Richard Strong leans back in his chair, a picture of retired Florida cop: T-shirt and baggy shorts, trim goatee and two dogs circling loyally at his feet.
Nearly two decades after he left the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, he can still flash a let’s-try-that-again stare from over the top of his glasses, thanks to years of fielding excuses from speeding drivers and underage drinkers.
When he tells stories of traffic details in Tampa, or Air Force deployments to the Middle East, it is with clarity and little emotion. A memory extracted, then returned.
"I compartmentalize stuff," he says, "If you don’t compartmentalize it, it’ll eat you alive."
The technique helps with the 5,000 car wrecks he responded to in 11 years as a deputy, especially when he dips in and out of books detailing the bloody aftermath of missed stop signs and ill-judged corners. "My gore," he calls it. Where it really works, though, is the handful of cases he needs to keep at arm’s length — not because they had a grisly ending, but because they had no ending at all.
He stands up, walks over to the bookshelf and reaches down. He looks past binders labeled "Masonic leadership training manuals" and "Traffic crash investigations" and pulls out a pile of paper bound with a marbled, green-and-black cover and a homemade title page. One of the 40-odd commendations within is dated March 28, 2000, not long before Strong retired.
It recognizes him for coming to the rescue of a baby left for dead near an apartment complex dumpster. A boy he can’t forget.
• • •
The call came over the police radio just after 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2000: The newborn had been found abandoned at the Carlton Arms apartments in northwest Tampa. Strong was at the corner of Sligh Avenue and Dale Mabry, working an accident, and radioed back that he’d drive over. He was only a few blocks away.
It was an overcast morning, 58 degrees. In the half-light of dawn, the red-brick buildings of the Carlton Arms, with their white sills and high windows, looked almost stately. But the sills were chipped and fading, the patios full of cheap furniture.
Strong drove to the far corner of the complex and found Oscar Valderrama. He had been out walking his son’s dog when he deviated from his usual route along the shore of Egypt Lake and cut across a parking lot. In front of an overflowing dumpster, he saw a black plastic garbage bag and maroon bedsheet bundled up. It looked like something was alive inside, maybe a puppy. When Valderrama prodded it with his shoe, a baby wailed.
Strong moved closer. He steeled himself, like he would at a car wreck. It always paid to expect the worst.
The wrinkled face was blue and still, the umbilical cord dry and bloodless. The child looked dead. Strong flicked its foot, expecting nothing, and got a bellow in reply.
He grabbed his first aid kit, suctioned the mouth and clamped the cord. He’d helped countless crash victims but never a baby. He tore away the garbage bag and sheet and fashioned a makeshift swaddle from a towel in his patrol car. Then he stood there cradling the infant like he had his own three children, asking himself what could bring someone to so callously discard a life.
He looked at the baby. I hope your life ends up better than today, he thought.
Within minutes, paramedics scooped the child from his arms and raced for the Tampa Children’s Hospital at St. Joseph’s. Soon after, Strong was lost in a sea of uniforms as all available units descended on Carlton Arms. He asked someone what would happen next and was told that detectives would try to find the parents. Then he went back to working wrecks.
• • •
Detective John Myers arrived about an hour after the baby was found. The infant hadn’t been in the trash long. A truck had changed out one of the two dumpsters between 5 and 5.30 a.m., and the driver hadn’t seen or heard anything. He had driven right over the spot where the baby was later laid.
Deputies scattered across Carlton Arms to talk to residents before they left for work. Many were reticent until they learned about the abandoned baby. Several mentioned suspicious neighbors, but each tip led police to women who were either still pregnant or never had been.
Round and round it went. One tip had a man leaving an apartment with a black garbage bag and returning without it, before getting into a cab with his girlfriend, who was in obvious discomfort. But a search warrant yielded nothing. A bottle of prescription antibiotics found close to the infant turned out to belong to a woman who’d had an abortion. At one point, Myers found himself interviewing 9-year-old twin sisters who said their mother threw the baby in the trash, but it might have been something they saw on TV.
The detective was optimistic by nature and carried that into every case, but this one stung. Carlton Arms sat on a network of labyrinthine streets with only two ways in or out and the baby was found right at the back. It was probably left there by someone who lived at the complex or knew it well.
Four months later, he got one last tantalizing clue. The crime lab had lifted a single latent fingerprint from the garbage bag. It was small and likely belonged to a child or teenager, but a run through Florida’s database failed to produce a hit. Myers closed his file "NFL" — no further leads.
• • •
Nurses at the hospital christened the boy "Baby Benjamin," and his survival soon made headlines. Ironically, throwing the child out in the garbage may have saved his life. The plastic trash bag preserved body warmth and absorbed radiant heat. Four days after he was admitted, Benjamin was released into the custody of the Department of Children and Families. His only real injury had been a few ant bites.
Benjamin was the fourth baby known to be abandoned in Florida in a month. And there were two more by the next month. All of them lived, which was rare, but so many plights so close together weighed heavy. Two weeks after Benjamin’s birth, State Rep. Sandra Murman of Tampa sponsored a "safe haven" bill, allowing parents to leave newborns at approved sites, like hospitals or fire stations, no questions asked. They would be immune from prosecution, so long as the child was unharmed. By July, it was law.
Texas had been the first to pass safe haven legislation in September 1999, following a string of abandoned newborns in Houston that year. Within 12 months, 10 other states had done the same. All the bills passed with unanimous or near-unanimous support. Within five years, 47 states had safe haven laws, a remarkable display of legislative accord.
Nebraska, in 2008, was last to act but set no age limit on children being relinquished. That backfired immediately, as dozens of teenagers with severe behavioral problems were surrendered by desperate parents. Lawmakers fixed the problem, but for a while, "Nebraska-ing" your child entered the lexicon.
John Tyson remembers what it was like before any laws hit the books. In 1995, he was district attorney in Mobile, Ala., when a woman drowned her newborn in a toilet with her mother’s help. A local TV reporter was so disturbed by the case that she asked Tyson whether some kind of amnesty couldn’t exist for mothers who gave up their children.
The DA balked at the idea but came to see the logic. He put in place a discretionary policy whereby his office wouldn’t prosecute mothers who gave up their babies at area hospitals if the infants were healthy and under 72 hours old.
Police officers, doctors, social workers, even hospital gardeners, had to be trained on what to do if someone handed them a baby and coached not to ask questions. And Tyson had to defend the unorthodox legal grounds for his policy: a mother’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
Other jurisdictions soon adopted the idea, and when Tyson presented it at the next meeting of the District Attorneys Association of Alabama, it was unanimously endorsed. The national organization followed, and Tyson then found himself on Good Morning America, being grilled by Diane Sawyer. He held his ground. He told Sawyer he’d "rather have live baby problems than dead baby problems."
• • •
The safe haven ideal can be traced to 12th-century Italy, when Pope Innocent III, disturbed at the number of unwanted infants being drowned in Rome’s Tiber River, decreed that baby hatches be placed in orphanages.
The 21st-century version was more complicated. It appealed to conservatives and liberals, for different reasons. Tyson remembered pro-life and pro-choice folks tying themselves in knots as both tried to support the Mobile policy while keeping their solemn vows never to agree with each other on anything. The harmony inevitably faltered.
Critics emerged declaring safe havens ineffective at best, dangerous at worst. The laws absolved negligent mothers of responsibility, they said, deprived abandoned children of identity and important medical information and did nothing to address the social and economic circumstances that drove a woman to give up her child in the first place.
"While rooted in magnanimity," researchers at the University of California Berkeley concluded in a 2004 review, "[safe haven laws] have not proven to be effective because they are not designed in such a way that will affect the decisions and actions of those most likely to discard infants."
Whether or not safe havens have been "effective" is hard to measure. Data on abandonments is haphazard, especially before laws were passed, and it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from the numbers collected since. Would every baby surrendered anonymously otherwise have been thrown in a dumpster?
Broadly, the statistics are encouraging: Abandonments have fallen and relinquishments have risen since laws were passed. But some experts are still reluctant to draw a causal relationship.
Tyson — the former DA — now works at Volunteers of America Southeast to establish crime-prevention programs in every judicial circuit in Alabama. He has little time for hand-wringing. Predictions that pregnant women would exploit the law rather than consider adoption have not materialized, he said.
"The whole thrust of this program is to manage the emergency, keep everybody safe, and then we’ll sort out the problems after that."
The National Safe Haven Alliance and state-level advocates say the law is only for a tiny number of women who feel they have no other options. Hotlines run by safe haven groups operate more as crisis pregnancy centers. Nick Silverio, who runs Florida’s A Safe Haven For Newborns, estimates that up to 90 percent of callers end up with a solution short of anonymously relinquishing their child.
• • •
John Myers retired in 2007, after 30 years in law enforcement. He spent 23 of them in child abuse, eschewing promotion to keep working cases. It was long enough to watch abused children grow into abusive parents. That was the worst part. The sad, baffling cycles. Eighteen years hasn’t quelled his bewilderment at Baby Benjamin’s case, either.
Last month, he sat in a room at the local library, in the Florida town he has retired to, and tried to pinpoint what was so memorable about Benjamin. He remembers a lot of cases, many with more tragic endings. But with Benjamin, there were two things. First, the case was solvable. Frustratingly so. They had a finite area of interest, and people were providing leads. Second, and perhaps more important, the question of why he was there at all.
"A mother of a child would put it in a bag to suffocate," he said, still incredulous. Tears welled in his eyes.
"That really bothers me. I guess that’s it. It is hard to imagine, but it happens."
In the years after Myers closed the case, little investigative work was done. The print found on the black garbage bag was run through the system a few more times, but after two or three years without a match, that stopped.
Probably the only inquiries that were made at all were by Richard Strong. He retired from the Sheriff’s Office a few months after his encounter with Benjamin. He was going through a divorce and needed a change.
He went back to active duty with the Air Force and was deployed to Pakistan, a second Gulf War and the Horn of Africa. At Bagram, over the Afghan border, insurgents saw fit to bombard the camp with mortars. The closest ones landed within 100 yards and left him deaf for hours afterward.
When he was home, Strong thought about Benjamin. He knew as he drove away from the Carlton Arms complex that morning in 2000, he wouldn’t forget. He put it away in a box in his head — compartmentalized — but it had a habit of creeping out. Sometimes, all it took was a report about child abuse on the news. When his youngest daughter got engaged, he thought of future grandchildren and how Benjamin’s biological grandparents would never know him. Sometimes, somebody would stumble across the case and ask Strong if he remembered.
Of course, he remembered.
Three times after retirement, Strong contacted DCF to find out what became of Benjamin. He knew it would be tough because he knew something about how the system worked. He was an ex-cop calling about an old case. He got nowhere.
In a recurring nightmare, Strong is back in his tent in Bagram, lying helpless as mortars rain down. When it first happened, about six years ago, a therapist told him it could be about retirement, but it could just as easily be about Benjamin. Cops like control, the therapist had said, and in those cases, he had none.
As he recounts this, Strong is standing in the kitchen of his home near Pensacola. In front of him, pans sit at the ready on every element of the stove, handles pointed in the same direction. Beside him a panel of switches is labeled: PORCH, FAN, FLOOD. Over in the living room, souvenirs of deployments are laid out geographically: Europe in one corner, through Africa and the Middle East to Asia.
With Benjamin, all Strong can do is wonder. DCF was unable to locate him in its system, it told the Times, so there’s no trail to follow. No way to know if he learned of his start in life. That is Strong’s other angst.
"I don’t think it’s proper to tell this kid that that’s what happened to him," he said. "My needs do not outweigh his happiness, not in any way, shape or form."
Benjamin would be 18 years old now. The course his life has taken remains a mystery to everyone who helped him on his first day. Strong’s version may help stave off the nightmares that returned last month.
He likes to think that after the paramedics whisked Benjamin away, the boy was adopted by a selfless and loving couple. They kept him safe and guided him to adulthood. Gave him a good life. That is what he holds onto.
Contact Michael Wright at [email protected]