20 years after vanishing, daughter shows up with children, a new identity, and speaking Spanish


It was 20 years, 10 months, and 2 weeks since Cynthia Haag’s daughter Crystal went missing. She has still living in the same house in Baltimore – not wanting to leave in case Crystal came back – when she got the call she’d been praying for all these years.

Her other daughter had called her up, saying she’d gotten a very unexpected Facebook message. It was from Crystal.

At first Cynthia refused to believe it, not wanting to get her hopes up again just for them to be crushed. Yet when she saw the profile picture later that day, she couldn’t believe it: same straight, white teeth. Same crinkled eyes. Same radiant smile. It was her. The beloved daughter she hadn’t seen in years had transformed from a fourteen-year-old girl into an adult.

Her happiness was short-lived as the multitude of questions began to plague her mind. Why did she leave? Where has she been? But, most important of all, was she okay?

Within half an hour, Cynthia and her older daughter, Bianca Davis, were in the car headed towards New York City where Crystal was now living, north of Harlem.

When Cynthia first saw Crystal it took her a moment to process. She had short hair, she now spoke Spanish fluently, and she was no longer Crystal Haag. The would-be 35 year old had adopted a new alias: Crystal Saunders and she was 44. But those changes didn’t matter. All Cynthia cared about was that her daughter had been located.

“Still my pretty girl,” Cynthia said as she hugged her.

Even though her missing daughter was finally reunited with her, the hard part for the family was just beginning.

Based off multiple studies by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there’s about half a million children that are reported missing every year. While the majority are thankfully found or return soon after, it can still take months, even up to a year or two for familial reunification. However, Crystal’s case is extraordinarily rare as missing children that have been away as long as Crystal has, come back. According to a report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, between 2011 and 2016, only 56 children who’d been gone longer than 20 years returned.

According to Meaghan Good, curator of the Charley Project – a database for the long-term missing, There’s always a conventional narrative to how the reunions play out: there’s lots of hugs and tears and talk of new beginnings. “The fairytale ending,” as she calls it. But in many cases, the experts say the situation is much more complicated than that.

 “It’s not as simple as being found and restarting your life,” said Robert G. Lowery Jr., an official with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He edited the report. “There are feelings on both sides that they’ll have to reconcile, but that takes a lot of time and patience and understanding.”

The longer a child is gone, the more difficult the reunion can be.

One woman from Colorado Springs, Lori Peterson, 60, learned that a decade ago when her son, Derek, reappeared after being missing for four years. Derek had been a trouble teenager who ran away from a treatment facility when he was sixteen. He’d spent a good portion of his four years away either homeless or living in North Carolina. For Lori back in Colorado Springs, life deteriorated. Convinced that Derek was dead, the Peterson family started doing DNA tests in order to see whether or not they matched any John Dos. I cried every day on the way to work and then cried all the way home,” she said.

For them to go through all that, as well as hold a candlelight memorial thinking he was dead, and then have him suddenly reappear, it was a major challenge. Not only was it tough to forgive him, in some ways the damage was almost irreversible. “It’s not really a mother-son relationship,” Peterson said. “I missed those years of him going from a teenager to a man, and there are things I don’t know about him.”

The majority of missing kids are like Derek — runaways. But not all who vanish have behavioral issues. Some are like Crystal, in which they simply disappear without any indication as to why.

When Crystal went missing it was a Saturday, April 26, 1997. At the time, Cynthia was working as a cashier at a local grocery store. She wasn’t making much, just a few bucks per hour, but she felt proud that there was food on the table and her children had clean clothes. Between working and parenting, the single mom was busy all the time.

She remembers that Crystal went to visit her at work that morning. Cynthia knew her daughter as “a sweet girl” who’d won an award for always complimenting others in fifth grade, someone who enjoyed school and got along well with others. There was nothing out of the ordinary that gave her reason to worry about Crystal. She recalls that Crystal bought some milk and cereal before Cynthia asked her to “stay around the house today,” to which Crystal replied that she would. However, that was the last time she saw her daughter for twenty-one years because later that evening after she returned home, she found that Crystal was gone. Her relatives, friends, and neighbors all hadn’t seen or heard from her that day. So Cynthia called the police, panicked as her mind ran through the possibilities: Had she been abducted, did she run away, was she dead?

For years following that Saturday, Cynthia looked for Crystal everywhere, and would often mistakenly see her in the face of every brown-haired girl.

“She always wore a baseball cap,” Cynthia said. Unfortunately that clue wasn’t enough to locate Crystal. Cynthia stopped celebrating Christmas, as it felt wrong without her missing child. And as the years went by, the intermittent Baltimore police reports got shorter and shorter.

April 29, 1997: “Crystal Haag has not returned.”

Aug. 19, 1999: “Investigation continues.”

May 3, 2006: “Crystal’s case is still open.”

Sep. 20, 2010: “All efforts to locate [her] have been exhausted.”

While Cynthia was frantically searching for her daughter and wondering what happened, Crystal remembers those years and events a bit differently. She said she barely got along with her siblings. She said she used to sneak out of the house quite regularly. And she also said she was not the happy kid her mother recalled. In fact, she was the opposite of happy and was so miserable and so scared that the only thing that made sense to her was to leave.

Crystal’s pain began at the age of nine, when, as she recalled, a neighbor began to sexually abuse her. She said over then next few years it happened so frequently that she had begun to normalize it. She never told anyone about it, but when she got to her teenage years she assumed that her mother must have known and did nothing. Her mother called it ridiculous and untrue. “What kind of mother would do that?” Cynthia said.

After getting her milk and cereal from the grocery store, Crystal went to hang out with some friends for hours. She knew her mother would be home from work and would be mad, so she made the decision to stay out even longer. “And then it was 12 am and I wasn’t going back,” she said.

She then found herself boarding a bus to New York, and recalls walking the streets of the city that following morning, seeing Statue of Liberty license plates. Crystal didn’t have anything with her, but remembers she didn’t feel that afraid. For the first few nights she slept outside, until she eventually made it to Upper Manhattan, where she became Crystal Saunders, a 23-year-old woman. She doesn’t remember why exactly she chose that name.

She started over, cleaning houses for a living and residing in a heavily Dominican neighborhood. That’s where she learned Spanish. Soon she was pregnant with her first child by a local man and had also managed to get her hands on a fake driver’s license. Later, she even managed to acquire a Medicaid card, something which pregnant women in New York can obtain pretty easily without official documentation.

She said the new identity was easy to remember because she had changed only small details. The last name. The age — believable because she looked much older than she actually was. She told people she didn’t have a family and usually they didn’t press the matter further. “It’s not a rare thing to not have a family,” she said.

Over time, Crystal became fluent in Spanish, gave birth to four children, immersed herself in the Dominican community, and even adopted herself some new relatives — people she referred to as “Grandpa,” “Grandma” and “cousin” on social media. Her new identity had supplanted her old one.

On Jan. 29, 2014, the date she actually turned 31, she posted an image on Instagram. It showed her holding a birthday cake. “Happy 40th to me!!!!!!” she wrote. By that time she was working in the food industry.

“We have seen this before,” said Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Some of these kids don’t want to be found, and they assume new identities.”

In the national records database, Nexis, Crystal Marie Saunders, now 45, is a fully realized person. She has a list of New York addresses, a 2010 lien against her in the amount of $1,282, and even a felony conviction for criminal sale of a controlled substance. As for Crystal Marie Haag: nothing.

When Crystal’s oldest child, Bryan, now 20, reached his late teens, he began to ask questions, mostly those pertaining to her family. At first she didn’t tell him anything. She didn’t want him to know her secret, that she’d been regularly checking up on her family in Baltimore through Facebook.

There were times when she very badly wanted to reach out, but she was terrified to contact them, feeling ashamed for all she’d put them through. It wasn’t until after her son started urging her to, did she reach out to her sister Bianca. From there everything moved so quickly. Her sister came to pick her up, and soon, Crystal was walking through the door of the home she’d left all those years ago. Cynthia was overjoyed to see her daughter — even asking Crystal to sleep in her bed that night — that Crystal made the decision to stay.

The joy felt at the reunion quickly gave way to uncertainty and resentment.

Crystal: “She treats me like a child . . . but I have kids myself.”

Cynthia: “It’s like meeting a whole new person. She leaves as a child and comes back as a grown adult.”

Crystal: “It’s been very difficult, and sometimes it’s easier to just stay away.”

Cynthia: “I just want to love her.”

In addition to the quirks of reuniting, Crystal eventually had to tell Cynthia the truth behind why she ran away. After months of suppressing it, she finally came clean to her mother and admitted she’d been raped repeatedly as a child. And she’d thought that Cynthia had known.

Cynthia was shocked. She said she’d had no idea that had happened, but no matter how many times she says it, Crystal still isn’t certain it’s the truth. She loves her mother, that’s why she came home, but there are so many issues weighing down their relationship that at times it seems to be stuck.

Still, they both keep trying.

Crystal has moved her family to Baltimore, and lives with an aunt in the same neighborhood. She volunteers at the local rec center, and regularly sees her mother, who’s on disability. They’re both in each other’s lives. “I just wish we were a bit closer,” said Cynthia, now 61.

But it’s a starting place. It’s also a fresh start for Cynthia in a way, who is now able to leave the home where she’d been living all these years waiting for Crystal.

“Within the next year I’m gone. It’s time to go,” Cynthia said.

Source: Washington Post


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