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Baby snatchers

In the first hours after Bobbie Jo Stinnett was murdered and her fetus cut from her womb, police and the FBI hunted for two men and a woman, based on a witness' report. They chased down a tip about a ring of thieves planning to sell the infant for $50,000 on the black market.

But John Rabun, who has studied hundreds of infant abductions for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, knew who authorities should look for: a woman of child-bearing age who lives with a man. She is feigning her own pregnancy. She did this alone. She won't hurt this new infant. She'll parade the newborn around like a proud parent. And her husband will not have a clue.

The center dispatched two infant abduction experts to the scene to help investigators. And when an arrest was made, Rabun's profile fit snugly around the alleged culprit, Lisa M. Montgomery.

"It's always a woman," Rabun explained last week. "This is a peculiar crime. Could a guy do it? Probably. But unlikely."

Rabun's experience with infant abductors extends from newborns plucked from hospitals to the most extreme and rare form, like the case in Skidmore, Mo. He co-authored a forensics study, "Newborn Kidnapping by Caesarean Section."

What emerges from the work of Rabun and other experts is a picture of women so desperate for a baby they go to any ends to get one. Often the women hope a child will cement a failing relationship with a man. "It's just so narcissistic. It's incredible," Rabun said. "It's her needs above everyone else's."

In studying these cases, Rabun wanted to learn how to stop them. In the late 1980s, he wrote guidelines for preventing infant kidnappings from hospital maternity wards _ the places where this crime most often occurred. Today, most hospitals teach staff to take precautions and use security measures akin to antishoplifting devices on newborns. Parents are cautioned against placing an "It's a boy!" or stork sign outside their homes, lest they advertise the availability of a newborn.

As a result, in-hospital abductions have plummeted from 12 to 18 a year in the United States to just two or three.

That success arrived with unintended consequences. Hospitals are "hardened targets," says Rabun. Potential kidnappers are thwarted. "Unfortunately, there are still women out there who want a baby who are going other places," said Ann Burgess, a Boston College professor and lead author on the newborn kidnapping study.

The study examined 199 nonfamily infant abductions in the United States from 1983 to 2000. Only six of these cases involved forced C-sections. For example, in 2000, a young couple in Ravenna, Ohio, placed a newspaper ad to sell their car. Michelle Bica, 39, responded. She lured the 23-year-old woman, who was nine months pregnant, to her home. Bica killed the woman and removed her baby. Bica, who had faked her own pregnancy, committed suicide when police attempted to talk to her. A healthy 8-pound, 6-ounce baby boy was found unharmed in a bedroom.

A 1987 case in Albuquerque, N.M., first sparked researchers' interest in this kind of crime. Darci Page, 19, staked out a prenatal clinic and forced a pregnant woman at gunpoint to an isolated desert area. The mother was strangled and her stomach sliced open with a set of car keys. Page claimed to have given birth while driving. But a hospital exam revealed she'd never been pregnant. The baby survived. Page's husband had no idea what his wife had done.

Psychiatrist Philip Resnick, who teaches at Case Medical School in Cleveland, testified for the prosecution in that case, saying Page had various personality disorders but was not criminally insane. "Simply, they are desperate for a baby," Resnick said last week. "It's a rare phenomenon. But it's not unheard of."

Researchers do not know why some women kidnap a newborn, while others want an infant via Caesarean section, which is not a difficult medical procedure if the mother's health is not of concern. Rabun and Resnick suggested that women who resort to kidnapping by Caesarean want to assume not only the mothering role, but the identity of someone who produced the baby. The fantasy of pregnancy is paramount.

"They're completely competent," Burgess said. "But all they can think of is their own selfish needs."

After stealing Stinnett's baby, Montgomery drove back to Kansas and called her husband, the FBI said. She told him she'd given birth at a Topeka mall and asked to meet him at a fast food parking lot. He had no idea what she'd done, authorities say.

Montgomery, 36, is mother to four children. She has no children with her current husband. In recent months, she'd posted on an online message board that she was pregnant again. But her ex-husband claims Montgomery couldn't be pregnant now because she had a tubal ligation in 1990, said attorney James R. Campbell of Burlington, Kan.

Campbell represents Montgomery's ex-husband, Carl Boman, in a custody battle. Boman had twice married Montgomery for a total of 12 years.

Montgomery has lied about being pregnant before, Boman's attorney said.

"She had made claims in the early '90s on at least two separate occasions that she was pregnant," Campbell said.

Montgomery traveled to Stinnett's rural Nodaway County home Dec. 16 under the pretense of being "Darlene Fischer," a woman interested in rat terrier dogs, which Stinnett bred, the FBI said. Stinnett was eight months pregnant. The two women had talked online.

At some point during the visit, Montgomery strangled Stinnett and slashed across her stomach, removing a baby girl, the FBI said.

Less than 24 hours later, thanks to the tracing of past online chats between the women, Montgomery was arrested. The baby, Victoria Jo Stinnett, was recovered safely and taken home by her father days later.

Montgomery was taken to jail.

And the forensic experts got their first look at the alleged culprit.

"It fit the profile," Resnick said.