Safe and Sound

updated 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

With a dry mouth and moist eyes, Marcella Anderson rushed to the reunion she had feared might never come. Five days earlier, on Christmas Eve, her 16-month-old had been snatched by a kidnapper at a Chicago bus station. Now, in a small room at an airport in Charleston, W.Va., Anderson, 21, would once again see her Jasmine, who was unharmed. "She gave me a big ol' hug," says Anderson. "It was the most wonderful feeling in the world."

And so the headline-making drama ended—and family life resumed for Anderson, boyfriend Gregory Knowles, 21, a stay-at-home dad, and their daughters Jasmine and Alesia, 3. "It was heaven-sent," says Anderson, a Milwaukee bank teller who was on her way home with her girls when, say police, she was duped by hairdresser Sheila Matthews, 35, who was convicted of kidnapping a 3-year-old in 1987.

Anderson crossed paths with Matthews at the end of what had been a trying day. Traveling alone with the children for the first time, "I was stressed out," says Anderson, who had flown to Chicago from St. Louis, where they had visited relatives. They were going to complete their journey by bus. At 9:30 p.m., Anderson says, a thoughtful stranger who said she was also going to Milwaukee that night stepped from the crowd at the bus station and volunteered to give her and the increasingly cranky girls a lift.

Anderson accepted, then agreed to leave Jasmine with the stranger while she got a refund for her bus tickets. "It was bad judgment, but I was raised to be trusting," Anderson says. When she briefly turned her back to talk to the ticket agent, the stranger—and Jasmine—disappeared into the crowd. "I'll feel guilty for the rest of my life," says Anderson, who took to the airwaves with pleas for her daughter's return. "All I could hope for was that someone, somewhere, would know what's right" and return the child.

Police now believe that Matthews, who has at least two children from a previous relationship, hoped to pass off Jasmine as her child with boyfriend DeWallis Harris. She told Harris, 27, that she had given birth to a girl during his recent imprisonment for robbery. When he was released and asked to see his daughter, Matthews apparently hatched her scheme. But the plot went quickly awry. Harris's mother, Patricia, who hosted the couple at her house in Broadview, I11., over the Christmas holiday, became suspicious after Matthews seemed not to know such details as the toddler's clothing size. On Dec. 27, Patricia contacted police.

Meanwhile, in Williamson, W.Va., Matthews's grandmother and sister also called authorities. They reported a strong resemblance between the tyke Matthews claimed as her own and photos of Jasmine they had seen on TV. Later that day police broke down the door of the rented home shared by Matthews and Harris and arrested her. Matthews has been charged with kidnapping; she could get a life sentence if convicted. She has yet to enter a plea.

Although Anderson hopes that Matthews "serves for a long time," she has other priorities for now. For one, she and Knowles, her high school sweetheart since freshman year, plan to marry. And while Knowles has generally been the one taking the girls to church, Anderson says she will now join them more often. "God really came through," she says. "You've got to have faith that good things do come true."

Patrick Rogers
Lauren Comander in Milwaukee, Andrea Billups in Williamson, Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and John Slania in Chicago

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