A South African woman was on Thursday convicted of kidnapping a newborn baby and raising her for 17 years before an astonishing coincidence reunited the girl with her biological family.
"You must have been the person who removed the child from hospital," High Court judge John Hlophe told the woman, who claimed to have been handed the baby at a train station after entering into a private ‘adoption’ programme.
"Your story, if anything, is a fairy tale and the court rejects it with the contempt it deserves."
The 50-year-old kidnapper, who cannot be named to protect the new identity of the girl she stole, remained grim-faced, staring at the judge.
The girl's biological mother, Celeste Nurse, 36, sobbed loudly as the guilty verdict was handed down while chants of ‘Yes! Yes!’ were heard from the public gallery.
The kidnapper was denied bail and taken into custody ahead of sentencing on May 30. Onlookers clapped as she was taken down to the cells.
She was also convicted of fraud and offences under the country's Children's Act for registering the girl as her biological child.
The judge said she could face a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.
The girl's real identity came to light in February last year, when her younger biological sister began attending high school and pupils pointed out her remarkable likeness to a final-year student.
The younger girl told her parents, who met the older girl and immediately believed she was their long-lost baby.
They called the police, and DNA tests confirmed that the girl was indeed their child, whom they had named Zephany Joy Nurse.
Without knowing it, the Nurse family had been living within a couple of kilometres of their kidnapped daughter, while celebrating her birthday every year and never giving up hope of finding her.
'We were like family'
During the trial, Celeste Nurse wept as she described how she woke up in the maternity ward of a Cape Town hospital to find her three-day-old baby had vanished from her cot on March 30, 1997.
Witnesses said they had seen an unknown woman in a nurse's uniform at the hospital around the time and one of them picked out the accused at an identity parade.
The judge said he accepted the evidence of nine state witnesses as ‘trustworthy.’
Turning to the accused, he said: "Your evidence totally disintegrated in cross examination."
The kidnapper had also sobbed in court during her evidence, as she told of being barred from seeing the girl after her arrest in February last year.
Ahead of the verdict her husband told reporters that ‘we were like father and daughter and family together.’
She told the court during the trial that after a miscarriage in December 1996 she paid a woman who promised to find her a child to adopt.
In April 1997 she was handed a baby wrapped in a blanket at a train station in Cape Town, she said.
She had not told her husband of her miscarriage, so presented the baby to him as their own child, she said.
Zephany's whereabouts are uncertain. Some local reports suggest that the trauma of the case led the girl to drop out of her final year of school and that the 18-year-old is now living with her boyfriend.
Others say she is living with the kidnapper's husband, the man she believed for 18 years to be her father.
Zephany's biological father, Morne Nurse, told AFP outside the court last week that her biological parents had ‘a bit of contact still’ with Zephany, but would not comment further.
After the verdict on Thursday Celeste and Morne Nurse were mobbed by journalists but would not comment beyond saying: ‘Thank you, thank you.’
It is believed that they have contracted to sell their story.