A California girl brazenly snatched by her teenage aunts seven years ago has been found alive, but a complicated maze of conflicting stories and sealed court records have so far led to no arrests in the case.
Amber Nicklas is back in state foster care after authorities from California, Arizona and the FBI found her living under a different name in a Phoenix home with a couple who initially claimed they had adopted her.
"She appeared well-nourished and all that," said Capt. Patrick Maxwell of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Norwalk station. "She was not enrolled in school, though."
How the 7-year-old girl came to be living in Phoenix is still unclear, but the little girl's turbulent life has been a sad one almost from the start.
The Phoenix Police Department couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
At the time of her kidnapping, Amber, then just a year old, was living with a foster family after having been forcibly removed from her grandmother's care along with several other children. Her mother had already given up all rights to her.
Maxwell said he doesn't expect Amber's mother to come looking for her. "It's horrible," he said. "It breaks my heart."
"No matter what we think of the people who did this to her or kept her, we don't know [the] motivation," he said. "The bottom line is that law enforcement took her from the only reality she knows of yesterday."
She was taken Sept. 21, 2003, from a Norwalk Chuck-E-Cheese restaurant by her mother's three teenage sisters during an approved visitation. Two of the teens were caught almost immediately and arrested. The third aunt, 13 years old at the time, got away with Amber.
The two eldest aunts were sentenced to serve time in a juvenile facility, Maxwell said, but in a move that has complicated the investigation into the kidnapping ever since, a judge granted one of the aunt's permission to seal all records pertaining to the case.
When police got a tip about Amber's whereabouts in November 2009, Maxwell said, they had to get a court order to unseal the records. And even then, he said, they only got their hands on portions of the records.
"In hindsight, this case, in my opinion, should not have been sealed since there was a suspect outstanding and a missing child," he said.
Maxwell said his department has located and interviewed the third aunt, whose name, along with the others, is not being released because of her juvenile status at the time of the kidnapping. He said it will be up to the district attorney to levy charges once police present their evidence.
"We're trying to figure out who and how this child got to this Arizona house," he said. "We're pretty confident that child has been in Arizona almost the entire time she's been missing."
Maxwell said Phoenix police have likewise not charged the couple who was raising Amber. Unless police in Los Angeles can prove they had something to do with the initial kidnapping, he said, any charges against them would have to come from Arizona.
They were not related to Amber's family, he said.
"They were evasive without detectives at first," Maxwell said. "At first they said they adopted her but couldn't provide any paperwork. You just don't raise a kid that comes out of the thin blue air."
The most recent effort to locate Amber had been going on for months but California authorities zeroed in on the Phoenix metro area this month. Amber was identified by the foot print on her birth certificate.