There was no sign of Steve Hernandez at his family’s home in Rancho Cucamonga, California, after his father abducted him 21 years ago.
His mother, Maria Mancia, never saw him again after that—and she only had a small photograph of him.
In 1995, his father, Valentin Hernandez, took their 18-month-old son along with the boy’s clothing, photos, and even the ultrasound image.
The only photo she had of her boy was mailed to her from relatives in El Salvador.
But on Thursday, Mancia was reunited with Steve, now 22, after he was taken across the U.S.-Mexico border by investigators with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.
Valentin Hernandez took the boy to Mexico City.
“Now this anguish I’ve carried is gone now that I have my son back. I spent 21 years looking for him not knowing anything,” Mancia told ABC7.
Mancia kept going to the police, but the case eventually went cold. It was turned over to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Child Abduction Unit in 2012. A tip investigators received in February led them to Steve, who is now living in Puebla, Mexico, and is a law student. Valentin Hernandez himself disappeared, and likely died. Authorities have not been able to confirm his death.
“With DNA analysis that match his mother, we knew we found Steve,” San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos told ABC7.
For Mancia, “she had never given up after all these years, but had accepted the fact that she may never know her son,” Karen Cragg, a senior investigator with the district attorney’s office, told the Los Angeles Times.
“To never see the child and to be reunited after 21 years: It was just an amazing, amazing moment,” she said.
Finding Steve proved to be tricky.
“We weren’t positive we located the right person,” Cragg said. “So we used a ruse and told Steve we were conducting an investigation related to the disappearance of his father.”
When speaking with him, they found out that his account of his past overlapped with the missing child’s case. Steve told them he knew that he was abducted, but he thought that he was abandoned by his mother, Cragg told the LA Times.
“I lived all these years without my mother, then to find out she’s alive in another country, it was emotional,” Steve said.
Steve, a U.S. citizen, also has four other siblings, and he doesn’t plan on going back to Mexico.