Mother ‘overwhelmed’ with caring for premature newborn is now accused of murder. What went wrong?

Sponsor of Utah’s “safe haven” law called the case “heartbreaking,” saying “this baby could be alive.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crosses on the hill south of I-80, near exit 131 in Parleys Canyon, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. An 18-year-old woman led Wasatch County Sheriff's officers to the location after telling them she had left her infant son's body there, according to a probable cause statement in the case. The woman is currently in jail without bond.

An 18-year-old mother was arrested Saturday in Utah on accusations 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 taking care of a baby with such high needs had been difficult, according to a probable cause statement.

“[The woman] was overwhelmed with caring for a premature baby that needed extra care to survive and wished to go back to a single, non-mother, lifestyle and begin a new life with [her boyfriend],” an officer wrote in the probable cause statement.

The woman, who is from Mexico and had been in Utah for about a year, remains in jail without the option of bond on suspicion of aggravated murder, obstruction of justice, abuse or desecration of a dead human body. As of Thursday afternoon, she has not yet been charged. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify individuals accused of crimes until they are charged.

A birth, conflicting stories and a death

Law enforcement documents indicate the child was released from the hospital around Aug. 28 and began struggling within days of being released.

On Sept. 1, a tenant at the Hideout apartment complex where the woman lived called 911 to report the baby wasn’t breathing. An ambulance transported the newborn to the hospital, and when the mother didn’t arrive with any oxygen, staff “again told (her) that it was vital for survival” and gave the woman additional, smaller oxygen tanks to bring home.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 11, police were called on a welfare check after the child missed a follow-up medical appointment, the probable cause statement said. Officers couldn’t find his mother. They followed up again on Sept. 14, after receiving a child abuse and neglect report from someone who’d seen the woman with the baby without his oxygen.

That day police spoke to the woman’s roommate, who said she’d last seen the woman and the baby the morning of Sept. 11, before leaving for work. When the roommate returned, the mother and child were gone, as well as all of the baby’s clothes, but his car seat and oxygen remained.

The roommate mentioned to investigators that she’d seen the baby without oxygen before, and that “[the mother] told her that the doctor said he no longer needed it, which,” according to a probable cause statement, “directly conflicts with what the doctors said.”

Sometime between Sept. 14 and 16, state Division of Child and Family Services staff talked to the mother, who told them her baby was in Mexico.

Police found the woman Sept. 19 at her new boyfriend’s house in Kamas and took her into custody to be interviewed by an officer at the Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office who spoke Spanish.

During that interview, she told investigators from the sheriff’s office joint investigation unit with Heber City that “it had been difficult trying to raise a baby that needed special care and that she had wanted to go back to work” and that she’d “made a rash decision without thinking,” according to a probable cause statement.

The woman initially told officers the same story she’d told child and family services — that the baby was in Mexico with her mother. She said that the baby’s car seat and oxygen tank remained in Utah because the man who transported the child bought the baby all new things for the trip.

Investigators trying to corroborate the woman’s story ran into numerous dead ends. She said the man who took her son to Mexico had changed his phone number. The numbers she provided for family in Mexico did not work. She said she hadn’t discussed her plans to send the baby to Mexico with anyone in Utah. When officers asked how the man acquired new oxygen for the baby without a prescription, the woman told them she didn’t know but thought he purchased it used.

Officers eventually let the woman go.

The next day, investigators were granted a search warrant to examine her phone. They found Google searches beginning Sept. 3 for questions like “how much time will I serve in prison for killing my baby,” “taking a baby’s life holy death,” and the locations of different sewage treatment plants and dump sites.

It also revealed she’d only spoken with her mother once in that time frame, asking, “How’s my baby”. Her mom responded, “What baby?”

Officers found no photos of the child on the phone and said, “it appeared that [the woman] was attempting to erase all evidence of his birth, life and death.”

Police then got a search warrant for both of the homes the woman had stayed at, and took both the woman and her boyfriend into custody. The woman told an investigator that night that her child wasn’t alive.

She told authorities that she’d driven the child to meet someone at a grocery store in Park City 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 asleep. The person didn’t show up, so she later drove back home, according to the probable cause statement. She noticed the baby appeared dead when she retrieved him from the car.

That’s when she decided to drive toward Salt Lake City through Parleys Canyon, the probable cause statement alleged, eventually taking the 131 exit and leaving the baby wrapped in a gray elephant blanket on the side of the highway beneath large crosses on the steep, craggy hillside. The crosses were placed at the site several years ago, and memorialize two Utah law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty.

When she took officers back to that location, they could not find the baby’s body. All that remained was a piece of fabric. Police wrote that when officers showed her the cloth, the woman began to sob.

Unified police spokesperson Melody Cutler said their officers found the body Monday just east of the Lambs Canyon exit on the south side of the interstate.

‘This baby could be alive’

Police documents don’t mention if this woman knew about Utah’s “safe haven” law or other resources available to help struggling parents. Carrie Diggs, Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, declined to say whether the woman knew about that law.

There are, however, options for women in similar situations, said Patrice Arent, the former Democratic state lawmaker who sponsored the safe haven law. First was working with providers for assistance before the baby was born. Second was placing the baby for adoption. Third was giving him up through the safe haven law.

The law allows mothers or a mother’s designee to anonymously leave their baby at any hospital, where he or she will be placed in Division of Child and Family Services custody and made available for adoption. It’s “completely anonymous. You wouldn’t be prosecuted. No police. No shame,” Arent said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, listens to the senators response to her concerns over changes to the EPA during a brief meeting with the Democratic House Caucus on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Arent sponsored Utah's "safe haven" legislation, both in 2001 and 2020.

A mother or their designee doesn’t need to talk to anyone at the hospital if they don’t want to. They could just leave the baby in a chair with a note making clear they were giving up the child, Arent said. Some parents will leave family medical information to help inform the child’s health care.

Arent sponsored Utah’s original safe haven law in 2001 and again during the 2020 general session, when lawmakers agreed to expand the timeframe to drop off a child from 72 hours to 30 days.

Lawmakers approved this change to acknowledge that three days is not enough time for a mother to make this choice, as some may not have been discharged from the hospital yet and postpartum depression can affect a mother far beyond 72 hours.

The baby in this case stayed in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for 22 days before doctors sent him home.

Utah was an early adopter of such a law, and now all 50 states have a similar law on the books. Arent said the law is meant to save lives — and has. She pointed to Sam Peterson, a then-high school senior who testified to legislators about expanding the law in 2020.

“This is a heartbreaking case,” Arent said, “because this baby could be alive and she would not have been prosecuted.”

For more information on Utah’s safe haven law, visit utahsafehaven.org.