An 18-year-old mother was arrested Saturday in Utah on charges that she denied her less than 2-month-old son the supplemental oxygen he needed to survive and left him on the side of Interstate 80 through Parleys Canyon.
The mother told Wasatch County law enforcement that it had been difficult to care for a baby with such high needs, according to a probable cause statement.
“[The woman] was overwhelmed with caring for a premature baby who needed special care to survive and wanted to return to a single parent lifestyle without a mother and start a new life with him [her boyfriend]” an officer wrote in the probable cause statement.
The woman, who is from Mexico and has lived in Utah for about a year, remains in jail without the possibility of bail on suspicion of aggravated murder, obstruction of justice, abuse or desecration of a dead human body. As of Thursday afternoon, she had not been charged. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify people accused of crimes until they are charged.
A birth, contradictory stories and a death
Law enforcement documents indicate the child was released from the hospital around Aug. 28 and began having problems within days of his release.
On September 1, a tenant at the Hideout apartment complex where the woman lived called 911 to report that the baby was not breathing. An ambulance transported the newborn to the hospital, and when the mother arrived without oxygen, staff “re-told her that it was essential to survival” and gave the woman additional, smaller oxygen tanks to take home.
Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 11, police were called to a welfare check after the child missed another medical appointment, the probable cause statement said. Officers couldn’t find his mother. They contacted her again on Sept. 14 after receiving a report of child abuse and neglect from someone who saw the woman with the baby without oxygen.
That day, police spoke with the woman’s roommate, who said she last saw the woman and the baby on the morning of Sept. 11 before she went to work. When the roommate returned, the mother and child and all of the baby’s clothing were gone, but his car seat and oxygen remained.
The roommate mentioned to investigators that she had seen the baby before without oxygen and that “[the mother] told her that the doctor said he no longer needed it, which, according to a probable cause statement, “is directly contradictory to what the doctors have said.”
Sometime between Sept. 14 and 16, employees of the state Department of Children and Family Services spoke with the mother, who told them her baby was in Mexico.
Police found the woman at her new boyfriend’s home in Kamas on Sept. 19 and took her into custody to be interviewed by a Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office officer who spoke Spanish.
During that interview, she told investigators FShe said of the sheriff’s office’s joint investigations unit with Heber City that “it was difficult raising a baby who needed special care and that she wanted to go back to work” and that she “made a rash decision without thinking.” according to a probable cause statement.
The woman initially told officers the same story she had told Children and Family Services – that the baby was with her mother in Mexico. She said the baby’s car seat and oxygen tank remained in Utah because the man transporting the child bought the baby all new clothes for the trip.
Investigators trying to confirm the woman’s story hit numerous dead ends. She said the man who took her son to Mexico changed his phone number. The numbers she provided for the family in Mexico didn’t work. She said she hasn’t spoken to anyone in Utah about her plans to send the baby to Mexico. When officers asked how the man got new oxygen for the baby without a prescription, the woman said she didn’t know but thought he bought it used.
The officers eventually released the woman.
The next day, investigators obtained a search warrant to examine her phone. They found Google searches beginning Sept. 3 for questions like “How long will I have to serve in prison for killing my baby,” “Holy death if a baby’s life is taken,” and the locations of various wastewater treatment plants and landfills .
It also emerged that during this period she had only spoken to her mother once and asked, “How is my baby?” Her mother replied, “What baby?”
Officers found no photos of the child on the phone and said: “It looked like this [the woman] attempted to erase all evidence of his birth, life and death.”
Police then obtained a search warrant for both houses where the woman had been staying and took both the woman and her boyfriend into custody. The woman told an investigator that night that her child was not alive.
She told authorities that she drove the child to meet someone at a Park City grocery store on Sept. 10 and didn’t bring his oxygen because it was “bothering” him. When she arrived at the store, she said her baby appeared to be sleeping. The person did not show up and therefore later returned home, according to the probable cause statement. She noticed that the baby appeared dead when she got him out of the car.
At that point, she decided to drive through Parleys Canyon toward Salt Lake City, the probable cause statement said. Finally she took exit 131 and left the baby wrapped in a gray elephant blanket on the side of the road under large crosses on the steep, rugged hill. The crosses were placed at this location several years ago to commemorate two Utah police officers who died in the line of duty.
When officers took her back there, they couldn’t find the baby’s body. All that was left was a piece of fabric. Police wrote that the woman began sobbing when officers showed her the cloth.
Unified Police spokeswoman Melody Cutler said her officers found the body Monday east of the Lambs Canyon exit on the southbound side of the highway.
“This baby could be alive”
Police documents do not mention whether this woman knew about Utah’s Safe Haven law or other resources available to help struggling parents. Carrie Diggs, spokeswoman for the Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office, would not say whether the woman knew about the law.
But there are options for women in similar situations, said Patrice Arent, the former Democratic state representative who sponsored the safe harbor law. Initially, I worked with providers to get help before the baby was born. Secondly, it was about putting the baby up for adoption. The third was to abandon it through the Safe Harbors Act.
The law allows mothers or their designees to anonymously drop off their baby at any hospital, where it will be placed in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services and made available for adoption. It is “completely anonymous. They would not be prosecuted. No police. No shame,” Arent said.
A mother or her representative does not have to speak to anyone in the hospital if they do not want to. They could simply leave the baby in a chair with a note saying they were giving up the child, Arent said. Some parents leave family medical information to support the child’s health care.
Arent supported Utah’s original safe haven law in 2001 and again during the 2020 General Session when lawmakers agreed to extend the time frame for relinquishing a child from 72 hours to 30 days.
Lawmakers agreed to this change to recognize that three days is not enough time for a mother to make this decision because some may not have been discharged from the hospital yet and postpartum depression can affect a mother well beyond 72 hours .
In this case, the baby remained in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for 22 days before doctors sent him home.
Utah was one of the first to introduce such a law, and now all 50 states have a similar law in effect. Arent said the law was designed to save lives – and he did. She pointed to Sam Peterson, a then-high school senior who testified before lawmakers about expanding the law in 2020.
“This is a heartbreaking case,” Arent said, “because this baby could have been alive and he would not have been prosecuted.”
For more information about Utah’s safe haven law, visit utahsafehaven.org.