Early Halloween morning, in 2004, a baby girl was born prematurely to a young mother in the lobby restroom of a luxury Key West hotel. But instead of that girl celebrating her eighth birthday Wednesday, maybe in a princess costume or as a cute pumpkin, she is cold case No. 1-04-010438.
Immediately after giving birth around 2 a.m., the mother dumped the breathing newborn — with its umbilical cord and placenta still attached — into the restroom’s wall-mounted garbage bin of the Hilton Resort and Marina, now a Westin.
It was not until 6:30 a.m. that the newborn was discovered by a horrified housekeeper. The baby was dead.
“The child never had a chance at life,” said detective Matt Haley, the Key West Police Department’s lead investigator in the Baby Jane Doe case. “There was nothing in the autopsy report that indicated any type of health problems with the child. It’s our obligation to give her justice and to find answers to why this happened.”
After more than 400 investigative man-hours, the case remains a mystery — leaving Key West police to plead for the public’s help.
“Somebody out there knows something,” Haley said. “If we can be pointed to the right person, this case is very solvable.”
Plenty of DNA evidence and quality finger and palm prints were collected at the crime scene. Witnesses could describe the suspected mother and two of her three male companions to a forensic artist for composite sketches. Police also had the mother’s possible first name: Samantha or Sonia.
And within weeks, John Walsh highlighted the case on his TV show America’s Most Wanted. Sixty tips poured in. About 15 to 20 women were tracked down across the state: Orlando; Jacksonville; Sebring; Fort Myers; Marathon; Big Pine Key. All the leads turned into dead ends.
“At one point, we even compared Casey Anthony’s prints,” said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Dennis Haley, Matt’s father, who worked the case for the first few years. “She fits the profile of the kind of woman who would do this. And at her trial [involving the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee], her brother said something about Casey losing a baby before.”
The prints did not match. Another dead end.
“We’re trying everything,” Matt Haley said.
The facts: A male security guard at the hotel watched the suspected mother — described as white, slender, between five feet and five-feet-four with shoulder-length, brownish/blond hair and in her late teens or early 20s — walk out of the restroom holding her stomach.
She had been in the restroom at least 40 minutes while three men waited for her in the hallway and nearby veranda, smoking Kool and Marlboro cigarettes and drinking out of cups from Fat Tuesday, a bar three blocks away. One of the men said he was her boyfriend, although it is not known if he was the baby’s father. He is described as five feet eight inches tall and 160 to 170 pounds, with short, spiked dark hair.
They were not hotel guests. The security guard was told the woman was sick from partying at Fantasy Fest. The 10-day festival’s main parade had ended just a few hours earlier. (No alcohol was found in the mother’s blood in the restroom, although it did contain MDMA, widely known as the street drug Ecstacy, which usually induces euphoria).
When the woman came out of the restroom, the guard escorted the foursome out of the hotel onto Front Street, never to be seen again.
Surveillance video from Fat Tuesday was too blurry to help. The DNA profiles and prints were entered into state and national criminal databases. They even were entered into an international Interpol database and in some civilian databases, such as ones that keep prints from gun buyers.
“We’ve had no hits,” Matt Haley said. “That’s puzzling to us.”
There have been three other unsolved homicides in Key West over the past 25 years, but this case haunts Haley because it didn’t have to happen. Florida’s Safe Haven for Newborns Act was passed in 2000.
“The mother could have taken the baby to a fire department or a hospital and given it to them with no questions asked,” he said. “The baby did not need to be disregarded like a piece of garbage.”
During the 12 years of the law’s existence, 183 newborns of seven days or younger have been left at safe havens around the state, according to statistics kept by the Miami-based nonprofit agency A Safe Haven for Newborns. They are not put into foster care but are taken to private, licensed adoption agencies. The number for a mom to seek help: 877-767-2229.
During the same time period, 50 newborns have been abandoned — 29 of them found dead. “And we don’t know about some babies who were left in unsafe places and never found,” said Nick Silverio, founder of A Safe Haven for Newborns. “We hope this sad story about the baby in Key West can highlight that there are safe places to take a baby and the mom can remain completely anonymous.”
Since 2000, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, 45 newborns have been left at safe havens and 14 babies have been abandoned. In Monroe County, such cases are rare. During the past 12 years, no babies have been left at a safe haven, and there was only one other known case of an abandonment: In 2003, a dead newborn was found in a room at the Radisson Hotel in Key West. The mother, a North Carolina college student, was easily tracked down using rental car records. She was charged with manslaughter.
The Key West Police Department is currently comparing DNA with a homeless woman who was arrested on charges she dumped her newborn into a Fort Lauderdale hotel trash bin two months ago. But Haley talked with the lead investigator and does not think it is the same woman.
“We’re looking for new leads,” Haley said. “If anybody knows of someone who was pregnant in October 2004 and maybe went to Key West and all of a sudden was not pregnant anymore and you don’t know where the baby has gone. . . . Maybe she said she lost the child. Maybe she said she gave the child up for adoption.”