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Phoenix family claims it adopted girl abducted 7 years ago in Norwalk [Updated]

July 15, 2010 | 12:22 pm

A toddler kidnapped from a foster family in Norwalk in 2003 has been living with a family in Phoenix that claims it adopted the girl, L.A. County sheriff's detectives said Thursday.

But her "adoptive parents" have no documents to prove it, and they have kept her out of school even though she will turn 8 next month.

She has likely lived with them since shortly after the abduction, said sheriff's Det. Jerry Saba, who investigated the case.

"That was her family in her mind," he said during a news conference Thursday in Norwalk.

Authorities said they know nothing about the child's biological father and little about her biological mother, including her current whereabouts.

Seven-year-old Amber Rose Nicklas was rescued Wednesday in Phoenix by Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators. Her ordeal began not long after she was born in August 2002 when she was taken from her grandmother, who was raising her, and placed with a foster family in L.A. County.

The foster family took her to a meeting in September 2003 with her three aunts, all juveniles, at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant on Firestone Boulevard in Norwalk. The meeting was sanctioned by the L.A. County Department of Family and Child Services.

[For the record, 2:21 p.m.: A previous version of this post misspelled Amber's last name and the name of the restaurant where she was abducted].

At the restaurant, the aunts apparently distracted the foster parents, and two of them grabbed the girl and lifted her over a gate to the third aunt, who drove off with her, said sheriff's Capt. Patrick Maxwell.

Two of Amber's aunts were arrested at the time and charged with kidnapping, Maxwell said. Records of the case have been sealed, but it appears they served time in a juvenile camp, he said. The third aunt has been contacted but has not been charged at this time.

The case slowly faded into the Sheriff's Department's cold-case files until last November when Saba, a 20-year veteran of the department, received a tip that reactivated the case. Although the tip did not pan out, it led to others over the next eight months that eventually took Saba to a house in an industrial part of Phoenix.

Amber had been living in the house with the two parents, an adult son and a preschool-age daughter for most of the last seven years, he said.

The family was distraught but cooperative when he and a partner arrived at the home Wednesday with Phoenix police officers. Amber appeared to be well cared for and cheerful, he said. She cried briefly when he told her they were taking her from the family.

Amber's footprint matched the one in her file in Los Angeles County. They flew her back to Southern California and placed her in a shelter with the county's Department of Children and Family Services.

"But she was reassured by her family and by us," Saba said. "We told her that we going to take her to see some people who care about her."

Still, Saba said, "It was heart-wrenching. I knew the circumstances. Amber didn't know the circumstances. I felt like I was victimizing her again."

Maxwell said Amber's case is far from concluded. It remains unclear how the Phoenix family obtained the girl, and if they participated in the kidnapping.

"How did this girl make it from Chuck E. Cheese in Norwalk to Phoenix?" said Maxwell. "Our biggest challenge is to prove intent. This is a 7-year-old case. That's a challenge right now."

Saba has interviewed the third aunt, who's been at large all this time. He declined to comment on what she said, and it was unclear whether she would be charged in Amber's abduction.

Maxwell said Amber has been victimized, first by living in an unfit home, then being kidnapped from her foster parents.

Then "last night, law enforcement took her away from the only family she knows," Maxwell said. "This is a happy and sad moment. We're happy we did locate the child. But we all should remember this child has been a victim three times in her life."

-- Sam Quinones in Norwalk