Gloria Gomez stepped eagerly into the basement of the once-grand Glen-Donald apartment building near MacArthur Park on Tuesday afternoon, hoping to find treasures in three large trunks that someone had left there decades ago.
The first two trunks were empty. Using a screwdriver, she broke the lock on the third.
Gomez, the building’s manager and an amateur antique collector, was giddy over what she found: a gleaming crystal bowl, stacks of beautiful books, including a copy of “Peter Pan,” and two leather doctor’s satchels. Cradling one of the bags, Gomez turned to her friend, Yiming Xing, and said, “These must be worth a lot of money!”
Inside the bag was a small bundle wrapped in Los Angeles Times newspapers from the 1930s. Xing unpeeled the newspapers and shrank back in horror.
The doctor’s satchels contained the mummified remains of two babies.
The women immediately called police, who are now trying to unravel a mystery worthy of Raymond Chandler. Investigators say the babies may have died eight decades ago — although they won’t know for sure until tests on the remains are completed.
Officials with knowledge of the case said one of the babies appeared to be premature — and might have been miscarried or aborted. The other baby appeared to be a newborn.
Detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department are working with few solid leads but some tantalizing clues, including a ticket stub from the closing ceremonies of the 1932 Olympics at the L.A. Coliseum.
The trunk appears to have belonged to a woman named Jean M. Barrie. Inside it were postcards sent to her from far-flung locales like Korea and South America and a pile of black-and-white photographs that show a beautiful, light-haired woman — who may have been Barrie — on vacation and in a long, white wedding dress.
Among Barrie’s possessions was a membership certificate for the Peter Pan Woodland Club, an upscale resort in Big Bear that offered guests swimming pools, skating ponds and hunting preserves.
Detectives are examining Barrie’s apparent interest in Peter Pan, especially considering that she shared the last name and initials with the book’s author, James Matthew Barrie, who died in 1937. Records show a Jean Barrie who worked as a nurse and lived about three miles from the Glen-Donald apartment building, which is at the corner of South Lake Street and what is now James M. Wood Boulevard, in 1933.
Authorities said they are classifying the discovery as a “death investigation.” They stressed that it is too early to tell if this is a homicide case but vowed to find out what had happened to the babies.
“We’ll put detectives on this case for the long term,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. “We’ll try to reconstruct the circumstances based on what the coroner tells us, based on the history of the residence and based on science. We have many more tools and technology available to us than before, which may allow for identification of the victims and closure to any family members.”
The remains of the babies will be examined Thursday by a pathologist and an anthropologist, according to Los Angeles County Coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter. He said investigators also will try to use DNA testing to determine whether the babies are related and toxicology tests to find out why they died.
Capt. Fabian Lizzaraga of the LAPD’s Juvenile Division stressed that detectives don’t know much, including whether the babies were born at the apartment building or whether the trunks were moved there at some later point. It is also possible the babies died later, and were wrapped in old newspapers.
One newspaper, from 1935, reported on a heat wave that killed 13 people in the Midwest and that advertised $79 vacations to Canada.
The Glen-Donald apartment building was built in the early 1920s, back when the MacArthur Park neighborhood west of downtown was one of the city’s premier quarters and home to doctors, lawyers, and silent film stars.
The apartment has aged well, although these days its shady courtyard is overgrown, and its back wall is scrawled with graffiti.
Gomez, 50, who has worked at the building for the last 10 years, said she was recently asked to clear out the old ballroom for insurance purposes. The large hall had been converted into a storage room and was packed to the ceiling with tenants’ belongings.
Tucked in the back of the room she found Barrie’s trunks. When no one claimed them, the building’s owners said Gomez could have them. Xing, 35, a USC geneticist who owns two units in the building, helped Gomez go through the trunks.
It was Xing, 35, who pulled the first bundle out of the doctor’s satchel Tuesday. The bundle was light, Xing said, so light she thought it might be a parcel of silk. But beneath the newspaper, she found something that she knew had once been flesh.
“I didn’t know if it was a human,” Xing said. “It looked like a baby, but it didn’t have any shape to it.”
Her first thought was: “The spirits. Maybe we disturbed the spirits.”
Xing asked Gomez: “Can we bury it?”
“I said, ‘No, we call the police,’ ” Gomez said.
When police arrived and opened the second parcel, they found the remains of a second baby that looked to be older.
Xing and Gomez have theories about what happened to the babies. They figure that the infants might have died of natural causes, and the mother couldn’t bear to part with their bodies. Or they might have been killed — mothers of unwanted babies have murdered before.
Whatever the case, Xing said, she is glad that she and Gomez made their discovery.
“Maybe we freed the spirits and they can move on,” she said.