Lost and found: The little girl who didn’t exist
July 2, 2010
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – As her abductor lay dying in a hospital bed, Pepper Christie begged, “Please, just tell me who I am.”
Shirley Berthelot refused, as she had countless times before, taking Christie’s true identity to the grave.
At age 4, Christie was abducted by Berthelot, a former family friend. The little girl was taken from her home in San Diego, where she lived with her adoptive parents, Bob and Barbara Christie.
Berthelot’s motives for stealing Christie are unknown. Berthelot died of cancer in 1986.
Christie, now 40 and living in South Lake Tahoe, spent her childhood on the run – starving, begging for food from strangers, waiting in the car at truck stops while Berthelot turned tricks for money, sleeping in toilet stalls with her feet up and head between her legs, growing up with no toys, no birthdays and no holidays.
Still, Christie knew she came from love. She remembered her tidy childhood home, her canopy bed, a bicycle, her mother’s hands, eyes and beehive hairdo. The faint memories carried her through the darkest hours of captivity.
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“I knew I came from some sort of love, so I made it out,” Christie said.
Berthelot would call her “Pepper,” and the few times the girl was enrolled in school, her last name was listed as “Smith.”
Christie still didn’t know who she was. Without a driver’s license, Social Security card or identification, she couldn’t drive or apply for assistance when she had her daughter. So she flew under the radar.
“But I wasn’t trying do anything bad; I just didn’t know who I was,” Christie said. “I’ve been a mystery.”
Last year, she marched in a parade celebrating the safe return of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was kidnapped in 1991 at age 11 from a school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe. Dugard was abducted by Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, and held captive in a compound in the couple’s Antioch, Calif., backyard.
During the parade celebrating Dugard’s return, Christie walked and prayed. Then she turned to her friends.
“I’m still missing,” she told them.
Christie said she wanted to forget all about it – the hunger pangs, the belt beatings, the constant stream of racial slurs slung at her – but every time Christie buried it deep, she would have to retell her story when she went to fill out an application.
She had a standard response: “I don’t exist.”
All she had was a birth date: Sept. 16, 1969. Among Berthelot’s lies, her birth date was true. Christie also remembered her parents were called “Bobby and Bobby.”
Then two weeks ago, the phone rang. A clerk from the state Hall of Records deducted that Bobby was short for Barbara and located her birth certificate. Pepper Smith was Rhonda Patricia Christie, the adoptive child of Bob and Barbara Christie of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
Pepper Christie exists.
Pepper Christie dialed the phone.
“Is this Robert Christie?” she asked.
“Yes.” he answered.
“And are you married to Barbara Christie?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“This is your daughter Rhonda.” she said.
Bob Christie thought it was a scam.
But then she repeated, “This is your daughter Rhonda.”
There was something familiar about that voice, Bob Christie said.
“When she said it the second time, something just clicked,” he said. “I just knew it was her. It was instinct more than anything.”
Barbara Christie’s first words to her daughter were, “Shirley took you.”
Within two days, the couple put Pepper Christie and her 15-year-old daughter Milan Apley – the couple’s only granddaughter – on a plane to Ohio.
Christie saw her parents from the luggage claim. They were holding up a sign, since they wouldn’t recognize each other. Christie panicked. What if everything Berthelot had told her was true? What if the home was filthy, her mom lazy, the refrigerator empty?
It was then that Christie knew once and for all that Berthelot was a liar. It all came flooding back: Mom’s kind eyes, her hands, the beautiful house, all the toys.
“The house was so clean,” Christie said. “It was normal.”
For three days, Christie just stared at her mom in awe.
For Bob and Barbara Christie, the reunion was nothing short of a miracle.
“It’s like a dream,” Bob Christie said. “Someone needs to pinch me and wake me up.”
Christie remembers her last day in that tidy childhood home with the all toys. There was a knock at the door. Berthelot had Christie’s older half sister. Berthelot told Christie she was going to spend the night with her sister.
Barbara Christie explains why she let her daughter go with Berthelot, a former friend with a rough and tumble past.
“(Pepper) had a birth sister from her biological mother, and I was one of those tenderhearted people and I let her go and visit with her sister,” Barbara Christie said.
“And the woman stole her,” she added. “No words barred. She stole her.”
Pepper Christie said her birth mother was known for having children with different men and then giving the babies away to whomever would take them. She said there’s five siblings scattered around.
Pepper Christie was given to Barbara Christie when she was 3 months old. When Barbara Christie met and married Bob Christie, the couple legally adopted the girl.
When Berthelot took Christie in 1975, it was only supposed to be for the weekend. But by Saturday, Barbara Christie knew something wasn’t right. The couple drove from San Diego to the Los Angeles motel where Berthelot was staying.
The motel room was vacant.
“She’s gone,” Barbara Christie recalled thinking. “It broke my heart.”
The Christies said they went to the police, who refused to investigate the case because Berthelot was a family friend. So they tried to find their daughter on their own.
“It’s horribly tragic that she was not able to get someone to assist her,” said Bob Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “The facts as they stand are that the system failed them. Why, we don’t know.”
The New Orleans Police Department, in an area where Berthelot was known to stay, agreed to help. On Christmas Eve, officers called the Christies to say Berthelot and the girls had been spotted at a hotel.
The couple drove all night. At every rest stop, Barbara Christie knelt down in a bathroom stall and prayed.
“Please let us find her,” she asked.
But Berthelot fled again. The only sign was a pair of little red sneakers left on the porch at the motel – the last pair of shoes Barbara Christie bought her daughter.
As the years went by, the Christies gave up hope of ever finding their daughter alive. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Christies worried that if she was alive, she was hurt or in danger.
Sometimes, Barbara Christie turned her anger toward God.
“I told God I hated him and stomped my feet,” she said. “But he didn’t give up on me.”
Barbara Christie, 72, is now being treated for small cell lung cancer. She says God took care of her little girl, returning her home when she needed her most.
“I was getting kind of down and I was pretty sick for a while, and (God) said, ‘Well, now’s the time to bring her home,” she said.
Now that the puzzle pieces are coming together, Pepper Christie is feeling torn. At age 40, while attending Lake Tahoe Community College, she was finally accepted to a four-year program, receiving a $20,000 grant to attend Humboldt State University. But she badly wants to be with her mom.
“I just want to go back and sit in her presence,” she said, starting to cry.
For now, Christie has decided to move to Arcata with her daughter in the fall, obtain a teaching credential, then possibly move to Ohio after graduation.
Christie is still processing all that’s happening – and all that has happened. She has been in therapy for 15 years.
“I’m trying to work through the entire package,” she said. “It’s a miracle, honestly.”