More than 20 years ago, a Russian girl was adopted by a young American couple who eventually brought her back to Moscow after her parents say she tried to kill her little brother. What happened to that little girl? And how did she end up back in the United States?
In 1997, Crystal and Jesse were a young married couple eager to start a family. After years of trying to have a child on their own, they decided to take the adoption route. They came across a Russian adoption agency's website and saw a photo of a 9-year-old girl. "She was a beautiful child," Crystal said. "We thought ... this is an older child we can give a normal life." Excited for this next chapter, the couple began the adoption process.
A look at the medical records
When Crystal and Jesse received the child's medical records from the adoption agency, the documents described her as outgoing and intelligent, but one thing stuck out. "They did say she was oligophrenic," Crystal said, which, back then, translated as mental retardation. However, the agency told the couple not to be concerned. "They stated it was a developmental delay," Crystal said. "And we were assured that this child was healthy and that in a good home … with the best doctors in America helping her with the developmental issues, that she should be fine."
The daughter they always wanted
In July 1997, Crystal and Jesse traveled to a Russian orphanage in the small town of Borovichi. After a long journey, they were finally united with their new daughter, who they called Caralee. "She looked in my eyes very warmly, 'You're my mama.'" Crystal said.
They adopted a son, too
The couple also adopted a 3-year-old boy they named Joshua.
Early signs of trouble
As the adoption was finalized, Crystal and Jesse noticed certain things about Caralee's behavior. "We did see the anger, but it could be explained," Crystal said. "Certainly a child arriving to a new culture, a new family …leaving her home. That's the only thing she's ever known."
More problems at home
After the family came back to the United States, they settled into a new home in Georgia. But soon enough, Crystal and Jesse said Caralee started acting withdrawn and angry. Crystal quit her job in an effort to spend more time with Caralee, but things continued to get worse.
"I'm gonna kill him"
It was the day after Christmas in 1998 when Crystal says the unthinkable happened. Caralee and Joshua were playing in the backyard while Crystal was planting. She suddenly heard her 4-year-old son screaming and when she looked over, Crystal told "48 Hours" correspondent Troy Roberts she saw Caralee holding Joshua over the railing of the 30-foot-high deck.
"Her face, there was anger and hate," Crystal explained to Roberts. Crystal demanded Caralee put her brother down and asked what she was doing. "'I'm gonna kill him,' she said.' 'Why?' Crystal asked her daughter. "'I'm mad at him'… I said…'You don't mean kill him.' And she said, 'yes, I do.'"
The situation worsens
Aside from the deck incident, Caralee also told her parents she was hearing voices and hallucinating. So the couple admitted Caralee to a psychiatric hospital. She then spent the following months in therapeutic care.
A closer look at their daughter's past
With their daughter in treatment, Crystal and Jesse received more documents from the adoption agency that revealed troubling details about Caralee's upbringing. "It says the mother was amoral and antisocial," Crystal said. The documents also stated how Caralee's birth mother left her "dirty, hungry and in rags." And during her time at the Russian orphanage, Caralee was in a special dorm for children with mental disabilities. This was all critical information that Crystal and Jesse said the adoption agency failed to share with them beforehand.
No information was withheld
Nina Kostina helped arrange Caralee's adoption in 1997. She denied hiding any information from Crystal and Jesse, and explained that the medical information she received was limited by Russian privacy laws. However, "Once the parents are in the orphanage, they have access to any medical records, to the doctors," Kostina explained. "And this is their time to ask any questions."
Caralee comes home
After almost four months away in therapeutic care, Crystal and Jesse had to bring Caralee home after their insurance started running out. But the couple still believed their daughter was a danger to her brother Joshua. "She has repeated this for months on multiple occasions, 'if I get another chance, I will kill him,'" Jesse said. For his family's safety, Jesse installed security cameras throughout the house and put an alarm on Caralee's bedroom door.
Joshua goes to grandma's house
Caralee had been prescribed heavy medications, but her parents said they weren't working.
And even with the security cameras in the house, Crystal and Jesse were still worried for their son Joshua. So they decided to send him 600 miles away to live at his grandmother's home in Texas. "Why do we have to send him to grandma's house to keep him safe?" Crystal asked Caralee. "Because I may hurt him," Caralee replied.
A psychiatrist's diagnosis
Dr. Brian Kennedy was one of the psychiatrists who saw Caralee. He explained how Caralee suffered from attachment disorder, which, in effect, is an inability to love. "She does love to smile and laugh," Dr. Kennedy said. "But I think when you look at what she's been through and when you see how she functions under stress, she can become very different and have significant rage."
Another doctor's opinion
Other doctors who treated Caralee also had concerns, but at least one psychiatrist had another opinion. After treating Caralee during her stay at the psychiatric hospital, this doctor wrote, "Caralee's behavior … was impeccable," and that his staff perceived Crystal and Jesse as "too often cool and distant" towards their daughter.
Out of options
By the winter of 1999, almost a year after the incident on the deck, Crystal and Jesse felt like they had run out of options and had to make a difficult decision. "We cannot continue to be her parents," Jesse said. They tapped into their life savings and decided to bring Caralee back to Russia so that she could be treated at a psychiatric hospital there.
Back to Russia
After they arrived in Moscow, Crystal and Jesse arranged for Caralee to stay at a children's psychiatric hospital. But right before she went in, Caralee told "48 Hours"' Troy Roberts something she had never said before. "I did not try to kill my brother," Caralee explained. "I just tried … to pick him up … because he was too heavy … I love him. Mom and Daddy just don't understand it."
No turning back
Despite what she told Roberts, Crystal and Jesse felt they had done everything they could. In the end, the couple brought Caralee inside the psychiatric hospital and left her there.
The last visit
Days later, "48 Hours" returned with a hidden camera to visit Caralee, who was in a locked ward at the hospital. "I don't feel safe here," Caralee told Roberts. "I want to go back to America. I'm scared of staying here." But Crystal and Jesse never went back to get her. And shortly after they left, the couple annulled the adoption in early 2000.
What happened to the little girl?
Since the last time Roberts saw Caralee in the Russian hospital, he had tried to get in touch with her over the years but was unsuccessful. "I always wondered how she was doing, if she was thriving, if she was happy," Roberts said. "I've always kept her in my thoughts and in my heart." And then, after more than two decades, Caralee got in touch with him.
In the summer of 2021, Roberts was reunited with the person he knew as Caralee. Now, she calls herself Sabrina, is married and has four children. The two met near Sabrina's home in North Carolina. But how did she end up here? Roberts sat down with Sabrina to find out.
"I wanted out"
When Sabrina was living with Crystal and Jesse, she said it seemed like they favored Joshua over her, which made her feel unwanted. She told Roberts she became depressed and even suicidal. That's when Sabrina said she created a story. "I told Crystal, 'You know, I'm seeing and hearing things,'" Sabrina said. "'Cause I wanted out."
Sabrina also had a different version of what happened on the deck that day in 1998. When Crystal asked her to go and get Joshua, Sabrina said she struggled to carry her brother down the stairs because he was too big and sliding out of her hands. Sabrina said she tried to explain this to Crystal. "And she was like, 'No. You were trying to kill him.' And she kept saying it," Sabrina told Roberts. "I finally said 'yes.'"
"I put myself there"
After she met with various psychiatrists, Sabrina recalled learning that she was going back to Russia. "Crystal said they were running out of options. And they think the Russian institute will be better," Sabrina said. And after Crystal and Jesse left her at the hospital in Moscow, Sabrina said she knew they weren't coming back for her. "I felt like I was in jail, but then I think of it — I put myself there," she said. "All those [sic] lying and doing what they want [sic] me to do. I put myself there."
A fresh start
Sabrina spent two months in the mental hospital until Nina Kostina picked her up and brought her back to the United States. Then in 2002, Sabrina was adopted by a new family in North Carolina. She lived there until shortly after she graduated from high school.
In 2008, Sabrina volunteered for the nonprofit Mercy Ships and spent two years providing medical care to underprivileged people in Africa. "It was a rewarding experience," she said.
The love of her life
When Sabrina returned to North Carolina in 2010, she found a job at a hospital. And two years later, she met fifth grade teacher Phil Caldwell at church. "I fell in love with him when I saw him interact with kids," Sabrina said.
A family of her own
Phil and Sabrina married in 2014 and went on to have three daughters. Last summer, Sabrina gave birth to their first son. Recently, Phil stopped teaching and started a new job at the same hospital where his wife works.
Today, Sabrina Caldwell says she is not on any medication and does not suffer from any mental illness.
"I learned to forgive my past"
Sabrina also says she loved Crystal and Jesse when she was a child. "And I still have a high respect for them," she told Roberts. "Putting myself in their shoes, I would have probably done almost the same thing." Except for one thing. "I wouldn't … take a child back," Sabrina said. But even so, she has no hard feelings towards the couple. "I learned to forgive my past," she explained. "I have an amazing husband … I have amazing kids. But if I didn't go through what I went through I wouldn't have that."