'Milk carton kid' recalls life on the run with father who kidnapped her
GLEN COVE, N.Y. (WPIX) — Sarah Finkelstein Waters remembers she was about 12 years old and eating breakfast, when she first saw her face on a milk carton.
"My first instinct was to hide it," Waters told PIX11 News. "I was desperate for the family we were staying with not to see this."
When Sarah saw the milk carton, indicating she was one of thousands of missing children being sought by a parent in the United States, she had already been on the run with her father, Herbert Finkelstein, for about eight years.
Finkelstein was an American-born chemist who had snatched Sarah from her native Oslo, Norway in April 1974.
"I had just turned 4," Sarah, now 46, recounted to PIX11 News. "I remember being on an airplane and looking down, and my dad saying we were going to New York," Sarah said recently.
Photos from the case:
Herbert Finkelstein had married Sarah's mother, Tone, in Oslo in 1969. He had two, young sons in his care from a previous marriage, and Sarah's mom thought Herbert had legal custody.
Turned out Herbert Finkelstein had abducted the boys from their Ecuadoran-American mother.
The boys eventually returned to their biological mom.
Sarah's name at birth was Cecilie Rina Finkelstein, and her parent's marriage started unraveling.
Still, Tone Finkelstein—a kindergarten teacher—tried to keep things civil and invited Cecilie's father to dinner.
He was supposed to take his daughter to an Oslo park that April day and return home by about 2 p.m. for dinner.
But he didn't keep his word.
Not long after Cecilie and her dad landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York—the 4-year-old was thrust into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world of the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Her name was changed to Sarah, and "my father became an Orthodox Jew overnight," Sarah recalled. "He grew a long beard and put on a black hat."
Sarah's mother was frantically trying to track down her daughter, seeking help from the U.S. Consulate in Oslo and the U.S. State Department.
"She flew back and forth to the United States many times," Sarah said. "She lived in New York, for a time."
But none of the private detectives that Sarah's mother hired could find the child.
"It destroyed my mother," Sarah told PIX11. "Just about destroyed her." It would be 14 years before Tone Finkelstein would see her daughter again.
Sarah said her mother had grown up on a milk farm, about two hours outside Oslo, where the family—which was poor—churned its own butter. Tone followed the Lutheran religious faith.
"She thought it was wonderful to be with this educated, smart, American Jewish man," Sarah said.
But Sarah recalls her father sought to discredit her mother, as the weeks and months went by, with Sarah asking often when her mom would join them.
She said her father "was taking me to see Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms....implying that my mother had something to do with Nazis and the Holocaust."
Father and daughter traveled from city to city, begging outside synagogues for assistance—and carrying letters of recommendation, when they sought shelter in Jewish American homes.
It was at one of those homes in the Midwestern United States that a pre-teen Sarah saw a photo of herself, at age 6, on the milk carton.
Her mother had received that photo in the mail from her father years before, but he would be sure to post letters from a state he and the child were leaving.
"I wasn't ready to call my mother or call that number," Sarah recalled to PIX11. "I poured all the milk into the toilet, cut out the picture of me, and saved just the picture of me."
Sarah waited about six years before finally reaching out to her mother by phone.
At this point, she was 18 and still living with the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
But she had left her father.
She said a friend of his had sexually abused her once, when she was a younger teen.
At 18, she knew it was time to call her mother.
"A woman with a very sweet voice picked up the phone and said, 'Halo,' and I said 'Hello," this is your daughter."
Tone Finkelstein flew to New York and stayed in a Borough Park, Brooklyn hotel for two weeks, where she met, in secret, with her only child.
"She had all this love and all this pain," Sarah remembered. "I just remember my mother staring at me, with this hunger and pain that I almost couldn't take."
"She was looking for me to love her right away, and I couldn't give that to her," Sarah said.
Sarah's mother returned to Norway.
"Shortly after my mother left, I really fell apart," Sarah recalled.
As Sarah Finkelstein entered young adulthood, she developed eating disorders like anorexia, battled severe depression, and spent time in psychiatric hospitals. She managed to get together with her mother about once a year.
And she eventually grew emotionally stronger.
Sarah earned her GED diploma, since her transient lifestyle as a child prevented her from having normal schooling.
She graduated from college and later became a Fulbright scholar, earning a Master's degree in social policy.
In her 30s, Sarah met her future husband, John Waters, on a vegetarian dating site online.
He was Irish-Catholic with six siblings. His parents had a long-term marriage.
"He was just so sweet," Sarah remembered with a smile. "He just sounded so normal and so unthreatening."
Sarah got off the phone and called a friend, predicting this man would be her life partner.
Her prediction proved to be correct.
"John and I went to visit Norway," Sarah told PIX11. "And it was so peaceful there, compared to how New York was at the time."
They ended up staying 10 years, getting married on a mountaintop overlooking Oslo, with Sarah's mother dressed in native Norwegian attire for the ceremony.
Their two children, Aidan and Daniel, were born in Norway.
John is a schoolteacher.
"It was a beautiful way to get to know Norway and my mother, and it was our shared culture."
Sarah told PIX11 that after surviving a life like she's had so far, there's no perfect ending, but she credits her family and husband for the healing she's had.
Sarah said of her husband, John, "He's very stable and clear-headed and not easily ruffled. He's been an amazing source of joy and love and stability."
Sarah and her mother still struggle sometimes.
"There's still that pain, especially for my mother," Sarah said. "She gets scared when there's a 'disconnect' between us. I try to reassure her, 'Mom, we're just having a disagreement. Everything's okay."
Sarah didn't see her father, Herbert, for 20 years, until she participated in a documentary about her case, "Sarah Cecilie," produced by Catherine Meyer of Great Britain, who leads a group called Action Against Abduction.
Sarah found her father living in a small, dirty apartment in Jerusalem, not in very good health.
"I haven't gotten a clear apology," Sarah said to PIX11 about her father. "He sort of turns it all around to taking credit for the person I've become. He takes credit for the fact I have a Master's degree in Social Policy."
But Sarah Finkelstein Waters—who decided to keep the first name her father gave her—said to PIX11, "I've made peace with him. Carrying around that anger was doing a lot of damage to me."