May 5, 2015
Source: New York Times
“You wrote a story about me in 1994,” the voice on the phone said, “but I lost the clipping. Could you send me another copy?”
She said her name was Helen Salcedo.
For one day in August 1994, the city turned itself upside down looking for her. She was 2 months old that day, the day she was kidnapped from the call center in East New York, Brooklyn, where her mother worked. Even in jaded New York, scarred by a crack epidemic and the violence it spawned, the idea that a baby could be snatched was a shock.
And then, around dinnertime that night, she was found, unharmed and freshly diapered, in a stairwell at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, about four miles away.
Send her a copy of the article? No, I would deliver it to her in person, at an aunt’s home in Woodhaven, Queens, and match memories — hers (learned, after she was old enough) against mine (retrieved, after some rereading).
There was so much that she could not have known about that day. The agonizing search for little Helen — conducted without cellphones, which had not caught on, or Amber Alerts, which had not been devised — was accompanied by the stomach-churning fear that this was a story that could end very, very badly. And, finally, there was the almost collective sigh of relief — though it faded from the city’s consciousness with the next day’s headlines, news cycles in predigital 1994 being somewhat longer than they are today.
Ms. Salcedo, who turns 21 this month, recalled being 10 or 11 when her mother told her that the biggest event in her life had occurred when she was so young that she could not possibly remember it. But in some ways those six or eight hours have come to define Ms. Salcedo, who is taking a semester off from Nassau Community College while working as an aide at a senior center in Queens.
“I had a presentation in high school,” she said. “It was, ‘What was the most drastic thing that ever happened to you?’ I thought, let me take in the newspaper.” Apparently it made a big impression. “The teacher offered to laminate it but couldn’t,” she said, “and she misplaced it.”
I handed her another copy. She started reading, line by line.
“I think you pretty much got everything right,” she said, looking up after three or four paragraphs. “That I know, they found me in the hospital.”
It was not “they” who found her, but one person, a guard — Earl McSween, who was 33 then and is now a correction officer assigned to Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. He remembered that Ms. Salcedo had a finger in her mouth when he found her. He was just making his rounds. He had received no notification that there was a search for a missing infant.
“I was walking down the stairs because I know that area was a place where people dealt with drugs — people shooting heroin in the stairs at the hospital,” he said. “I was all excited it was me that found the little girl and not somebody bad, because in those days there were people smoking crack around. I say she was lucky that I was the one that found her.”
But back to Ms. Salcedo, reading the article in her aunt’s living room. “Oh, you spelled my name wrong,” she said matter-of-factly. Her name in the article, Helenandea, had been announced by the police. But the spelling and the spacing were not quite right. Her middle name is similar to Andea. It is Anea. Helen Anea. “My mom said it was Hawaiian,” she said. “My father chose it.”
Her father’s name — “Sexto” in the article — was also misspelled in the police account. “It’s ‘Sixto,’ like six toes,” she said, and yes, she teased him about that. But she stopped at the line that described her father as a fugitive who was wanted on federal weapons charges. She said he had been deported and now lives in the Dominican Republic.
She read aloud the line that quoted the police as saying the call center from which she was kidnapped was “a haven for drug dealing.”
“Drugs,” she said. “My mother said that wasn’t true.”
She said — later, in a conversation on the phone — that there were hints of truth in some of the darker elements described in the newspapers that did follow-up articles — that she had been “a pawn in an apparent drug feud,” as New York Newsday put it. She said “somebody was trying to get back at my dad” by attacking her mother and abducting her.
She said another line in the Newsday article was not true — that she had been born addicted to cocaine. “I don’t think my mom ever used while I was in the womb,” she said. But she said that she had been taken from her mother when she was born. “They said she was an unfit mother,” she said, adding that she had spent her first month in her aunt’s custody. “My mom couldn’t see me.”
The other papers said that her mother passed a drug test in July, and that little Helen was returned to her. But on the day after the abduction, the police took her away again, according to The Daily News, which quoted a police official in Brooklyn as saying her mother was “not telling us everything we want to know.” (Ms. Salcedo canceled several appointments for a follow-up interview that would have included her mother.)
Ms. Salcedo did mention one apparent discrepancy between the account the police gave that day and the version she had heard as a child — “It says there were four assailants, but there were only two,” she said — but she checked with her mother later and reported that there had actually been four. “My mother told me it was a female and a male who tied her up,” she said. “My mother tried to kick the guy and he tried to shoot her, but his gun jammed, so he pistol-whipped her around her eye.” As for the diapering, she said, “The only reason I was changed was there was a woman involved.”
Apparently, no one was arrested.
“This would have been treated pretty much from the get-go as a dispute, probably not much more,” recalled Kevin Perham, who was a detective lieutenant assigned to the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn in 1994.
The story of her abduction is not one she has been quick to share with everyone. She did not mention it to a boyfriend until they had been going out for a year. “I said: ‘You want to know a crazy story about me? I was kidnapped.’ He said, ‘You’re lying.’ I said, ‘No,’ and at that time, I had the paper.”
She put down the article. “My mom was overprotective of us,” she said. Of the kidnapping, she added, “I think it had more effect on her than me.”
For Mr. Perham, the former police official, the case was a reminder of how different the city was in 1994.
“So much drug activity, so many homicides,” he said.
“All’s well that ends well,” he said. “We found her in the stairwell, we moved on to other things. That one’s closed.”
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