SEATTLE – A Seattle woman was sentenced Monday for giving birth to a baby in a gas station bathroom in 1997, then leaving him to die.
The woman was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, but sentenced to just five years in community custody.
The woman, who was 27 years old in 1997, gave birth to a baby boy in the bathroom, then discarded him in a trash can and left. According to county prosecutors, she told no one except the baby’s father she was pregnant.
Police had a surveillance photo of the woman, but despite the media coverage at the time, the case went unsolved for 23 years.
“I remember exactly where I was when I first pulled out these crime scene photos from this incident,” said Seattle Police Det. Rolf Norton. “It was January 2018. I was laying on my stomach on a bed, the binder was down on the floor, and I’m paging through it. … I come to the photos — Baby Doe, a garbage can — and it’s mind-blowing. Frankly, it’s life changing. You see something that you immediately want to file away and never go back to, but you can’t because you have a job and a mission, and no one is looking out for Baby Doe except for us. That’s why it means so much.”
A path toward solving the case began in 2018, when Norton used DNA collected from ‘Baby Doe’ and submitted it to genetic genealogy experts, who narrowed down the list of suspects.
Detectives met with the suspect woman in 2021, and she told them she gave birth to the boy and left him in the garbage can.
“It just struck all of us,” said King County paralegal Kelly Rosa. “No matter what your opinion is on choice or any of those things, it just struck all of us as, ‘God, this just is so sad and avoidable.’ … “In this case you didn’t have someone calling on behalf of Baby Doe … There is no grandma or angry father or something going, ‘Why aren’t you working on my daughter’s case?’ And I just think it just speaks volumes about Rolf.”
The woman, now 52, was sentenced to first-degree manslaughter, which ordinarily has a prison time of up to 8.5 years. A Superior Court Judge noted several unfortunate circumstances that contributed to the comparatively minor sentence she received—the woman suffered a traumatic upbringing, had no criminal history for several years, and had been making progress in therapy. Given these factors, the judge determined she was unlikely to commit future crimes.
Her sentence also came with the condition she continues mental health counseling and therapy.
“To the question of how do you explain this resolution or where we are today, to a parent — you can’t,” Detective Norton said. “And I don’t think we could have come up with any resolution today that you could offer to a parent and have it make sense. … And for me, I think for a lot of people, today is not about punishment. Today is about accountability. We needed to get to today and it took a long time. And we got here, but no one is happy. There’s no happy angle. There’s no happy edge. We have to recognize that, feel it, and I guess go back to work.”
A state law enacted in 2002 allows mothers to leave their newborns with firefighters, hospital emergency staff, or other federal rural health clinic staff within three days of their birth. That law came five years after Baby Doe was found in the garbage can.