Couple gives up efforts to bury abandoned babies

January 08, 1995|By Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- It remains unclear who brought Baby John Doe No. 237 into this world.

What is known is that he was found the day after Christmas in a brown plastic bag, buried in the backyard of a sleepy suburban Sun Valley neighborhood.

Baby John Doe No. 237 was the last unidentified baby of 1994 in Los Angeles County, one of more than 10 newborns found abandoned every year.

He will be buried like all the other unclaimed, unidentified people and paupers: cremated and interred in a mass grave in East Los Angeles with about 2,000 other adults, children and infants.

For Rose Horton, the mystery of Baby John Doe No. 237 is a familiar one. She and her husband created the Child Rest In Peace expressly to provide dignified funeral services and burials for infants when no one else would.

"It is a really hard thing to do. I have two little girls. They are babies -- and I am burying babies. It is heartbreaking," she said.

"They were humans. They were not refuse, and the babies we took care of were generally found in trash cans," said the 38-year-old Ms. Horton.

"That was the very last thing you could do for this child, was a service -- some words said, some sort of acknowledgment," Ms. Horton said.

Since the charity opened in 1991, Ms. Horton has buried 13 children.

Baby John Doe No. 237 will not be Child Rest in Peace's 14th burial, however, because Ms. Horton is closing the foundation, another victim of the economy.

The demands of Child Rest in Peace became too much for Rose and Ellis Horton to continue after their suburban Sante Fe Springs carpet installation business hit hard times and eventually closed.

Child Rest in Peace is still in the process of dissolving itself, having just transferred its last assets -- about $5,000 -- to another charity.

"We thought it would be part of our lives -- for the rest of our lives," she said. "But it didn't pan out."

Los Angeles County officials bemoan the loss.

"I hope someone does decide they will carry on with this important work," said Deanne Tilton, executive director of the county Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

"Every child deserves to be honored, no matter under what circumstances they are conceived and born," Ms. Tilton said.

Annual mass burials

But many are not, as Rose Horton learned. In a series of common graves next to the county crematory, the ashes of literally thousands of bodies are deposited. Each grave is marked with a single sign, indicating the year of the cremation.

The yearly mass burial for 1994 was held three weeks ago: 1,400 adults and 600 children.

"Most of them were probably babies," said the Rev. Phil Manly, who has presided over these pauper services for the past 22 years.

"It always overwhelms me personally," the 53-year-old chaplain said. "You'd have to have no heart at all not to be -- to see all of these little boxes, each that represent human life."

Mr. Manly believes that without Child Rest in Peace or another group like it, more babies will certainly end up in the county's mass graves.

As is county policy, the ashes of Baby John Doe No. 237 will be held for three years before burial, just in case someone surfaces to claim them.

And sometimes someone does.

Of the 209 male adults, children and infants that the coroner logged initially as John Does, all but 21 were ultimately claimed or accounted for, coroner records show.

By comparison, there were only 71 unidentified female adults, children and infants, of whom six went unclaimed.

In 1994, the abandoned, unidentified babies included John Doe No. 156, found Sept. 11 in Hollywood. He had been strangled with a plastic wrapper.

They included Jane Doe No. 36, who was found June 6 in a shed in Baldwin Park, a city east of Los Angeles. Her identity and the cause of her death also remain a mystery.

And there was Baby John Doe No. 237, whose county-provided name marks him as the 237th unidentified male body of any age.

Los Angeles police investigators do not know whether Baby John Doe No. 237 ever took a breath or whether he had been murdered. They say they probably never will unless the mother or a witness comes forward.

"That, sadly, is not going to be able to be proven," said Detective Woody Beardsley, of the Los Angeles Police Department's Child Abuse Unit.

The day after Christmas, a man was raking bamboo in his backyard when he came upon a brownish plastic bag in a shallow trench. Inside he found some men's and women's underpants -- and a newborn boy with black hair.

The baby appeared to have been born prematurely but may have been alive, Mr. Beardsley said. Further tests are being conducted to determine how long it had been buried.

The detective suspects the mother was a neighborhood woman, but he has been unable to get a confession. He has tried to impress upon her that if it was a miscarriage, then no crime was committed.

"I wish someone would say: I had a miscarriage, and I didn't know what to do with it," he said. "That would be OK with me.

"For now, it is just Baby John Doe No. 237," he said.

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