Crystal and Jesse had one mutual goal: to find the perfect child. The couple, both 30 years old, had been trying for years to have a child of their own. But it wasn’t working out. People would always make comments like, “Oh, when are you gonna have children? It was hard,” Crystal said.
So, they decided to adopt. They were sure it would be “a wonderful journey.” They just never expected for the journey to lead them back to the country where they adopted the child to return her. They felt they had no choice though; the little girl was apparently trying to kill her little brother.
The thing is, it might have been a major misunderstanding with ruthless repercussions.
In Search of the Perfect Child
It was 1997 when Crystal and Jesse were about to become parents… finally. Jesse was adopted himself and they were aware of the benefits of adoption. They found a little girl on an agency’s website. “She was a beautiful child,” Crystal remarked.
They went all the way to Moscow, Russia, to meet the nine-year-old girl who was the epitome of a beautiful child, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Crystal figured, “this is an older child we can give a normal life.” After paying nearly $30,000 to make all the arrangements, they headed to pick her up.
“My American Mama”
The couple took an eight-hour train ride from Moscow to an orphanage in the small town of Boravici. When they got there, they saw that the young girl was anxiously awaiting their arrival. Crystal will never forget how the girl greeted her.
“She looked in my eyes very warmly, and said, ‘You’re my mama’.” From the very beginning, the girl called Crystal, “my American mama.” The couple decided to call her Caralee. But Caralee wasn’t the only child they took home with them that day. They also adopted a three-year-old they named Joshua.
The Risks of Adopting an Older Child
Before returning to America, the agency gave them the girl’s medical records. The girl was described as “wonderful, outgoing, intelligent” and “charming to be around.” Crystal and Jesse knew, though, that adopting an older kid has its inherent risks. They understood that there were “certain risks,” as Crystal put it.
As exciting as it was, Crystal and Jesse noticed signs right away that there was going to be a rocky road ahead of them. It didn’t take long for them to notice Caralee’s temper. It was understandable: a child arriving to a new culture, a new family, leaving her home. Acting out only made sense.
Settling Into a New, American Life
Back in the US, Crystal and Jesse went from a party of two to a nuclear family of four. They settled into a new house in a suburb of Atlanta, near Jesse’s computer engineering job. From the get-go, they tried to make the home as “homey” as possible for their kids.
Considering Joshua was only three, making Caralee feel comfortable at home was a more difficult task. “We tried to give her everything we thought a little girl should have,” Crystal asserted. But their beautiful girl was having ugly problems.
Withdrawn and Isolated
As soon as she was welcomed into her new home, she became “very, very withdrawn and isolating.” She was angry but never cried. Crystal and Jesse figured some extra love could fix it. Crystal explained: “I spent all the time with her. I quit my job. I gave her a hundred percent of me.”
But their love didn’t fix Caralee’s anger. If anything, it made it worse. Caralee became destructive, to the point that her parents feared the worst. During Caralee’s second Christmas in America, things got much worse.
A Twisted Kind of Christmas Cheer
They had given the girl a brand-new bike for Christmas and were teaching her how to ride it (she had never ridden one before). For a moment there, they felt like the holidays were going well. But then Crystal heard an awful sound.
She heard Joshua screaming. Crystal ran to find Caralee holding her four-year-old brother over the railing of their deck, which stood over 30 feet high. It was clear that this wasn’t a child’s game of roughhousing. This was serious. Caralee had an expression of anger and hate.
The Moment That Changed Everything
“I’m gonna kill him,” Caralee said in that moment. Crystal brought Joshua to safety and asked Caralee why. “I’m mad at him,” she said. “He’s getting on my nerves.” Then, Crystal asked her, “You would kill him for trying to get on your nerves? Surely you don’t mean it. You don’t mean kill him.”
Caralee’s response: “Yes I do.” When they asked Joshua about it – if he was scared of his sister – he said, “Yes, because she tried to throw me off the deck.” For Crystal, it was the moment that changed everything.
Hearing Voices, Seeing Things
In a home video, Crystal can be heard telling her son, “Are you worried that she’s going to do something to you right now? Because she’s not. Mommy’s here.” After the Christmas incident, Caralee started telling her mom that she was “hearing voices and I’m seeing things.”
She told Crystal that when the voices tell her to do something, she has to do it, “or they’ll hurt her.” It was the voices, Crystal later said, that told her daughter to kill her son. She was also hallucinating that she was seeing snakes.
An Unfinished Stint in the Psych Ward
Crystal and Jesse didn’t wait long – they admitted her to a psychiatric hospital. And it wasn’t a short visit either; Caralee spent nearly four months under constant care before her parents’ insurance began running out. They had no choice but to bring Caralee back home.
But it wasn’t without trepidation. For months, she repeated the same threat: “If I get another chance, I will kill him.” Worried over just how serious their adoptive daughter really was, they had to keep Joshua safe. So, they set up an elaborate security system.
A Big Brother-Style Setup
As bizarre as it may seem, the couple set cameras all over the house – in the living room, her bedroom, her bathroom – in various points to keep a watchful eye on their kids. It was forbidden for Caralee to be alone with Joshua.
When asked if Joshua was safe, Caralee would shake her head no. It’s safe to say her parents were not getting much sleep. “She is a risk to the family members,” Dr. Brian Kennedy, one of the psychiatrists who saw Caralee, stated.
The Meds Weren’t Enough
Dr. Kennedy noted the “tremendous amount of rage” hidden inside of Caralee. He also mentioned “clear evidence of clinical depression” as well as “detachment disorder.” This suggested that the girl might have been developing bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, so she was put on heavy medication.
But according to Crystal and Jesse, the meds weren’t working. Still, Crystal tried to reassure her daughter that things would get better. She admitted that she both loved and feared her daughter. As Jesse explained, “Four-year-old boys should never have to ask their parents the question, “Why did my sister try to kill me?”
It turns out that Caralee wasn’t just taking her anger out on her little brother. After her return from the psychiatric hospital, she tried strangling the family dog, Aurora. Crystal and Jesse woke up at 3 a.m. to find Aurora hanging from her collar to a pole.
Luckily, the dog made it out alive. In the meantime, Joshua was sent to live with his grandmother, in Texas. Video footage captures Crystal asking Caralee, “Why do we have to send him to Grandma’s to keep him safe?” Caralee responds, “Because I… I may hurt him.”
They Were Told Not to Worry
Crystal couldn’t help but feel duped by the adoption agency, the Frank Foundation, that had vouched for Caralee. However, there was one thing the agency did disclose, and that was that Caralee was oligophrenic (meaning intellectually disabled).
When the couple asked about it, Crystal recalled, they were told not to worry. They told her it was a developmental delay. They were assured that she was healthy, and if she were put in a good home with proper nutrition, with American doctors helping her with developmental issues, she should be fine.
Dirty, Hungry, and in Rags
It was only after the adoption became official that the agency provided the documents that revealed the troubling things about the girl’s past. For one, her mother was “amoral and antisocial.” The reports described how her mother left Caralee dirty, hungry and in rags.
The reports also revealed that Caralee was in a special dorm of the orphanage, for the children with mental disabilities. Caralee turned out to be far from the “perfect child” they were hoping for. If they knew this then, Crystal and Jesse admitted, they wouldn’t have adopted her.
The Frank Foundation Wasn’t So Frank With Them
48 Hours’ reporter Troy Roberts looked into the case. He tracked down the person who ran the Frank Foundation at the time, a woman named Nina Kostina. She denied ever withholding information from the adopting parents.
She said the medical information the agency received was limited by the country’s privacy laws. Adoptive parents are only allowed access to medical records once they are in Russia. At the time, 48 Hours spoke with eight other families who adopted through the Frank Foundation. All of them said they had received inaccurate medical information.
They Weren’t the Only Ones
Their adoptive children had been diagnosed with all kinds of illnesses, like fetal alcohol syndrome, hepatitis C, brain tumors, and other psychological problems that the agency didn’t prepare them for. Three of those families sued but lost.
It came to the point where Crystal and Jesse had to make a decision, as painful as it was. “We cannot continue to be her parents,” Jesse said at the time. If they wanted to bring their son home to safety, Caralee would have to go. “We couldn’t save her,” Crystal solemnly stated.
You’re Going Away Now, Honey
As Crystal and Jesse prepared to bring Caralee back to Russia, they were aware of what people – other parents – would think of them. But, according to the couple, they tried their best. They even looked for adoptive families in America.
The problem is they saw Caralee’s medical records and family history and basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” What they told Caralee, who was 12 at this point, is that she was going to a new hospital; she just didn’t know it was going to be in Russia.
Understandable or Cruel?
For Jesse, it was a case of “adoptive parents not being able to care for her.” For Crystal, it was a decision based on psychiatrists telling them that she has “no bonding, no affection.” For Nina (from the agency), it was “cruel and not thoughtful.”
“I feel very sorry for her,” Nina said at the time, questioning whether Caralee was even that sick. As 48 Hours’ Troy spoke with her, it was obvious that she didn’t believe what Crystal and Jesse were claiming about Caralee. “That’s what they say” is what she kept repeating.
Maybe It Was the Other Way Around
There were other psychiatrists who treated Caralee. Although Dr. Kennedy believed Caralee to be dangerous, at least one other doctor gave an alternative opinion. “Caralee’s behavior was impeccable,” one doctor wrote in a report.
He said the staff saw Crystal and Jesse as “too often cool and distant” towards their daughter. There were times when “Caralee… appeared to be frightened by her interactions with them.” But it was a moot point – the couple had already made up their mind. Caralee had to go back to Russia.
A False Promise
Crystal and Jesse chose to listen to and believe the doctors, like Dr. Kennedy, who told them their daughter would kill their son. Tapping into their life savings, they took Caralee back to be treated by Russian doctors at a children’s psychiatric hospital in Moscow.
Doctors there suspected that the couple was trying to abandon the girl, so they demanded copies of their passports and made them promise to come back for Caralee in two months. Caralee was also under the impression that her parents would return.
A Big Misunderstanding
Her parents told her that she was there for a “diagnosis and an evaluation.” Caralee spoke with Troy, who was with the family throughout the process. “They told me that, last night,” Caralee shared. “They love me and everything, I told them I love them very much, but they didn’t believe me.”
Then, moments before entering the hospital, Caralee told Troy something. “I did not try to kill my brother,” she stated. “I just tried to just pick him up, that’s all, because he was too heavy.” She told the reporter that it was “all a big misunderstanding.”
Mommy and Daddy Made Up Their Minds
To call it a misunderstanding would be a major understatement. Caralee said that she loved her brother: “I love him. Mom and Daddy just don’t understand it.” It was too late, however; there was no turning back.
Days after Crystal and Jesse left her in Russia, Troy returned with a hidden camera to visit Caralee, who was now in a locked ward. “I don’t feel safe here,” she told him. “I want to go back to America. I’m scared of staying here.”
21 years later, Troy met Caralee again. Only this time, she wasn’t Caralee. Her name was now Sabrina…
She Now Goes by Sabrina
After years of trying to reach out to Caralee, Troy met nothing but dead ends. “Many years passed. She was in my thoughts and in my heart,” Troy shared. One day, the frightened girl he once knew contacted him. She was now 33 years old, going by the name Sabrina, and was married with four kids.
Sabrina Caldwell met Troy in North Carolina, where she lives with her family. Troy had “a thousand questions” for her. How did she end up back in America? What really happened on the deck that day? And now, as a mother, what does she think about Jesse and Crystal?
The Unwanted Child
Sabrina told Troy that she actually liked her previous adoptive parents. But she recalled feeling like Joshua was the favorite. Instead of jealousy, Sabrina said she felt “down.” She felt like she “wasn’t good enough…. like I wasn’t this child that they wanted.”
If there was any emotional connection, it was lost because “Joshua was so centered.” Sabrina then admitted to Troy that she even became suicidal. There were days when she tried “multiple times and I just couldn’t do it.” She also revealed that the claims of seeing things – that was a cry for help. “I wanted out.”
The Day on the Deck
Sabrina has a very different version of events from that day on the deck. According to Sabrina, it started when Crystal asked her to get her brother. Crystal was in the garden when Joshua was screaming from the top of the deck. She told her daughter to get Joshua, but the boy was nearly her size.
“So, I’m tryin’ to walk down the steps … just able to hold him so he doesn’t fall” and then Crystal shouts, “Put him down!” After putting the boy down, Crystal accused her: “You tried to kill him, didn’t you?”
A Forced Confession
Although Sabrina was trying to explain that Joshua was simply “sliding off” her hands, Crystal kept repeating the same thing. “No. You were tryin’ to kill him.” Eventually, Crystal relented and said “yes.” Sabrina didn’t realize that her “confession” would lead her down such a dark path, to doctors, hospitals, and finally back to Russia.
Sabrina Caldwell remembers Crystal telling her, “Just remember, you wanted to kill Joshua,” to which she said, “OK. I will tell ’em.” When reminded of the “danger” she posed, Sabrina said, “I’m not that person. I was never that person.”
No Meds, No Mental Illness
Sabrina clarified that she is not on any medication, nor does she suffer from mental illness. As for the incident with Aurora, the dog, Sabrina says she loved that dog and never did such a thing. She also knew her parents weren’t going to come back when they took her back to Russia.
“I felt like I was in jail,” Sabrina recalled. “But then I think of it — I put myself there. You know, all those lying and doing what they want me to do. I put myself there.” Two months later, Nina came to take her back to America.
Nina Took Her Back Home to America
Believe it or not, Nina (from the agency) took Sabrina to live with her in Virginia. It was a temporary situation, until the girl was set up in a new home with new parents. She was sent to North Carolina. “I have parents… that took me in, that took their time to learn who I am and make me a better person.”
After high school, Sabrina volunteered for a nonprofit called Mercy Ships, and spent two years in Africa helping underprivileged people. She returned to North Carolina in 2010 and got a job in a hospital.
His Heart Broke for Her
She met her future husband, a math teacher named Phil Caldwell, in church. “I fell in love him when I saw him interact with kids,” she shared. “The way he was treating them, how committed he was…”
Phil loved how real and genuine Sabrina was, but before she would even consider anything serious with him, she insisted that he watch the “48 Hours” show about her first adoption. He did, and his “heart broke for her,” he said. If she expected Phil to run, she was mistaken. It only made him love her more.
After Two Decades, It’s Time
They got married in 2014 and started a family. Three girls and a boy. “I think probably what Sabrina went through has had a greater impact on her parenting than she can see herself, because she is so amazing at it,” Phil said.
Phil eventually stopped teaching and started working at the same hospital where Sabrina works. The married couple is happy and thankful for what they have. But Sabrina has always wondered what became of Crystal and Jesse. After two decades, she was ready to find out.
Once she became a mother, Sabrina wanted to share it with Crystal and Jesse – to tell them her side of the story. She found Crystal online and sent her a message. After some standard well wishes, Sabrina made one thing very clear…
“I just wanna make this really clear for you; I’ve never wanted to hurt Joshua and I never heard or saw things in my life,” she wrote. Crystal replied to Sabrina, telling her she had “prayed that [she] would have a better family.”
Not Everything Is Forgivable
After everything she was put through, Sabrina says she loved them and to this day has “a high respect for them.” She can’t help but put herself in their shoes. “I would have probably done almost the same thing.” But not everything…
“I would never take a child back,” Sabrina declared. Nevertheless, she moved on and learned “to forgive [her] past.” If she hadn’t gone through what she went through, she wouldn’t have what she has now. Looks like the “troubled,” “traumatized,” and “mentally ill” child grew into a well-adjusted human being…
Her Story Inspired the Reporter to Adopt Too
Her former parents have three biological daughters of their own, along with Joshua, who became a father of his own. Troy, who joined the family for the ride from the beginning, couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by it all.
When he left Sabrina in Russia all those years ago, he cried. “I started saying to myself, you know, maybe one day, I can rescue an older child,” he shared in the program. The timing just wasn’t right back then.
He Went for It
In 1997, he was a single CBS News correspondent and “traveling endlessly.” Later, at the age of 40, he was sent to do a story in Johannesburg, South Africa. When he went to an orphanage there to make a donation, he had another thought.
“I said, you know what, I’m close to 40 now. I’m going to go for it.” And so, in 2003, he became certified to adopt a child. He found a woman in Djibouti, Africa, who was putting her four-year-old son up for adoption.
His Eyes Danced
“I looked at his photo,” Troy recalled, “and the resemblance was uncanny. This looks like my kid.” That Thanksgiving, he flew to Djibouti to meet the young boy, named Ayanleh Khadra Mahamoud Abdi, and his mother, Khadra.
Troy saw the boy’s eyes “dancing,” which for him was a “signal that he’s smart. He’s clever.” Khadra told Troy her story. She had given birth to her son after a brief affair with a white, French soldier. Afterwards, she feared for the boy’s safety as he was of mixed race.
When he came to visit them, they were homeless and living in an abandoned building. The mother and son were sleeping on the floor. Begging was the four-year-old’s routine. Over the following two weeks, the three got to know each other.
Over burgers and fries, Troy and Ayanleh started to bond. He spoke as many as four languages, but not English. They mimed with their hands, things like “let’s eat” and “You need to go home, sleep.” It was basic, but it was all they needed.
A Selfless Act
They even went bowling and to a small beach at a military base. Ayanleh didn’t know how to swim, so Troy rented a boat to take the boy to an island and teach him how to swim. Troy made two more long visits with the family, but when it came time for the adoption to take place, a problem came up.
Khadra had never signed her name before and didn’t know how. In tears, Troy recalled the moment when the boy’s mother was trying over and over again to sign the adoption papers. “It was such a loving and selfless act.”
Time Will Tell
The attorney sitting next to them told Khadra, “Troy will be a good father.” She then looked at Troy dead in the eye and said, “Time will tell.” Time did tell, and her little boy grew up as Troy’s son. His name is now Jonah Gray Roberts.
Ten months after meeting the boy, he was finally able to come to America. “That was an intense day!” Jonah said. “I’m thousands of feet in the air. This is my first time ever on an airplane.” His dad told him, “We’re in New York City, this is your new home.”
Happy Endings Do Exist
Jonah remembers vividly the time he saw his new home for the first time – his “first real home.” Troy said, “this is your room.” The boy who had been sleeping on a floor now had his own room, his own bed.
“It was amazing,” Jonah shared. “There was never father and adopted son. It was always, you know, father and son.” Every Thanksgiving, Jonah explained, they have this “thing” where they always start off by saying what they’re grateful for this year.
(I’m not crying – you are).