February 07, 2011 12:00 PM

The last time Carl Tyson laid eyes on the daughter who was named for him-Carlina-she was just 19 days old, 8 lbs. and 21 inches long. So when a young woman with long hair, a hand tattoo and a model-pretty smile emerged from a Bronx apartment building on Jan. 16 with her own 5-year-old daughter, Tyson thought, this can’t be real. Overwhelmed to see his missing baby girl who was now all grown up, Tyson says that he walked to his car, wondering, “Is this a dream?” “Dad,” Carlina, 23, called to him, “what’s the matter?” In response, “I hugged her and squeezed her,” says Tyson, 45. When even that failed to ground his emotions, Tyson again turned away. Then, coming to his senses, he grabbed Carlina in a fierce hug. “I just don’t believe it,” he said. “You’re here in my face.”

Tyson’s mix of elation and disbelief is understandable. On Aug. 5, 1987, a few hours after Tyson, then 22, and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Joy White, brought their infant daughter to what was then called Harlem Hospital to be treated for a high fever, the newborn disappeared from the pediatric ward. By the time she herself became a teenage mother, Carlina began to have doubts that the woman she knew as Mom, Ann Pettway, was her real mother. On Dec. 22 she phoned the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), and with their help soon confirmed her true origins through DNA testing. “I always felt like [Pettway] took me from my parents,” Carlina told the New York Post. “She gave me too many different stories.”

Pettway, meanwhile, turned herself in to the FBI on Jan. 23 and offered what may finally be the true story. In a confession, she said that she snatched Carlina because she’d had several miscarriages and thought she would never bear a child. “Pettway is sorry,” reads a criminal complaint filed against her, “and she knows that she has caused a lot of pain.” Faced with a federal kidnapping charge-and the prospect of spending the rest of her life behind bars-Pettway, 49, was tearful when she met with her federal public defender, Robert Baum. “She cares deeply about Carlina,” he says. “She is very upset.”

Pettway’s belated remorse cannot begin to match the anguish she ignited when she boarded a train in 1987 with the abducted baby, whom she would rename Nejdra Nance and raise in Bridgeport, Conn. While growing up, Carlina, who was known as Netty, sang in a chorus, led a drill team and worked at a summer camp. Along the way, a brother, Trevon, now a teenager (whom attorney Baum says is Pettway’s biological child), was added to a mix that included loving relatives who lived nearby. But, says a childhood friend, “Netty had her doubts. She looks very different from that family, her voice, her demeanor.” Ashley Pettway, 21, a cousin who grew up nextdoor, says, “Her mom was kind of hard on her. I used to hear her mom yelling at her.” Both say there was whispered speculation about the girl’s parentage.

When Carlina phoned the NCMEC, she told call center specialist Jordan Wood that after she gave birth to her own child, she realized she “didn’t have any of her [own] important paperwork.” After Pettway failed to supply copies, she’d sought replacements from a family services department. When she received her birth certificate, she noticed her parents were listed as “unknown.”

Her biological parents, meanwhile, gradually let go of their all-consuming heartache and parted ways, but never lost hope. “Carl always talked about her, especially around her birthday,” says Dorothy White, his older sister. And Joy White always kept her daughter Carlina’s photo on her dresser. White, 40, has two other children, who are now 18 and 21. Tyson, who has three children, says that after he married in 1996, he “carried anger because I felt like I was still missing something.” A couple of years of therapy helped, he says, but “I’m still overprotective of my kids today.” He finds it hard to take things slowly with Carlina, who’s returned to Georgia, where she models for photography students and is raising her daughter with the help of Pettway’s sister Cassandra Johnson.

Which makes this reunion not quite the simple fairy tale many people imagine. “Her story struck a chord with a lot of people,” says Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC, whose switchboard has been overwhelmed by new callers. “Many of them are calls from people who question who they are, whether they’re in the right place.” But finding her way into a new family is going to present challenges for Carlina and her biological parents (see box). During her recent get-together with relatives she’s never known, she told her aunt Regina Tyson, “I want to be around my mom and dad. It’s just, I also have my own life.” Her father understands and knows that it will take time to build a relationship. Still, he says, it was hard to watch her return to the Atlanta area. “She’s been away for 23 years; now she’s leaving again. You just don’t want her to go. You want her to stay.”

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