Gone Girl: The Kamiyah Mobley Story

photo by Agnes Lopez

photo by Agnes Lopez

// by Julie Delegal

In 1998, a newborn was stolen from a maternity ward at a Downtown hospital just hours after her birth. Her abductor was a stranger who waited patiently, even interacted with the baby’s family prior to kidnapping. The trail grew cold for nearly 18 years, but investigators never gave up on finding Kamiyah Mobley.

At age 17, most girls just want to have fun. It’s time for trying on prom dresses, riding in cars with friends, dreaming of college and that inevitable rite of passage to becoming an adult: filling out job applications. 

But when Alexis Manigo applied for a job at a South Carolina Shoney’s Restaurant in 2015, the year she turned 17, she put into motion a series of electrifying, life-changing events. The Shoney’s manager asked Alexis to provide her Social Security card. But her mother balked at giving it to her, no matter how often Alexis hounded her. 

Alexis would soon learn that both her birth certificate and Social Security card, used to enroll her in school, were fakes. Only her birthdate was real: July 10, 1998. Her Social Security number actually belonged to a Virginia man who died in 1983. She never had a driver’s license or state-issued ID. 

The fabricated documents, along with two tips relayed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in August and November of 2016, were key to dismantling the falsehood that, by then, had stretched into its eighteenth year. 

On January 12, 2017, DNA tests confirmed that Alexis Manigo is, in fact, Kamiyah Mobley, a baby who was taken from her mother’s arms by a stranger posing as a nurse at what was then University Medical Center in Jacksonville. 

Gloria Bolden Williams was arrested the next day in Walterboro, South Carolina. On January 17, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective Glen Warkentien went to South Carolina and brought Williams back to Jacksonville. At this writing, Williams is charged with kidnapping and custodial interference and is awaiting trial as an inmate in the Duval County jail. She pled not guilty on April 5.

Kamiyah-Mobley-reward-poste_1484328321893_8807536_ver1.0On the day Kamiyah was born and abducted, helicopters swarmed the locked-down hospital complex as dozens of sheriff’s officers and FBI agents searched through every corner and closet in every room, on every floor, in every building. Law enforcement enlisted help from the media, and Kamiyah’s kidnapping gripped the city. As local authorities scoured bus terminals and airports, the search would soon rivet the nation. 

For nearly two decades, through thousands of unfruitful leads investigated by scores of law enforcement officials, and despite a $250,000 reward offered by University Medical Center, Kamiyah would remain Jacksonville’s stolen child.

Detective Sergeant Don Shoenfeld, who retired from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in 2010, remembers numerous details from the day the eight-hour-old newborn was snatched by a stranger dressed in nurses’ scrubs. “I never forget her birthday,” he says. 

On July 10, 1998, Schoenfeld had just reported for his 4 PM shift as supervisor for the JSO’s homicide division, which investigates stranger abductions. He’d barely put down his keys when the phone rang. 

“The dispatcher said a baby had been taken, a newborn, and patrol had the hospital in lockdown,” Shoenfeld recalls. “My homicide team were just walking in the door and I said, ‘Don’t even sit down, let’s go.’” 

Aerial patrols were already hovering around the sprawling medical center on 8th Street, now UF Health Jacksonville. An FBI agent who had been monitoring police frequencies arrived on the scene. 

Schoenfeld teamed up with his FBI cohorts to enlist detectives, officers, special agents and hospital personnel in an exhaustive search for the baby. 

They scoured every building in the hospital complex, including the parking garage. “That was about a six- to seven-hour job right there,” Schoenfeld says. “We had to open every door on every room on every floor.” 

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Detective Sergeant Don Shoenfeld // photo by Agnes Lopez

Luggage had to be searched. “An eight-hour-old baby is going to fit in just about any small bag,” he continues. “Needless to say, the baby wasn’t found.”

According to an arrest warrant filed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in January of this year, Alexis told a National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) tipster that she’d suspected since 2015 that the woman who raised her, 51-year-old Gloria Bolden Williams, was not her biological mother. 

The warrant further attests that Williams admitted to a friend that she had abducted Alexis from a hospital three hours away in Jacksonville, Florida, when the baby was only eight hours old. 

Robert Lowery is Vice President for Missing Children at NCMEC. While he would not speak specifically about the tips the organization received, he credits the unnamed individuals who called them in. 

“They were part of the investigation that led to Alexis’s true identity,” Lowery says. 

(For purposes of this article, and out of respect for the young woman who only recently confirmed her birth identity, Williams’ now-18-year-old kidnapping victim will be called Alexis when referring to her recent experiences, and Kamiyah when referring to the infant kidnapping case in general.)

Arika Williams, the woman whom Alexis was raised to believe was her half-sister, confirmed these witness reports to People magazine. Arika told People that Alexis, or “Lexy,” as her family and friends knew her, started pestering her mother for her birth certificate and Social Security card in 2015 when she started applying for jobs. “Then Miss Gloria just broke down and told her, ‘This is why right here, you can’t do this. I kidnapped you’.”

Gloria Williams passed off the baby as the child of her former romantic partner, Charles Manigo, and they raised her as their own. The couple split in 2003. A stepfather and two younger children Alexis knew as half-siblings would later join her and Williams’ family, the UK’s Daily Mail reports. The Daily Mail also says that DNA tests confirmed that the younger children were Williams’ biological offspring. 

Meanwhile, just three hours away in Jacksonville, a perpetually heartsick young mother baked a cake every year for her missing daughter’s birthday. Shanara Mobley told the Florida Times-Union, in an article published on her first-born’s tenth birthday, that each year she would slice a piece of cake for Kamiyah, wrap it in foil, and put it in the freezer. Mobley never gave up hope that her daughter was alive and would be found.

She had no way of knowing that the hang-up phone calls she received in 2015 were made by her then 17-year-old daughter. 

Several news accounts describe Alexis’s anguished comments as her alleged abductor was arrested and subsequently taken to the Colleton County jail: “I love you, Mom,” she said. 

Three days later, Alexis’s biological parents, Shanara Mobley and Craig Aiken, would make the three-hour drive from Jacksonville to the Walterboro Police Department to meet their daughter. Mobley declined to say anything to the press, but Aiken was exuberant. 

“First meeting was beautiful, it was wonderful, couldn’t [sic] went no better,” he told CBS News.

Alexis, whose interview appeared on Good Morning America, told an ABC News reporter that Gloria Williams would “always be Mom.” She also said that she owed her biological parents a meeting, and was very interested in getting to know them. 

Accompanied by her attorney, Justin Bamberg, Alexis was gracious but guarded in responding to questions about how her life might have differed, if not for the kidnapping. 

“I’m not saying they weren’t going to be good parents,” Alexis told ABC reporter Eva Pilgrim, referring to Mobley and Aiken. “I’m not saying that at all, but it would have been a different life. When you find out you’ve got another family out there, it’s just more love.” 

Protective of the woman who raised her, Alexis told Pilgrim she forgave Williams. “From that one mistake, I was given the best life. I was. I had everything I needed, wanted. I had love, especially.”

“Her feelings toward Gloria aren’t something I would find surprising,” says the NCMEC’s Lowery. Though these kinds of kidnappings are rare, he has seen a handful of similar long-term abduction cases. 

Of the victims, Lowery says, “They do bond with whom they believe to be their birth mother… You can’t turn [that bond] on and off.” As for the baby who was born as Kamiyah and raised by her kidnapper, Lowery says, “Her trust system has been essentially shattered. It’s going to be painful on both sides.” 

Alexis also told the New York Times that Williams doted on her, taking her on trips to the zoo, to aquariums and Sea World. Her attorney told the Washington Post that Williams always kept Alexis’s doctors’ appointments and provided her with the braces she wears today. 

Williams’ neighbors and friends were astounded by the news and never suspected anything unusual about her. They said Alexis was both well-mannered and well-read. 

Williams had worked at a veterans’ hospital in Charleston at one time, possibly as a social worker or as a medical records specialist. She served as youth-group leader for her Methodist church, which she attended every Sunday. She volunteered for veterans’ groups, and for Habitat for Humanity, which built her Walterboro home. 

Lowery scoffs at the idea that Williams’ years spent caring for Alexis diminishes the severity of her crime. “You go to the hospital for the most joyous day of you life only to have someone steal that new life from you. None of us can imagine that level of pain,” he says.

“Please, please, bring me my baby,” Shanara Mobley pleaded on WJXT-TV4 shortly after Kamiyah was taken. “If you don’t have no kids,” she cried, choking back sobs, her voice rising as she wept. “If you was faking a pregnancy… I mean, if you just can’t have no kids, I mean how do you think I feel? I’m only, true enough, I’m only 16 years old but I have feelings, too. That’s my first child.”

Walterboro Live reported that Gloria Williams was pregnant during the summer of 1998, but miscarried a week before she drove down to Jacksonville. Arika Williams confirmed in her People Magazine interview that Gloria Williams’ miscarriage occurred very late in the pregnancy, and that she had already been given a baby shower. One of the homemade quilts was emblazoned with the name that Williams had already chosen for her unborn baby, Alexis Kelli Manigo.

“Gloria was looking for a child she could raise as her own,” Lowery says. “It fits with the behaviors we’ve seen with these abductors… They present themselves as a healthcare worker or a nurse. Their loved one, husband, or significant other is aware that a child is expected. A lot of times the motive is to preserve the relationship.”

The profile developed by the NCMEC, based on an analysis of 292 cases occurring over a span of 31 years, says the “typical” baby stealer operates closer to home, in her own community. Other abductors have also impersonated healthcare workers. According to the NCMEC, abductors often become familiar with doctors’ offices and hospital maternity wards, learning hospital layouts and using fire exit stairwells to escape with their victims. 

Indeed, the Mobley family’s lawsuit, filed in October 1998, and settled in 2000, alleged that newborn Kamiyah was carried down a stairwell, where video surveillance was inadequate. Why Williams chose Jacksonville, or University Medical Center, or Kamiyah Mobley in particular, remains a mystery. In one interview Arika Williams surmises that Gloria Williams may have targeted then-pregnant Mobley at the hospital because she was only 16.

Kamiyah went missing at 3 PM, court documents say. She was born at 6:55 AM. Multiple news reports at the time estimate that the abductor had been at the hospital for up to 14 hours total, and that she asked about Mobley’s baby before the birth occurred, possibly during the wee hours of the morning. The kidnapper spent approximately five of those hours befriending Mobley.

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“There should be no safer place than a hospital maternity ward,” Lowery says. “I will tell you what Gloria did changed hospital facilities forever. Kamiyah’s case was one of the centerpieces of our work with healthcare facilities. It changed all of us. Those facilities are much more difficult to get into, because of what Gloria did. She forever changed the way we view hospitals.” 

Lowery credits hospital security directors and nursing staff for the plunge in maternity ward abductions. Over the approximately four-year period preceding April 2016, he says, no babies were kidnapped from U.S.  hospital maternity wards.

“The way that children are transported on maternity wards is different. No longer are you going to pick up that baby and leave that ward,” he says. “It’s done on a cart or bassinet. If we see a child leave a maternity ward in someone’s arms, we know there’s a problem.” 

Velma Aiken, Kamiyah’s paternal grandmother, would blame herself for the next 18 years, constantly regretting not acting on the strange feeling she got when she saw that the “nurse” carrying baby Kamiyah was also carrying a purse. Both Schoenfeld and Lowery confirm that Aiken was in the hospital room with mother and daughter when the imposter walked out with the baby. 

The kidnapper, according to news reports, was dressed in “a blue floral smock and green scrub pants.” When interacting with the family, she impersonated a nurse. The hospital staff, in turn, believed the then-unknown kidnapper was family. 

Now, Lowery says, nurses have specific identification, which is disclosed to new mothers on hospital tours and upon entry into the maternity ward. And that’s not all. “There are monitors placed on children now in many facilities. If children leave, alarms start sounding,” he says. “They’re a game-changer.” 

“Strangers,” Lowery adds, “have to be checked in from hospital staff, and they have to be there for a purpose, so we won’t have someone loitering for 14 hours as Gloria allegedly did.” 

News accounts from 1998 report that the kidnapper escaped with the baby on the pretense of taking her to the hospital nursery for routine tests, to test for fever, or to administer baby vaccines. Schoenfeld confirms those reports. “That was one of the main things we were concerned with, because the baby hadn’t even had all of her shots yet, at eight hours old,” he says. 

In fact, Kamiyah was kidnapped before the hospital even had the chance to test her for strep B, which her mother Shanara had contracted during her pregnancy, or for sickle-cell anemia, for which Shanara is a genetic carrier. 

In 1998, there were no smartphones with cameras to take pictures of newborn babies. By the time she was whisked away from her mother, tiny Kamiyah had not even had the opportunity to be photographed at the hospital. Police had to rely on composite drawings of the baby. 

According to Lowery, NCMEC’s artist traveled to Jacksonville to create a composite drawing. That image, along with the sketch of Kamiyah’s abductor, hit the airwaves, with only the following descriptors of her abductor: a black woman, about 5 feet 5 inches, 150-160 pounds, likely wearing a wig. The baby was said to have an umbilical hernia, and Mongolian spots on her buttocks, which generally fade as the baby grows. 

There was no social media—no Twitter, Facebook or Amber Alerts to inform the public—just TV, radio, print media and a fledgling Internet. 

Even though Kamiyah’s then-16-year-old mother Shanara Mobley was understandably inconsolable, she made a desperate plea for help on TV. “She shouldn’t have never left outta my arms from the beginning,” the distraught young mother cried.

The JSO and FBI made the best of what technology offered at the time, including keyword searches on the internet, phones and beepers and hour upon hour of videotape from approximately 65 cameras across the hospital campus.

“That was 1998,” Schoenfeld says. “It wasn’t then what it is now. When we went to look at the video, you could only watch it in real time. If you tried to fast forward or reverse it, it scrambled the picture. You couldn’t see what you wanted to see. We felt like the best opportunity we would have to see this person [the abductor] was the camera that was on the nursery window. It wasn’t working.” 

Detectives had Kamiyah’s footprints to work with. However, the prints had little value to investigators. “There is no baby-footprint data base,” Shoenfeld says. “So that was of no value whatsoever.” 

They had no photographs, no helpful video images and no vehicle descriptions. “We did however get the cord blood,” Schoenfeld says. Cord blood is the umbilical fluid that contained Kamiyah’s DNA. “We got the cord blood to FDLE. That turned out to be used to make the match.” 

The high-profile search continued into mid-August 1998, as Schoenfeld’s squad was taken off of other homicide cases to focus solely on following up the numerous leads from the public regarding missing Kamiyah. 

Police chased down 2,000 leads during the first year alone. News accounts put the total at more than 2,500 since 1998. That includes a tip as recent as 2002, when Schoenfeld left Homicide to work in another JSO division.

Some tips were easily disproven. Others, such as the baby in Connecticut whose DNA was flown to Jacksonville and checked against Kamiyah’s, were much more complicated. It was one of the most promising leads in the case. According to Schoenfeld, Connecticut authorities “ended up handing a DNA sample from that baby to an airline pilot, and then I had a detective standing at the gate when he arrived to take that sample straight to the FDLE. We got a 48-hour turnaround, which was outstanding back then. And it was not her. Obviously we were let down. Disappointed.

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Detective Schoenfeld declined to comment about early investigative inquiries into whether Kamiyah’s birth family had anything to do with her kidnapping. Was it really a random act?

Craig Aiken, Kamiyah’s father, has been more vocal about it, however. In a Florida Times-Union interview from his dorm at the Montgomery Correctional Facility in Jacksonville, Aiken alleged that police were barking up the wrong tree by investigating the Mobley family.

“If [the police] would have spent more time looking for the baby and less time harassing us, something would have come of it,” Aiken told reporters. 

Aiken, 24 years old at the time of the July 1999 jail interview, had been arrested in mid-October 1998, for lewd, lascivious and indecent assault on a child under the age of 16. Mobley was only 15 when she and Aiken conceived Kamiyah. He was serving a sentence on an unrelated charge at the time of the sex crimes arrest, and was rearrested in the correctional facility. 

Days prior to Aiken’s re-arrest, Kamiyah’s maternal grandmother, Sheila Mobley, would sue hospital personnel for, among other things, being too slow to call the police. In a lawsuit filed in October 1998, when Kamiyah was three months old, plaintiff Sheila Mobley said the hospital took 20 minutes to call the police after the baby was deemed missing.

The settlement was sizable. Shanara Mobley’s mother relinquished her rights as plaintiff in June 2000, the year Shanara turned 18, and the parties settled the lawsuit for $1.9 million. According to a WTLV-TV 12 report from January, the younger Mobley and her attorneys were paid $1.2 million in 2000, with an additional $725,000 put into an annuity or structured settlement, so that she could receive monthly payments for life. Another $300,000 was set aside for Kamiyah, in the event she was found alive prior to her eighteenth birthday. It’s unclear how or whether that sum has been disbursed. 

Mobley sold the rights to the monthly payouts in 2009 in exchange for a lump sum which, court documents say, would be used to help lower her mortgage. Shanara was pregnant with Kamiyah’s fourth maternal sibling at the time. 

While Shoenfeld declined to talk about the JSO’s investigation of the Mobley family, he did have words for baby Kamiyah, now 18-year-old Alexis. 

“It’s good to know that the case is closed. I just hope she is able to move on in a positive way in her life. I’d probably say to her that we did work as hard as we possibly could, but the circumstances were just such that the truth was hidden from everyone. Until now.”