COLUMN ONE : A Mother Who Lost Five Babies : One after another, Waneta Hoyt's children died. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was blamed. Years later, Hoyt said she killed them--then recanted. Now, she faces murder trial amid a swirl of questions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between 1965 and 1971, five healthy babies were born here to a poor woman who seemed to want them desperately and who mourned each of their deaths with a convulsive grief that quavered the soul.

At one funeral, Waneta Hoyt fainted after the lowering of the tiny, pitiful coffin and at another, her body collapsed with the great force of her sobbing. She had to be helped away from the freshly turned soil at the graveside.

These family tragedies, one after another, puzzled friends and relatives as well as the doctors. The deaths were always sudden, the causes inexplicable. The final two babies spent most of their short lives in a Syracuse hospital, their every breath monitored by machines. On occasion, they suffered slightly abnormal pauses in respiration. Then, like matchsticks lit against an unforgiving wind, they each died within a day after being sent home.

As a medical case history, this haunting clockwork of mortality seemed a significant tale to share. One of the hospital's attending physicians, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, wrote it up for the noted journal Pediatrics. He went on to become a national expert on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

That 1972 article was seen as pioneering work. Pediatricians often cited it as evidence that the unexplained phenomenon of SIDS may well run in families. Those abnormal pauses in breathing could be foretellers of a sudden death. If so, SIDS was possibly preventable with the use of monitoring devices at home.

Those conclusions aside, there was also a second, starkly contrary view of Steinschneider's report. Some doctors thought it naive. SIDS cases were too often indistinguishable from smothering. To them, the repeating catastrophes of this woebegone family read like the relentless clues in a murder mystery.

It was an arcane, scholarly conflict, easing into obscurity over the years. But time on occasion has a remarkable way of turning backflips, the present reaching into the past. That is what has happened here. A chance remark to a young prosecutor made him look up the old article and he also began to wonder: Were there awful secrets afloat in a grieving mother's tears?

Two months ago, 23 years after the death of her fifth baby, Waneta Hoyt was interrogated by police for the first time. Questioning went on for almost two hours before something gave way. The mother then began to confess the details of five suffocations, by pillows, with a towel, against the soft flesh of her shoulder: "I could not stand the crying," she told police. "It was the thing that caused me to kill them all, because I didn't know what to do for them."

And, for a while, that appeared to be that. Waneta Hoyt--47, housewife, churchgoer, the mother of an adopted boy now in high school--was arrested. It added yet another to a peculiar string of cases, women accused of murdering their babies, the deaths often first thought to be SIDS.

But now, through her two court-appointed attorneys, Hoyt has recanted. They say their frail, emotionally scarred client would have admitted to anything that day merely to end the long cross-fire of painful questions.

Certainly, that is what her many friends here in Upstate New York choose to believe. Memories are vivid of Waneta making her visits to the graves, laying crocuses near the headstones, pining to give birth to yet another child.

Life may be complicated, they acknowledge, and the human mind is capable of who knows what. But, really now, could that woman love her babies so much and then kill them?

*

Waneta Hoyt was born in nearby Richford, N.Y., the same birthplace as John D. Rockefeller, himself a pauper who left the town as a boy and went on to become the wealthiest man in the world. He would return from time to time and hand out shiny dimes in front of the general store from his chauffeured car.

In Rockefeller's time, a century ago, this was a poor, if picturesque, part of America. These days, good jobs are still scarce in the northern reaches of Appalachia. Tim Hoyt, Waneta's husband for the last 30 years, has had trouble finding construction work and is a Pinkerton guard at Cornell University, 30 miles away through the dairy farms and hilly stands of hemlock.

Here in Newark Valley, population 1,190, the Hoyts live in a weather-beaten house along a two-lane highway. Many people not only leave their front doors unlocked, some can't even recall if they have a key. At the United Methodist Church up the road, Waneta is known for her generous nature, the craftsmanship of her crocheted afghans and a long, mind-boggling run of heartache.

Her own health is a continuing ordeal. Waneta has a heart murmur and is bent over from arthritis. High-blood pressure and diabetes have weakened her eyesight. Breathing is a labor. Her bones are brittle from osteoporosis.

Family troubles add to the strain. One of Waneta's brothers is disabled from a hip degeneration. Another has cancer. One sister suffers from a brain tumor. Another, immobile from the waist down, is married to Tim's brother, who has multiple sclerosis. In 1989, Waneta's mother died in an auto accident.

"There isn't a well person in the family," said Art Hilliard, a friend of the Hoyts since their childhoods. "It has just been one trauma after another."

Of course, nothing has been harder to endure than the loss of the babies. Erik died at 3 months, Julie at only 7 weeks, James at 28 months (thought to have choked after eating breakfast). Those were impossible times for the Hoyts. "They'd be leaning on each other, crying, trying to be strong for each other," recalled Hilliard's wife, Natalie.

Around town, the common sentiments were ones of sympathy, not suspicion. An autopsy was performed on only one of the three children; it was inconclusive. The Hoyts simply seemed to be an impossibly star-crossed couple.

They lamented as much themselves. Something haywire must be deep-set within their babies, they told friends. The Hilliards and the Hoyts would play canasta late into the night, trying to keep their minds from morbid thoughts.

When Molly was born, and then again with Noah, the Hoyts sought help from the best doctors around, at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, nearly two hours away. Dr. Steinschneider was there. He already had an emerging interest in the phenomenon that most people called "crib death" and doctors recently had named the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

As a medical term, SIDS is certainly an unusual one. Rather than a cause of death, it is actually the absence of any detectable cause after an autopsy and investigation: a catchall for the unexplained. Each year, about 7,000 deaths in the United States are categorized as SIDS. Devastated parents find the term something to cling to, better than the maddening "cause unknown."

Steinschneider's paper, and similar work by others, gave doctors something to latch onto as well. Maybe some babies in jeopardy could be identified--and the fatal attack prevented. "It was a happier scenario," Steinschneider recently recalled. "I think that's why it had such a major impact."

But the facts in the article, merely striking to some, were incredible to others. The journal printed a letter from a doctor who raised the matter of child abuse. The babies should have been put in foster care rather than sent home, the writer said: "Perhaps the outcome would have been different?"

In his reply, Steinschneider agreed that child abuse must always be considered in SIDS cases. But, in this instance, both he and the nurses had found the babies' parents to be warm and supportive people. He had this to add about the couple he identified only as Mr. and Mrs. H.:

"Both parents often would be found sitting by the crib and had to be urged to make physical contact with the baby. It was my impression that they feared becoming too attached emotionally . . . because they anticipated a tragic outcome.

"Mrs. H. expressed, on a number of occasions, considerable guilt over the death of her children, and, because of the inability of physicians to define the cause of death, felt there must be something she did or failed to do that was responsible. Following the death of the fifth infant, Mrs. H. did seek and receive outpatient psychiatric care."

*

One skeptic of the 1972 article was Dr. Linda Norton of Dallas, a forensic pathologist prone to complaining about the medical Establishment. In lectures, she sometimes singled out the Steinschneider report for particular scorn.

Norton does a lot of consulting. In 1986, she found herself in Syracuse, working on a case where a father had murdered his three young children.

The assistant district attorney was William Fitzpatrick, an aggressive, steely prosecutor from Brooklyn. He thought the crime extraordinary.

Hell, Norton told him, you may have the same kind of trouble "right in your own back yard, and that case is famous. You can look it up."

The remark ate at Fitzpatrick. He got the article. Doctors comfort the bereft and may be inclined to overlook the possibility of foul play. But a prosecutor is paid to be suspicious. To Fitzpatrick, this read like homicide.

"I asked myself: How could this be, the killing of five children, obvious to anyone, going undetected?" he said. He opened a preliminary file.

Then, in the happenstances of career, he left the job for private practice only to return in 1992 after winning election as district attorney. This time, he ordered an investigation. There were these clues to go on: the initials of the babies, the name of the hospital, the general time frame of the deaths.

"One child had been autopsied, so there had to be some kind of report on file," Fitzpatrick said. "The name Noah Hoyt popped out. It fit perfectly. He was 2 1/2 months old. His diagnosis was SIDS. So now I had a name and an autopsy number. I subpoenaed the medical records from Upstate Medical Center.

"Several hundred sheets of paper came in, chronicling the life history of this young lad, Noah Hoyt. It was really so sad. For some reason, I developed an emotional attachment to Noah, you know, reading a record of virtually every day in his life. He was going to end up like the other four babies. You wanted to just reach back in through the hands of time and protect him."

Noah had suffered those breathing problems, sometimes bad enough to turn blue. There was a curious pattern to the attacks, the prosecutor noted: "They all happened while the child was in the exclusive control of the mother."

Two medical examiners were brought in to confer. They also went through the records, including autopsies of the fourth and fifth children. Based on the circumstantial evidence, both agreed with Fitzpatrick: They thought the mother was a murderer.

The last address in the file was in Tioga County. The Hoyts were not hard to find. The local prosecutor was notified, and the state police began their own investigation--criminal checks, employment records, birth certificates, marriage license, credit profile, toll calls. The Hoyts were as clean as could be, and there was only one more thing to do: bring the woman in for a talk.

*

Three state troopers sat in the interrogation room with Waneta. Several observers, including Fitzpatrick, were able to watch and listen through a two-way mirror.

The woman seemed unruffled as they dredged up her tragedies. Then, near the two-hour mark, the questioning took a sharper turn, with the police bluffing that they knew the whole truth, that she had killed them all. Suddenly, Waneta stiffened. And then this is what she said of her five babies, according to court records:

Erik (died Jan. 26, 1965, at 3 months, 10 days): "He was crying at the time and I wanted him to stop. I held a pillow--it might have been a sofa throw pillow--over his face while I was sitting on the couch. I don't remember if he struggled or not, but he did bleed from the mouth and nose."

Julie (died Sept. 5, 1968, 1 month, 17 days): "I held her nose and mouth into my shoulder until she stopped struggling."

James (died Sept. 26, 1968, 2 years, 4 months): "I was in the bathroom getting dressed and he wanted to come in. He came in . . . and I made him go out. He started crying, 'Mommy, mommy.' I wanted him to stop crying for me so I used a bath towel to smother him."

Molly (died June 5, 1970, 2 months, 18 days): "She was just home from the hospital overnight and was crying in her crib. I used a pillow that was in the crib to smother her. After she was dead, I called Mom Hoyt (Tim's mother) and Dr. Steinschneider."

Noah (died July 28, 1971, 2 months, 19 days): "I held a baby pillow over his face until he was dead. I then called for Mom Hoyt and Dr. Steinschneider. I remember it was a hot day in July."

According to some of the witnesses, at this point Waneta began to worry what people were going to think of her. She asked to see her husband.

Tim was brought in, and Waneta told him of her great unburdening. He chose not to believe her. Words were put in your mouth, he suggested. She insisted otherwise. He told her he still loved her, and the confessing began again.

She had seen counselors and a psychiatrist, she said in her signed confession. "I feel that if I had got help from them, it would have prevented me from killing the rest of my children. I feel that I am a good person, but I know that I did wrong.

"I loved my children. I love my (adopted) son, Jay, and my husband. I feel the burden I have carried by keeping the secret of killing my children has been a tremendous punishment. I most definitely feel remorse and regret for my actions. I cannot go back and undo the wrong that I have done."

*

Waneta's court-appointed attorneys say they received 541 calls from the media in just the first days after her arrest for second-degree murder. TV shows tried to fax her a contract: Would the alleged baby-killer agree to tell all on camera?

Since her confession, neither of the Hoyts has spoken publicly. Waneta is free on bond and a trial is not likely to occur for months. Her lawyers intend to attack the confession, arguing that it was taken under duress. They also hope to show that SIDS has in fact slain more than one baby in the same family.

There is evidence to support this in the medical literature, but the odds of five in one home are astronomical, many experts say. In most families, the risk of even a second SIDS death is "less than 1%," wrote Dr. Susan Beal in a 1992 article in the journal Clinics in Perinatology.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome commonly strikes babies 2 to 4 months old. No single pattern or pathological marker has been found for it. Clearly, the vast majority of mysterious infant deaths do not involve murder. Epidemiologist Philip McClain of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reviewed the studies and says that estimates show child abuse plays a role in only 1.4% to 4.7% of SIDS cases.

Those percentages, small as they are, make the questioning of bereft parents a difficult if necessary business. Horrendous crimes have been uncovered. The best known occurred not far from here, in Schenectady, N.Y. Friends and physicians alike consoled Marybeth Tinning as, one by one, her nine children died of mysterious causes. She was convicted of murder in 1986.

Diana Lumbrera's first five children died between 1976 and 1984; so did a 2 1/2-month-old cousin left in her care. People who knew her in a string of West Texas towns felt sorry for Lumbrera. She would rush the children to the hospital, but it was always too late to save them. Only when her sixth child died in Garden City, Kan., was a murder suspected and then proved in court.

Psychiatrists speculate on motives in such cases. One theory has it that a woman who kills her child will repeat the crime to punish herself, confirming that she is an unfit mother. Another theory is the bizarre disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, named for the 18th-Century German baron who told fantastic tales. Typically, the parent--usually the mother--will make up a child's illness or actually cause harm in order to get attention. Some doctors say the mothers are "sympathy junkies."

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy has been mentioned repeatedly in the Hoyt case, but that may be only a fondness for exotic labeling. Dr. Michael Baden, director of the forensic sciences unit of the New York State Police, has worked on the case. He views it more matter-of-factly.

"Right now, it seems like straight homicide," he contended. "She killed the kids because she was tired of their crying. Waneta and her husband are very close. He was away at work a lot, and maybe she couldn't handle the stress.

"With her adopted baby, her husband had been laid off and he was at home to help out. With the other kids, when she couldn't handle things, she only could figure out one way to keep them quiet. She killed them."

*

Dr. Alfred Steinschneider has the affable presence of a country doctor. His sentences mingle medical jargon with the easy humor of his native Brooklyn. He remains a believer in this controversial notion: that some SIDS cases are predictable--and preventable with the use of monitoring equipment at home.

In hindsight, some people have questioned his judgment in the Hoyt case. One is prosecutor Fitzpatrick. "How could a doctor not realize that Molly and Noah were in harm's way? I know it was 2 1/2 decades ago. But was he overly consumed with expounding on his theory or was he concerned with his patient?"

That is a hurtful accusation for Steinschneider, who has devoted much of his life to the study of SIDS. He is a founder and president of the American SIDS Institute in Atlanta. His ability to defend himself is limited by confidentiality requirements that he feels duty-bound to honor.

"What's missing from all this cheap talk, this impugning of motives, this show biz , is that it doesn't save a single baby," he said. "What they ought to be saying is: 'Let's examine the deaths of babies and make better identification of the causes of deaths to help sort things out.' "

In the Hoyt case, he relied on the opinions of the medical examiners. "If people think there were inadequate autopsies done, then check the autopsies, big shots," he said. "If they think these kids were murdered, then show me, because what they are saying now is at variance with what the people who investigated the case said then. If there's criticism I'll accept from the pathologists, it's that I accepted the opinion of other pathologists."

To him, the current focus on his 1972 article misses the point. "In college, I learned the word heuristic, and that's what is important here. Was the paper heuristic: Did it lead to learning? The important thing is not the paper itself; it's that the paper led to a significant amount of learning."

He paused for a moment. His eyes lit with a thought. "Without the paper," he said, "would people even know this case existed?"

*

These days, Waneta spends a lot of her time caring for her sister, the one dying of a brain tumor. She has begun to attend church again after missing some Sundays. Her friends call on her and try to cheer her up.

Those friends are appalled by what they hear on the news. This woman described as a baby-killer--this abomination--is not the Waneta they know. Accepting the allegations is as crazy and unthinkable to them as summer coming after fall.

What is behind this feeding frenzy for vengeance, they ask. "They arrested Waneta and then put her on suicide watch so they could keep her safe and kill her later," said her minister, the Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner. "Nothing is going to bring those kids back now. In the meantime, we destroy Jay and Tim and Waneta. What sense is that?"

Newark Valley seems to have been invaded by big-city experts and their big-city ideas. What strikes people as particularly odd are notions such as Munchausen by Proxy. "If you want to be psychological, let's ask if this is Fitzpatrick's way of getting back at his mother," the minister said. "Or ask what office he's running for. Is this his way of getting attention?"

Their neighbor Waneta holds a blank check on their loyalty. How could it be otherwise? Natalie Hilliard, in defending her friend, was struck by another memory. She recalled how she had helped a pregnant Waneta set up a room for the little ones about to be born.

And how, time and again, they had tearfully packed the baby things away.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°