A Family Reunion Like No Other

Family separated in aftermath of mother's abduction by Philadelphia serial killer

By Randy McIlwain
|  Thursday, Dec 23, 2010  |  Updated 9:15 PM CDT
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A Family Reunion Like No Other

NBCDFW.com

Ricardo and Zornae Sepulveda will meet their mother for the first time on Christmas Eve.

A woman who lost custody of her kids in the aftermath of her four-monthlong abduction by a Philadelphia serial killer will see them in North Texas for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Josefina Rivera was kidnapped by Gary Heidnik in Philadelphia in 1986. He held, tortured and raped five other women in his cellar over a period of five months.

On Friday evening, she will be reunited with her three children at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

"It's really been so overwhelming," said her daughter, Latoya Rivera. "You know, I just really never thought that we would actually have this happen."

Rivera had three children when she was disappeared in November 1986.

Latoya Rivera was just 5 years old, Zornae was 11 months old, and Ricardo, was 6 weeks old. He was born prematurely and was still in the hospital.

Zornae and Ricardo Sepulveda were adopted by a Puerto Rican family and moved to Florida.

Latoya Rivera, who was raised by her father, said she remembers her siblings well.

"I was watching the 'I Love Lucy' show and I was like, 'Mom can you name him Ricky Ricardo?'" she said.

She said her little sister was like a living doll to her.

"I liked to push her in the stroller and feed her yogurt," she said.

Josefina Rivera escaped Heidnik after four months and led police to him and his home, saving three women he still had captive. But a court ruled her unfit to care for her children because of her prior life and the horrific ordeal she had survived.

"A lot of the information that allowed us to find her came from our adoptive parents," Ricardo Sepulveda said.

He said he and his sister grew up in a loving home with parents who understood that they would eventually want to know their mother's story. They kept a file with newspaper clippings and records.

"It was a major story in Philadelphia, and we were really too young to accept it," he said.

It took years but eventually the siblings read about their mother's ordeal online.

"It hurt me real bad to know that she actually went through that while we were young," Zornae Sepulveda said.

They tried to find their mother, but she had moved to New Jersey by then.

But they had their sister's name, and Ricardo Sepulveda took a chance on Facebook.

"So I typed in 'Latoya Rivera,' and just so many of them came up," he said.

Ten days after sending a message to every Latoya Rivera on Facebook, his sister read it.

"It said, you know, 'Hey, my name is Ricky Sepulveda, formerly known as Ricardo Rivera,' and my face lit up," Latoya Rivera said.

She received the message about a month ago, and her siblings have been in Arlington for a week now.

Their mother will arrive Christmas Eve thanks to a generous donation.

"We're so nervous, because we're just counting down the hours and every minute and every second," Zornae Sepulveda said.

Her brother said he imagines that it will be be "so overwhelming" to hug her and say "I love you" for the first time.

Heidnik was executed by lethal injection in 1999. He was one of three killers who inspired the character of Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris' famous thriller "The Silence of the Lambs."

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