For 20 years, Cynthia Haag refused to move out of her Baltimore home. She stayed put just in case her daughter – who had vanished without a trace – ever came back.
When that day finally came, Cynthia didn’t recognize the woman in front of her.
Crystal Haag, her 14-year-old daughter, had transformed into Crystal Saunders. Now she was a mother herself, fluent in Spanish, and with a completely different birthday.
It was both a happy ending and a new beginning to a journey that was born out of a painful family secret.
For 20 years, Crystal Haag’s family had no idea where she was. The 14-year-old teen (pictured in an age-progression photo) vanished without a trace in 1997
Cynthia Haag (pictured) had no idea what happened to her bubbly teen daughter. Little did she know, Crystal was running away from a neighbor who had been raping her for years
On April 26, 1997, the day Crystal disappeared, Cynthia was working as a cashier at the local grocery store when her daughter came by to buy some milk and cereal.
She remembered looking at her Crystal’s smiling face. The daughter she knew as a ‘sweet girl’ who got along with everyone.
‘Stay around the house today,’ Cynthia, a single mother, remembered telling her. Crystal promised she would.
But when Cynthia came home that night, she was gone.
What Cynthia would only learn 20 years later is that her teen daughter was harboring a painful secret.
A neighbor began sexually assaulting Crystal when she was nine years old, she told the
The abuse was so frequent that, at first, she almost thought it was normal. Until she entered her teen years.
By then Crystal had been assaulted for so long, she convinced herself that Cynthia had to know.
Crystal took a bus to New York and transformed into Crystal Saunders. She lied about her age, got a fake driver’s license, and began cleaning houses and living in the Bronx
That fateful night in April, Crystal reached her limit. She hung out with friends until midnight and then boarded a bus to New York.
It was there that the 14-year-old transformed into Crystal Saunders, a 23-year-old who was cleaning houses and making a new home in the Bronx.
Crystal was soon pregnant with her first child. She obtained a fake driver’s license and a real Medicaid card under her new identity.
She would go on to have three more children. Crystal also became a part of her Dominican community, becoming so close to some that she called them ‘grandma’ and ‘cousin’. She had a new family now.
On the day Crystal turned 31, she posted a picture of herself on Instagram with a cake. ‘Happy 40th to me!!!!!’ the caption read.
As Crystal was creating a new life, Cynthia was stuck in the past.
Crystal would go on to have four children, learn fluent Spanish, and became a part of her close-knit Dominican community
The devastated mother recalls searching for her daughter in the ‘face of every brown-haired girl’ wearing a baseball cap.
Cynthia stopped celebrating Christmas and refused to move out of her home. By 2010, Baltimore police determined that all efforts to locate Crystal had been ‘exhausted’.
What Cynthia didn’t know is that Crystal was still keeping tabs on her old family through Facebook.
It was her oldest child Bryan, 20, who finally convinced Crystal to reach out.
One day in March 2018, Cynthia received a phone call. It was her older daughter Bianca – she had just received a message from Crystal on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Cynthia and Crystal’s siblings were still searching for her and thinking about her. Pictured is a post Crystal’s sister Bianca wrote on a page dedicated to trying to find her
That same night, after Bianca drove up to New York to pick up her long-lost sister, Crystal and Cynthia were face-to-face.
‘Still my pretty girl,’ Cynthia said as she hugged her daughter hello.
A year on, Crystal and Cynthia are still learning how to act with each other.
Crystal called Bianca (pictured) last year and the entire family finally reunited
‘It’s like meeting a whole new person,’ Cynthia told the Post. ‘She leaves as a child, and comes back a grown adult. I just want to love her.’
Crystal said she has found it hard to be with Cynthia, who she said still treats her ‘like a child’.
‘It’s been very difficult,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to just stay away.’
Crystal has since told her mother about the sexual abuse that caused her to run away, and revealed she thought Cynthia had known about it the whole time.
Cynthia said she was shocked and had no idea, yet Crystal remains unsure.
But Crystal is now living with an aunt in the same neighborhood and regularly sees Cynthia. They are both still trying to figure it out – but they are trying.
‘I just wish we were a bit closer,’ Cynthia said.
And, as for that house where she has waited for her daughter for 20 years, Cynthia is finally leaving.
‘I’m gone,’ she said. ‘It’s time to go.’