'Y'all are going to Nigeria'

Date: 2007-01-07

'Y'all are going to Nigeria'

Terri Langford
Houston Chronicle

Sixteen-year-old Brandy Liggins stood anxiously with her six siblings around the flight departure screen at a German airport, frantically searching for their connecting flight to Italy.

Call it survivor's instinct, but Brandy had a feeling they weren't going to Italy to enroll in boarding school as they had been told the day before in Houston by their adoptive mother, Mercury Liggins.

"She was nice," Liggins said of her mother's demeanor on the flight to Germany. "Too nice."

For eight years, Brandy Liggins had seen how quickly the woman she still calls "Mom" could explode.

Within minutes, the girl's suspicions were validated. When the children couldn't locate the Italian flight, their mother admonished them as if they had imagined the whole story.

"She said we weren't going to Italy," Liggins, now 19, remembers. "'Y'all are going to Nigeria.'"

Two years ago, a San Antonio minister on a church visit discovered the Liggins children abandoned in an Ibadan, Nigeria, orphanage.

The case, in which the American children caught the minister's eye after singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," was well documented nationally and internationally by the media.

But few details about what happened to them during their year in Nigeria and their lives before in Houston emerged.

Other than a brief appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show shortly after their return, none of the Liggins children have talked at length to the media.

Today, Mercury Liggins sits in a prison cell in Gatesville, serving a 25-year sentence for the theft of $443,000 she received in adoption subsidies earmarked for the children's care. She declined to grant the Houston Chronicle an interview.

But Brandy Liggins, now a legal adult, came forward recently to talk about the strange odyssey and fill in the gaps of the children's story.

Life with Mercury

When 8-year-old Brandy Bonner first met her adoptive mother, she thought she had found a ticket out of foster care for her and her three siblings, three years after they were taken into state custody because of drug use and physical abuse in their Fort Bend County home.

During the six-month trial adoption period in 1996, Mercury Liggins bought McDonald's Happy Meals for the kids, and took them to the movies.

But once the adoption papers were signed, their new mom's temperament changed and she disappeared a lot, leaving the children in the hands of relatives. The children later found out she was battling breast cancer.

"She wasn't really around," Liggins recalled. "When she was home, she was always upset about something."

Liggins said the emotional abuse soon became physical.

But visits from the adoption agency and Texas Child Protective Services failed to document any problems. If social workers were on their way, Brandy Liggins said her mom told the children not to say one word about the threats or the hitting.

They didn't. Five times complaints were made about the care of the Liggins children between 1997 and 2003. Each time, the children denied their mother was responsible.

In 2001, Mercury Liggins adopted three more children, earning her about $3,600 a month in adoption subsidies.

Brandy Liggins confirmed little of the money made it to them. Often they were taken to free youth programs that offered meals.

"She always found a (Vacation) Bible School that stayed open real late, like 9 o'clock," Brandy Liggins said. "We would never see home until night time."

Life in Nigeria

Strange, musty, sour smells greeted the Liggins children as they stepped off their KLM jet in Nigeria on Oct. 10, 2003. Goats, dogs and bugs were everywhere. People were crammed into tiny buses.

The children were taken to the home of the brother of Mercury Liggins' Nigerian fiance, where they were left with a maid as the two adults traveled throughout the country, reportedly to meet her intended's family.

When the children tried to ask why they were being left behind, Mercury Liggins silenced them with her familiar sharp tone.

"'Don't ask no questions,'" they were told.

Shortly before their mother left them for good, apparently to return to Houston, the children were enrolled in a boarding school.

Brandy Liggins said she immediately sought out friends who not only translated the teachers' clipped British accents but taught her how to make an international phone call and gave her the money to do so.

Before the Christmas school break, Brandy Liggins contacted her maternal grandmother. Liggins told her she and her siblings wanted to come home and that they needed money for clothes and essentials. She then made a call to Mercury Liggins' ex-husband, a man Brandy Liggins still calls "Dad."

"He was shocked. He didn't know where we were," she said.

But no adult ever sought help for the children.

Brandy Liggins then created an e-mail address at a local Internet cafe.

"I told one of my friends on Yahoo Messenger we needed help. We really wanted to come home," Liggins said. "Nobody knew what to do."

Valentine's Day in 2004 came with a stern phone call from Mercury Liggins. "She said: 'Y'all are never going to call home.'"

In March, their lives worsened. CPS officials learned the children were not in Houston and had suspended Mercury Liggins' adoption subsidy.

When Nigerian school officials didn't get their money, they took compensation another way, Liggins said.

"They whup until they get paid," she said.

When asked if any of her other brothers and sisters were beaten, she says, "Yes," offering few details. Liggins is careful not to speak for her siblings.

At the suggestion of other students, the Liggins children walked up to the security gate of the U.S. Embassy and tried in vain to convince them they were Americans. None of them had passports, which their mother had taken with her back to Houston.

Eventually the lack of tuition forced them all from the boarding portion of the school. They returned to the uncle's home where they found a young nephew, barely 18, now in charge.

By July, the nephew was gone. Quickly, any money the children had ran out.

The children drank untreated water and got sick. A neighbor contacted authorities and Nigerian immigration officials came to the door.

"They just picked us up and put us in a truck," Liggins said.

"It was crazy," she said of their weeklong stay in an orphanage, a sort of warehouse for the feeble, the blind, the sick and the dying.

Liggins quickly elicited information about her new home from her fellow inmates.

"There were teenagers who murdered people, criminals there," said Liggins, who kept that crucial information to herself. "I didn't tell my brothers and sisters. I didn't want them to cry."

During the day, Liggins kept the children close to her in the stuffy orphanage. At night, she took them as a group to bathe.

The road home

Several officials — including a husband and wife from the American Embassy — came to interview the sick children while they were at the orphanage, Liggins said. Again, the suspicions surfaced that these were Nigerian children trying to pass as Americans.

Then, someone in the orphanage told Liggins a preacher from Texas was coming, the Rev. Warren Beemer from San Antonio. Liggins wasn't hopeful she could persuade anyone to bring them home.

The next day, Beemer noticed Liggins' sister Tiffany playing "Go Fish" with her brother Derrick. He marveled aloud how this very American children's game was being played in Nigeria.

"He started asking us questions," Liggins said. "What school did you go to, what airport did you leave out of, what was my Social Security number."

The children began singing songs together, things they knew from school and back in Texas.

One of those songs was "The Star-Spangled Banner."

At that point, Beemer began making tougher inquiries to Nigerian officials. Arrangements were made to bring them home.

Beemer, youth pastor at Cornerstone Church for the past 10 years, said he calls Liggins almost weekly and last chatted with her on Christmas Eve.

She attended the church's youth camp last July, going to SeaWorld and Six Flags during the one-week experience. A year ago, Cornerstone pastor John Hagee personally took the siblings to the Rain Forest Café on the River Walk and bought them Christmas presents, Beemer said.

Beemer said going to Africa was not in his plans, but he felt God tell him he should go. About a month later, a man at his church invited him to go with him to Nigeria. That was three months before the siblings arrived in Nigeria, a development Beemer chalks up to divine orchestration.

This May, when Liggins is to graduate from a Houston high school, Beemer will watch with pride as she walks the stage and then take her out for dinner, he said.

"I really believe that God has a plan for our lives," he said, "and even if someone does evil to us and we walk about and stay faithful to him, God will work it out so that it's righted."

Brandy's future

When asked about her life then, Liggins ticks off the events like a well-trained courtroom witness, staring straight ahead from her seat on the sofa in her current foster home, her eyes never meeting those of the interviewer. She dismisses hints of pity for what she's been through.

"Don't be sorry," she insists. "I am OK."

But talk to her about her life now, as she's poised to complete high school and move out of foster care, and she can't stop grinning or talking. She turns her head and laughs, rolls her eyes, slaps her thighs as her voice races in that rapid-fire cadence heard in high school hallways nationwide.

"My life has been tight," she says. "I'm at this tight foster home, this tight school, making A's and B's."

After living through the worst that foster and adoptive care has to offer, Liggins knows a good foster home when she sees one.

This one, she says, is the best.

"None beats this one," Liggins said. "Everybody is cool."

And no one can compare to current foster mom, Ella Briscoe.

"Oprah needs to do something for her, an award or something," Liggins teased, as Briscoe shyly smiled and shook her head.

Liggins is considering a career in the Navy. As is the case for all children "aging out" of foster care, CPS will pay for Liggins' college education, so Liggins is considering it. She likes Texas A&M's ROTC program. She's heard the University of Texas has a great psychology department.

After a life in foster care, growing up with social workers and therapists, psychology is a field she's drawn to.

"I want to ask questions," Liggins said.

As for the immediate future, Liggins has one wish.

"If I could have anything, it would be to see my real mom and dad," Liggins said.

She last saw them when she was 5 years old.

CPS will provide Liggins with information about locating her parents. The agency leaves it up to both the natural parent and the child about whether they should meet.

As for Mercury Liggins, there is forgiveness, not anger.

If the two met on the street tomorrow, Liggins said she'd merely ask her how she was doing.

"I wouldn't throw it in her face," she said.

"What's the use in hating her?" asked Liggins, a woman with a lifetime of reasons to be resentful and hurt. "It takes more to be mad than happy."

Express-News Staff Writer Abe Levy in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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