‘What did she grow up to be?’

In 1983, she let a stranger hold her new­born at a D.C. bus sta­tion. She would never see her again.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAUL DUG­GAN IN WATERBURY, CONN.

The woman in the bus de­pot, the per­pe­tra­tor, was ami­able and chatty, Eleanor Wil­liams tear­fully told the po­lice.

This was long ago, af­ter Wil­liams, young and naive, had been trag­i­cally preyed upon, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. To­day, it’s a cold case.

The woman, whose crime in the ter­mi­nal that day shat­tered Wil­liams’s psy­che, was African Amer­i­can and ap­peared to be in her 20s, Wil­liams re­called, speak­ing pub­licly for the first time in decades about a mys­tery that has per­plexed D.C. po­lice. Wil­liams said the stranger’s per­fidy left her so mired in guilt and shame that she later con­tem­plated killing her­self.

The woman, about 5-foot-3 and slender, struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with Wil­liams in the pas­sen­ger wait­ing area, coo­ing over Wil­liams’s in­fant daugh­ter. Af­ter a while, in the sweet­est voice, she asked whether she could hold the child. Please? Just for a minute? She said her name was La­toya.

Which might have been a lie. Who knows?

She said she was headed “out west” — maybe also a lie.

Wil­liams was 18 then, on Dec. 2, 1983, a date that haunts her. She had grown up on a nine-acre farm in south­east­ern Vir­ginia, and she still lived there. Be­fore that morn­ing, when she set out for Kansas by mo­tor coach with her daugh­ter, she had never ven­tured more than 30 miles from her home, she said.

Her baby, April Nicole Wil­liams, 31/ months old, was bun­dled

2 in a pink-and-white snow­suit. The trip’s first leg, 200 miles, brought them to down­town Wash­ing­ton, to the old Trail­ways de­pot at 12th and I streets NW, which closed not long after­ward.

They were sched­uled for a three-hour af­ter­noon stop. Car­ry­ing April and her di­a­per bag, Wil­liams, who had been awake since be­fore dawn, trudged into the sta­tion and sat down wearily, with 1,200 miles of high­way still ahead of her.

La­toya, if that was re­ally her name, “came over next to me at some point and just started talk­ing to me,” Wil­liams said re­cently at her Con­necti­cut apart­ment, sob­bing as she de­scribed the aw­ful mis­take she made 34 years ago. La­toya “was be­ing friendly, ask­ing me lots of ques­tions. Like, ‘Where are you go­ing?’ And, ‘How old is your baby?’ She was nice, you know? Then she was like, ‘Do you mind if I hold her?’ And I was sit­ting right next to her, right there, so I said okay, and I let her.”

Un­til lately, Wil­liams, 52, hadn’t spo­ken pub­licly about her first­born child since the week in 1983 when her world fell apart. She kept the mem­o­ries mostly to her­self, buried un­der a weight of sor­row. In her apart­ment, she shared the story halt­ingly, paus­ing for long stretches to gather her com­po­sure.

The woman, cradling April, said the baby needed a di­a­per change, Wil­liams re­called.

“She said: ‘ Oh, I’ll take her to the bath­room. You look tired.’ And I was skep­ti­cal, like, “Well ... ‘Okay, I guess.’ Be­cause I was tired. And I thought about it, but I had al­ready said okay, and she had al­ready got up and taken her to the bath­room.

“And then, I don’t know, about 10 min­utes later, when she didn’t come back, I started get­ting ner­vous.”

Wil­liams strug­gles ev­ery day to live with this: She en­trusted her in­fant daugh­ter to a stranger in a bus sta­tion, some woman. La­toya was her name, or maybe not.

“She went to change her,” Wil­liams said, “and I never saw them again.”

‘I blame my­self ’

One year ago yes­ter­day a 3month-old girl was kid­napped at the old Trail­ways bus ter­mi­nal in down­town Wash­ing­ton, prompt­ing one of the largest and long­est man­hunts in the city’s his­tory. To­day, while the chance of the baby’s re­turn has de­creased, the hope, it seems, has not. — The Wash­ing­ton Post, Dec. 3, 1984.

There’s still hope, al­though very lit­tle.

She weighed 11 pounds when she van­ished.

As­sum­ing she is alive, turned 34 last sum­mer.

“I’m pretty sure this is the only cold-case kid­nap­ping we have, the only stranger kid­nap­ping, where we still have a vic­tim out,” Cmdr. Les­lie Par­sons, head of the D.C. po­lice crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions di­vi­sion, said re­cently. Par­sons wouldn’t dis­cuss de­tails of the case, but ap­par­ently there isn’t much to say. “About the only thing we can do proac­tively at this point is put it out in the me­dia,” he said. “Hope­fully some­one will see it, and they’ll call us.”

When an­other an­niver­sary of the ab­duc­tion rolled around in De­cem­ber, the de­part­ment is­sued a news re­lease, a stan­dard plea for help: “The in­fant vic­tim was named April Wil­liams. She has a small birth­mark on top of her left wrist in a straight line.” The state- she was a terse ren­di­tion of the ba­sic facts, re­peated by po­lice many times through the years, in­clud­ing de­tails from the mother’s 1983 rec­ol­lec­tion of her chat with the kid­nap­per.

“The sus­pect could have a sis­ter named Latisha or Natisha,” the de­part­ment said. “The sus­pect could have the as­tro­log­i­cal sign of ‘Leo.’ The sus­pect is de­scribed as [hav­ing] . . . a dark brown com­plex­ion and spots on her face. Her ears were pierced with two holes in each ear.”

It said of La­toya, “she could go by Rene or Rene La­toya.”

A few weeks ago, the de­tec­tive han­dling the case con­tacted Wil­liams in Con­necti­cut, where she has lived since 1988, and asked her to speak with the news me­dia. Public­ity is good for cold cases, he told her: You shake the tree, and some­thing might fall out. Plus, it’s the In­ter­net age. The last time Wil­liams talked pub­licly about April, in the days right af­ter the kid­nap­ping, ar­ti­cles and pho­tos didn’t rou­tinely cir­cle the planet as they do now.

Wil­liams balked at sit­ting for an in-per­son in­ter­view, telling a reporter on the phone that Con­necti­cut was her “safe haven,” that she wanted to be left alone there, free of the painful past. She said she has tried for years to block out what hap­pened, to rid her me­mory of ev­ery­thing about that af­ter­noon ex­cept for April’s lit­tle face.

Then, af­ter a few days, she changed her mind and said okay.

Then, the next morn­ing, she can­celed.

Then, later in the week, she phoned and said all right, come to Waterbury.

“Of course I blame my­self,” she said in her apart­ment. Her hands were trem­bling. “I blame my­self ev­ery minute, right up to this minute. It’s been 34 years, and it’s not some­thing that’s over. I deal with it ev­ery day, whether I talk about it or not. . . . It’s al­ways on my mind. It’s al­ways: ‘How could you be so stupid? Why? Why did you do it?’ ”

She lives alone and works as a sur­gi­cal tech­ni­cian, help­ing physi­cians with their in­stru­ments in op­er­at­ing rooms. She is “ex­tremely close” to her grown son and daugh­ter, both born af­ter April. She has two grand­chil­dren and hopes for more, she said.

“There were times when I was younger when I wanted to com­mit sui­cide, I just felt so bad and so guilty,” she said. “But my other kids were al­ways my strength. Like, what would they do if any­thing ever hap­pened to me? I re­mem­ber com­ing home one night af­ter work and think­ing, ‘I could just drive off the road into a tree, and no­body would ever know that I wanted to do this.’ And then I thought about my other kids.”

Wil­liams was 4 when her mother died in 1969, on Christ­mas night. She is the sec­ond-youngest of six sib­lings and was raised by her fa­ther on her pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents’ farm near Suf­folk, Va. In late 1982, when she was a se­nior in high school, she found out she was pregnant.

“I wasn’t happy about it,” she re­called. “I mean, I was 17 years old! I didn’t want to have a baby. I thought about hav­ing an abortion, but I de­cided not to. ... There’s some­thing about when ba­bies start mov­ing and kick­ing. You know there’s some­thing in­side you, and it’s like a bond­ing. It’s just some kind of way spe­cial.”

April was born Aug. 17, 1983, two months af­ter her mother’s high school grad­u­a­tion. Wil­liams said the fa­ther was a lo­cal teenager who wanted no part of par­ent­hood. She saw no fu­ture with him, ei­ther, and they lost touch af­ter the baby ar­rived.

By then, Wil­liams was in­ter­ested in some­one else — a sol­dier in Kansas, a young man she had never seen. One of her broth­ers was in the Army, sta­tioned at Fort Ri­ley, and he had men­tioned his sis­ter Eleanor to a buddy named Kevin. She and Kevin be­came pen pals dur­ing her preg­nancy, trad­ing let­ters and pho­tos for months, and talk­ing by phone.

In Novem­ber that year, Kevin wired her money for a bus ticket to Kansas, so they could meet and spend the hol­i­days to­gether.

Wil­liams had never been out of south­east Vir­ginia.

She made it as far as Wash­ing­ton, where she wound up spend­ing a week, fright­ened, dis­ori­ented, of­ten pan­icked, with news lights flash­ing and de­tec­tives press­ing her, want­ing to know this, want­ing to know that — then more de­tec­tives, ask­ing, ask­ing, de­mand­ing.

Th­ese were stone-hard ques­tions from stone-hard men with badges, the gist of the queries be­ing: What did you do to her? Tell us. Where is she? La­toya took her! And a poly­graph ex­am­iner, qui­etly, in a mor­ti­cian’s voice: “Did you sell your baby?” At last, when the po­lice seemed sat­is­fied with her story, Wil­liams was gen­tly sent on her way, home to the farm. She said she hasn’t set foot in the District since.

“And I never will go back, ever.”

Birth­days spent won­der­ing

Mother of Kid­napped Baby Hyp­no­tized — Post head­line, March 10, 1984.

La­toya had short hair, dark and wavy.

She wore green pants and a white ski jacket with a pur­ple flo­ral lin­ing.

Wil­liams told the de­tec­tives that.

The Post re­ported at the time that the woman in the bus sta­tion had taken the baby with her to a fast-food counter to buy so­das. This de­tail showed up in the news­pa­per re­peat­edly, but it wasn’t ac­cu­rate, Wil­liams said. She re­called read­ing it that week. And she said the mis­take didn’t sur­prise her, be­cause she had learned, in just a few hours’ time back then, to never trust any­one she doesn’t know. Po­lice, re­port­ment ers, strangers in bus de­pots — trust no­body.

“That’s how I am now,” she said. “I’m al­ways go­ing to be that way.”

Th­ese days, there would al­most cer­tainly be video footage of some La­toya walk­ing into a bus ter­mi­nal. Se­cu­rity cam­eras would cap­ture her in the wait­ing area, would record her chat­ting up a young mother, then head­ing to a re­stroom or wher­ever, and sneak­ing out of the sta­tion with a tiny bun­dle in her arms. But the La­toya of 1983 stole a baby in the pre-surveil­lance age. “If we had im­ages of the sus­pect,” Par­sons said, “we’d def­i­nitely put them out to the pub­lic.” She is a ghost. Hours af­ter the ab­duc­tion, the driver of a Metrobus and sev­eral pas­sen­gers re­ported see­ing a woman on the bus who matched the sus­pect’s de­scrip­tion. The woman, car­ry­ing an in­fant, got off at Rhode Is­land Av­enue and 18th Street NE, near the Prince Ge­orge’s County line, the wit­nesses said. Squads of po­lice of­fi­cers can­vassed the area for days, knock­ing on doors. But the trail, if it was a trail, went cold.

Deep in Vir­ginia, mean­while, Wil­liams grew tired of be­ing stared at.

“I just couldn’t deal with ev­ery­body look­ing at me and talk­ing about me and hav­ing some­thing to say about my sit­u­a­tion,” she re­called. “It was al­ways, ‘She gave her baby away.’ Peo­ple were al­ways whis­per­ing that. Or, ‘ She’s just not fit to have a child.’ I mean, the way peo­ple are, they’re cruel. They’re mean. Un­til some­thing hap­pens to them.”

A month af­ter the ab­duc­tion, Wil­liams left the farm for Kansas again on a mo­tor coach.

Emo­tion­ally she was im­ma­ture, still an ado­les­cent, she said.

Kevin, the Fort Ri­ley sol­dier, was there when she got off the bus.

“All I needed him for was to have a baby to re­place April,” Wil­liams said. “He knew the only rea­son for me vis­it­ing him was be­cause I wanted to get pregnant again, be­cause I wanted an­other April. I thought it was go­ing to make me feel bet­ter. I thought it would make it hurt less. But ac­tu­ally all it did was make it hurt more.” She soon lost touch with Kevin. Their daugh­ter was born the fol­low­ing Septem­ber.

Wil­liams asked that the daugh­ter’s name not be pub­lished, for pri­vacy’s sake. She is 33 and un­der­stands the cir­cum­stances of her con­cep­tion. Wil­liams told her the story when she was teenager. She also told her son, born in 1986. The three have had many long con­ver­sa­tions about April and the emo­tional im­pact of her dis­ap­pear­ance, Wil­liams said. She said they are par­ent, daugh­ter, son, and the best of friends.

And the sib­lings know that ev­ery Aug. 17, they should leave their mother alone.

“I al­ways spend April’s birth­day by my­self,” Wil­liams said. “I don’t want to be around my other kids, be­cause that’s me and April’s day. I sit and just think about her, hold on to her pic­ture, cry. And I just won­der what she could be do­ing.” Her voice was plead­ing. “All the stuff they do in school, the awards they get. Did she get any awards? You know, the prom, home­com­ing, grad­u­a­tion — did she go to the prom? What did she grow up to be? Does she have a ca­reer? Does she have kids?”

Wil­liams gazed at the small table­top in front of her.

“Did she have a wed­ding? Did she have . . .” It’s point­less, al­ways point­less. For answers never come.

MICHAEL NO­BLE JR. FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Eleanor Wil­liams, 52, at her Con­necti­cut home. Wil­liams’s in­fant daugh­ter, April, was kid­napped when Wil­liams, then 18 and trav­el­ing from south­east Vir­ginia, stopped at the old Trail­ways sta­tion in Wash­ing­ton and a stranger of­fered to change her baby’s di­a­per for her.

MICHAEL NO­BLE JR. FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Eleanor Wil­liams works as a sur­gi­cal tech­ni­cian in Con­necti­cut. She is “ex­tremely close” to her grown son and daugh­ter, both born af­ter April. She has two grand­chil­dren and hopes for more, she said.

IM­AGES FROM THE NA­TIONAL CEN­TER FOR MISS­ING & EX­PLOITED CHIL­DREN

LEFT: A baby photo of April. CEN­TER: An age-pro­gres­sion im­age of April done in 2011, when she would have been 28 years old. RIGHT: A D.C. po­lice sketch of the sus­pect in the ab­duc­tion.

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