Briton Linda Carty is on death row for killing a mother to steal her newborn child. But the US is seeing the rise of an even more horrendous crime – the murder of pregnant women and the theft of their foetuses
Heather Snively, found murdered when she was eight months pregnant. Photograph: Jeff Gentner/Associated Press
Yesterday, Trafalgar Square in London became the centre of an appeal to save the life of a British woman on death row. Linda Carty faces execution as early as next summer after being convicted in Texas of abducting and murdering a woman to steal her newborn baby. Carty, who had suffered several miscarriages, was accused of killing Joana Rodriguez – seized with her four-day-old son by three men in May 2001. Carty insists that she was framed for the crime in revenge for her work as an informant at the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Child abduction in America is rare, with just 263 cases recorded between 1983 and 2009. But Carty's case highlights an even rarer development – women accused of being willing to kill for a baby and the recent phenomenon of women accused of murdering mothers-to-be to steal their foetuses. Unheard of before 1987, there have now been 13 such cases recorded – all but one in the US. So far 12 mothers and four babies have died. There have also been several unsuccessful attempts to steal unborn babies. And the numbers are growing. Officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) believe the increase is due to the heightened security in maternity wards.
Cathy Nahirny of NCMEC, says, "The majority of abductions occur when a baby has been born, but in cases where an unborn baby is abducted, planning has to be involved because the abductors are going to such extremes. The general public, law enforcement officers and medical officials are dumbfounded by this crime."
Perpetrators pretend to be pregnant and are willing to go to extreme lengths to stop their secrets being exposed, Nahirny says. "She is a woman who gets through life using lies and manipulation. Her relationship with her partner may be falling apart. She thinks that if she tells him she's pregnant with his child he'll stay. Abductors of babies who have been born have the same motivation. They want to hold on to their partner, they may not be able to conceive naturally and many of them will fake a pregnancy." Unbelievably, some women manage to convince everyone they are pregnant for months. "It may be that the abductor has been faking a pregnancy for some time and has run out of options," says Nahirny.
A brutal murder
On 6 June this year, Heidi Kidd, a healthcare worker, was surprised by an early morning phone call. She expected it to be her daughter, Heather Snively, calling to tell her she had gone into early labour. Instead, a police officer informed her that Snively had been found dead with her unborn baby cut out of her womb.
Kidd says that the brutality of the crime made her loss harder to bear. "Since I received that phone call time has just stopped for me. It's such a heinous crime that I haven't been able to absorb it. I can't bear to imagine what Heather went through in her final moments. She and Chris were so looking forward to having the baby."
The 21-year-old had recently moved to Oregon from Maryland after her partner, Christopher Popp, got a new job. According to reports, Snively met Korena Roberts, 27, a mother of two, through the website Craigslist. Roberts apparently told Snively that she, too, was pregnant and wanted to exchange baby clothes. The pair struck up a friendship.
On 5 June, Roberts called the emergency services to say she had just given birth. But when they arrived they found her boyfriend trying to revive the baby, who was not breathing. A police search of the house revealed Snively's body hidden in a cupboard. Roberts faces several charges, including murder, robbery and aggravated murder. In her first court appearance, she did not enter a plea.
Kidd says that her eldest daughter would not have thought twice about befriending a woman on the internet. "She was such a bubbly person with a wonderful spirit. Everyone who met her became a friend. Heather trusted everyone, that's the kind of person she was."
Cindy Ray was one of the first recorded victims of such a crime in 1987. She was leaving an obstetrics clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was abducted at gunpoint by 20-year-old Darci Pierce. Pierce had a family history of schizophrenia, longed for a child, but had been unable to conceive. She had convinced her husband and family members that she was pregnant and told them she would be having labour induced on the day she abducted Ray.
Pierce took Ray to a remote area, choked her into unconsciousness and used a car key to cut open her abdomen to pull out the baby. Leaving Ray to bleed to death, she drove to a local hospital with the baby, claiming to have just given birth. But when she was examined, her claims unravelled. Pierce was found guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in jail.
The baby who survived
Ray's daughter, Millie, survived. Her father, Sam, a former police officer who is now principal of a high school in Utah, faced having to break the news of her brutal birth and mother's death to her. Thankfully, he says, Millie has lived a normal life. And when news broke of another baby who survived abduction from his mother's womb, she said: "I am no longer the only one."
Incredibly, the father-of-four has said he feels no bitterness, just blessed to still have his daughter, who is now 21. "Other people can't believe what happened, but I can," says Ray. "It was very painful to lose my wife but that's the issue, not how or why it happened. If I obsess about it, it could destroy my life and Millie's. I'm a religious man and my faith got me through this. The best advice is to try to go on. I know that that is what Cindy would have wanted."
Phillip Resnick, professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, has studied some of these womb abduction cases. He describes stealing an unborn baby as "the ultimate theft".
"I have been involved in three cases and none of the women was psychotic," he says. "They are women who want a baby very badly. I asked one of the women why she didn't kidnap a baby from a buggy instead and she replied that it had to be a newborn so that her husband would believe that the baby was biologically his."
He said that in some cases the women had even taken classes about Caesarian sections or had learned the basic mechanics of such procedures on the internet. "These women are often self-centred, narcissistic, and anti- social. They are prepared to sacrifice a human life to get what they want. The motives of a woman who takes a baby from a buggy may be similar to those who take the baby by C-section, but the second group are more willing to confront and are aggressive about taking a life."
Kidd said her daughter and her baby were cremated together, but the pain of the families who are doubly bereaved by such horrors remains unbearable. "The ashes are still here in the house with us. We have a place in the cemetery but I'm not ready to put them there yet. Heather was the oldest of four and having to tell the other children about this was the worst thing in the world. This has affected us all beyond what anyone could ever imagine."
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