A Georgia woman who was sold as baby by her drug-addicted mother has been reunited with two long-lost sisters in Atlanta.
The story sounds like the plot of a movie. Tiera Rice, 22, grew up believing her name was Candace Flores. When her adoptive mother died, her family told her that she wasn’t who she thought she was.
Her search for her biological family began with only a hospital bracelet and an old photograph of a young girl with the name Teesha Jenkins scribbled on the back. She didn’t recognize the girl or the name.
She had found the bracelet in a drawer when she was 12 years old. It had her birthday written on it along with a name she did not recognize: Tiera Rice. At first she thought she might have a long-lost twin.
But when she asked her parents about it, they brushed off her questions.
Forty miles away, Crystal Smith and Teesha Jenkins were growing up wondering what happened to their baby sister.
“We always wondered about her all our lives,” Jenkins told ABCNews.com. “I remember picking her up from the hospital with my grandmother. I had a cold, and I was sick, so they told me not to touch her, so I went over and looked at her.”
Smith and Jenkins recall that days after Rice was born, their mother, Wanda Gee, took her to live with an aunt. A few days later, the baby was gone.
Jenkins, now 29, was 6 years old at the time and living with her grandmother, since her mother had drug-addiction problems. She wondered about where her sister was, but no one gave her any answers.
“It was just kind of hush-hush thing,” Jenkins said.
When their mother ended up in prison for murder, she told her daughters she wanted them to look for Rice. All three sisters have different fathers.
Gee died in prison but left behind letters and a handwritten will for her daughters.
“I wish for my two children, Crystal Garrison and Teesha Jenkins, to continue the search for my youngest baby daughter to be found,” Gee wrote. “I want Tiera to know she has two sisters that love her. And that her birth mother loved her as well.”
The sisters began searching for Rice on their own 17 years ago but had no luck. They didn’t know at the time that Rice’s name had been changed to Candace Flores by her adoptive parents.
Seven years ago, when Rice was 15, the woman she believed to be her mother died of a drug overdose. Soon after, her family came to her with some life-altering news.
“They said they were sorry to tell me that my mom had died and my dad wasn’t my dad, my mother wasn’t my mother, and I’m not Candace Flores,” Rice told ABC’s Atlanta affiliate WSBTV.
“They told me that they had heard I had been sold and my mom wasn’t a good person, that I didn’t need to be with her anyway ’cause they are bad people,” Rice said.
As the years went by, Rice grew increasingly frustrated in her efforts to find her true identity and reached a breaking point this summer when she couldn’t get an ID card from the Department of Motor Vehicles because she didn’t have a birth certificate.
Frustrated, she contacted Tim McWhirter, a private detective in Atlanta.
“Tiera called me, and she sounded almost hysterical on the phone,” McWhirter told ABCNews.com. “She was frustrated, upset.”
“A thing or two she said got my attention,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m a good person, and I deserve to know who the hell I am.'”
He calmed her down and said he might be able to help her. They made an appointment to meet, and he described Rice as “tough as a boot.”
She presented him with the bracelet and the photo, and he began to investigate. In less than a week, he had tracked down Wanda Gee’s brother, who said he would reach out to Jenkins and Smith.
The sisters were overjoyed when they found out Rice was looking for them.
“She knew who she was looking for. She had a name,” Smith said. “We didn’t think we would ever find her. If she hadn’t been looking for us, there’s no way we would have found her. It’s a miracle the way that worked out.”
“They have been looking for me for a lifetime, and I never knew that I was lost in the first place,” Rice said.
Without a birth certificate or identity, Rice struggled to make ends meet and support her son, working in Atlanta as an exotic dancer.
“I wanted to go to school like normal people,” Rice said. “I wanted to drive a car like normal people, support my son. And all this forced me into the life I’m now. I’m not too proud of the things that I have done just to make it through, but people aren’t perfect.”
On Wednesday, Rice met her sisters for the first time at Smith’s house.
“We were nervous and anxious and excited and everything at once,” Smith said. “She tells us about her life and we tell her about ours. Personality-wise, she fits right in. You can tell that she belongs.”
“We’re ecstatic,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a blessing, and we just thank God. It’s a miracle.”
The sisters hope to get together again before Thanksgiving, which they say is tricky because of work and the hour drive between them. Rice lives in Atlanta with her 6-year-old son, and Smith and Jenkins live in Clermont.