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Twenty-three years after being snatched as an infant, the victim of a hospital kidnapping cracked the cold case herself when doubts about her bogus “mom” led her home.

Carlina White – just 19 days old when her late-night abduction by a phony nurse stunned the city – was reunited last weekend with her overjoyed biological mother, father and other relatives.

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m just happy. It’s like a movie; it’s all brand new to me,” White told the Daily News Wednesday night as she arrived at LaGuardia Airport for the second reunion with her birth mom.

“Is it really happening?” her incredulous mom, Joy White, wondered after decades of prayers were answered. “I always dreamed this.

It was a stunning and unexpected resolution to one of the NYPD’s most frustrating cases: a kidnapper casually carrying an infant out of Harlem Hospital and into the wind.

The last time Joy White and her father, Carl Tyson, laid eyes on their chubby-cheeked child, Carlina was just 21 inches long, weighed 8 pounds and had a fever of 104. It was Aug. 4, 1987 – and it wasn’t until Jan. 4, 2011, that their now 23-year-old baby girl was able to let them know she was safe.

“I feel like I don’t know who I am!” she told staffers at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a heartbreaking call around Christmas.

Center officials, long familiar with the White case, launched an investigation that confirmed Carlina’s suspicions.

“This young woman gets all the credit,” said center President Ernie Allen. “She felt it. Now she could have been just wrong – but in this case, we were able to help her get to the truth.”

While Carlina and her once-distraught family were elated by their reunion, there was also anger at the woman who snatched the baby.

“I want her to suffer,” Joy White said of the kidnapper. “I want her to do some time, like I suffered for 23 years.”

Childhood filled with lies

Carlina was raised in Bridgeport, Conn., under an alias, Nejdra Nance. She told White that the woman she believed was her mother used phony IDs and Social Security numbers.

Joy White said Carlina told her the woman was a drug user who abused her – once hitting her in the face with a shoe – and often left her alone to baby-sit her younger “brother.”

A Bridgeport woman named Mary Pettway confirmed that her daughter, Cassandra, had raised Carlina. She refused to discuss the relationship further.

Cassandra Pettway lives in Georgia, and Mary Pettway said she and Carlina were with her at Christmas.

Reached by The News on her cell phone, Cassandra declined to discuss the family history.

“Are you serious?” she snapped. “What do you think my relationship is with her? Mother? No, that’s why I won’t talk to the media. They have it all wrong.”

It remained unclear how Cassandra Pettway came to raise Carlina. Police have not said who they believe abducted the baby.

“We have our suspicion, but not enough probable cause to make an arrest,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said.

The kidnapped girl said she began questioning whether she was really Pettway’s kin after her 16th birthday, prompting her to once write to Oprah Winfrey for help. The nagging doubts led her to bolt last year for Atlanta.

When she was pregnant with her now 5-year-old daughter, Carlina asked her fake mom for some paperwork on her background and received a startling response.

“I found out while I was pregnant. That lady told me she wasn’t my mother,” Carlina said.

She said she began surfing websites on missing children.

“I came across a baby picture that looked like me,” she said.

Even before learning the truth, she had suspicions about the woman who was raising her. “I’ve always been looking,” she said.

She contacted the center for missing children in late December and they found three possible matches – including the 1987 hospital abduction.

DNA test brings elation

The NYPD sent detectives to collect DNA swabs from Carlina and her anxious parents, eventually leading to the improbable reunion Joy White always believed would happen one day.

Just as Carlina didn’t need a DNA test to know something wasn’t right with her “mother,” her birth parents didn’t need one to know the beautiful young woman was their missing child.

“I already knew in my heart that this was my daughter,” said Tyson, who was 22 when he last saw his daughter. “All I could do was shed tears.”

Joy White – who kept a framed picture of her infant daughter on her dresser all these years – screamed with delight when she first saw photos of her grownup girl Jan. 4.

“As soon as I saw those pictures, I said, ‘That’s my daughter,’ ” she said yesterday at her Bronx home, clutching her photo of infant Carlina. “I saw myself in her.”

The DNA matches came back on Tuesday night to the delight of all. By then, White and Tyson had met the young woman they still call Carlina. She flew up last weekend from Atlanta, bringing her daughter, Samani.

An aunt, Lisa White-Heatley, 47, said she and her relatives prepared a feast of curried chicken, macaroni and cheese, lasagna and oxtail to welcome Carlina back into the fold.

“It wasn’t awkward. There was a connection right away. We loved her right away,” the aunt said of the reunion.

“We ate and talked and got to know each other… I feel great,” she said.

Joy White said meeting her granddaughter for the first time was a bonus.

“I can sleep! I can definitely sleep now because this has been on my mind for so many years,” said Joy White.

Source: New York Daily News

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