MONTCLAIR, Calif. (AP) — Prince Sagala searched for her son and daughter for 15 years, fearing she had lost them forever to the estranged husband who took them to his native Mexico.
Then one day, she typed her child's name into Facebook on a library computer, and suddenly found herself exchanging messages with a young woman who said she was her daughter in what experts say was a rare online success in the search for missing kids online.
But the exchange wasn't a happy reunion.
"She thought I was a stranger woman," Sagala said, with hurt and frustration in her voice. "I wrote back and she deleted it. Then, she disappeared."
Authorities tracked down the children, now 16 and 17, outside Orlando, Florida, and arrested their father, Faustino Fernandez Utrera, 42, on May 26. He faces kidnapping and child custody charges. Sagala is now racing to regain custody of her children before they turn 18 and she loses them to adulthood.
Florida authorities have temporarily placed the children with a non-relative whom the pair know and set a hearing for later this month.
"This has been so traumatic for them. The father, the only person they've known as a parent, is now in jail. When they have children of their own, when they're 25, 26, 27 years of age, it's going to dawn on them what their mother lost," Montclair police Detective Debbie Camou said. "You can't fault them for what they feel."
Utrera did not respond to a request for a jailhouse interview. Florida authorities did not know if he had retained an attorney.
The couple was contemplating divorce in 1995 when Sagala returned from work to find the children, then 3 and 2, gone, Camou said.
Sagala, 43, later learned through her husband's relatives in Mexico City that he was there with the children and didn't intend to come back, Camou said. "At that time, she was afraid to go to Mexico because he had threatened her," she said.
Police eventually referred the investigation to the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office, following the department's policy, but the probe stalled.
During this time, authorities recently learned, Utrera moved to Florida with his children and got a driver's license using a fake name. It's unclear how long the three had been in Florida when Sagala found the Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Sagala raised two younger children she had with a man she said she married three years after Utrera fled and with whom she now lives on a quiet residential street in this city about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It's not clear if she ever divorced Utrera.
But she always hoped to reunite with her older children. On a visit to a neighborhood library in March, Sagala had one of her children enter her daughter's name into Facebook and her page popped up.
On March 10, she began exchanging e-mails and chatting with her daughter, and hoped to get her to reveal where she lived and re-establish a bond.
Sagala said she sent an old family photo to the teen, but her daughter broke it off, saying in an e-mail that she was happy with her family and that she'd heard bad things about her mother.
Sagala alerted police, who used the names of friends on the daughter's page to track the girl to central Florida — and her high school. Sagala gave police copies of e-mails she exchanged with her daughter, which helped prosecutors build their case against Utrera.
Authorities in Florida began surveillance of the children and Utrera to make sure they did not run off while prosecutors in San Bernardino built an extradition case in California, Camou said.
Investigators checked the children's attendance at school and drove by their house to make sure they weren't packing up. Utrera and the children had been living with another woman whom the children apparently considered a mother figure, said Kurt Rowley, who is prosecuting the case in California.
Once prosecutors said they had enough to charge Utrera, Florida deputies arrested him as he waited at a bus stop to pick up his son from school.
When Utrera was arrested, the family was living in a permanent mobile home on a palm-lined street of neatly trimmed lawns in Davenport, Fla. On a recent day, a minivan parked in the drive bore a speciality license plate with the words "Parents Make A Difference" inscribed on it.
The case is "more heartbreaking because now, with the dad in jail, she does have a right of custody by default, but it's not that simple," Rowley said, adding that courts give weight to the children's opinions because of their age. "If they were returned to her, in all likelihood, they would probably run away."
Even with the array of websites frequented by teens, discoveries like Sagala's are rare because abducted children's lives are so closely monitored by the offending parent that they can't easily get online, said Robert Lowery of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
For now, Sagala is trying to sort out the pieces of her children's past. Her younger kids, she said, helped her stay strong.
Then, with a sad smile, she summed up what she's missed with the older ones: "Every single day."
GILLIAN FLACCUS,Associated Press Writer
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.