The river of secrets around one mother and two floating Minnesota babies

Jennifer Davis

Jennifer Davis

The “all-call” almost never happens here.

The arrow-shaped tract of southeastern Minnesota known as Goodhue County hugs the Mississippi River. Months can separate incidents of violent crime. For homicides, years.

But on a December afternoon in 2003, the emergency dispatcher ordered all available personnel to Florence Township Beach, a sandy spit 65 miles southeast of the Twin Cities.

A group of teenage girls had been hiking along the Mississippi near Frontenac, a village outside Red Wing. They’d assembled earlier that Sunday for a gathering at a Methodist church. On a break from the activities, finding God in nature seemed apropos.

Naked oaks and willows filled the panorama. The girls emerged from the canopy into a clearing. Their footsteps crunched semi-frozen sand. Lake Pepin’s one-and-a-half-mile girth stared back.

Goodhue Sheriff’s Detective Pat Thompson won’t forget what the dispatcher relayed: The girls found the body of a baby boy floating just offshore. He looked to be no more than a few weeks old. The newborn’s naked figure was topped with a mop of dark hair.

The discovery was similar to another four years prior. In late 1999, fishermen found the body of newborn girl. They’d retrieved it from Red Wing Bay, about 12 miles upriver from the beach.

“In both cases we have the victims, apparently both dumped in the water. No witnesses and little, if any, physical evidence,” says Thompson. “Based on the facts we had at the time the second baby was discovered, we believed we had two separate cases. At least that’s what we thought.”

The water’s edge

Goodhue owes much to the Mississippi. In the pre-Civil War era, Scandinavian farmers here produced more wheat than any other county in the nation. Barges transported the harvest to markets along America’s most famous river.

About 17,000 residents today call Red Wing home. Many of the 19th-century houses on the bluffs survive.

Pat Thompson returned to his hometown after college, becoming a husband, father, and investigator for the sheriff’s department.

On an early winter afternoon in 1999, Thompson and Captain Randy Mickelson were driving back to their office from Shakopee. They’d spent the morning in a Scott County courtroom, where criminal proceedings for confessed child killer Dale Jensen had moved by change of venue.

The squad car’s radio chirped. All available to Bay Point Park, said the dispatcher, directing officers to the public green space in the heart of Red Wing. Fishermen had discovered the body of a baby near the boat harbor. Thompson and Mickelson had 45 miles to go.

Red Wing police and sheriff’s deputies were scattered about the scene. A tarp covered the girl’s eight-pound body, umbilical cord attached. She lay beside the public launch.

Save for decomposition’s onset, there were no signs of trauma. Ten fingers. Ten toes. A head of dark hair. A newborn’s blue eyes.

Thompson stood at the water’s edge, looking east toward the main channel. He scanned the armada of metal boathouses and docks. That’s where the anglers had first spotted something floating, white and curious. She was swaddled in a large towel.

“We have a victim, a towel, and whatever the autopsy is going to tell us,” Thompson says. “The water washed away whatever other physical evidence there was. We have no name, no witnesses, no one calling to say this person, this baby is missing. But because the harbor is calm water and the current doesn’t run through there, we were pretty sure that the likelihood she had washed into the harbor was very, very slim. We believed the victim was found close to where she entered the water.”

The infant had been born alive, according to coroner Lindsey Thomas, ruling out stillbirth. She’d only been alive for a few hours and died before entering the water. Judging by the stage of decomposition, the body had been in the river at least a week, probably longer. Toxicology test results weren’t publicly disclosed.

“Undetermined,” read the cause of death. “Homicide.”

“It’s listed that way,” Thompson says, “because babies obviously don’t get into the water by themselves.”

CSI: Red Wing

Thompson isn’t one for theories. A detective since the mid-’90s, he approaches crime-solving in a matter-of-fact Marge Gunderson way. Investigative work isn’t sexy. It’s tedious. Phone calls. Tracking people down. Interviews. Paperwork. Evidence builds cases one fact at a time, which reveal paths to truths, which add up to answers.

“We’d had previous homicides from time to time,” he says. “How many? Maybe five. Most of our cases are pretty clear-cut about what happened. When we pulled up to the scene in ’99, I thought this is going to be an easy case. Somebody’s going to know someone who was pregnant and they don’t have the baby, right?”

It looked that way early on. Tips came in by the dozens. Investigators canvassed hospitals, social service agencies, and schools.

Some suspects believed to be pregnant weren’t. Others were exonerated by medical records. Still others with shaky alibis would be cleared by DNA. Tests on the towel by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension produced nothing investigators could move on.

“Most cases, we hone in on a suspect or they get ID’d within the first 48 hours of the crime window,” Thompson says. “In this case, that was gone because the body had already been in the water for so long. When I think back on it, we were doomed when we got out of the car.”

The community would adopt the dead orphan. Jeanne and Don Madston made sure of it. Their own stillborn daughter Ann Marie was buried in 1989. The childless couple volunteered to cover the costs of burial at Oakwood Cemetery. The funeral for “Baby Jamie,” the Red Wing Republican Eagle reported, was well attended.

There was no such closure for investigators as seasons came and went. New leads were infrequent. Yet in every instance, it was as if the water would wash away any possibility of renewed optimism the case would be solved.

“I’ve often wondered if the river represents something,” Thompson says. “If it holds some sort of larger meaning. What I do know is it’s a darn good place to get rid of evidence.”

The third anniversary of the body’s discovery meant the statute of limitations on manslaughter expired. Months later, state lawmakers enacted the Safe Place for Newborns law, allowing the mother or immediate family of a newborn to leave a baby at a hospital with complete anonymity during the first 72 hours of the child’s life.

It was an expansion of Minnesota’s original Safe Haven law, which had taken effect in 2000. That law said a mother could anonymously surrender her newborn at a designated “safe place” — like a hospital — no questions asked.

A river’s secrets

The Great River doglegs beyond Red Wing. Around Frontenac State Park, Lake Pepin’s 26,000 acres of blue unfurl like the setting for a Mark Twain story. A descending dirt road dead-ends at Florence Township Beach.

On December 7, 2003, duty said Glen Barringer must drive the route. He was the sheriff’s investigator on weekend call.

The church hikers found the baby boy’s body lapping the shoreline in a shallow bay away from the main channel. What stood out about the infant was his dark, wavy hair. He looked to weigh around seven pounds. On the adjacent beach lay a blue towel, which would be taken to the state crime lab.

“Yes, you want to treat each case separately,” says Barringer. “But how many places, how many counties, has this happened? You’re going to put the two mentally together. I know I did.”

Lindsey Thomas performed the autopsy. As with the first victim, she concluded this baby had been born alive and died before being disposed of in the river. How long the baby had been alive after birth, Thomas couldn’t say.

Thomas deduced the body had been in the water for days, maybe a week, maybe two. The cause of death: undetermined. Barringer would be assigned to investigate.

“Our best shot at solving the case was much like the first, that someone would come forward with information.”

Witnesses who’d been in the area didn’t report seeing anything or anyone of note. No towel. No sketchy cars. No strangers along the banks.

We’ve got to be missing something, Thompson thought.

“Say somebody drives down here. They drive in and drive out. Somebody might pay attention, maybe not,” he says. “I believed that if we kept asking questions, somebody would know something, eventually.”

News reports generated two dozen tips. Detectives canvassed some 75 nearby residences, finding nary a witness, a droplet of blood, or out-of-place tire tracks.

“My personal opinion is somebody just walked up to the shoreline and threw him in,” Barringer says.

Fibers from the towel provided nothing of consequence, except to say it possibly came from a motel or laundry service. Goodhue would eventually call upon an FBI profiler. The report was disappointing.

“We were told the suspect was a female and in her child-bearing years, which means she could be anywhere from something like 12 to what nowadays? Fifty-five-years-old?” says Thompson. “Yep, that’s what they told us.”

Goodhue turned 150 years old in 2004. It was the same year the sheriff’s office bumped Thompson’s rank to captain, which meant he was in charge of all investigations. It also meant the only unsolved homicides in county history were on his watch.

The Madstons, the couple who’d paid to bury the first victim, made certain the second would also receive a funeral. Baby “Corey” was buried alongside his sister.

Months after he’d been found, the sheriff’s department received DNA results from state officials. Science said the newborns shared the same mother.

“We were told the likelihood was about as high as you could get,” says Thompson.

As the news broke in Red Wing, sadness acquiesced. For many, anger became the replacement.

The storm inside her

A gas station has operated at the corner of Fulton Street and Highway 61, Red Wing’s main drag, since 1916. Eppen’s Auto Services is the latest incarnation.

A life somewhere else never held much of an appeal to owner Bob Eppen. That might explain why he takes the cases personally, a wound to the unapologetic pride he holds for this place.

“I guess the second one bothered me and everybody more than the first one,” he says. “The first one, you know, could’ve been a tragic deal that happened and the mother or the father or whoever had to do something. But to do it a second time....”

Eppen doesn’t believe the mother was local. There’s no way Goodhue’s social fabric would’ve allowed for either to go unnoticed.

“For a woman from around here to have two full-term pregnancies without someone noticing something, I can’t believe that could happen,” he says. “This is small-town America. Somebody is going question that. I’ve always believed it was someone from out of town, could’ve been, say, a person from Duluth, and they just thought Red Wing was a nice place to do this.”

Eppen’s opinion runs counter to the prevailing theory of two experts, who believe the woman lived in the area.

Mothers who commit infanticide often share so many of the same traits and circumstances that “the crime is remarkably patterned,” says Santa Clara University law professor Michelle Oberman, the author of the book When Mothers Kill.

They’re likely to be “teenagers, 17- and 18-year-olds most often, and almost never past the age of 30. They tend to be ultra-immature.... In other words, they’re shy to a fault, outliers, unknowns. Their relationships with males tilt heavily toward not being very solid, which means their partners react to the news of a pregnancy by leaving.”

The incidence of infanticide in the U.S. isn’t tracked. Some have estimated the rate to be as high as 300 annually. Many more are believed to go unreported.

Oberman thinks the profile fits this mother. She’s alone, likely paralyzed by fear and shame. Her choices were seeded with heavy denial.

“Added to her grand sense of passivity is she won’t let herself rationalize what’s happening in her body,” she says. “If she hasn’t gained much weight, and her parents and peers haven’t noticed anything, it’s much easier to think, ‘Maybe I’m not pregnant.’”

What often ends up happening is the woman goes into labor, wanting to believe she’s having a bowel movement.

“She ends up having the baby on the toilet,” says Oberman.

Which may explain why the children were dumped in the river.

“Everything about this speaks to an impulsiveness and a lack of planning,” she says. “I see her being a woman from the local area. This isn’t a person capable of long-term planning.”

Dr. Carly Snyder, a reproductive psychiatry specialist based in New York City, offers a similar assessment, but with a possible twist.

Her first question about the ’99 case is whether the woman suffered from postpartum psychosis.

“A full-term pregnancy with a baby girl weighing eight pounds. Police said she wasn’t stillborn,” Snyder says. “She’s a big girl, which doesn’t lead me to believe drugs are involved. It could very well be a woman thinking and acting irrationally because she’s suffering from postpartum psychosis.”

It occurs in approximately one or two of every 1,000 deliveries. The symptoms usually start within two weeks. They hit without warning and can be brutal to the point that hallucinations, delusion, paranoia, and depression render the victim dysfunctional. It’s a psychiatric emergency that necessitates hospitalization, usually with antipsychotic meds.

Although the science is thin, women with mental illness in their history are believed to be more susceptible.

“If that was the case here,” Snyder says, “she might have been wrapping the baby in the towel out of the irrational thought that somehow she was caring for or protecting it. She could’ve perceived the water as some place where she believed her baby would be safe.”

If it wasn’t mental illness, the intent was to hide evidence.

“Maybe she wanted to have an abortion, but couldn’t get one because of some sort of barrier — economic, social, religious, whatever it might have been,” Snyder says. “But then why not drop the baby off at a firehouse instead of throwing it away in the water?

“If the decision was made out of panic, then the water was a place to get rid of it. But throwing it in the water represents a sort of nefariousness of the act. And why there? In the middle of a population center as opposed to a spot more remote and risk being seen by someone, especially considering all that you’ve already gone through to get to that point? It doesn’t make sense.”

A tragedy, not a crime story

Thompson and Barringer are left wanting to believe in something. The passage of time adds to feelings that they’ve somehow failed. Both admit the unsolved cases humble, frustrate, even embitter them on the worst of days.

“There are so many people who’d take these children. That’s what really pisses me off more than anything,” says Barringer, a 37-year veteran of the sheriff’s department. “Would I like to find who did this? Sure. I’d like to find them before I retire. Will I? Probably not.”

He hopes the state crime lab will someday get a DNA hit. It periodically runs victims through its databases.

His counterpart isn’t faring better. Thompson’s unmarked car passes Eppen’s gas station en route to the township beach. At the dead-end beside the river, he gets out with arms extended. “Look around here. Where do you even start? There’s some [cases] we don’t figure out, like the odd burglary or theft. Those are easier to live with.”

Absent the mother, you’d think there’s a father or a family member who could still come forward, he continues. He won’t admit it, but the belief that these would be solved started living on borrowed time inside him a while ago.

“The fact that someone won’t come forward — I don’t know what the right word is,” he says. “We’ve never given up hope. We do need a person to come forward with some new information. I think society deserves answers, and it’s the job of law enforcement to get them.”

If answers and closure are what police seek, maybe now is the time for magnanimity, says Oberman. What is there to lose?

“Continuing to look for this woman so she can be brought up on criminal charges won’t help her,” she says. “So to answer the question as to why she’s never come forward is fairly obvious. She’s been through all of this in isolation. Her sense of terror for killing the babies is compounded that she’s going to prison if they catch her. None of us can imagine the ongoing storm inside her.”

This isn’t a crime story, adds Snyder. It’s a tragedy, in which mental illness is likely the central character.

“The fact that it happened a second time speaks to no remorse, which speaks toward a sociopathic behavior,” she says. “This is not a woman who is thinking. That leads me to believe she suffers from mental illness. Otherwise, it’s hard to believe how someone does it twice.”