Cynthia Haag refused to leave her Baltimore home for 20 years. She was adamant about staying put, just in case her daughter would come back. Where did her daughter go? Well, that’s the big question. Crystal Haag had simply disappeared, without a trace, when she was 14 years old. As a result, there were so many questions left unanswered.
Why did Crystal leave? Where did she go? What happened? Cynthia prayed every day and hoped, deep down, that the day would eventually come when Crystal would reappear at her doorstep. And, as two decades passed with no word of Crystal, people lost hope. But not her mother. In the end, the moment she waited 20 years for finally came. Only what she would learn about her daughter was nothing even close to what she ever could have imagined…
A Hard-Working Mom
In 1997, Cynthia was a single mom with four kids doing what any caring parent does – she worked full-time at a store to make sure her kids had food on the table, clean clothes, and roof over their heads. As any parent knows, the work doesn’t end at the end of your shift. Cynthia worked around the clock, both at the store and at home.
Things were rough, but she pulled it off for her family. One day, while Cynthia was working a shift, her daughter, Crystal, came in to grab some milk and cereal before heading home. Since this was something Crystal often did, her mom didn’t think anything of it. Why would she?
Her Last Words
Cynthia said to her daughter, “Stay around the house today,” to which Crystal said she would. What neither of them knew was that those would be Cynthia’s last words to her daughter. That moment in the store was the last time Cynthia saw her then-14-year-old daughter. That evening, when Cynthia came home after her shift, her daughter – whom she told to stick around – was nowhere to be found.
Worried, Cynthia called friends, relatives, and anyone who might know where her daughter could possibly be. She refused to believe her daughter had simply vanished. There had to be a reasonable explanation. Finally, she realized that she had no choice but to call the police.
Where Is She?
Cynthia’s mind was racing, scanning through all the possibilities, including scenarios that any mother would never want to think about. What happened to her? From that moment on, Cynthia looked for Crystal in the face of every brown-haired girl she would see. “She always wore a baseball cap,” her mother said. But she knew that that tiny little detail wasn’t enough to find her daughter.
20 years have passed, and the police have stopped looking for Crystal. The way they saw it, the girl was gone. Then one day, Cynthia received a call from one of her other daughters. She said she got a message on Facebook… from Crystal. That’s right…
Could It Be?
Could it really be that her long-lost child had suddenly reappeared out of nowhere? As you can imagine, Cynthia had a hard time believing the news, especially considering all these fake accounts on Facebook these days. But once she saw the Facebook profile, she immediately saw that it was, indeed, her daughter.
In less than an hour, Cynthia’s older daughter, Bianca, was in her car, driving to New York City, where Crystal was said to be living. That night, Crystal appeared. Her family simply couldn’t believe their eyes. It had been two decades, so she obviously looked very different. Her hair was short. She even spoke differently. She now spoke fluent Spanish! Oh, and she was now a mother. Crystal Haag was now Crystal Saunders.
Something Doesn’t Add Up
There were too many questions to even list here. But one thing stood out as extremely strange. Crystal wasn’t 35 years old, as she should have been according to simple math. Instead, she said that she was 44 years old. This raised some eyebrows. But, regardless, her family was just thrilled to see her. Their dear Crystal was finally home.
“Still my pretty girl,” her mother said, hugging her. But despite the amazing fact that they found her after 20 years, the discovery would prove to be a whole can of worms. There were questions left unanswered and stories left to tell. And not all of them were satisfying to hear, especially not to Cynthia.
She Just Up and Left
As it turns out, there’s a whole lot more to the story than anyone knew. And of course there was. After all, 20 years gone and now she shows up miraculously? There better be a good explanation, right? Well, there was, in fact, a very specific reason for why Crystal disappeared. The teen had chosen to run away.
In fact, as she later explained, it got to the point where she just couldn’t take it anymore. She just had to leave. But why? And where did she go? And who just ups and leaves their family and entire life at the age of 14? Not only that – Crystal left with no money and nowhere to go. She was totally unprepared.
Becoming Crystal Saunders
But, nonetheless, she made a decision and there was no turning back. She had to go through with it. The truth is, Crystal was running away from something horrible – someone, actually. She was leaving behind a person whom she couldn’t be around for another second. Crystal recalled how on the night she left, she came up with her plan as she went along.
The first thing Crystal did was hop on a bus to New York. It was then that she became Crystal Saunders. She also decided to make herself nine years older and get a fake driver’s license to prove it. This, of course, explains the age discrepancy. But, okay, what did she do next?
A New Life in NYC
How is it that no one saw Crystal make her trip to NYC? Well, on that fateful night, Crystal was out with her friends – a typical night for typical teenagers. They hung out together until midnight, which was the time Crystal decided to run away. She took whatever little she had on her and made her way to that bus.
Now in New York City, with a new identity, Crystal found odd jobs cleaning houses and a place to stay in the Bronx. It wasn’t long before Crystal made a new life for herself, as young as she may have been. It also didn’t take long for her to become pregnant with her first child. Don’t forget, to others, she was nine years older than her actual age.
A New Family
Since she had fake IDs, Crystal was able to get herself a Medicaid card. In New York, she became a part of the Dominican community. And, over the years, she had three more children. Crystal was making real ties to people in her community – so much so that she called them “grandma” and “cousin.” She basically found herself a whole new family.
Still, Crystal was struggling with her past, haunted by what she left behind. As time went on, she learned to simply live her life. She had four kids, a new family, and she even learned to speak fluent Spanish. The way she was able to look back at her past and check in on her biological family was on Facebook.
Keeping Tabs on the Family
But the big question remains: Why didn’t she contact them? By 2010, the search for Crystal had been going on for 13 years already. The Baltimore police tried everything in their power to locate the missing girl. But, by that time, they had no choice but to tell Cynthia that the case was going cold. That’s when Cynthia stopped celebrating Christmas.
And so, Cynthia spent 20 years, 10 months, and two weeks hoping every day that she would see her precious daughter again. She refused to sell her house – what if Crystal came back home? Little did she know that her daughter was living a double life in another state. Nevertheless, she spent two decades waiting.
Asking Real Questions
When Crystal’s oldest child, Bryan, now 21, became a teenager, he started asking questions. He wanted to know where his mom’s family was. Everyone has at least some family, he thought to himself. At first, when he asked her, she didn’t tell him what she was regularly doing ever since Facebook came into existence.
She didn’t tell her son that she was always checking in on her family back in Baltimore. She wanted to reach out to her relatives badly and often thought of her mother. But she was too scared to contact them, deeply ashamed of what she put them through. It was only after her son started urging her to make contact that she decided to write to her sister Bianca.
And so when the day finally came for Cynthia to stand in front of her long-lost daughter, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Despite the fact that Crystal reappeared, things were very different. Aside from the family’s joy and excitement, there were questions that needed to be answered.
Cynthia and Crystal soon realized that it would take a lot of work to be rebuild their relationship. They were mother and daughter, but they were also complete strangers. Where would they even begin? Cynthia couldn’t help herself – she had to ask her daughter why she left in the first place. Was it something she had done?
Almost Half a Million
But, on the other hand, she knew it was a very delicate situation and she didn’t want to scare Crystal away. The last thing she wanted now was for her daughter to leave her again. So she treaded lightly with her daughter. It’s pretty amazing when you think about Crystal’s case. Most missing people don’t just show up decades later, unharmed.
Each year, nearly half a million children are reported missing. Many are soon found or even return on their own. But what happens to the rest? Well, for a small number of them, it takes months before they’re reunited with their families. For an even smaller portion, the search can take up to a year or two.
It’s No Fairytale
There is that last remaining portion of missing children that are typically never found again. It’s extremely rare for a missing child to show up after two decades. And if they do, people expect a fairy tale ending. But as you can imagine, life isn’t that simple… nor is it a fairytale.
There are feelings on both sides that need to be heard, addressed and reconciled. And the longer a person is away, the harder it is to rebuild a relationship with them. But all Cynthia cared about was that her daughter was alive and healthy. Crystal happened to fall into one of the main categories of missing children: runaways.
A System of AMBER Alerts
When it comes to missing children in the U.S., there are runaways, family abductions, lost or “thrown away” children, and non-family abductions. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center Missing Person File (NCIC), as of June 2020, there are 87,438 active missing persons. 30,618 of them are under 18 years old. That’s 35%.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the system in place for missing children: AMBER alerts, which stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.” The alerts are broadcasted and include information about the child and the possible abductor. Since 1996, the AMBER alert system originated after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl from Texas was abducted and killed. Clearly, a system needed to be built.
When Cases Go Cold
The AMBER Alert program has been credited with the safe recovery of 985 children so far. When a child is reported as missing, the child will be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. According to the FBI, there were 421,394 entries for missing children in 2019. So, if a child runs away several times in one year, each time that child will be entered into the NCIC separately.
But of the nearly half a million missing children cases every year, thousands of those cases go “cold.” Approximately 4,400 unidentified bodies are discovered every year. A thousand of them remain unidentified a year later. It just goes to show that Crystal showing up alive is a rarity and basically a miracle.
Discussing the Past
Finally, Cynthia and Crystal sat down to discuss everything that happened. It turns out that Crystal was planning on helping her friend babysit on the day she disappeared. As Cynthia recalled memories of her daughter from when she was a kid, Crystal remembered it very differently. Contrary to what her mother was saying, Crystal remembered not getting along with her siblings.
She used to sneak out of the house on a regular basis. She just wasn’t the happy kid her mother saw back then. On the night she ran away, she left the house, got to her friend’s place, and “decided to wait outside” while her friend gathered the children. This was the last time her friends and family knew about her whereabouts.
When her friend came back out, Crystal was gone. Crystal was nowhere to be found. Her friend assumed that “she just decided to leave.” She didn’t think Crystal was literally missing. A few hours later, Crystal’s mother called her, looking for her daughter. At the time of her disappearance, Crystal was 5’4”-5’6” tall and weighed 140 pounds.
She had brown hair and brown eyes. She typically wore her hair in a ponytail. On the night she ran away, she was wearing a gray and red striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt, blue jeans, white socks, gray New Balance sneakers, and she was wearing a gold C-shaped ring. This was all the information the authorities had when Crystal disappeared.
From Runaway to Endangered Missing
Local authorities quickly came to the conclusion that Crystal willingly left home and they officially considered her a runaway. This was convenient for the police as these types of cases were very common at the time. About a million young people run away from home every year. But writing her off as a runaway was a mistake.
Why? Because it took away her family’s best chance of finding her – especially in those crucial first 48 hours. Months later, Crystal’s status was changed, and she was now under the “Endangered Missing” category. The change in status meant that essentially, the police were looking for a body. But, ultimately, the case went cold.
Going to College
One year after her disappearance, in 1998, Crystal was accepted into the City College of New York for a Bachelor’s degree in business management. At the time, police were searching for her every day and night. Then, in 2003, a year after she graduated from college, Detective Terrence Parker was assigned to Crystal’s case.
At that point, the case was “one of 48 cold cases actively being investigated by the Baltimore City Police Missing Person’s Unit,” as reported in a 2011 ABC2 News article. “Usually in cases like that we would get something,” Detective Parker said. “Somebody would say, ‘Oh yeah we saw her here,’ or ‘You know she was with so and so.’ But, we really didn’t get anything.”
Starting from the Beginning
Without the necessary information, Detective Parker started from the beginning. “You have to start from the beginning like it’s a brand-new case,” he said. He went ahead and interviewed Crystal’s family and friends again. He also spoke to the family’s neighbors and recruited the help of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Washington, D.C.
The Executive Director, Robert Lowery, said about their work: “Up until about 1982, law enforcement wasn’t even required to enter a missing child into the database, although we were tracking stolen cars aggressively or stolen property through serial numbers or the NCIC database. We didn’t put children on the same wavelength as we did property.”
Just Four Hours Away
NCMEC’s forensic artist, Stephen Loftin, even drew a sketch of what Crystal should look like at age 26. Detective Parker, told Crystal’s mother in 2011 that “she probably wouldn’t even recognize her if she saw her.” The detective also promised her that “they will continue to look and fight, doing whatever they can to bring Crystal home.”
Meanwhile, Crystal’s sister, Bianca Davis, was leading her own fight. She was fighting against the media, which was silent about her sister. Pretty much every year, Bianca put Crystal’s photo on her Facebook page on Crystal’s birthday. If only Bianca knew that she was a mere four hours away from her missing sister…
Crystal’s new identity was easy for her to remember, actually. She only changed her last name and “small” details, like her age. She needed be subtle if she wanted her plan to really work. She was able to get away with adding nine years on her, but how? Well, the truth is that she looked older than she actually was.
At the age of 14, she became 23, literally overnight. And when people would ask about her family, Crystal told them that she didn’t have one. In those moments, people tended not to press on. “It’s not a rare thing to not have a family,” Crystal later said. She just immersed herself in her new community, which became her new family.
From Joy to Resentment
When the family finally reunited, it all happened so fast. Crystal walked through the door of a home she had left 21 years ago. Cynthia was so overjoyed that she asked Crystal to sleep in her bed that night, and Crystal decided to stay. But the joy turned to resentment quite quickly. Crystal said, “She treats me like a child . . . but I have kids myself.”
“It’s like meeting a whole new person. She leaves as a child and comes back as a grown adult,” Cynthia said… I just want to love her.” As for Crystal, “It’s been very difficult, and sometimes it’s easier to just stay away.” But, during their reunion, the mother and daughter had some very real things to talk about.
Dropping the Bomb
On that day when Crystal and her mother finally got to talk about everything, Crystal gave in. She told her mother the real reason for why she ran away. Ever since she was nine years old, a neighbor had been sexually assaulting her. Sadly, it continued for the next few years. It happened so often that the young girl started thinking it was normal.
As Crystal told her the hard truth, Cynthia sat there, utterly shocked. She had absolutely no idea and couldn’t believe what she was hearing. How could this go on for so long? What makes matters even worse is that Crystal thought her mother knew about it all along.
She Doesn’t Believe Her
Cynthia had to finally hear the truth about her daughter and realize that Crystal was suffering so much that the only way out was to run away and simply disappear. As a mother, I can’t even express how much of a shame that is. Cynthia sat there, listening to her daughter, silently crying. She thought to herself: what kind of mother was she?
Cynthia told her daughter that she had had no idea that that had happened and that if she had, she would have done something about it. But, regardless of how many times she told Crystal that she never knew, Crystal said she still isn’t sure that what her mother is saying is the truth.
Moving Back to Baltimore
But the truth is that she does love her mother — otherwise she wouldn’t have constantly checked up on her family on Facebook and decided to come when her sister suddenly showed up at her door. After all, she spent the last 20 years thinking about her family. Aside from the unanswered questions, resentment, and broken relationship, the mother-daughter pair are trying.
Both of them are trying to rekindle their relationship. Crystal decided to move her family to Baltimore. These days, she lives with an aunt in the same area, volunteers at a local recreation center, and often sees her mother, who is on disability. It’s better late than never.
Time to Go
The important thing is that they’re in each other’s lives. “I just wish we were a bit closer,” Cynthia, now 62, said. It’s also the end of something else. Now that her daughter is back, Cynthia will finally move out of the home that she had refused to leave all of these years. “Within the next year,” Cynthia said. “I’m gone. It’s time to go.”
As I mentioned earlier, a child-turned-adult coming home after such a long time is nowhere near a fairytale ending. The event in itself is bittersweet, and emotions are nothing if not complicated. But at least one thing is for sure: Crystal is alive and well and back with her family.
Speaking of social media and missing persons cases, this next story brings these things together. Keep reading to find out how a missing person case from 2016 was solved, and a heartbroken mother was given some peace of mind.