Steve Hernandez tenderly wiped tears from his mother’s face. They were standing in an austere room in the San Bernardino County district attorney's office. Maria Mancia couldn’t stop crying as she wrapped her arms around her son.
It was their first embrace in 21 years -- a long-delayed reunion that Mancia had once feared impossible.
The last time Mancia, 42, had seen Hernandez was in 1995 when he was just 18 months old. She'd returned to her Rancho Cucamonga, California home one day to find the place ransacked and her child missing.
Hernandez’s father, who she lived with, had kidnapped the boy.
Frantic, Mancia reported the abduction to authorities, but for decades, the case had run cold.
“All that time I didn’t know what had happened to him,” Mancia told the San Bernardino Sun.
This old photograph of Hernandez as a toddler was all Mancia had to remember him. Hernandez’s dad had taken all the child’s photos and identifying paperwork and she had to contact a relative in El Salvador to get a picture of her son.
“That became the only photograph she had of Steve for the last 21 years,” investigator Karen Cragg of the San Bernardino County district attorney's child abduction unit, told The Associated Press.
Then in February, Cragg and her colleague, Michelle Faxon, received a tip that Hernandez, now 22, and his dad were possibly living in Puebla, Mexico. The elder Hernandez had gone missing, said Cragg, and the investigators used that as an excuse to start a dialogue with his son.
“We used a ruse to contact him. We told him we were investigating his father and we needed his DNA to help locate his father,” Cragg told the AP. “We didn't want to scare him off. We weren't sure what the circumstances were down there. We had to tread very carefully.”
In May, DNA samples from both Hernandez and Mancia were sent to a Department of Justice lab for testing. Neither mom nor son had been informed of the test so as to avoid any disappointment, the investigators said. But weeks later, incredible news emerged: The samples were a match.
Cragg and Faxon drove to Mancia’s house to break the good news.
“It was like she didn't believe us at first,” Cragg told AP. “She began to cry. She said she couldn't believe he was still alive.”
On Thursday, Mancia and her son were reunited in the DA’s office.
“Now this anguish I've carried is gone now that I have my son back,” Mancia told KABC-TV. “I spent 21 years looking for him not knowing anything.”
According to the Sun, Hernandez, an American citizen, hopes to continue his education in the U.S. and wants to attend law school. It’s unclear whether his father has been found or if he will be prosecuted for the kidnapping.
The elder Hernandez had told his son that Mancia had abandoned them when he was a child.
“It was a shock,” said Hernandez of learning about his mom's whereabouts. “I didn’t know if she was alive or not and to get a call that says they found my mother and that she had been looking for me, it was like a cold bucket of water. But it’s good. It’s good.”