They’re names that haunt us down the decades – the list of snatched and stolen children, from Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman to Madeleine McCann, whose fate grips not just a suffering family, but the nation.
And for a brief but agonising time in 1994, the name of baby Abbie Humphries was among them.
Abbie was just three hours old when she was taken from her cot in a Nottingham hospital by a woman posing as a nurse. A huge police operation was launched to find the missing child.
Physically shaking with fear, her distraught parents, Roger and Karen, went on television pleading for clues, but it still took 16 heartbreaking days before Abbie was finally found.
Having been through enough terror and drama to last a lifetime, it was no surprise when the family decided to put it behind them for a gentler life in New Zealand.
Yet today, 27 years on, they face an even graver tragedy.
Abbie Sundgren, pictured with husband Karl, is now fighting brain cancer, a year after mother Karen Humphries died from breast cancer and 27 years after she was kidnapped from hospital at three hours old and reunited with her parents 16 days later
Last year, Abbie’s mother passed away aged just 59 after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. And now, in a moving interview, Abbie reveals that she, too, is fighting for her life.
The headaches that plagued her in the weeks after her mother’s death in September last year were not, as she presumed, the effects of grief but the result of a Grade 4 brain tumour.
When doctors delivered the prognosis, they predicted that Abbie might survive a year. Two if she was lucky. It is a form of cancer that cannot be cured.
As Abbie begins a new round of expensive radiation and chemotherapy following surgery to remove a second tumour in July, it would be understandable if she were furious at her misfortune.
Instead she chooses to be serenely optimistic – in the spirit of a true survivor, perhaps – even as she and her husband, Karl, worry how they will fund the £50,000 treatment that could hold the cancer at bay and give her more years of life.
‘There is no point feeling angry or blaming anything,’ she says. ‘We have just had a terrible amount of bad luck. I usually choose to look at the positive side of everything. It makes everyone feel better.’
A delighted Mr and Mrs Humphries with a rescued Abbie 16 days after she was kidnapped by a nurse (pictured)
Chatting the day before more chemotherapy, even her tenacious spirit cannot quell the sense that life is not supposed to be like this. After all, Abbie was the baby who came through.
And she is the reason, in part, why her parents chose to leave Nottingham and build a new life on the other side of the world. Roger and Karen were determined that Abbie and her siblings, Charlie, now 30, and Alice, 23, would feel safe and happy in a country where bare feet, back-garden cricket and beachside barbecues were the norm.
Abbie became a champion swimmer, representing her new country. She earned a degree in psychology and criminology before a career, first as a flight attendant, and then in IT. In 2017, she married Karl Sundgren, her teenage sweetheart.
While her parents never hid the abduction from Abbie, she first became aware of the magnitude of the case at the age of ten when she found a collection of press cuttings and a message of goodwill from Princess Diana – with whom she shared her July 1 birthday – during the house move.
And she only appreciated the full drama involved as recently as last year when she watched The Secrets She Keeps – a TV drama loosely based on her abduction – starring Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael as the kidnapper.
But Abbie has always been aware of the legacy of what happened to her. As a child she felt loved and cared for by her teachers, and her dad would have moments of being hyperprotective.
‘It was like everyone always knew who I was,’ she reflects. ‘Mum told me how much it had affected Dad, and as I was growing up it was like he had flashback moments and had to know where I was right then and there. He’d call me out of nowhere and be a bit strange.
‘He felt what happened was his fault, because Mum was a midwife at the hospital and it wouldn’t have happened if she was in the room.’
Mrs Sundgren with her parents (pictured) on her wedding day in 2017
Nearly three decades have passed but the kidnapping from The Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham remains one of the most audacious in British history.
Britain was on tenterhooks in that hot summer of 1994 while Karen and Roger grappled, day after day, with not knowing if their daughter was alive.
Coming just three hours after Abbie’s birth, the abduction had been traumatic. Karen had stepped into the corridor for a few minutes to make a phone call, leaving her husband with the baby.
When she returned, Roger explained that a nurse had come to take Abbie for a hearing test.
Karen immediately knew something was wrong. Then, with dawning horror, it became clear the woman had just walked out of the hospital with the baby in her arms.
Roger scoured the corridors and the car park to no avail and by night, a huge police operation had swung into action. Behind the scenes, Roger and Karen were fearing the worst. What if the woman who took the baby couldn’t cope? What if she ditched Abbie where no one could find her? What if she had more sinister intentions?
Pictured: A Mail on Sunday front page report about the kidnap in 1994
Working on a premise that the abductor had recently lost her child, or could not have one, the police urged the family to appeal for information.
Television footage shows their despair. ‘Whoever has taken our baby can they please, please give her back,’ pleaded Karen, as an ashen Roger held his wife. ‘We’ve got a little boy who wants to know where his baby [sister] has gone.’
As she would explain, the vital bonding between mother and baby had begun, giving the couple no choice but to fight their fears and believe they would get Abbie back.
In the end, it was on the third police visit to a house in the Nottingham suburb of Wollaton that Abbie was found safe and well. They had been tipped off that a young woman, a former dental nurse called Julie Kelley, living there with her boyfriend and his mother, had been pregnant and expecting a boy. When she came home with a girl instead, the neighbours became suspicious.
Pleading guilty the following month, Kelley was put on probation for three years and treated for a severe personality disorder. It was reported that she had faked the pregnancy to persuade her boyfriend not to leave. She has gone on to have a family of her own.
It is a happiness which has been denied Abbie, who refuses to indulge in self-pity even as she acknowledges that cancer has not just robbed her of her mother but of a chance to have children.
‘I have always been that person who was born to be a mum,’ she reflects. ‘I’ve looked after children my whole life, and Karl and I were finally ready to grow our family when I was unfortunately diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
And she only appreciated the full drama involved as recently as last year when she watched The Secrets She Keeps – a TV drama loosely based on her abduction – starring Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael as the kidnapper. Pictured: Laura Carmichael (right) in the ITV drama
‘We did get my eggs removed through a fertility specialist, but we most likely won’t use them due to my health.’
It is all the more poignant, then, for Abbie to reflect on the promise that her mother made while her baby daughter remained missing: ‘If she came back to me, I was determined to make it up to her with all the love that a mother can give,’ Karen had said later.
‘We’re all so glad Mum didn’t know about my brain tumour before she died,’ says Abbie from her beachside home near Auckland. ‘We all said that straight away when I was diagnosed last November. It’s been hard for all of us but it would have been even harder for Mum, especially because she was so sick at the end.’
As for her own diagnosis, Abbie is quietly determined to beat the odds. ‘I have a Grade 4 glioblastoma – it’s a brain cancer you can’t get rid of but most people who get them are older,’ she explains.
She adds: ‘The prognosis is that I might live a year, maybe two, but all the studies are done on older people.
‘I know people have lived ten to 15 years but, that said, it’s not a good tumour.’
Pictured: A scene from ITV drama The Secrets She Keeps, loosely based on the kidnap of Mrs Sundgren
As she shows me the scar that slices from her crown to her ear, Abbie says she is grateful that her surgeries to remove the first 5cm tumour and the bigger, yet hollow second tumour have not noticeably impacted her brain. ‘Some people lose all their speech or memory and I haven’t had that, which is lucky because the tumours were right where my speech function operates from.’
She’s even upbeat about the scar, and the loss of hair caused by the radiation. ‘I’m lucky,’ she says in an accent that is a fusion of English and Kiwi, ‘because the rest of my hair covers it.’
Yet even as she deals with the unimaginable combination of grief and fear, Abbie knows one thing for sure: her mother loved her beyond measure.
‘She made sure we all knew how much she loved us. She was the best mum I could ever ask for.’
Nearly three decades have passed but the kidnapping from The Queen’s Medical Centre (pictured) in Nottingham remains one of the most audacious in British history
For the most part, Abbie seems to accept her circumstances. But then cancer has gnawed at her family for decades, striking not just her mother, but her aunt, grandmother, cousins and her grandmother’s mother.
As well as trying to process her mum’s death and her own cancer, Abbie fears for sister Alice who has inherited the gene for Li-Fraumeni Syndrome which leaves carriers susceptible to developing a range of often-rare cancers from a young age.
Karen learnt of Alice’s predicament before she passed away. Abbie has been tested twice and does not have the gene.
As she chats from the home where her father and in-laws live close by, Abbie says she rarely cries – even though she knows her family has been dealt the worst of luck. ‘This is the weird thing but since my surgery I have never felt sad. It’s like something I’ve forgotten to do.
‘There are tears from everyone else – Karl, my family and friends – but it’s like the crying part has been taken away from me. I don’t know how.’
On the days she feels contemplative, she scrolls through an album of pictures of her mother she compiled on her phone. There are images of her as a baby and the family’s early life in England. There are pictures, too, showing the move to New Zealand when she was ten and the new family home in five acres of grass paddock where the only other sounds were birdsong and the bleating of sheep.
It was in the following years that she became a champion swimmer, winning medals and breaking freestyle and backstroke records. Pictured: ITV drama The Secrets She Keeps
It was in the following years that she became a champion swimmer, winning medals and breaking freestyle and backstroke records.
Today, Abbie still has the same bright blonde hair that persuaded Karen she really did have her baby back when she was discovered. ‘I’ll always miss Mum,’ she says. ‘I’d never go a day without talking to her and I miss her so much now it’s even harder.
‘I made the little album with every photo I have of her and file through it on good and bad days. It will always be hard.’
She explains that Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Christmas 2013. ‘She had a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery straight away and while the cancer seemed to go away for a while, she was back having chemotherapy in 2019, by which point we knew it was terminal.’
Abbie moved back into the family home for a few months of 2020 before her mother passed away.
‘That time together was really nice for us both,’ she recalls. ‘It was all of us at home most days with mum, drinking her favourite bottles of champagne.
‘I miss her hugs, her jokes and having Christmas with her. She just loved Christmas with the family.’
While this festive season will be difficult – the second without Karen – Abbie says Karl, her siblings and her father, a painter and decorator, have become an even tighter unit.
‘We’re all super-close and every time there’s bad news it makes us even closer. We like hanging out and having a beer at the pub together. It’s a very English thing to do but we all love it.’
An electrician who works for his dad, Karl is in awe of his wife’s resilience and says all he can do is be there for her as the treatment assaults her body.
Abbie has had six weeks of radiation, chemotherapy pills, the second surgery, another two weeks of radiation and now she is back having fortnightly chemotherapy treatments which don’t attract state funding for brain cancer in New Zealand and cost £5,000 each time.
Pictured: Laura Carmichael in ITV drama The Secrets She Keeps
The couple have sought donations through a Give A Little page and while they’ve raised more than half the cost for the course of ten treatments, they still need a further £20,000. She is too sick to work and worries that the financial burden is solely on her husband. ‘I feel sick most of the time, I can’t eat much and I’m getting headaches again. Hopefully, I can finish this treatment and feel better.
‘What’s happened has made me appreciate Karl and my family and our house, which is right by the beach. So when Karl is working I can go and sit in the sun,’ she says.
‘I am a positive person, but this has made me even more so. I believe in doing things when you want to do them because you never know what’s around the corner.’
To donate to Abbie’s cancer fund, go to https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/help-abbie-fight-brain-cancer
ANGELA MOLLARD: How I tracked down Abbie and learned the full horror of what she was going through
By Angela Mollard for the Mail on Sunday
As a journalist, some stories stay with you. Usually, the ones involving children. Especially, the ones about missing children.
Even though I was only 26 when I covered the abduction of baby Abbie Humphries it was a deeply affecting story. Watching Roger and Karen Humphries as they broke down in the press conference, pleading for clues about their baby daughter, was heartbreaking to observe.
For 16 days in the hot summer of 1994 I was part of a team of journalists reporting on a case which appeared to have few developments. There was little to write; for the Humphries’ I suspect there was too much to think.
And then there was a whisper: she’d been found. Alive.
These were the days before social and digital media so it was up to us to convey the details of how ‘Baby Abbie’ had been found. But really, all anyone wanted to see was Karen and Roger holding their baby. The whole story was in their smiles.
Now working in Australia as a journalist and commentator, the recent case of missing four-year-old Cleo Smith made me wonder what had happened to Abbie. Like her, Cleo’s case had gripped the nation and there was an outpouring of relief when the little girl was found after being missing for 18 days. Thanks to technology, the public was able to see the exact moment she was rescued. Once again, the result of excellent police work.
So what of Abbie? I tracked her down to Auckland where I discovered her funding page and learned the full horror of what she was going through. As I dug further I discovered the further heartbreaking news that Karen had died from breast cancer. At just 59.
Nearly three decades of news reporting prepares you for most things but that day I cried at my desk.
I phoned Roger who has endured so much, both as a husband and parent. He was naturally wary. When I asked him if Abbie was going to be OK, he said simply: “We don’t know”. And then he forwarded my message to his daughter.
What a warm, engaging and determined young woman she is. So Kiwi, yet still such an English girl at heart. Having gone through so much, she has an acceptance which is admirable but also the grit to fight this cancer and enjoy as many years as she can with her husband, Karl, and her loving family.
The expensive treatment she is having is pivotal to that and she is grateful beyond words for any and every donation. As she told me: ‘We’re appreciative of every $5.’
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