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Baby’s Slaying Shakes Alhambra

Times Staff Writer

The shrine of flowers, candles and teddy bears is gone. A tiny, granite grave marker -- so new, it still glitters in the sun -- is all that bears witness to the brief life of the infant girl tossed to her death in an Alhambra ravine in March, just hours after she was born.

But baby Therese Rose -- named by the Alhambra parish that adopted her in death -- left a legacy that her mother, who is still being sought by police, could not have anticipated.

“She’s dead, but she’s with God now,” said Father Jan Lundberg, a priest at St. Therese Catholic Church, which held the baby’s funeral Mass. “And she’s probably doing some good for the rest of us.”

The infant’s brief life is chronicled in the dry terms of a coroner’s record: Seventeen inches long, approximately 4 pounds, brown eyes, brown hair of fine consistency. Eight inches of umbilical cord still attached -- the 17th unidentified female body found in Los Angeles County this year.

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The story of her death is told in police reports: a female infant wrapped with two plastic grocery bags and thrown over a chain-link fence on a railroad overpass near Fremont and Mission streets.

She dropped 53 feet, hit her head on a concrete embankment, and landed alongside the tracks in a rocky ditch. “Blunt force trauma” was the cause of death. Her body was discovered several hours later, on March 12, by railroad maintenance workers inspecting the tracks.

No one knows yet how she came to die in Alhambra. But her death shocked the middle-class San Gabriel Valley suburb, prompting first outrage, then anguish, then an outpouring of grief that kindled a sense of collective responsibility.

“The viciousness of it was hard for us to accept,” said Alhambra Police Capt. Bob Panza. “You hear about babies being left on doorsteps and in Dumpsters. But to take a live human being and fling it over a fence knowing exactly what the end result is going to be -- it’s like [she was] a bag of garbage.... It really struck a nerve with the community.”

Police went door to door looking for witnesses, contacted local hospitals to see if a new mother had turned up without a child, and appealed for information on English- and Spanish-language news programs.

By the next day, a shrine had sprung up on the sidewalk alongside the chain-link fence, and dozens had gathered to mourn the nameless child.

“I went to the railroad with my sister to pray,” said Dolores Vizcarra, a 76-year-old great-grandmother. “And there were so many, many people bringing candles, flowers, stuffed animals, prayers -- so much hurt that someone could do this to a child.”

Several churches offered to hold memorial services, and police were deluged with calls from residents asking how they could help.

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“The whole community was traumatized,” Lundberg said. “It’s not just the injustice that was done to that baby, but to us as her human family.”

St. Therese parishioner Linda DeTardo offered to help arrange a funeral Mass. A retiree, DeTardo has no children of her own, but couldn’t shake the thought of “that poor baby, and how she must have suffered.”

In the two weeks it took the coroner to release the body, memorial plans gathered momentum.

“It was astonishing, really,” DeTardo said. “Everyone I called, everywhere I went, people wanted to help. The mortician donated everything.... The cemetery was going to charge Father Jan, but when they found out what happened, said ‘I’m not going to charge you.’ ”

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Vizcarra -- a mother of five, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of five -- volunteered to make the funeral pall: a white blanket, adorned with a gold cross, that would drape the tiny coffin.

Her sister, Esther Reyes, bought the baby socks, a T-shirt and tiny, white sandals. Her daughter, Patricia Moreno, provided the infant with a burial robe: the gown her son had worn at his baptism 21 years ago.

“It was not easy for her to give away,” said Vizcarra, who stitched a pink ribbon around the gown’s neckline and waist. “She offered because she had to do something.”

On March 28, a candlelight vigil was held on the sidewalk above the railroad tracks. Hundreds turned out in the pouring rain, including a woman toting huge canvas tents to shield mourners as they cried and prayed.

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The next day, St. Therese Catholic Church held a funeral Mass so laden with emotion, DeTardo said, that the priest conducting the service had to fight back tears and many in the pews couldn’t bear to watch as the casket passed.

The infant’s death has prompted soul-searching in a city where residents pride themselves on being family friendly.

“We are praying for the mother too,” Vizcarra said. “You never know what the circumstances are that would make a young woman do something like this.”

Like Vizcarra, many involved in the memorials presume that the baby’s mother was young, frightened and perhaps unaware that state law allows a mother to safely surrender her newborn anonymously at any hospital or fire station.

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Still, the brutal killing has posed a challenge to their faith as they wrestle with competing notions of anger and forgiveness.

“It’s a sign of lack of sanctity for life,” DeTardo said. “You say, ‘Oh my God, who could do such a thing?’ ... In the Catholic Church, we believe in forgiveness for anybody who asks for it. So if the girl has a conscience, this will bother her for a long time to come.”

Despite the state’s safe-surrender law, there have been at least four newborns found dead in the Los Angeles area in the last seven months.

In three cases, women believed to be the babies’ mothers were arrested: A USC student was charged with murder for allegedly dumping her newborn son in a trash bin near her apartment in October. A Hollywood teenager was charged in January with killing her infant daughter, whose body was found in a shoebox in her apartment closet.

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And on Tuesday night, sheriff’s deputies arrested a 22-year-old woman and her 42-year-old boyfriend in the death of a newborn girl whose battered body was discovered May 2 in a trash bin at the Newhall trailer park where the couple lived.

The Newhall arrest came just days after the city of Santa Clarita posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the baby’s death. Sheriff’s deputies said a tip from a local resident led to the arrest.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $10,000 reward in the Alhambra case. Panza hopes it will jump-start his department’s stalled investigation.

“Unfortunately, we have exhausted all of our leads,” he said. “If we’re going to find the people or person responsible, it’s going to result from somebody picking up the phone.”

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Panza had hoped the community’s public display of grief might draw the mother to a vigil or produce clues that would lead police to the baby’s killer. But if the memorials haven’t helped the investigation, they have been a salve for a wounded community, Lundberg said.

“When something like this happens, you wonder what kind of society we live in. You decide: Are we going to let it slide or are we going to raise the level of involvement? We tried to repair the damage, to show that we value life.

“It was God’s will that this baby not be forgotten. Therese Rose


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