One winter night last year, 3-month-old Jacob Wesley Smith was bundled up in his yellow sleeper, the one his mother liked, and was lying on his belly, the way he liked to. Around 5 a.m., in this lonely backwater where skinny dogs roam free and the only green grass is at the cemetery, he awoke with a fuss, his mother recalled.
A hard-working, hard-living woman named Amy Prien, she lifted him from his bassinet and fed him, she told investigators, and his blue eyes drooped again. The baby had been a little sick, she said, but it was just a cold. Prien laid him on her bed, and he began breathing more deeply. Maybe he'll feel better tomorrow, she thought.
"I woke up with a corpse," she says today, waving off the memory with a flick of her long cigarette.
At first, the Riverside County coroner labeled it sudden infant death syndrome -- a diagnosis used when investigators can't explain why a healthy baby dies. According to agency documents, there was no sign of injury, abuse or trauma. Jacob's body was "unremarkable" -- well developed and well nourished.
Then a month later, on Feb. 19, 2002, the coroner received a toxicology report: Jacob had overdosed on methamphetamine, a cheap, addictive stimulant.
Investigators swarmed back to the case. Jacob had weighed 13 pounds and was too young to feed himself. The level of meth in his blood was too high to have been ingested through second-hand smoke. The only way a lethal dose could have entered Jacob's system, they reasoned, was through his mother's breast milk.
Prien, now a Perris resident, has been charged with second-degree murder in a case that prosecutors say could lead to the first conviction of its kind in California. Authorities hope to bring her to trial, possibly next month; no date has been set. The 30-year-old mother of three other children faces the possibility of a life prison term.
Though Prien denies having taken methamphetamine at the time of Jacob's death and insists she had already weaned him, Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michele Levine will go to trial armed with the results of two tests that found meth in Prien's blood around the time of Jacob's death.
"Amy Prien was using drugs during the time when she was breast-feeding her baby," Levine said. "She knew the drugs were dangerous, but it was more important to her to have the self-gratification. Responsibility for Jacob's death falls at her feet."
One recent morning in Riverside, Prien stomped into a courtroom wearing a thick electronic monitoring anklet. Overzealous prosecutors, she contended, and bumbling social workers entranced by the spotlight of a landmark case, are bent on destroying her life.
Though by all accounts her other children are happy and healthy and she is free on $100,000 bail while awaiting trial, Prien said that she has had to fight to see them because of court restrictions.
A few weeks earlier, outside the Corona tax business where she does office work part time, she had said she thought she knew how her baby died.
"I'm not the person they say I am," Prien said. "And they know it."
Prien said she is no angel but is a good mother.
She said she met her first love, a Marine named Troy Prien, while attending high school in La Puente. She married him at 15. At 16, she gave birth to a daughter. At 17, she was a widow. Troy was killed in a motorcycle accident after the couple moved to Colorado, she said.
With quiet shame, she confirmed prosecutors' contention that she has a history of drug abuse. She won't discuss her past in detail. But court documents allege that she has used PCP, LSD, cocaine and methamphetamine.
She has managed to make ends meet partly because her oldest daughter still receives Social Security benefits tied to Troy's death. She also has a devoted support system, particularly in her mother.
Short on money not long before Jacob's death, Prien took in a roommate, she said, a man she had met through a friend. Soon, she determined that she had made a mistake. At all hours, cars streamed into the lot where they lived, and Prien suspected that he was selling drugs. She eventually threw him out, she said, but not before Jacob died.
"I never used speed when I was pregnant or when I was breast-feeding," Prien told detectives, according to the court documents. She said she believes the roommate, who now lives in Riverside and could not be reached for comment, somehow allowed Jacob to ingest the methamphetamine.
Authorities said they are sure he had nothing to do with Jacob's death.
Jack Haskins, Jacob's grandfather, is among those pushing Riverside County authorities to investigate the roommate.
"This has been very poorly handled," said Haskins, 68, a retiree. "Amy is like any other kind of woman. She has her ups and downs. She's a little strong-willed. But she would never hurt those children."
* In California, three women have been charged with murder in similar cases, but none has been convicted, according to several legal experts. Two of the mothers pleaded guilty to lesser charges; in the third case, a Bakersfield jury convicted the mother of child endangerment, a lesser charge.
The Prien case hinges on "implied malice." To be convicted of second-degree murder, prosecutors need not prove that Prien planned or sought her baby's death, only that she should have comprehended that his death was possible because of the risk posed by her taking drugs. "It's not evil," said Levine, a tough and thoughtful prosecutor with 14 years of experience. "But it's malice."
Levine said Prien's insistence that she wasn't taking drugs while breast-feeding could backfire by indicating that she was aware of the danger drugs could pose to her infant son.
Prien's lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Elaine Johnson, declined to comment. Last summer, however, at a pretrial hearing, Johnson disclosed what is expected to be the foundation of Prien's defense: that she did not comprehend that her actions could kill her baby. There is "a big leap" between a mother who knows that her actions could harm her child and a mother who knows that her actions could kill her child, Johnson argued.
Robert Pugsley, a Southwestern University law professor, said he thinks the prosecution's case will be tough to win. "I agree with the legal theory," he said. "But it may be a difficult charge to prove."
Pugsley sits on an advisory board of an Orange County anti-drug group, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity. The organization, which pays drug abusers to be sterilized or to use long-term birth control methods, has taken an intense interest in the Prien case. If women can see, not only that their habits can harm their children, but also that a drug-using mother can be charged with murder, it could help their cause, backers say.
"One prosecution is just a drop in the bucket," said Pugsley. "But it's good to have one more card in your deck to play against this plague."
Legal theories aside, Levine has been stymied by forensic scientists' inability to determine whether the milky substance found in Jacob's stomach was breast milk or formula. And authorities acknowledged that they have either lost or destroyed what could have been key evidence -- a baby bottle discovered wedged between the wall and the mattress where Jacob died. Levine said that she is disappointed that the bottle is missing but that she will be able to overcome its absence at trial. "I don't think it's what the case hinges on," she said.
Prien says the bottle proves her innocence.
"They collected it. And they lost it," she said. "And now I've been charged with murder."