeste Nurse wept as she described how at the age of 18 she woke up in the maternity ward of a Cape Town hospital to find her three-day-old baby had vanished from her cot on March 30, 1997.

Witnesses said they had seen an unknown woman in a nurse's uniform at the hospital around the time and one of them picked out the accused at an identity parade.

The judge said he accepted the evidence of nine state witnesses as "trustworthy".

Celeste Nurse (2nd left) -- the biological mother of a South African girl who was abducted after bir...
Celeste Nurse (2nd left) -- the biological mother of a South African girl who was abducted after birth in 1997 -- burst into tears after hearing the verdict at the Cape Town High Court
, AFP/File

Turning to the accused, he said: "Your evidence totally disintegrated in cross examination."

The kidnapper had also sobbed in court during the emotionally-charged case, as she told of being barred from seeing the girl after her arrest in February last year.

Ahead of the verdict her husband told reporters that "we were like father and daughter and family together. I never knew it wasn't my daughter".

The kidnapper told the court during the trial that after a miscarriage in December 1996 she paid a woman who promised to find her a child to adopt.

In April 1997 she was handed a baby wrapped in a blanket at a train station in Cape Town, she said.

Delivering his verdict, Judge Hlophe remarked: "One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to know you don't buy babies in South Africa."

The woman said she had not told her husband of her miscarriage, so presented the baby to him as their own child.

Zephany's whereabouts are uncertain, after the trauma of the case reportedly caused the 18-year-old to drop out of her final year of school.

Some reports say she is back living with the kidnapper's husband, the man she believed for 18 years to be her father.

Zephany issued a statement through her lawyer at the weekend condemning media coverage of the case.

"Don't you think for once that that is my mother? Whether it is true or not is not for you to toy with," she said in an apparent reference to the kidnapper.

"How would your daughter or son feel when their skin feels ripped off their face?"

Zephany said she was writing supplementary exams and asked for privacy.

Her biological father, Morne Nurse, told AFP outside the court last week that her biological parents had "a bit of contact still" with Zephany, but would not comment further.

After the verdict Thursday, Celeste and Morne Nurse were mobbed by journalists but would not comment beyond saying: "Thank you, thank you."

It is believed that they have contracted to sell their story.

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