The phone rings, and it's Janie. Rich DeCosta picks up the receiver. Hi ... how are you, he asks his daughter. Oh, OK, hold on. The phone cradled to his ear, he goes to the living room, clicks on the TV and flicks through the channels. He settles on one and hunches down on the sofa, chatting and chuckling softly into the receiver as his eyes remain glued to the screen.
It is a familiar childhood ritual: father and daughter watching Saturday morning cartoons together. Except Rich DeCosta's little girl is behind the razor wire of a women's detention center.
Once a week, the 16-year-old sees her parents when they visit her in Towson for the half-hour they are allowed. In between, Rich and Peggy field phone calls, like this one, to help Jane while away the time. On this day, her call is a welcome interlude -- among the last chances Rich has to talk to his daughter about inconsequential matters before she stands trial on charges that could send her to prison for life.
Jane had just turned 15 when a boyfriend, Ben Garris, killed his counselor at Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital on Oct. 8, 1995. Jane had given Ben the knife that he used, and then ran away with him.
And so Rich got into his car and went in search of Jane, as he had so often during her troubled adolescence. He had watched the little girl who shared his love of sports turn into a rebellious teen-ager with a pierced nose, spiked hair and a tattoo on her ankle. More than 20 times now, she had run away.
This time, she turned up in Virginia Beach, and with a shaved head. Once again, Rich brought her home and, once again, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. This time, though, Jane would not return home to her parents after a couple of days, or even go to another hospital or juvenile facility. This time, Jane would be charged with being an accessory to murder.
For years, Peggy and Rich struggled to hold on to this breakaway daughter; now they've reached the point where they can do no more. The cliche is true: Her fate is in the hands of a jury.
Tomorrow, when the trial is scheduled to open, Peggy and Rich will be in the courtroom, but they won't be allowed to talk to their daughter, or even touch her. Instead, they will listen to the cold, hard testimony about the things Jane Frances DeCosta is alleged to have done. Maybe they'll think of the mornings they woke to find her bed empty; of the times they retrieved her, disheveled and dirty, in Fells Point; of the rules that were made and the promises that were broken.
And yet, they can't help it if, even after all of this, they still think of her as a child, their child, the one they still call Janie.
Searching for answers
Janie grows up before your eyes on the pages of her family's photo albums: from the bundle of baby held up to the camera by a proud first-time father and on through the dance recitals, the trip to the Statue of Liberty and the family dog Elbie before he became old and deaf. Janie is one of the smiling faces in Mrs. Fudman's kindergarten class, a member of the trophy-winning Lutherville Timonium Recreation Council's softball team.
Somewhere around age 12, though, the class and team photos stop. By then, Janie was in special schools that didn't take class photos, or she missed the softball season because she was hospitalized. Or she was simply on the run again.
Peggy and Rich are sitting at the dining-room table of their home in Timonium, trying to explain the inexplicable. What happened to their little girl? Possible clues inevitably lead to a "yes, but."
Janie was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in second grade. Yes, but so are so many, especially in a comfortable suburban neighborhood full of anxious parents.
By middle school, Janie had started doing weird things with her hair, listening to godawful music, dressing in tough black clothes. Yes, but so do many other kids today, as any trip to the mall will show.
At 45, Peggy and Rich remember their own youth in the '60s and '70s -- the long hair, the bell bottoms, the hard rock, their parents' horror at it all. What is harmless fashion, they wonder, and what is a warning sign of something more?
As if a living case study, their other daughter, Annie, 14, emerges. She has been outside bouncing a basketball with her boyfriend Ryan and taking occasional peeks from the kitchen as her parents talk about Janie.
Annie's dark brown hair is streaked with bright red. She has branded fake tattoo markings on her hands, even on her knuckles the way prisoners do, although hers spell out C-U-R-E, her favorite band, instead of the L-O-V-E, H-A-T-E, or something more menacing. She wears baggy jeans and Doc Martens-like boots.
But she also just brought home an all-A, one-B report card and a scholar-athlete certificate for her junior varsity and academic achievements. And the red dye that is starting to fade on her hair was a show of school colors for a football game.