With an infant's killing, a town comes together

Harpers Ferry residents bury baby found in March

April 04, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - In life, the newborn boy had nobody. In death, a community came to his side.

The people in this Civil War battleground who buried him yesterday called him Baby Christian, a hopeful name for a child who never had a chance.

The boy still had his umbilical cord attached when a park ranger found his body here two weeks ago on the banks of the Shenandoah River. He had been wrapped in pink and white blankets, stuffed in a trash bag with barbell weights, and then, investigators believe, tossed alive from the bridge 60 feet above.

The news has shaken this strikingly beautiful valley just across the Potomac River from Maryland, and the people here wanted to give the infant a dignity in death that eluded him in his few hours, or minutes, of life.

"He was thrown away once, and we weren't going to let it happen again," says Sgt. Sam Harmon of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, a 15-year police veteran who has found himself in tears over the case. "As a community, we felt that this was the right thing to do."

Yesterday, about 100 people-gray-haired veterans in military uniforms, scruffy men in work boots, young mothers with toddlers - attended a funeral service for the baby at Harpers Ferry Middle School. A simple, 2-foot-long white casket rested on the auditorium stage between a row of red and white flowers.

"If you came here today looking for answers - definitive answers - I'll apologize right now because I don't have any," Henry Christie, a local chiropractor and chaplain to a nearby fire company, told the mourners. "Why God gave Baby Christian a few short breaths on this earth is a great mystery."

Later, as a light rain fell on the Edge Hill Cemetery and a bagpiper played "Going Home," two sheriff's deputies carried the casket to a freshly dug hole under a blossoming cherry tree.

No one keeps track of how many newborns are discarded around the country each year. But child advocates who have kept count through newspaper clippings estimate that 100 to 125 are abandoned every year just after birth, often in trash bins or toilets, by mothers too scared, isolated or ashamed to turn anywhere else.

Since 1999, West Virginia, Maryland and 43 other states have passed laws granting anonymity and immunity from prosecution to parents who give their unwanted healthy newborns to a hospital or responsible adult.

But serious questions remain about the effectiveness of the laws, in part because they are poorly publicized.

Joseph Thornton, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, says the state knows of no uses of the law since its passage in 2000.

In Harpers Ferry, investigators from the sheriff's office and the FBI have focused on two "persons of interest," including a young Virginia mother of three recently imprisoned on felony theft charges. But they are awaiting the results of DNA and forensics tests, and are tracking dozens of leads.

The state medical examiner's office concluded that the baby was killed by trauma - most likely the drop from the U.S. 340 bridge - one to three months before a ranger found the body at the edge of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on March 21.

Harpers Ferry Mayor James Arthur Addy says he has seen his town of 320, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, unite and rebuild after floods, hurricanes, and snowstorms in his 28 years here.

"I don't think any incident has touched the hearts of people the way this has," he says. "When it happened, everybody talked about it. In the post office, at the 7-Eleven, in the stores."

Offers of help poured in from across Jefferson County, population 45,000, and from Virginia and Maryland.

Funeral director Bob Spencer donated his services.

Roy Carter Jr., 70, a Korean War veteran, put up a $3,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Ray Jamison, a retired cement worker, penned a poem, "Our Baby Has Gone Home."

Jack Huyett, a retired banker who is president of the Edge Hill Cemetery in Charles Town, originally a burial site for Confederate soldiers, donated a plot in a new section of the graveyard.

A young mother walked into the sheriff's office with a pacifier and teddy bear, gifts she felt the baby should have before he was lowered into the ground.

And Tom Dailey carved a granite grave marker.

It bore the likeness of a baby lamb and the words, "In Memory of Baby Christian, given to Jefferson County, March 21, 2004."

The reaction tends to be different in big cities, where discarded newborns often wind up cremated by the state or buried by local police officers, who may pay out of pocket for the services.

"The smaller the town, the bigger the response," said Laure Krupp, director of Safe Place for Newborns, a Minnesota group assembling a national database on discarded infants.

"In a city, it just fades into the rest of the news."

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