Two local sisters will reunite today with their baby sister who was sold for drugs in 1988. The Times will be there for their first meeting and will tell their story Sunday through words, photos and video.
"By the grace of God" — that's the only way Crystal Smith and Teesha Jenkins can explain it.
The two sisters live in Clermont and each have a brood of kids. Smith is a stay-at-home mom and enjoys photography. Jenkins works at IGA grocery store and is involved at her church. They seem miraculously normal given their upbringing by a cocaine addict who was sent to prison for murder in 1989.
And today, "by the grace of God," they'll meet their baby sister for the first time since their mother, Wanda Gee, sold her for drugs in 1988.
The last time they saw Tiera Rice, Smith was 12 and Jenkins was 6. And Rice's bed was a laundry basket at their aunt's house.
"I went over to my aunt's house and I was just like, ‘Where is the baby?'" Smith said. "And they said, ‘We don't know.' That was it."
The baby was gone.
But their mother didn't forget her.
Once in prison and sober, she began telling her girls what happened.
Rice was 3 months old when Gee, strung out on drugs, went to North Carolina and sold her to strangers.
"She says when she got back that she went to the Hall County Sheriff's Department and talked to the investigators and told them what she had done," Smith said of her mother, whom they visited about once a month until her death in 2004. But investigators questioned one of Gee's sisters and then dropped the case.
"My aunt told them that Mama was crazy, she was a drug addict and that she didn't have no baby ..." Smith said.
Smith and Jenkins could do little at their age and had little to no information to go on. And Gee could do nothing from prison.
"She had to live with that every single day of her life," Jenkins said.
"And she did; she mentioned it all the time," Smith added. "She'd say, ‘Y'all know anything? Y'all know anything?' ... There was just no way to find her."
This summer, the sisters' uncle called Jenkins with news.
A private investigator had contacted him about Rice and wanted to know if it would be OK for her to contact them.
"It was a miracle," Jenkins said. "... I mean we've been waiting for this our whole life, and there she is talking and breathing, and, you know, that's our blood, our kin, right there."
Rice had been searching not only for her sisters, but for her identity since she was about 15. She was raised speaking Spanish, going by the name Candice Flores and believing she was an illegal immigrant.
She didn't learn about her past until she found a medical bracelet with her birthday on it but a different name. She began asking questions.
"That's what let me know that something wasn't right," Rice said . "... I was asking questions and people were lying."
She was 15 when the woman who bought her died and people began talking.
She searched on her own for her identity with little progress. Five months ago, she hired the private investigator who found her sisters using as his only clues the medical bracelet and a photo of Jenkins with her name on the back.
In June, the sisters talked for the first time.
"I think I cried for about three days, for real," Smith said.
The two older sisters say Rice, 22, reminds them of their mother.
"She sounds just like my mama — her voice and her language. It's really strange because they never even met," Smith said.
And the day after they talked, Jenkins went to get Rice's birth certificate so she could get a Social Security card.
"My life has been hell trying to live until I got that birth certificate," Rice said. "Because I had no legal identity and I have a son and I was old enough to be working and driving and I couldn't do none of that. No school, I couldn't do anything."
The sisters keep in touch with phone calls and traded photos via Facebook.
Rice has a 6-year-old boy and has struggled to get by without the support of family.
The two older sisters also have little family but each other.
"So we're kind of excited, because she doesn't have anybody either," Smith said. "... So now there's three of us. Three's good."
"The more the merrier," Jenkins added.