RALEIGH, N.C. — A Sanford mother got the hug of her life when she saw her son for the first time in four years.
Nicolas DiPietro vanished in the summer of 2000. Police said his father took him without permission. After a four-year search that led Nicolas' mother, Dana Johnson, to Alabama, the two were reunited Friday.
Johnson did not know what to expect when she first met with detectives in Mobile, Ala.
"I didn't think it was really happening until I got here (to Mobile), and then it hit me," she said. "My worst fear was he wouldn't remember me, but he does. . . He hugged me and told me he knew I was his mommy, and he was glad to see me.
"He remembers lots of things. And for that, I am thankful."
Through her tears, the 26-year-old from Sanford told reporters what life has been like since her ex-husband took little Nicolas four years ago.
"There wasn't a day that went by when I didn't wonder: 'Is my child out there? Is my child O.K.?' she said.
"The only thing I can honestly say that got me through this was my faith in God."
Nicolas appeared happy with all of the attention. He has had quite a journey.
"There's no justification for what he did," Johnson said of Gianni DiPietro, the boy's father. "There was no reason for him to up and leave. There's no reason for him to bad-mouth me and try to make it seem that I'm a bad parent, because I was far from being a bad parent."
Johnson was not sure where her son was until someone in Mobile saw a computer enhancement of the boy on the Internet. A comparison of the enhancement to the boy Johnson saw in person Friday was remarkable.
"I am so grateful to everyone," Johnson said.
WRAL learned late Friday afternoon that Gianni DiPietro has hired an attorney to try and regain joint custody.
Johnson, who has sole custody of Nicolas, said she does not plan to press charges against Gianni. She said she just wants to enjoy life with her little boy.
"I've lost four years with him," she said. "But I can make up for that for the rest of his life."