It’s a spring day in California, and Maria Mancia gets a visit from the authorities. More than two decades earlier, her partner had snatched their son from the home they shared and disappeared without a trace. Without so much as a photo, Maria has never given up hope of seeing her boy again. And now, it seems his fate has finally been discovered.
The story began back in 1995, when Maria was living with a man named Valentin Hernandez in Rancho Cucamonga, a suburban city some 40 miles east of Los Angeles, California. Located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, it’s a pretty-looking place and one that has been ranked among Money magazine’s best places to live.
Sadly, though, life for Maria and Valentin was anything but pretty. Indeed, despite the presence of their infant son Steven, the couple’s relationship had hit a rough patch. However, nothing could have prepared Maria for the shocking turn of events that was about to take place. She was busy at work one day when Valentin decided on a devastating course of action.
By the time that Maria returned home, Valentin had taken Steven and bolted. And in the process, he had turned the former family home upside down. In fact, Valentin had done such a thorough job of uprooting his and Steven’s lives, it was almost as if the couple’s 18-month-old son had never existed at all.
Shockingly, every shred of evidence relating to Steven’s life had vanished. Valentin had taken all the boy’s belongings, as well as photographs that had captured the family in happier times. Unbelievably, he had even found an ultrasound scan of Steven in his mother’s womb and made off with that, too. But that wasn’t all.
Valentin had also snatched various bits of paperwork pertaining to Steven from the home. Sadly, Maria was left with nothing to remind her of her son. In fact, when she contacted police to report Steven missing, she didn’t even have a single photograph of the boy to give them.
Instead, Maria was forced to contact an aunt living in El Salvador. The young mother had previously sent the woman a photograph of Steven. Now, though, Maria had to ask the woman’s family to return the snapshot to her in California. A small, poor-quality image showing Steven dressed in an oversized T-shirt, it was the only thing that she had left of her son.
Subsequently, the Child Abduction Unit of San Bernardino County’s District Attorney began an investigation into Steven’s disappearance. And at first, it seemed as if the boy might yet be found. In fact, investigators received leads from all corners of the country, many offering suggestions as to the location of the missing child.
Among them were a number of tips that seemed to suggest that Steven could have been taken to Oregon, some 900 miles to the north. Diligently, police investigated the leads – but came up empty-handed every time. Eventually, the case ground to a halt, and Steven’s disappearance remained unsolved.
For 21 years, Maria was left to wonder what had happened to her beloved son. But as the decades passed, she couldn’t forget Steven and held out hope that one day the truth would be revealed. “Maria never gave up,” senior investigator Karen Cragg said in 2016, “and neither did our office.”
Then, in February 2016, there was a break in the case. Apparently, Cragg and the other investigators had received a tip-off that the boy – now a man – was residing in Puebla, some 80 miles from Mexico City. So, deciding that they had a credible lead on their hands, Cragg and the team decided to take a closer look.
According to the tip, Valentin himself had now disappeared and was presumed dead. Unsure about the veracity of the claims, authorities decided to take a cautious approach. “We didn’t want to scare him off,” explained Cragg in 2016. In order to get to the bottom of the matter, then, they approached the man they believed to be Steven Hernandez under the pretext of investigating his missing father.
Under questioning, the man subsequently revealed some interesting details about his life to date – many of which suggested that he could indeed be Maria’s long-lost son. Apparently, he knew that he had once been kidnapped, although his knowledge of the incident was sketchy. Additionally, he appeared to believe that he had been abandoned by his mother.
Thinking that they might finally have found Steven, investigators decided they needed to conduct a DNA test in order to be sure. So, they told the man that they required a sample to help them in their search for his father. And with the assistance of the Mexican authorities, they managed to get the material that they needed.
Then, on May 31, 2016, investigators got the answer that they were hoping for. Unbelievably, they had finally located Steven, more than two decades after his father had whisked him away. Soon, Cragg and a colleague were on their way to Maria’s house. And when they got there, they suggested that the woman might want to sit down.
By then, Maria was living in Rialto, a city some 17 miles east of where Steven had initially disappeared. And when she was told her that her son was still alive, Maria broke down in tears. The investigators were moved, too. “It’s a moment I cannot describe to you,” Cragg told the Los Angeles Times in June 2016. “I’m a mother myself. I just couldn’t let this go.”
However, there was still one more obstacle to overcome before the pair could be reunited. Although he was a United States citizen by birth, Steven did not have the paperwork to prove it. Luckily, the Department of Justice pulled some strings, and the boy was able to cross the border into the country he had been snatched from.
Eventually, on June 9, 2016, Maria was reunited with the son she had not seen in 21 years. And as she held him and sobbed, Steven tenderly wiped his mother’s tears away. “This anguish I’ve carried is gone now that I have my son back,” Maria told KABC-TV in 2016. Meanwhile, Steven was shocked to discover that his mother was still alive – and that she had been searching for him all these years.
And that wasn’t the only surprise in store for Steven. After reuniting with his mother, he also discovered he had four siblings who he had never met. Thankfully, though, it seemed that he would finally get that chance now. What’s more, instead of returning to Mexico, Steven planned to study law in the United States.
Meanwhile, the whole truth behind Steven’s abduction may never be known. It doesn’t help that Valentin is thought to have passed away, though police have been unable to confirm his death. And until the authorities find out more, there is still a warrant out for Valentin’s arrest. Maria and Steven might never get to the bottom of the mystery, then, but at least they now have the opportunity to build a life together.