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Cold case: Mom, tot disappear during custody dispute

By Alexis Weed, Nancy Grace Producer
Samantha Kibalo is shown at the time she disappeared, and what she might look like today at age 11.
Samantha Kibalo is shown at the time she disappeared, and what she might look like today at age 11.
  • Mom vanished with child the day before a custody hearing
  • Court-appointed psychiatrist says it appeared the father would get custody
  • Police believe mother and child may be living under assumed identities
  • Know something? Call 845-638-5400 or 1-800-843-5678.

New York (CNN) -- Under a shared custody agreement, Mike Kibalo handed his 2-year-old daughter, Samantha, to an officer during a scheduled visitation exchange at the New Hyde Park Police Department in New York.

Kibalo says it was February 4, 2001, the last time he saw Samantha.

Kibalo and his estranged wife, Ann Yermak, were scheduled to appear the next day in court for a divorce hearing. She never showed, and hasn't been seen since.

A court-appointed psychiatrist had testified at a previous custody hearing that Samantha's future visits with her mother should be supervised.

According to the psychiatrist, Yermak had been found to show symptoms of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a condition where a person attributes sickness to someone else, often a child for whom they are caring, even though the child is not sick.

"She kept on taking Samantha to hospitals when I would drop her off for visitations," Kibalo said. "Every time I would drop off Samantha she'd go to the police and say I abused her."

"Munchausen by proxy would be the diagnosis, which is, of course, a terrible dangerous diagnosis in terms of the baby, a grave diagnosis because the baby grows up as sick baby," the psychiatrist, Dr. Bert Pepper, told CNN.

Every time I would drop off Samantha she'd go to the police and say I abused her.
--Mike Kibalo, father

He added that a mother often is motivated by the attention she receives from others for taking care of a child presumed to be sick.

"What I found, in the course of months of evaluation, is that the baby was perfectly healthy and she was taking the baby to doctor after doctor and seeking medical care for nonexistent illnesses," Pepper said. "None of the illnesses were confirmed by any of the pediatricians I spoke to."

Kibalo says the court planned to award him custody after an investigation by child services ruled the abuse claims against him were unfounded.

"It became pretty clear that Mike was going to get custody of the baby," Pepper agreed.

Instead, mother and daughter simply vanished.

The SUV that Yermak had been driving was found two weeks later, abandoned in a Brooklyn parking garage. The child's hair and fingerprints were found in the vehicle, but there was nothing to indicate where they might have gone.

Samantha was born on New Year's Day in 1999. Three weeks later, Yermak filed for divorce.

Kibalo said she dragged out the divorce, hiring and firing more than 20 lawyers.

He added that after his wife became pregnant, she used his credit card to purchase items meant for a much older child, including a motorized toy car.

"Maybe love is blind and I didn't see the red flags," Kibalo said.

Investigators learned that in the weeks before she disappeared, Yermak had been loading up on prepaid calling cards at a convenience store.

Afterwards, Yermak stopped using her cell phone and credit cards.

Certainly if she has a new identity it would make it easier. I can't imagine she's using her given name.
--Detective PIerce Redmond

Detective Pierce Redmond of the Rockland County Sheriff's Office was assigned to the case in 2003. He says the most likely scenario is that Yermak and Samantha have been living under assumed identities.

"In our day and age it's difficult to fly under the radar," Redmond said. "Certainly if she has a new identity it would make it easier. I can't imagine she's using her given name."

Redmond said it would be difficult for Yermak to stay on the run without help. That help, the detective added, may be coming from Yermak's family.

Although Yermak had been living with her mother, Ruth Yermak, at the time she and Samantha went missing, Redmond said Ruth Yermak has provided little help to investigators.

CNN's calls to a phone number listed to Ruth Yermak were not returned.

Two warrants have been issued for Ann Yermak's arrest. A federal warrant is outstanding on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, and a warrant issued by the Ramapo Justice Court alleges custodial interference in the first degree. Both warrants remain active and are extraditable nationwide.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children produced an age-progressed image showing what Samantha might look like today.

"Unfortunately, we don't really know what Samantha actually looks like," Redmond said. "Any computer enhanced photos are guesses."

When Samantha was last seen, she had light brown hair and brown eyes. She would now be 11 years old.

Kibalo wants Samantha to hear his message: "Daddy's alive. Daddy's still looking for you and Daddy still loves you and wants to bring you home."

Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Samantha Kibalo or Ann Yermak is asked to contact the Rockland County Sheriff's Office at 845-638-5400 or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.

Callers may remain anonymous, if desired. "They can also contact any local law enforcement agency," Redmond said. "The information would eventually filter back to us and we would follow up on it."