Mother's Day, page 1
For Kate and Jennifer
When a beaming young mother and her helpless infant are wheeled out of the maternity ward together for the first time, any question that the mother might ever bring harm to her baby can only be viewed as sacrilege.
Even now, in the latter days of the twentieth century, mother love remains venerated and inviolate … always full of hope, never marked by despair. Mothers remain unassailable in our culture. In divorce, mothers are generally granted child custody over fathers. When domestic violence erupts, the mother is always the least likely suspect. Principals and teachers don’t call fathers when children raise hell, need help, or get in trouble. They call mothers. When the most violent felon stands alone in court and no one else will stand by him, his mother can usually be counted upon to be there.
Mothers care. Period. End of argument.
That is the myth that we live by. A mother’s love is unconditional. Maternal mystique is a fiber in every thread of the social fabric: government, courts, education, religion. We speak of Mother Nature, Mother Country, and Mother Earth. Roman Catholics tend to worship that ultimate mother, the Virgin Mary, as much or more than they do Jesus Christ. Joseph, the good man who stood by Mary and raised her son as if he were his own, is hardly worth a footnote in catechism classes.
But cracks have appeared in the motherhood myth over the centuries. From the ancient Greek tale of Medea, who killed her own children because her husband deserted her, to the sobering story of South Carolina’s Susan Smith who confessed in 1994 to the drowning of her two tiny sons, the truth emerges that motherhood is no more consecrated than any other type of human bonding. Mothers may give birth, but that is all that nature requires of them. From the snipping of the umbilical cord onward, a mother’s love for her child is a matter of choice, not some genetic requirement or divine mandate.
And many mothers choose in varying degrees not to love or care or do what is best for their children. Some abandon their progeny. Some beat them into submission. Some even kill them.
Theresa Cross was a toxic mother, but the maternity myth blinded, deafened, and silenced those that might have stopped her. When I set out to tell the story of how she destroyed her family, I wondered where the good people were who might have saved her children. Theresa’s sins weren’t the product of instant rage. She moved inexorably toward her hideous deeds over a period of years, leaving unmistakable signs as she lumbered toward her own and her children’s awful destiny. She could have been stopped at any point along the way.
The fact is nobody tried to stop her. A legal system biased in favor of motherhood literally let Theresa Cross get away with murder, not once or twice, but three times.
Bad judges, lousy cops, greedy lawyers, lazy prosecutors, mediocre teachers, and incompetent bureaucrats are inevitable. When they happen, they should be weeded out and sent back to school to learn something about moral courage and the Golden Rule. The most egregious of their number usually are found out and bounced from their positions, but a residue of them always seems to remain in the system, and the harm that they do with their substandard civil service and self-serving abuse of authority is immeasurable.
The most insidious of these petty villains go utterly undetected. They are those who don’t understand that looking the other way is a crime. They are the ones who refuse to intervene when they see a woman backhanding her baby in the supermarket or shrieking at a son or daughter for no apparent reason at all. These are the good people who go home every night and cluck their tongues in wonder over the latest atrocity they see on the nightly news, completely unaware that they are the ones who are responsible. They are your next-door neighbors, just doing their jobs—trying to get through another day. They are school nurses, police officers, social workers, doctors, baby-sitters, clerks, crossing guards, teachers, technicians, lawyers.…
Perhaps they are you.
In the story of Theresa Cross, many of them don’t even have names. They aren’t criminals. They seldom jaywalk and rarely run a red light. They pay their taxes, contribute to the United Way, and earn their paychecks through honest labor. They were among the Cross family’s neighbors and friends and family. They were also the police officers who came on domestic disturbance calls and didn’t want to get involved, or the school teachers who noticed a string of inexplicable absences, a bruise, or a burst of irrational anger in the classroom, but didn’t ask the child any questions.
They might not even seem particularly germane to the tale of Theresa Cross and her children, let alone central to the story.
But they are central, these public servants and family members and acquaintances who did not want to get involved in someone else’s problems. They were clearly and certainly as guilty of condemning Clifford Sanders and Suesan Knorr and Sheila Sanders to death as those who murdered them.
An oft-quoted African proverb tells us that it takes an entire village to raise a child. The corollary Theresa Cross teaches us is that a child’s mother may not necessarily be a part of that nurturing village.
But the rest of us are.
The Sierra side roads that feather off Interstate 80 into the high mountain forests near the top of the Donner Pass lead to the loveliest morgue in the world. Reno gamblers who pushed their credit too far, battered Sacramento housewives who pushed their volatile husbands too far, and drug-dealing hustlers who pushed the wrong pusher too far, have all wound up in a permanent prone position somewhere off of I-80 at one time or another. The reason is as simple as the geography: I-80 is the major thoroughfare between San Francisco and Reno, and yet it is bordered on both sides for nearly a hundred miles by millions of acres of sparsely populated, rarely explored wilderness.
Just before daybreak on Tuesday, July 17, 1984, Maybel Harrison saw a bright light in the woods near Squaw Creek. She made a U-turn and pulled off the two-lane blacktop that worms its way south of the Donner Pass toward Lake Tahoe, squinting through her windshield at a fire burning down near the waterline next to Squaw Creek. Despite the icy morning air, she climbed out of her Ford pickup to investigate further.
Maybel Harrison, forty-five, was not the first to see the blaze. Another motorist had reported it an hour earlier to the Squaw Valley Fire Department. Placer County Sheriff’s Sergeant Stephen Ziegler had already been out to see what it might be. Ziegler could tell from his vantage point up on Highway 89 that it was probably just an isolated stump fire: the result of a lightning strike during a summer storm in the Sierras several days earlier. It had probably smoldered for a while and was just now bursting into flame. Even in the dark, Ziegler could see from the road that the flames were only about two feet high. Besides, the fire was burning next to the creek, far enough away from most of the trees to be any real threat even during summer fire season.
Ziegler had radioed in at 4:57 A.M. that the fire was isolated and would probably burn itself out. Even if it didn’t, he told dispatch, it was a trivial enough blaze that it could certainly wait until daylight for someone from the Forest Service to put it out.
But Mrs. Harrison knew none of this during the first faint light of morning nearly an hour later, when she tripped down to the creek bed to take a closer look. What she saw and smelled burning was no tree stump.
Alarmed, she ran back up to the road and flagged down a diesel truck. It pulled off on the right shoulder and parked behind her pickup. Robert Eden, a transport driver from the Central Valley town of Tracy, climbed out of the cab. Mrs. Harrison pointed out the blaze, and Eden pulled a small fire extinguisher out of his truck, racing down to the fire. After spraying out most of the flames, he could make out a smoking figure laid out as on a f
“It looks like a mannequin,” she said.
“No,” Eden said grimly. “It’s a body.”
The body, as it turned out, of a young woman in her late teens, though it was difficult to tell at first whether it was male or female. The only part of the human remains that was not blackened was the left side of her face. The coroner would later record that she had blue eyes, but when Maybel Harrison and Robert Eden first saw that small patch of unburned flesh, the left eye was mercifully closed. In life, the young woman had pale skin and wavy light brown or blond hair and eyelashes. In death, her slender five-foot, three-inch body was reduced to a greasy mound of ashes and scorched flesh.
Mrs. Harrison returned to the highway and waited in the roadway until a car—a sheriff’s patrol car, as it turned out—came along fifteen minutes later. The mountain temperatures had dropped into the thirties overnight and Mrs. Harrison was trembling when the two deputies asked her what had happened. Her trembling, however, was not only because of the cold.
“There’s a burning body over there!” she hollered at the two deputies.
They told her to stay put and drove off the road, down by the creek, to within a hundred feet of the smoldering figure. Eden followed them down, but he stopped several feet behind when the two deputies saw what they had on their hands. They got out of their car and ordered Eden to stay back. The body was so badly burned that one of the legs had burned through at the knee and the singed thighbone protruded from the crisp flesh. A routine check for vital signs would have been ridiculous. Instead, the deputies opted to back away as carefully as possible in order to preserve whatever footprints or other clues might remain undisturbed around the makeshift funeral pyre. There might be something on the creek bank that could point to the cause of her death or her identity.
Soon she would become known only as Jane Doe #4858-84.
Two hours passed. It was nearly seven A.M. when homicide detectives Russell Potts and Larry Addoms showed up. Finding corpses along the highways of the Sierras was nothing new to Potts and Addoms.
It is no secret to lawmen on either side of the California–Nevada border that this—some of the most beautiful, rugged real estate in the country—is a dumping ground for corpses.
Here the headless body of nineteen-year-old Veronica Martinez was found off a highway embankment in March of 1992. Five months later, in August of 1992, sixty-seven-year-old Dale Cannon, a retired NBC-TV production employee and inveterate Las Vegas casino patron, was torched and left in the trunk of his 1981 Oldsmobile off a Pacific Gas and Electric access road. And the shallow grave of twenty-four-year-old Cesar Rodriguez, a gunshot victim, was found off a back road in December of 1992. Even when lawmen do find the bodies, the crimes often go unsolved because the tiny, impoverished cities and counties of the Sierras don’t have the resources or detective power to solve or prosecute the murders.
In all, nearly two hundred murder victims have been dumped or buried beneath the pines over the past decade. Many of them, like the sad and horrifying case of the Squaw Creek girl, have gone for years without even being identified.
Armed with a Polaroid camera, an evidence kit, and a pair of arson investigators from the Tahoe City Fire Department, Potts and Addoms made their way down the brushy slope to the creek bank. The arson specialists carried a hydrocarbon detector to verify whether this latest body had, indeed, been doused with some sort of flammable liquid before it was set afire. Although the tests came up positive, they still took soil samples for further analysis in the lab. Once they finished, the two detectives took over the crime scene, spending the next four hours taking pictures, cataloging evidence, and scouting the forest floor for a hundred yards in all directions.
By eleven A.M. Potts and Addoms had been joined by investigators, criminalists, and photographers from the state department of justice in Sacramento as well as a small army of deputies from the main office of the Placer County Sheriff’s Department nearly a hundred miles away in the county seat of Auburn. The new round of investigators used a Brownie Instamatic and thirty-five-millimeter cameras to shoot even more photos, supplementing Potts’s Polaroids.
In all, the detectives found and cataloged thirty-one pieces of evidence, including a green Pepsodent toothbrush, an underwired size 32-C JCPenney bra, disposable diapers, a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a yellow-and-black scarf, brown high heels, black flip-flop sandals, a pair of hoop earrings, a pair of sleigh-bell earrings, a heavy bracelet inlaid with black onyx, and the singed pages from a couple of books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a Harlequin romance. There was more, but the two plastic trash bags that contained most of the remaining effects had been set afire along with Jane Doe. Most of the contents were destroyed.
As for Jane Doe herself, her mouth had been taped shut with silver duct tape and her wrists had been taped together. She wore an old-style white-gold wedding ring, studded with diamond chips. When she was torched, she had been wearing a yellow nylon windbreaker, white knit sweater, brown corduroy jacket, and a pair of corduroy pants. Her hair was worn in a ponytail, tied off with a bright yellow rubber band. It was all but impossible to determine much more about the victim at the scene, though. Jane Doe had suffered third-degree burns to 91 percent of her body.
At 1:59 P.M., Placer County Sheriff Donald Nunes put out the first of several teletypes to the missing persons divisions of police and sheriff’s departments all over the state. Request you check your records for any missing persons which may match this Jane Doe, or any similar homicides. Thanks in advance, it read.
At two P.M., a driver from the county removal service arrived. He loaded the body in his truck and drove it down the mountain over Donner Pass to Auburn and the Placer County Morgue.
The autopsy began two hours later. Dr. A. V. Cunha, the pathologist assigned to the case, began dictating a dispassionate description of the charred body:
“The remains are those of a teenage-to-young-adult Caucasian female.…”
But as the survey of the body progressed it became increasingly difficult to remain clinical. The hands were curled into fists, thrust forward in a tortured “pugilistic” pose. The right ear was burned to ashes, but the left ear was still pliant and intact. Two small holes pierced in the earlobe marked spots where the girl had once worn her dangly earrings.
Dr. Cunha carefully removed the duct tape from Jane Doe’s hands and mouth, using forceps on the outside chance that the killer or killers might have left fingerprints. Her lips were burned away on the right side, but still intact and slightly parted on the left.
Assisted by Dr. James Nordstrom, a dentist who contracted with the sheriff in orthodontic identification cases, Cunha would remove her maxilla and mandible in hopes that dental records might turn up giving Jane Doe a name. For the moment, however, all Nordstrom could tell from his examination was that the third molars at the back of her mouth had still been coming in when she died. Jane Doe was probably between fourteen and seventeen years of age, he concluded.
The only other grim bit of news Dr. Cunha was able to confirm after completing his autopsy was the cause of death. She hadn’t been strangled or raped or shot or drowned or beaten to death. She did not die of a drug overdose or a knife wound or alcohol poisoning or an internal hemorrhage. The awful truth was that Jane Doe was not dead when she was doused with gasoline or kerosene or some other flammable liquid and set afire. She had been burned alive.
Jane Doe got more than the usual media attention devoted to I-80 body dumps during the first few days following her discovery in the Tahoe forest. Newspapers all over Northern California picked up the mystery and published perfunctory stories about the horrible murder that had apparently been committed within a few miles of the celebrated Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Television and radio reports echoed the newspaper articles. Who
On July 26, Jane Doe’s remains were X-rayed and frozen at the Sacramento County Coroner’s Morgue. Under the law, her corpse had to remain under lock and key for ninety days in the event that investigators needed another look in their quest to identify her.
Thanks to newspaper reports of the grisly murder, there was no shortage of possible suspects or victims. Calls came in daily for the rest of the month. But by the end of August, Detectives Potts and Addoms had investigated about two hundred of those leads and were no closer to an identity of Jane Doe or her killer.
Fingerprint analysts at the state justice department’s investigative services branch were able to pull a print from her right thumb before she was frozen, but a month after the body was found there was no match with any of the prints of missing persons submitted from police departments around the state. The analysts were also able to get some latent prints from several glass bottles recovered from the crime scene, and Potts tried matching the latent prints with several potential suspects. Again, there was no luck.
As September approached and a new school term began, Potts made up a flyer with the pertinent information about Jane Doe and an artist’s rendering of what the young woman must have looked like when she was alive. Aside from a chipped front tooth, she had probably been rather pretty. Potts sent the flyer to districts all over the state, hoping a teacher might recognize a missing student or that a classmate might remember a friend who had disappeared over the summer. Once more, the response was negative.
As the weeks passed into months leads on the Jane Doe case dwindled. The investigation expanded beyond California with a set of the fingerprints and other pertinent information distributed throughout the West via the FBI.
At the end of ninety days, Jane Doe #4858-84 was still Jane Doe #4858-84. On October 25, she was laid to rest at the New Auburn District Cemetery.