Eleanor Williams was 18 years old when she made the mistake that has haunted her for her whole life.
It was December 2, 1983, and Williams was mum to a three-month-old baby girl, April. Williams was sitting in a bus station in Washington, waiting for a bus to take her to Kansas. She had already travelled more than 300km from her home in Virginia that morning, and had a long way still to go.
A friendly young woman, who said her name was Latoya, struck up a conversation with Williams. The woman asked if she could hold April for a minute. Then the woman said April needed to have her nappy changed.
“She said, ‘Oh, I’ll take her to the bathroom,’” Williams recently told The Washington Post. “And I was sceptical, like, ‘Well… okay, I guess.’ Because I was tired.”
Ten minutes later, when the woman hadn’t returned, Williams started getting nervous. She went looking. The woman wasn’t in the bathroom. April wasn’t in the bathroom.
“She went to change her, and I never saw them again.”
Williams was a naïve teenager. She had grown up on a farm in Virginia, and while at high school, got pregnant to a boy who wasn’t interested in their baby.
She was travelling to Kansas to meet a soldier she was penpals with. Before she made her bus trip, she had never been further than 30 miles from her home before.
Washington police were suspicious of Williams’ story at first. They questioned her, asking if she’d done something to her baby, perhaps sold her. After a week, they took her back to the crime scene and hypnotised her, because she was so distraught that she was finding it hard to remember exactly what had happened. Under hypnosis, she remembered more details of the conversation with the woman who took April.
Police put out all the information they had – a sketch of the kidnapper, a photo of April, a description of the birthmark in the shape of a line on April’s left wrist.
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Williams returned to her family farm in Virginia. A few weeks later, she took the bus to Kansas where she met up with her soldier penpal. She admitted to The Washington Post that she just wanted to have a baby to “replace” April.
“He knew the only reason for me visiting him was because I wanted to get pregnant again, because I wanted another April. I thought it was going to make me feel better. I thought it would make it hurt less. But actually, all it did was make it hurt more.”
Williams’ second daughter was born in September 1984.
Washington police continued to investigate. A year after the kidnapping, according to a newspaper article from the time, Sergeant Peter Mulligan was still working on the case, although leads had dried up.
“We never had much to begin with,” Mulligan said. “There was no crime scene where you could get fingerprints or precise eyewitnesses, and early in the investigation the details were sketchy and not concise. We lost time.
“But the book on this case won't be closed until I'm absolutely positive that nothing else can be done.”
Williams had a third child – a son – in 1986. She went on to work as a surgical technician. She moved to Connecticut. She became a grandmother twice over.
The disappearance of baby April was never forgotten. Websites such as The Charley Project continued to list the case.
“Investigators believe whoever kidnapped April probably wanted to raise her as their own,” the website entry reads.
In December last year, police made a new plea for information. They put out a photo showing what April might look like as an adult.
Police contacted Williams, who had kept silent about the case for almost 34 years, and asked if she would talk to the media. After changing her mind several times, she finally agreed and sat down with a reporter from The Washington Post.
It was then that she talked about the guilt she felt, which was so intense that she had contemplated suicide.
“Of course I blame myself,” she said. “I blame myself every minute, right up to this minute.
“It’s always on my mind. It’s always: ‘How could you be so stupid? Why? Why did you do it?’”
No one should blame Williams. She was little more than a child herself. She was just too trusting. For her to have lived with this guilt for 34 years, as well as the grief of losing a child, is just horrific.
Her story is now being spread far and wide through the internet. There is hope, just a tiny ray of hope, that the woman who kidnapped April really did raise her as her own, and that April herself – no doubt now living under a different name – might read the story.
And April might look down at her left wrist, and see the birthmark in the shape of a straight line, and wonder again about a few little things about her birth that have always puzzled her.
We can only hope.