Woman accused of kidnapping baby 18 years ago raised girl as her own
Neighbors knew them for years as a church-going mother and her polite teenage daughter before police swarmed Gloria Williams' home in a small South Carolina city.
Williams, 51, was arrested on kidnapping charges. The victim: The 18-year-old woman Williams had raised as her daughter was a DNA match to Kamiyah Mobley, who was taken from a Jacksonville hospital the day she was born.
"She wasn't an abused child or a child who got in trouble," a stunned Joseph Jenkins said of the young woman who lived across the street. "But she grew up with a lie for 18 years."
She grew up as Alexis Manigo, but has now learned she was born as Kamiyah and kidnapped as a newborn. Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams described her Friday as being in good health but emotionally overwhelmed.
"She appears to be a normal 18-year-old woman," Sheriff Williams said. "She's taking it as well as you can imagine. She has a lot to process."
Just down the street from the church where Gloria Williams was active, her cousin, Shannon Johns, said she still can't believe the news her family got Friday.
"Wrong is wrong, and right is right. She was wrong for doing it, but at the end of the day, she took care of her like she was her own," Johns said. "She raised her since she was a baby. And that's the only mother that she knew."
Johns said she and other family members fully support and love Gloria and the young woman they know as Alexis. She said some of the comments they have seen about Williams are off base.
"Nobody can say anything bad about her because nobody can judge nobody. They aren't perfect," Johns said. "The only person that can judge us is God, because he's the only person that is laid into eternal life. He's the only person that has a hell or a heaven to put us in."
A Sunday morning church service at Buckhead United Methodist Church in Ruffin, South Carolina had an underlying message, forgiveness. Inside, a congregation of 30-40 people, all in some way family members of Gloria Williams, according to the pastor, prayed and praised.
News4Jax asked if service felt different or like something was missing because Williams wasn't there. She said it didn't, because everyone who wasn’t there physically is there in the minds and in the hearts of those that are.
The pastor said she was not at the meeting Saturday with Manigo and her biological parents, but said she has been in touch with other family members.
Like others in Ruffin, she described Williams as a great woman and loving mother to a perfectly normal 18-year-old young woman, until Friday happened, and changed everything.
The pastor said they are praying not only for the family they know, but also the new family in Florida they have not yet met.
Tesha Stephens, another cousin of Gloria Willams', said Alexis had much to think about.
"She's probably going to have to take this day-by-day," Stephens told reporters outside Williams' home.
Alexis got to spend a few emotional moments with Williams, who is also charged with interference with custody, after her arrest. She cried "I love you Momma" through the caged window of a security door after Williams waived extradition to Florida.
Meanwhile, the young woman's birth family cried "tears of joy" after a detective told them their baby had been found. Within hours Friday, they were able to reconnect over FaceTime.
"She looks just like her daddy," her paternal grandmother, Velma Aiken of Jacksonville, said. "She acts like she been talking to us all the time. She told us she'd be here soon to see us."
"I always hoped and prayed for this day to happen. I never gave up," the girl's birthfather, Craig Aiken, said. "You never lose hope, no matter how much time passes. You never give up. I just always felt she was alive. I always felt she was going to find us."
Mobley was only eight hours old when she was taken from her young mother by a woman posing as a nurse at University Medical Center, which later became Shands Jacksonville, then UF Health Jacksonville. A massive search ensued, with helicopters circling the hospital and the city on high alert. Thousands of tips came in over the years, but she was never located.
Some months ago, the young woman "had an inclination" that she may have been kidnapped, the sheriff said. Authorities didn't say why she suspected this.
The case broke thanks to a tip received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said Robert Lowery, a center vice president. He would not say from whom the tip came.
But the center soon reached out to the cold case detectives at the sheriff's office, and Mobley provided a swab of her cheek for DNA analysis that proved the match, the sheriff said.
"This was something brand new to all of us," said Stephens, Williams' cousin.
The center has tracked 308 infant abductions since 1983 by nonfamily members in the U.S. Of those cases, 12 were still missing at the end of last month. That's now one number smaller.
The woman has been provided with counseling, the sheriff said. Meanwhile, the girl's paternal grandmother is thrilled to know that they can speak with each other as much as they want.
"I always prayed, 'Don't let me die before I see my grandbaby'," said Velma Aiken. "My prayer was answered."
The family never forgot the little girl ripped from her mother's arms that day in 1998.
Her mother, Shanara Mobley, told the Florida Times-Union on the 10th anniversary of the kidnapping that on every one of Kamiyah's birthdays, she wrapped a piece of birthday cake in foil and stuck it in her freezer.
"It's stressful to wake up every day, knowing that your child is out there and you have no way to reach her or talk to her," Mobley told the paper in 2008.
Her attorney, Wayne Alford, told News4Jax on Friday that Mobley never lost hope, and even baked a cake every year on her daughter's birthday.
News moved quickly through the South Carolina town of about 5,000 people early Friday after police cars swarmed Williams' home. Jenkins said he awoke to see officers searching the house and the shed around back.
"At the fish market, the hair dresser, the gas station, they're all talking about it," said Ruben Boatwright, who said he's known Williams for about 15 years.
Lakeshia Jenkins, Joseph's wife, said Williams and the girl would often come over for cookouts in the yard, or join their family at a nearby water park. Kamiyah seemed to be well cared for, and "Ms. Williams, she seemed like a normal person," Jenkins said.
"She went to work, came back here and went to church every Sunday," she said.
Williams also worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs' hospital in Charleston, volunteered in the area for Habitat for Humanity and lead the youth program at a Methodist church, she said.
"She's very intelligent, smart as a whip," Boatwright said. "All I can say are good things about her."
As of 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Williams was still listed as being in the Colleton County Detention Center. Family members said they hope she can remain strong as this legal process plays out, a process that won’t really begin until she is transferred to Jacksonville.
Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.