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Revealed, the Extraordinary Story of the Sisters Kidnapped as Toddlers 40 Years Ago by Their Babysitter as They Are Finally Reunited With Their Family
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Two sisters have been reunited with their real family after being kidnapped 40 years ago in an extraordinary tale of abuse, deception and finally forgiveness.
Pepper Smith, 43, and her sister, Renee, 45, were snatched from their mother at the ages of three and five by a family friend who was babysitting for them.
It set them on a barely believable journey through life punctuated by incredible twists that feature a terrible death bed betrayal, sexual abuse, prostitution and a childhood spent in dozens of cockroach-infested motels in which they witnessed terrible things, even murder.
Joy at last: Pepper Smith, left, and Renee, right, were kidnapped in 1973 when they were aged three and five
Snatched: The sisters pictured with their captor Shirley Berchelot, shortly after they were taken from their mother
But Pepper, now a mother-of-one herself, never gave up on discovering where she really came from.
This weekend her determination paid off when she and Renee finally met the last of their blood relatives in an emotional meeting that helps – but does not fully answer – the bewildering questions that have overshadowed their lives for four decades.
Their biological mother, Jehri, joined them as they met the family of their father, Raymond Smith, who was murdered in 1978.
Aunt Joyce and uncle Donald, now in their 70s, travelled from Michigan while another aunt Patricia, 58, came from Texas for the reunion at the Los Angeles office of Hollywood lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents Pepper.
As they all hugged and laughed and cried, Joyce and Patricia firmly gripped each of Pepper's hands to help her control her as she was overcome by trembling at the emotion of the reunion.
Joyce said: 'We have always loved you even when we couldn’t find you.'
While Patricia added: 'You were always in our hearts and in our minds. We can’t wait to let everybody know how wonderful and beautiful you are.'
Through sobs, the amazing story of their nieces emerged.
Overwhelmed: The reunion was too much for Pepper who had spent a large part of her life tracking down her biological family after he life of neglect and abuse
Emotional: Pepper Smith. left, embraces Joyce Smith, the younger sister of her father, Raymond, at a tearful family reunion on Friday - 40 years after she was kidnapped by her babysitter
Together again: Pepper and Renee in a joyous embrace with (from left to right) mother Jehri Coleman, uncle Donald Smith and aunts Patricia Smith-Higgins and Joyce Smith
It began in 1973 when their waitress mother Jehri Coleman, had just managed to get an apartment in Hollywood.
She had employed a babysitter named Shirley Berthelot to look after Pepper and Renee in a motel in nearby Gardena, while she was in hospital with complications following the birth of their little brother Raymond.
According to Jehri when she was discharged her children, and their babysitter, had simply vanished.
Berthelot, for reasons that are not all together clear and their mother cannot even today fully explain - had given Pepper to a couple in San Diego, called Barbara and Bob Christie.
She then handed Ray to another woman, but kept Renee to herself. Again, why she did this, nobody has ever been able to answer.
Pepper, whose real name is Ronique but has spent her life being called the nickname given to her by Berthelot, was renamed Rhonda Christie by her new parents and for a little more than a year lived as part of their family, before Berthelot returned and snatched her for a second time.
‘That (sexual abuse) was pretty common at random motels, strange men, it happened from a very young age. I knew it was bad and knew it was wrong and I ran away as much as I could. We were put in terrible situations and places' Pepper Smith
For the next 12 years their life was a blur of physical and mental abuse by Berthelot - who kept the girls in line with the end of a belt and torrent of verbal abuse, often focused on their race.
As other little girls of their age (Pepper was around four years old by this time and Renee, seven) were playing with dolls and dreaming of ponies, the sisters’ only hopes were for a hot meal and a clean bed.
They were dragged by Berthelot across the U.S., from California to Florida, living in dirt cheap motels for anything from a few weeks to as little as a day.
They were regularly woken in the middle of the night as their abductor would run off without paying the check.
Describing the dirty motels that were her childhood home, Pepper said: 'They were horrible, I just remember the roaches.
'I would dream they were climbing on me. You did not want to touch the walls, or walk barefoot.
'But staying in motels were the fortunate nights, sometimes we would sleep in outdoor restrooms or just in the car.'
The little money they did have, Berthelot earned from selling herself as a prostitute at rest areas and truck stops.
'She would come back (from a truck) with some gas or some money', Pepper recalled.
Berthelot told the girls, and anyone that asked, that she was their grandmother.
Innocence: The sisters pictured at around the age they were taken from their mother
The motels Berthelot and the girls wound up in were full of drunks, drug addicts and prostitutes, many with children suffering the same appalling neglect as Pepper and her sister.
It is heartbreaking to imagine what went through their young minds as they cuddled each other each night under a dirty mattress and winced as they listened through the flimsy damp walls to the chaotic cacophony of America’s most poverty-ridden and addicted citizens at play and at war: the groans, the screams, the banging, the smashing and the cars pulling up and driving off at all times of the night.
One reason Pepper has been driven to tell her story is to throw a spotlight on the plight of America’s 'motel kids'.
She knows she and her sister are just two children out of an unfortunate cast of tens of thousands who suffered an equally terrible upbringing and still do. For example, in 2011, 2,000 children were thought to be living in motels in the Anaheim area of California alone.
Describing the things she witnessed as a young girl, she said: 'There was a lot of men beating women, child abuse, disgusting language. We saw murders.
'One time, a man attacked a woman with a machete. Another time a man died of an overdose in a next door room and was found in the bath.'
She tells of frequent sexual abuse by strangers in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner that belies the hardness she had to develop to survive.
‘That was pretty common at random motels, strange men, it happened from a very young age.
‘I knew it was bad and knew it was wrong and I ran away as much as I could. We were put in terrible situations and places.
‘I did not know there were good people in the world for a long time.’
Prejudice: Jehri, pictured here with the father of the girls, Raymond, in the 1960s, claims the police were not interested in looking for the girls, suggesting it was because of the inter-racial relationship'
Pepper was seven before she was even enrolled at a school.
'I couldn’t speak and I was very behind,' she recalls. And we would only go to school for a month here, three weeks there and we would get up in the middle of the night and leave when someone would come to question.'
No teacher or hotel worker apparently ever called the police or child protection services.
After seven or eight nightmarish years, when Pepper was 12, Berthelot found a job as a cleaner in a hotel in Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles.
The girls joined the local school and finally 'settled' until Berthelot died of pancreatic cancer in 1986.
Tragedy: Their father, pictured here aged 18, was murdered in 1978 at the age of 39, possibly in a fight over sleeping pills
Pepper ran wild, came and went as she pleased and even left with another 'motel family' to work as their babysitter before returning to Berthelot after they turned out to be even more abusive.
Despite the cruelty and crushing neglect they suffered at Berthelot’s hands, the sisters nursed her from the moment she fell ill until her death.
'I would help her, I give her food. I did care about her, to this day I still care about her. She was my mother. I felt that that was the only way she knew how to live,' said Renee who was working at McDonalds by now, while Pepper was living with her boyfriend near Shirley and earning cash as a waitress at Red Robin.
Pepper always knew Berthelot was not her grandmother, and begged her to tell her who her real family was.
But even up until her last gasp Berthelot continued to torture them and repaid their kindness by refusing to put the girls out of their misery and she took her secret to her grave.
Finally free of Berthelot’s hold but still very young and the scars of their early years still raw, they struggled to join mainstream society and adapt to what most people would call a ‘normal’ life.
Pepper, who had experimented with drugs, was hauled in front of a judge as a teenager for driving without a license. When she told him her story, like many of the figures of authority that she has come in contact with in her life, he didn’t believe her.
He thought she was simply making it up, saying: ‘'I’ve never heard of anything so fantastical. I wish you the best of luck.'
'Monster': Shirley Berthelot died of pancreatic cancer in 1986 and refused to tell the sisters who their real mother was
In a testament to the determination and maturity that was to later lead to her finding out the truth about her identity, Pepper graduated from high school and hold down a series of low paying jobs.
But rather than leave her past behind her and shut it out, she began her search for her real family at the hall of records in Los Angeles.
'I remembered all the names I used, Rhonda Patricia Smith, Pepper Smith and they would always come back saying “you don’t exist”,' she says.
Frustratingly, wherever she looked, she discovered that she simply did not feature in any official records.
Her search was put on hold at 24 when she fell pregnant and had her daughter Milan, now 18, and started a new life in Lake Tahoe, northern California.
Pepper had all but given up hope of finding her birth parents before a fluke breakthrough in 2009 when a church friend offered to adopt her in order to get her an official identity.
During the adoption process a government official came across her original adoptive birth certificate.
On it, her name was Rhonda Patricia Christie, with Robert and Barbara Christie listed as her parents.
Adoption: Barbara and Bob Christie adopted Pepper but did so without their real mother being informed. The girls believe Barbara was in league with Berthelot
Delighted, she tracked down the Christies in Sandusky, Ohio, and phoned them. They told her they were her adoptive parents and she had been kidnapped by Berthelot - who they also revealed had arranged her adoption.
Their story was covered by NBC in a Dateline episode called The Girl Who Didn’t Exist, which aired in March 2011, after the girls’ plight came to the attention of Allred.
In it Pepper and Renee are seen reuniting with the Christies.
Then dying of cancer, Barbara Christie claimed they adopted Pepper when she was three-months-old from her biological mother, telling the sisters she was a drug-addict and a prostitute.
On Dateline, Barbara said they frantically searched for their daughter and even drove to New Orleans - where Berthelot had family - to try and find her.
They claimed the police wouldn’t help them because Berthelot was a family friend.
However, Pepper now doubts Barbara’s story and thinks she colluded with Berthelot in her original kidnapping from Jehri, because 'she wanted a baby'.
Pepper visited the Christies for two weeks in Ohio and said: 'I would listen to Barbara intently and try to put the pieces together, but it was the same story [as Berthelot] - there were so many lies. I wanted to believe her.
Forgiveness: The sisters have put aside the anger they felt for their mother and now she has successfully legally adopted Pepper as her daughter
Bonds: Despite missing out on most of their lives, Jehri and the sisters are now firm friends
'I think Shirley, Barbara and Anna Brown [the now deceased adoptive mother of the brother Ray] were all together in this, their stories were all so similar.
'Barbara Christie died in June last year. I think she knew everything and she was the kidnapper as well. They were all together in on it.'
In a further incredible twist, the girls had a stroke of luck when their real mother tuned into Dateline and saw her missing daughters on television.
Jehri went to Gloria Allred’s LA office, and via a DNA test, it was proved she was the mother and they were reunited once more, but were complete strangers to each other.
Now 73, Jehri is vague about dates and the exact circumstances of the abduction.
Asked when she realised the children had been taken, Jehri said she remembers leaving hospital and going to pick the children up from a motel as arranged.
She said: 'I called her [Berthelot] and I told her I was coming out to get the children and she said ‘okay’. And the next day I went out there and she was gone.
'I talked to a man there who said she was managing the hotel, she stole some money and took off.'
The distraught mother went to the police but claims they didn't take her story seriously.
Jehri, who walks with a zimmer frame, denies the allegations of prostitution and drug abuse.
'In one moment I thought I was losing my mind, I was ready to kill myself. I tried to kill myself two or three times,' she said.
'It was difficult, I had nowhere to go, I had nowhere to search, I had no money and the police weren’t helping. They were prejudiced.'
'I’m grateful that I found them. I never thought this day would ever happen and I prayed for this day.'
Allred located the court file of the Christie’s adoption of Pepper, which confirms that Jehri was given no notice of the adoption.
Family: Pepper's mother, Jehri, pictured with Donald Smith, the younger brother of the girls' father, Raymond, in the 1960s
The lawyer also found a police file that proves she did report her three children missing. However it remains baffling that she appears not to have tried harder to track them down.
Jehri added: 'I thought she [Berthelot] was a friend of mine. I think that she had planned this.
'She had to have, her and Barbara, I know Barbara was an accomplice to it.
'She [Berthelot] was a monster, she stole my kids, she told lies and she went to the grave with them.'
As for the children’s father Raymond, he was murdered in 1978 aged 39. According to Jehri he got into an argument with another man over sleeping pills, to which he was addicted, - again at a motel.
Raymond’s siblings brought a family photo album to the reunion to share with his daughters. On the back of a small photo of Renee, in which she is wearing a pretty red dress, a message has been written to their grandparents.
A loved child: The family of their father brought this picture of Renee, aged 13 months, and revealed that their paternal grandparents had offered to take them in just days before they vanished with Berthelot
It reads: ‘To grandmother Ethel and Grandfather Pat, love Renee (granddaughter), 13 months here." Seeing it Renee gasped, and asked for a copy - maybe the first physical evidence her biological family cared about her.
Joyce added: 'Raymond was a good person, but he had that street life. He did drugs, he drank and he fought.'
Asked if he was upset when his children went missing, Joyce could only reply: 'I can’t remember, I really can’t remember. I’m sure he was.'
In another stunning revelation the family told how the sisters’ paternal grandparents, had offered to take the children in before they were kidnapped.
Patricia said: 'We were going to keep you, at least while Jehri was in the hospital. We were so looking for that. But Jehri said we can’t find the babysitter.
'We didn’t know what that meant. We even questioned Jehri, did she actually give the kids to that kid [Berthelot] because she didn’t want the kids raised by a black family?
'We were like what could have happened? Does she really not know where the kids were?'
Whatever the truth, the forgiving sisters accepted Jehri back in their lives and in July 2011 she re-adopted Pepper as her daughter again.
Even at Friday's reunion the truth behind their kidnap, and the conflicting accounts of the adults involved remain hard to make sense of.
Asked if she resents her mother for not doing more to find her, Pepper says: 'I see her story is a bit bizarre. I don’t know if I’m ever going to know the full story but holding on to the anger from the past gets you nowhere.’
Fight: Famed lawyer Gloria Allred, center, had taken up the battle to help Pepper and Renee track down their relatives after being moved by their plight
Renee added: ‘After Shirley passed away I was bitter with my biological mother because I felt she should’ve been able to find us.
'I was actually surprised, because I thought I was going to be very angry when I met her, which I was, but then I got over it.’
Pepper and Renee now plan to go to Michigan and meet all their cousins and hope to also introduce them to their brother Raymond. He now lives in Colorado and was reunited with his sisters last year.
Pepper now lives in Humboldt, north California, she is currently studying for a degree in Political, Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies and will graduate this year.
Renee lives in Corona, California, with her husband Cesar Vasquez. She has a 22-year-old daughter called Cherrelle. She had another daughter Jessica who tragically passed away aged five.
Despite the heartbreaking hand life has dealt them and the burning questions and doubts that still linger over what happened to them both, Pepper has come to be grateful for the smallest things in life that most take for granted 'like having food on the table and a home for our children.’