Police identify woman in basement babies case

She poses for the camera in front of a boxy Dodge roadster, wearing a flapper-style hat, a fur stole and an uneasy smile.

For weeks, detectives wondered about this mystery woman, believed to be the owner of a trunk discovered last month with the mummified remains of two babies inside.

On Thursday, they identified the woman as Janet Mann Barrie, a Scottish-born nurse whose life story has only further deepened the intrigue.

Of particular interest to detectives is her relationship with Dr. George Knapp, a dentist, and his wife, Mary, who lived in the MacArthur Park apartment building where the trunk was found.

Records show that Barrie went to work as a private nurse for the Knapps in the 1930s and was employed by them for the next three decades. Months after Mary Knapp’s death in 1964, Barrie and George Knapp were married. They lived together at the Glen-Donald apartment building until George Knapp died in 1968.

Barrie died in Canada in 1992.

But her remains and those of George and Mary Knapp appear to be interred together at a cemetery in Glendale. All three names are inscribed on a single gold vault in a marble mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, near Clark Gable’s final resting place.

At a news conference on Thursday, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said that a major task for police now is to determine to whom the babies belonged — to Janet Barrie, Mary Knapp or someone else.

“You are able to speculate as well as we can,” Beck said.

He said police have contacted several of Barrie’s relatives in Canada. They’ve agreed to give DNA samples for comparison with the babies. Coroner’s officials have not determined what caused the death of the babies, who were carefully swaddled in blankets and newspapers from the 1930s and placed in two leather doctor’s satchels inside the trunk.

One of the bodies was a fetus, said Ed Winter, a spokesman for the L.A. County coroner’s office. The other appeared to have been carried to full term.

Winter said Thursday that a team of two pathologists and one forensic anthropologist had found no obvious signs of trauma. Investigators are awaiting results of toxicology and DNA tests to determine the cause of death and whether the babies were related.

Police have chased a number of leads in the weeks since Gloria Gomez, the Glen-Donald building manager, broke the lock on the trunk to see what was inside.

The trunk had been sitting unclaimed in storage for decades. Along with the bodies, it held books, postcards, clothing, photographs and the fur stole pictured in the photo of Barrie.

Hector Madrigal, an officer with the LAPD’s Abused Child Section, said the postcards and letters suggest the owner was a “single, independent type of woman.”

The name inscribed on the trunk was Jean M. Barrie. At first, police believed it belonged to one of two Jean Barries — either a San Francisco-born nurse or an East Coast performer who was related to J. M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.” Two clues found inside the trunk — a copy of “Peter Pan” and a membership certificate to a Big Bear resort called the Peter Pan Woodland Club — seemed to point in the latter’s direction.

But police ruled out both women. They say Janet Barrie was born in Scotland in 1897 and immigrated with her family to Canada before making her way to the United States.

Records suggest she used “Jean” as a nickname. In a Los Angeles directory from 1929, a Jean Barrie lived with a woman named Ada LuRoss in an apartment near MacArthur Park. Census records from the following year list Janet Barrie living with LuRoss at the same location.

Beck said police would continue to work on the case because the babies were “humans” who deserved justice.

“Justice, even when it’s delayed, is still justice,” he said. “Even when you have no one to speak for you, we will speak for you.”

Times staff photographer Al Seib contributed to this report.