Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services

CNE Article 

Fetal Abduction: Comparison of Two Cases

Ann W. Burgess, DNSC, APRN, FAAN; Maeghan A. Dillon, BSN, RN; Kellie Y. Chiou, BSN, RN; Savannah B. Hulsopple, BSN, RN

Abstract

The current article compares two cases involving the murders of two pregnant mothers for the kidnapping of their fetuses. The structure of the crimes includes seven steps. Both mothers were befriended by their killers (one before and one on the day of the murder and abduction), rendered unconscious by blunt force trauma, and then killed (one by strangulation and one by gunshot). Both bodies were moved after the murders and hidden, and later discovered by the circumstances of the babies' births: crude cesarean section operations. One killer, Winifred Ransom, was diagnosed in 1975 with schizophrenia, acquitted as insane, sentenced to Byberry State Hospital and, on appeal, was released as “cured” 20 months later. The other killer, Julie Corey, was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. The cases illustrate two different eras in psychiatric nursing. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 54(11), 37–43.]

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Abstract

The current article compares two cases involving the murders of two pregnant mothers for the kidnapping of their fetuses. The structure of the crimes includes seven steps. Both mothers were befriended by their killers (one before and one on the day of the murder and abduction), rendered unconscious by blunt force trauma, and then killed (one by strangulation and one by gunshot). Both bodies were moved after the murders and hidden, and later discovered by the circumstances of the babies' births: crude cesarean section operations. One killer, Winifred Ransom, was diagnosed in 1975 with schizophrenia, acquitted as insane, sentenced to Byberry State Hospital and, on appeal, was released as “cured” 20 months later. The other killer, Julie Corey, was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. The cases illustrate two different eras in psychiatric nursing. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 54(11), 37–43.]

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Fetal abduction is a crime in which a perpetrator forcibly cuts an unborn baby from a pregnant woman's uterus. The act is usually fatal for the mother or baby, or both. The crime of fetal abduction is rare and relatively new, but publicity is high when it occurs (Arquette, 2012).

Over the past decade, a small but steady increase in articles regarding fetal abduction has appeared in specialty journals. Law enforcement has focused on investigation and apprehension of suspects (Findlay & Lowery, 2011; Geberth, 2006) whereas mental health professionals have focused on the psychology of fetal abductors (Frieden, 2010). Journalists working for print media have produced the most material on the subject. Arquette (2012) searched the internet using 25 search words and found more than 700 results, the majority of which were newspaper articles; she suggested fetal abductors are driven by a quest for positive attention, a desire to feel special, and to secure relationships.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), concerned with the abduction of children (birth through 6 months old) by nonfamily members, has been studying such cases since 1983 and focusing on the abductors, violence (Baker, Burgess, Rabun, & Nahirny, 2002; Burgess & Lanning, 1995), and family reaction (Burgess, Baker, Rabun, & Nahirny, 2004; Burgess et al., 1995), and has been providing guidelines for health care professionals on prevention of and response to infant abductions (Rabun, 1993). Of 18 U.S. fetal abductions documented by NCMEC, four occurred in the two decades between 1983 and 2003. However, there have been 14 cases since 2003 in addition to four foiled attempts (Walters, 2015). Although few clinical articles exist, the current authors believe there are enough cases to teach psychiatric nurses about the dynamics and motivation of the crime, and psychiatric and legal issues. The current article compares the first media reported case of fetal abduction in 1974 (“Earliest known cesarean kidnapping...,” 2011) with a 2009 case by structure and outcome of the crimes.

Winifred Ransom Case of 1974

On November 18, 1974, Winifred Ransom (age 35) was arrested for beating, shooting, and cutting the fetus from a pregnant woman's abdomen and kidnapping the baby in Frankford, Pennsylvania. Police had been searching 3 days for Margaret Sweeney (age 26) when her 18-month-old daughter was found abandoned in a station wagon. Police were alerted to Sweeney's murderer (i.e., Ransom) by her common-law husband. Detectives found Sweeney's body wrapped in a white sheet inside a plastic bag 3 days later (“Mother hacked and shot; baby born amid murder,” 1974).

Ransom was charged with murder, conspiracy, possessing an instrument of crime, and recklessly endangering another individual. Ransom's common-law nephew, who helped her move Sweeney's body under boards of a kitchen shed, was also arrested.

Ransom was acquitted July 11, 1975 as “insane,” diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later released in 1977 as “cured and fit to resume normal life” (“Woman accused in grisly murder to be released,” 1974).

Julie Corey Case of 2009

On July 27, 2009, Julie Corey (age 35) was charged with beating and strangling her 8-months-pregnant friend, cutting the fetus from her abdomen, and kidnapping the baby in Worcester, Massachusetts. Darlene Haynes' (age 23) partially decomposed body was found in a closet and wrapped in blankets, cloths, and a shower curtain 4 days after the murder.

Two days after the discovery of Haynes' body, Corey and her boyfriend, Alex Dion, were located by investigators at a homeless shelter in New Hampshire, 130 miles from the murder scene. A nurse had become suspicious of Corey and the infant, notified police, and photographed the infant on her cell phone (Nye, 2014). Corey was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Structure of the Crime: Comparing Two Cases

The planning for a fetal abduction crime develops in the perpetrator's mind and follows seven general steps: (a) find a pregnant woman and make initial contact, (b) secure weapons for the murder and cesarean operation, (c) determine the location for the crime, (d) subdue and/or kill the mother, (e) secure the newborn through the cesarean operation, (f) dispose of the victim's body, and (g) convince everyone the baby is his/hers. How well the plan is performed depends on the abductor's ability to avoid detection.

The first step for an abductor is finding and targeting a mother. Two types of targeting are treading on a known relationship or making a random connection with a stranger. Sweeney and Ransom met one another at a millinery store weeks before the crime and became friendly. At the time, Sweeney was estranged from her husband who had their two older children while she kept the 18-month-old daughter with her. According to police records, Sweeney, who was 8 months pregnant, drove to Ransom's for lunch in mid-November and was targeted (“Unborn baby taken; mother slain,” 1974).

Similarly, Corey knew Haynes as Haynes had rented the apartment after Corey was evicted. Corey had continued her contact with Haynes and thereby knew she was pregnant; thus, Haynes became the target (Hill, 2014).

Two sets of weapons are needed for fetal abductions: one to immobilize and kill the mother and one to cut open the abdomen to deliver the fetus.

After lunch at Ransom's home, Sweeney felt ill and went upstairs to lie down. Ransom followed her and knocked her unconscious. She started to cut Sweeney's abdomen, but Sweeney regained consciousness during the operation. A detective said Ransom told him she took out a pocket knife and, without any training, successfully performed the operation. As soon as the infant was born, Ransom was said to have struck Sweeney with a hatchet and shot her using a .32 caliber revolver. Ransom used weapons of opportunity she had in her house (“Unborn baby taken; mother slain,” 1974).

Corey also used weapons of opportunity to subdue Haynes, including a blunt object to beat Haynes' head and a lamp's electrical cord to strangle her. Forensic evidence was found on a kitchen knife that screened positive for non-visible blood and on the mattress where Haynes was killed. The umbilical cord was tied with a ribbon (Hill, 2014).

Both murders were committed inside a house. Ransom used her own house for the murder and operation. The newborn was found in a second floor bedroom. Ransom's husband, John (age 40), learned of the baby's birth circumstances and reported it to police 3 days later (“Unborn baby taken; mother slain,” 1974).

On the day of the murder, Corey told friends she was giving Haynes a ride to a local store. She then called her boyfriend, Dion, and told him that she had gone into labor. The next morning, she presented the premature infant as her own. However, the umbilical cord raised the suspicion of several witnesses as it was tied with a bow (Hill, 2014). In Corey's case, she committed the murder, secured the baby, and then notified her boyfriend who then joined her to show off the baby. Dion was not aware of the baby's birth circumstances until the police questioned him in New Hampshire (“Mass. woman found guilty...,” 2014).

In both cases, attempts were made to hide the victim's body. Ransom, with the aid of her nephew, Robert Bullard (age 27), wrapped Sweeney's body in a sheet and plastic, and buried her under the floor of her kitchen shed. Bullard was later charged with hindering apprehension, conspiracy, and recklessly endangering another individual. According to police, Bullard drove Sweeney's 18-month-old daughter to a North Philadelphia location where she was later found by authorities abandoned in a station wagon.

In the case of Haynes, her landlord smelled a horrific odor and called for help to clear the odor and flies. Haynes' body, wrapped in a comforter, had been pushed into a closet for 3 days. The cause of death was blunt force trauma, asphyxia by ligature strangulation, and incision of abdomen. The manner of death was homicide (Nye, 2014).

After killing the victim, there is only a short window of time for the abductor to successfully deliver the fetus before the oxygen supply is severed. Both Ransom and Corey performed the removal of a live baby, albeit premature (Hill, 2014).

Sweeney's baby was described as being in “fair condition” when taken to the Philadelphia hospital (“Mother hacked and shot; baby born amid murder,” 1974). By all accounts, Haynes' baby was also reported to be in good condition when found at the shelter (“Woman suspected of cutting baby...,” 2009). Corey had shown the infant to family and friends within 6 hours after the operation. Some doubted her story regarding the delivery (i.e., the 20-minute labor) and quick release from the hospital (i.e., within 5 hours). With the discovery of the victim's body, the media coverage of the case had a direct impact on the number of leads received by police (Hill, 2014; Nye, 2014). A nurse who was credited with alerting law enforcement to the abduction of Hayne's baby saw to the baby and said:

I knew something was funny.... I heard about Darlene's death on the news the night before and something went up the back of my neck. When I got to work the next day I told my supervisor. (Gold, 2014)

 

Psychiatric Issues and Court Outcome

A criminal case involves a conflict between two parties whereby the prosecution charges the defendant with a crime(s) while the defense has the task of arguing the charges. The background of a defendant, especially his/her criminal background, is important to note if this is a pattern of behavior.

No information was available on the background of Ransom in newspaper reports. Police report that she told them she could not have children of her own and “wanted a baby badly” (“Mother hacked and shot; baby born amid murder,” 1974). Ransom's husband testified that his wife told him she bore the child herself and killed Sweeney when “she tried to take my baby” (“Woman found innocent in bludgeon death,” 1975), which prompted him to go to police 3 days later.

Corey had a tumultuous life, even before her crime on Haynes. She had a history of violent relationships. In 2002, she was arrested in a major drug bust. Police raided an apartment (and Cadillac) where Corey was living, along with two other individuals, and recovered 50 g of heroin, 197 packets of marijuana, a stolen handgun, and seven hollow-point bullets. At the time, it was the largest heroin seizure in the city's history. Her boyfriend at the time (Jose A. Arana) was also arrested (Hill, 2014).

In 2005, Arana (age 29) showed up at Corey's apartment after warning her not to testify against him in an earlier domestic assault case. She told police that Arana violently assaulted her and he was arrested a few days later. Court records show that he had been arrested numerous times on drug and assault charges. At the time she was charged for the murder of Haynes, Corey was also charged with assault and battery on her boyfriend (Dion) (Luttrell, 2009).

Trial Testimony and Evidence

Ransom's trial had no forensic evidence presented, but she admitted performing the crude cesarean section operation on Sweeney and killing her with a hatchet and shots to the head. Psychologist Jan Grossman testified in the nonjury trial that Ransom was driven by a psychotic delusion triggered by her inability to have children. As a result, she could not tell right from wrong (“Woman found innocent in bludgeon death,” 1975).

DNA evidence and a fingerprint on a liquor bottle tied Corey to the Haynes murder scene, and tests showed that the baby was Haynes'. Corey's defense team did not dispute that she was found with the victim's baby, but argued that Haynes' ex-boyfriend, Roberto Rodriguez, was the killer based on his history of domestic violence and that Haynes had a restraining order against him at the time of her death. They also pointed to the lack of thoroughness of the police investigation (Nye, 2014).

In Corey's case, the jury heard 10 days of testimony before delivering the verdict: they found that Corey committed the murder and that it was premeditated, performed with unusual cruelty, and while committing another felony (i.e., kidnapping the fetus). Corey was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. One of the jurors interviewed called his fellow jurors strong-minded, objective, and unemotional, and said there were no holdouts for acquittal, although the standard of reasonable doubt was discussed extensively (Nye, 2014).

Sweeney's baby was given to her relatives, whereas Rodriguez was granted full custody of Haynes' and his child.

Ransom Appeal of Sentence

Five months after Ransom's commitment to Byberry State Hospital, physicians requested she be released for the 1975 Christmas holidays because her condition had improved considerably. The request was denied by the District Attorney's office because Ransom had not been declared sane. Two months later, the hospital made a second request that she be released, which was denied by the District Attorney's office, who wrote, “Due to the horrendous nature of the offense… this office seriously questions the advisability of such a recommendation by hospital officials at this early date” (“Doctors ask release of once-insane killer,” 1977). Seventeen months later, psychiatrists made a third recommendation for Ransom's release. The District Attorney's office was quoted as saying they were powerless to prevent the hospital from releasing her because she was acquitted on grounds of insanity and physicians at Byberry State Hospital said she was no longer insane and that she had been cured. Physicians also said she remained schizophrenic but no longer needed inpatient treatment (“Woman found innocent in bludgeon death,” 1975).

The judge hearing the release appeal said:

If you discharge her she is your responsibility. I really cannot understand how in this case with all the circumstances you can recommend discharging Mrs. Ransom to go out in the community and resume normal life. (“Earliest known cesarean kidnapping...,” 2011)

 

The chief of the homicide unit of the District Attorney's office said that although he was personally outraged by the present situation, the office had no power to prevent Ransom's release or to further prosecute her because she had been acquitted of the murder charge. A spokesperson for Byberry State Hospital said, “We are concerned about doing what's ethically and legally proper. There are civil rights involved. You can't lock up a healthy person forever and throw away the key” (“Doctors ask release of once-insane killer,” 1977).

Discussion

Fetal abduction involves behaviors that are not well understood or researched. Three topics that characterize the two fetal abductors discussed in the current article include fertility, cesarean section history, and psychiatric assessment.

Fertility

Since earliest histories were written, women have served as the symbol of fertility. There are recorded Egyptian documents dating to 1900 BC discussing problems with conception. To encourage procreation, gods were named. Taweret is the ancient Egyptian goddess of pregnancy and childbirth, and Nephtys is the goddess of infertility (Secundus, 1991).

Although society has given status to fertility and reproduction throughout history, extreme measures have sometimes been taken to address these issues. In recent times, gods have been replaced by medical science, and fertility treatment has become a subspecialty in women's health care.

In Ransom's case, she told police of her desperate need for a baby. In Corey's case, she had five children from previous relationships. Dion, her then ex-boyfriend, testified that she told him she had had a tubal ligation to prevent a pregnancy. However, Corey told him that the operation was unsuccessful and she was able to get pregnant again (Nye, 2014).

The prosecutor argued that Corey needed a baby to maintain the ruse that she was still pregnant to keep her boyfriend from leaving and to stay eligible for state welfare checks. A WIC card in Corey's name that showed an expiration date just over 1 week after the murder was found inside the car that she and her boyfriend drove to New Hampshire. A letter from the state told Corey to attend an upcoming event and to bring her newborn's birth certificate, or risk losing her benefits (Nye, 2014). In an attempt for sympathy, Corey told the New Hampshire Shelter that she had had a previous child taken away from her and she was not going to let that happen again (Nye, 2014).

History of Cesarean Section

The surgical procedure of cesarean section, where the delivery of a baby is made through an abdominal cut, also has historical roots and is shrouded in mythology, folklore, and ancient history in both Western and non-Western writings. Considered one of the oldest operations in the history of medicine, references date back to ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese folklore. In Greek mythology, Apollo cuts his son Asclepius, god of medicine, from his dying mother's abdomen. Bacchus, the god of wine, was also delivered this way by Jupiter (Young, 1944).

The origins of the name “cesarean operation” have been debated. The story that Julius Caesar was born by this method comes from Pliny the Elder, who wrote extensively on medical matters including childbirth (Secundus, 1991). However, Caesar's mother, Aurelia Cottae, was still alive when he invaded Britain and outlived him to bury him 55 years later, so it is unlikely she could have survived such surgery given child bearing of that era (Gabert & Bey, 1988).

Romans described cesarean birth as “a caeso matris utero,” which means “to cut an infant of its mother's womb” (Simpson & Weiner, 1989). The etymology of the term derives from the Roman legal code, the lex Caesare (under the rule of the Caesars), that made it mandatory to remove the child from its dying mother even if there was no chance of its survival (Simpson & Weiner, 1989). Up until the 15th century, cesarean sections were performed only when the mother was dying or dead in an attempt to save the unborn infant or to bury it separately, as was the religious custom; it was not meant to save the mother's life (Gupta, 2008).

In 1500, the first written report of a mother and child surviving a cesarean section comes from Siegershausen, Switzerland, when Jakob Nufer, a pig gelder, supposedly performed the operation on his wife after receiving permission from religious authorities after several days of her prolonged labor. Francois Rousset, an early proponent of cesarean operations on living women, wrote later that Nufer made a single deep cut and extracted the child on the first try, then sewed his wife in the same manner he used with his animals. The following year, she supposedly gave birth to twins, this time without surgery (Reiss, 2003; Todman, 2007).

The term “cesarean section” was included in medical textbooks in the 16th century. Although the term “la section Caesarienne” is first noted in Jacques Guillemeau's 1598 book on midwifery, he advised against the procedure because of the risks involved (Guillemeau, 1635). Medical education in the mid-late 1800s was available only to men, and women were relegated to attendants at childbirth. By the 19th century, the development of anesthesia paved the way for a new era in cesarean section and operative obstetrics (Todman, 2007).

Psychiatric Assessment

It is common in presenting cases of fetal abduction in court for the defense team to suggest that the abductor had to have been psychotic to commit such a heinous act. Such was the case with Ransom. The question for discussion is whether there were red flags indicating a psychotic process. She clearly had issues with infertility, but was anyone available to talk or counsel her?

While evaluating for malingering or lying in a fetal abduction case, as in the case of Corey, the expert is challenged with sorting through the differential diagnoses. Obtaining collateral information from relatives, employers, and other relevant associates is necessary and proved critical for Corey's trial. Corey had a strong capacity to lie, an extreme focus on being pregnant and having a baby, and a level of narcissistic character formation that transcended any thought of stopping her plan to get a baby regardless of the cost to the mother involved.

Little research exists in the psychiatric nursing literature about the frequency of pathological lying. The review of expert testimony has provided differing opinions on substantive questions about the simulated pregnancy. Some questions that experts must assess include: Do they recognize the pregnancy as false or believe it to be real?; To the extent that they believe it as reality, is there a loss of reality testing?; Is an individual considered responsible for any acts associated with pathological lying?; and Is the lying uncontrollable? Pathological lying as a defense does not reach the threshold of insanity in most jurisdictions.

Infertility as motive to murder to gain a newborn is critical to understanding abductors of a fetal kidnapping crime. In Ransom's case, the expert testified that the psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia was driven by a psychotic delusion caused by her inability to bear children. Ransom was acquitted by reason of insanity but, months later, psychiatrists found her recovered enough to go home for the holidays. This reversal of Ransom's mental state puzzled the legal system. Psychiatrists' found her no longer insane but “cured.”

In Corey's case, she was not found insane. However, perhaps most important was the underlying issue of fertility. In the 21st century, there have been great strides in the research on infertility, specifically from a physiological standpoint. However, little focus has been on psychological response to miscarriages, stillbirths, and failed or false pregnancies.

Is it simplistic to think the only motive for Ransom committing a fetal abduction was infertility? Corey had five children, although at the time of the killing she had only partial custody of one of them. According to a medical record, Corey had been pregnant eight times. At one point, Corey had a tubal ligation operation to prevent her from getting pregnant again, according to testimony from Dion, her then ex-boyfriend. However, the operation was unsuccessful and Corey maintained the ability to have children, which was believed to be true because, before the killing, Corey was pregnant and apparently gave birth to a stillborn baby. A medical record from April 2009 shows Corey visited UMass Memorial Medical Center complaining of pain. The document says Corey was 30 weeks pregnant. If true, would the stillborn be traumatic enough to trigger a plan to kill a pregnant woman for her baby? Or, as the prosecutor theorized, was it that Corey needed an infant to qualify for welfare benefits?

A nagging question remains as to how Ransom, diagnosed with schizophrenia, could be “cured” so quickly in an era prior to antipsychotic drugs. The answer has to do with the history of the Byberry State Hospital.

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of downsizing for many state hospitals and Byberry State Hospital was on a fast track for reduction of its patient population. Byberry was the largest state hospital in Pennsylvania and received the least amount of state funding compared to Pennsylvania's other state hospitals ($8.20 per patient per day). Byberry had a building labeled “the snake pit” where foul odors permeated its wards and patients would be lying on benches staring at the ceiling all day or hiding their faces in their shirts when visitors came by (Webster, 2013).

By 1970, the patient population had been cut from 6,100 to 2,600. Three cases made headlines over that decade. The first was a 3-year trial of a staff psychiatrist, Lois Farquharson, and her partner, Gloria Burnette, who were convicted of the murder of Farquharson's supervisor, Dr. Leon Weingrad, whom they believed was upset with their relationship and tried to keep them apart. Farquharson was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life (Webster, 2013).

A second case in June 1973 occurred when the skeleton of a 64-year-old patient was found in the woods on hospital grounds. He had been declared a “walk-off” months before. There was a third case in June 1975, when the body of a female patient was found in a “mummified state” in an exhaust vent in the building's roof (Webster, 2013).

As Byberry was reducing its population, the dispositions of court-ordered prisoners who had committed at least one murder and were considered insane were being reviewed for discharge. Psychiatrists were known to say whatever was needed to keep violent patients off Byberry's wards. One such case was Ransom who, as previously cited, was released on her own recognizance after 20 months (Webster, 2013).

Conclusion

These two cases of fetal abduction, in which two newborns survived their crude cesarean births, are examples of two different eras in psychiatric nursing. In 1974, state hospital and psychiatric staff were downsizing. Diagnosis and forensics were not a priority for psychiatric nurses. Ransom was caught up in the state push to empty Byberry, which resulted in her release with no treatment or follow up. Thirty-five years later, Corey committed a similar act for different reasons and was found sane; she is scheduled to remain in prison for life. Psychiatric nurses can debate the similarities and differences in these cases in which the outcome was to obtain a newborn but where the signs and symptoms prior to their lethal acts were never detected.

References

Authors

Dr. Burgess is Professor of Psychiatric Nursing, William F. Connell School of Nursing, Boston College, Chestnut Hill; Ms. Dillon is Staff Nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital, Somerville; and Ms. Hulsopple is Staff Nurse, Newton Wellesley Hospital, Watertown, Massachusetts; and Ms. Chiou is Staff Nurse, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Ann W. Burgess, DNSC, APRN, FAAN, Professor of Psychiatric Nursing, William F. Connell School of Nursing, Boston College, Maloney Hall 371, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467; e-mail: burges@bc.edu.

Received: August 03, 2015
Accepted: October 11, 2016

10.3928/02793695-20161024-07

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