1. Narratives

A gift abandoned, Day 1: Jack-in-the-box

Newborn Russell Raymond Hayes (Rusty Hayes) after he was found abandoned.
Newborn Russell Raymond Hayes (Rusty Hayes) after he was found abandoned. [ JUNCO, VICTOR | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Jun. 15
Updated Jun. 15

TEMPLE TERRACE — An alarming number of newborns are being abandoned in the Tampa Bay area. Some have died, discarded in dumpsters. Others have been wrapped in towels and left for someone to find. Why is this happening? In this four-day series of articles, we focus on one mother who abandoned her baby. As this case shows, there are no clear-cut explanations; there are only observations, theories and, very often, regret.

That day, Ryan Nawrocki was just an ordinary sixth-grader living an ordinary life. He was 11 years old, with blond hair that hung straight and heavy on his forehead. He was a stocky kid, and it was easy to imagine him carrying a baseball mitt or playing video games after dinner. That day, Thursday, April 27, Ryan strode across the street from his house in Wildwood Acres, a complex of shoe-box-shaped duplexes on streets that curl into other streets lined with more shoe boxes. He headed toward a small courtyard where his 16-year-old sister, Melissa, was doing laundry in a small community building. Walking along a worn foot path, he passed the dumpster and a large oak tree.

He heard something. A kitten?

His eyes followed the sound to a videocassette recorder box lying on the ground beneath the oak tree about 10 feet from the dumpster. The flaps of the box were closed but unsecured. Ryan walked over to the box. He opened the flaps.

It was a painful, jolting sight: a newborn baby marked with dried blood and a cheesy substance, lying on a bloody towel. The baby gnawed on its fist and cried again.

Ryan tore over to the laundry room.

“There’s a baby in a box over there!” he told his sister.

“You’re lyin’,” she replied.

“No, I’m not!”

His sister peered at Ryan, unsure. Then she stopped stuffing clothes into the washer. “If you’re lyin’, I’m gonna kill you,” she announced, walking out the door.

Moments later, she reached the box. “Oh, my God.” Melissa rushed across the street to her apartment. Inside, her mother, Lisa Nawrocki, was watching Night Court on television. She looked up as her daughter ran in. The girl was almost hysterical. Melissa told her mother what they had found.

Call 911, Lisa Nawrocki said. She told Ryan to bring the box over, but Ryan said, “I can’t look at it! I can’t look at it!”

His mother walked across the street, brought the box back and laid it on her living room floor. A licensed practical nurse, she checked the baby’s vital signs. Melissa was too upset to speak plainly on the phone. Her mother took the receiver.

The baby was a boy, she told the 911 operator. His color was good, and he didn’t seem to have any respiratory problems. His mother, whoever she was, must have cut his umbilical cord and tied the end off with blue thread or fishing line.

An ambulance was on the way, and Melissa ran next door to borrow a diaper from their neighbor, who had 1-year-old twins. Lisa carefully wrapped the child in it; the diaper nearly swallowed him, reaching from his kneecaps to his chest. It made him look even more pitiful, Lisa thought, as she picked him up and and wrapped him in a plaid blanket.

She rocked and talked softly to the baby. The ambulance arrived within minutes _ too soon for Lisa. She felt as if she could have held that baby forever.

The emergency services technicians, a man and a woman, came in. They checked the baby and fired off questions: Who delivered the baby? Did you name him? They seemed a little cold, Lisa thought. She placed the baby on the stretcher. He was sucking his thumb. The technicians put the stretcher into the ambulance and then drove off to Tampa General Hospital.

By then, things were hectic. Police lights flashed outside. Officers came in to interview the Nawrockis. Reporters and television cameras swarmed around with lights, microphones and notebooks. Neighbors streamed in. Everybody was asking questions. The same questions:

Who was the mother? The University of South Florida was nearby; was she a student, afraid to tell her parents, deserted by her boyfriend? How could any mother do such a thing? She oughta be strung up, someone said.

God only knows what was going on in her mind, Lisa Nawrocki thought. I hope she gets help because she needs it. I’m going to wonder about this baby for the rest of my life. I hope whoever adopts him never tells him he was found by a dumpster. That’s a heck of a way to start life: Your mother threw you away.

Detective Dennis Hallberg of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office got to the scene soon after the baby was found. After talking to the Nawrockis, he and other deputies swung into action. Speed was important. A woman had just given birth. She was most vulnerable, most likely to be found, right now.

Hillsborough County Health Department clinics were asked to look out for any white, female walk-ins. Meanwhile, officers knocked on neighborhood doors. Have you seen any pregnant women recently? they asked. Do you know any women who are expecting?

One person said there was a pregnant woman who lived over on Marta Drive. The officers found her; she was still pregnant. Someone else saw a young woman holding a baby on the corner earlier in the day. The deputies found her _ and her baby.

Detective Hallberg studied the scene, trying to reconstruct what may have happened: A white woman had a baby. She cut and tied its umbilical cord, preventing the baby from bleeding to death. She placed the baby in a box. In broad daylight, she put the box under a tree, alongside a path that people used to go to the laundry room, about 50 yards away in a courtyard.

Did she walk here? Drive? Was she alone? Was she a scared, young kid? A cold, selfish woman? Was she locked in a terrible relationship with the father? Did she plan all this? Did she panic? Was she somewhere watching right at this moment?

At Tampa General Hospital, they called him Jack-in-the-box. They put him under a warmer to stabilize him, fed him and gave him routine injections. They dressed him up. The nurses fell in love with him, all 7 pounds, 7 ounces of him, especially Tina Davis. She helped care for him that night and the next day. She had worked with infants there for three years, but she felt different about this one.

He was such a gift! She just couldn’t believe it. She and her husband had been trying to conceive a child for a long time. And here, she thought, some woman had this baby and just walked away.

Later that Thursday night, around the corner from where the baby was found, at 5812 Mar-Jo Drive, Judy Pemberton, 42, quietly watched television. Cats and kittens played here and there in the two-bedroom duplex apartment.

At 10:30 p.m., Judy’s live-in boyfriend, Russell Hayes, 28, came home from his job at a nearby restaurant. He was a big, red-headed fellow with a ruddy, boyish face and small, serious eyes. He asked Judy how she was feeling. She looked better than she had that morning. Her blond, shoulder-length hair was softly curled, and she wore her normal, loose-fitting clothes. But there were circles under her deep-set, blue eyes.

Judy said she was feeling much better. “I finally started my period,” she said. The cramps were gone. She got up to fix Russell dinner.

Russell was relieved. For the past 24 hours or so, Judy had been suffering terrible cramps. She even called in sick to work, the first time she had done that in nearly a year. She told Russell she was going through menopause. She hadn’t had a period in 11 months. This was all part of it. You missed periods, then you had one, then you missed more. Don’t worry.

People had been worried about Judy, though. Russell knew that. A few people had even wondered if Judy were pregnant. One of Russell’s outspoken aunts had asked Judy outright. Judy said no. About three weeks earlier, Russell’s other aunt, Mary Duncan, who had raised Russell from the time he was 5, talked to Russell about Judy’s condition.

“Russell, something is wrong with Judy. Is she pregnant?” Mrs. Duncan said.

“No, not that I know of,” Russell said.

“Well there’s somethin’ wrong with her. She needs to go to the doctor. Would you please talk to her?”

When Russell talked to Judy, she said, “No, I’m gettin’ tired of people askin’ me that, no I’m not pregnant.’”

Then, last night, Judy was in terrible pain at the bowling alley. Her friends were worried about her because she could hardly bowl. One woman found Judy in the bathroom doubled over in pain. Judy was worried, too, and asked her sister-in-law, Marcie Gilbert, who was also the bowling alley manager, to take her to the hospital if she got worse.

“I’m cramping so bad I can’t hardly stand it,” Judy told her. “I feel like I want to start (my period), but I can’t.”

“Judy, quit bowling,” Marcie said. “If you’re trying to start and having major problems, don’t bowl.” Marcie knew Judy had not had a period in months. She had asked Marcie often about menopause.

“Maybe it’s a cyst,” Marcie said. “Judy, let’s go to the doctor tomorrow.”

“I can’t afford it,” Judy said. “I can’t afford to skip work.”

“You can’t afford to be dead, either. If you’ve got something going on inside your body, nobody can see it but a doctor.”

When Russell picked up Judy that night, Marcie made him promise to take Judy to the hospital if she didn’t feel better.

But Judy said she was all right. And now, as she fixed dinner, she seemed fine. The couple ate, and then fell into bed by 11:30 p.m. Both of them were dog tired.

Friday morning, Judy went to work. For the past year, she had been a general receptionist at Hallmark Packaging Corp., on nearby 39th Avenue N. She wore one of the same outfits she had worn often in the past year _ a striped blouse worn out over a pair of slacks. When she got to the office, everyone was talking about the baby that was found by a dumpster in Wildwood Acres. They were outraged. Personnel manager Kim Clark and Hallmark president Vincent Tifer stood by Judy’s desk, and they all discussed it.

“They should hang the woman by the damn neck,” Tifer said.

“How could any mother do this?” said Kim Clark, personnel director.

Judy loved children. She had recently brought to work the cute clothes she bought for her little granddaughter. Judy agreed with Clark and Tifer. How could any mother do this?

The news about this baby was distressing not just because it was a disturbing crime, but also because it was getting to be such a common one. In the previous two years, news stories about babies left in boxes, garbage cans, trash bins, cars and baskets have popped up with numbing frequency. In the 10 months since this baby was found, five others have been abandoned in the Tampa Bay area, including a baby dubbed “Seminole Sam” who was left on the doorstep of a Seminole Catholic Church last week. Each case is tragically unique, and yet part of a phenomenon, ugly and terrifying, that people simply do not understand.

Last March, a baby was found dead next to a Tampa trash bin. The previous fall, a baby was left outside an apartment complex; he survived. Before that, another dead infant was found near a dumpster. The year before, a baby was found dead in a motel trash can. Across the state, near Fort Lauderdale, a police officer saved a baby thrown in a dumpster by sucking mucus out of its mouth; the same man had saved another baby a year before.

Some mothers have seemed more caring, leaving their babies in places where they would be found. One baby boy was left, wrapped in a quilt, in a Sarasota hospital parking garage. Another was left in a north Naples sheriff’s department substation. One boy was left in an unlocked car in Fort Pierce. He was wrapped in a sweatshirt sleeve and blanket, and his mother left a note: “My husband is on drugs and because of it I became on drugs, too. I don’t want to give my baby away, but he won’t be brought up right. I cleaned him up. May God forgive me.”

Across the country, it’s the same thing. Mothers leaving babies in odd places, or just tossing them away. How many? No one knows. No one keeps count. No federal or state agencies keep track of how many babies are abandoned. Such cases are usually included in child abuse and neglect figures.

Only one organization _ the Denver-based American Humane Association _ has studied child abandonment to any degree.

The Association estimates that abandoned children make up about 1 percent of all child abuse and neglect cases. Using that measure and survey results from 20 states, the Association estimates that 17,185 children were reported abandoned in 1986. That figure includes all children up to age 18 abandoned by their parents in one way or another. In Florida, 2,226 children through age 17 were abandoned from June 1988 to July 1989.

Since reports of child abuse and neglect have risen 225 percent since 1976, the Association assumes that child abandonment parallels that increase. How many of these are newborn infants? That is impossible to guess. In a March 1987 article on baby abandonment, writer Jo Coudert found 600 newspaper accounts of babies who were thrown into dumpsters, toilets and other such places in 1986.

This was just a “pieced together” survey by one writer. How many other abandoned babies are not reported or written about? How many are never found at all and end up ignominiously in the nation’s landfills?

At 10 a.m. Friday, April 28, the day after the baby was found, detectives Larry Lingo, Albert Frost and Michael Marino decided to search the dumpster. The garbage pickup was late that day. The dumpster had not been taped off as part of a crime scene. It had yet to occur to the detectives there was a connection between the baby, placed 6 to 10 feet from the dumpster under the tree, and the dumpster. If garbage trucks had come at their customary time, the dumpster would have been empty.

Instead, it was half full. Detective Marino, dressed in a suit, put on rubber yellow gloves and climbed in. He handed items of trash to the other detectives, who laid them carefully on the ground. For half an hour, they found nothing unusual. Then Marino found a box. It contained a clear plastic garbage bag. Inside the bag were two bloody towels, bloody tissue paper, bloody sanitary napkins, cat food cans, an empty Banquet Salisbury Steak TV dinner box, and directions for blond hair dye.

The box was a xerographic paper box with a half-square cut out on one side. On another side was an address label.

The address was Hallmark Packaging, 1212 39th Ave. N, Tampa.

The box provided one more piece, and many more questions, to the puzzle: The mother brought two boxes to the dumpster. She put one in the dumpster and the other on the ground. Did that mean she randomly left the box with the baby on the ground as part of the trash? Or did she make a conscious decision to distance the baby from the dumpster? After all, isn’t it likely trash pickup workers would have grabbed the box on the ground? Or would they have looked inside first, to make sure someone wasn’t throwing away a perfectly good videocassette recorder?

Why did she throw away the possibly incriminating box of trash? Didn’t she realize someone might find it?

Detective Frost followed the first solid lead: Hallmark Packaging.

Hallmark Packaging is in a small, narrow office in a row of matching offices. It manufactures trash can liners and grocery sacks. Detective Frost arrived about 10:45 a.m. He walked into the small reception office and approached the window that separated the reception room from the rest of the company. Sitting at a desk behind the window was a blond woman with deep-set blue eyes. She looked to be in her 40s. Frost introduced himself and told the woman he was investigating the baby that was abandoned the day before at Wildwood Acres Apartments. He asked her what her name was.

Judy Pemberton, she replied.

Frost asked where the company put their empty boxes.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Pemberton said. “You’ll have to ask the guys in the back, but most of us throw them out front, in the dumpster.”

“Do you know if there are any pregnant women at the company?”

“None that I know of,” she said. “There was one woman in the back who was expecting, but she already had her baby.”

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” Frost joked.

Ms. Pemberton laughed. “No.”

They talked about 15 minutes. Halfway through the interview, Frost started to wonder about this woman, and noted in his report she should be interviewed again. Something wasn’t right. It was the way she was answering his questions. Too fast, for one thing, or with another question. She avoided eye contact. She looked off across the warehouse or at her desk, especially when he mentioned the baby.

Plus, she didn’t react the way most people might when a cop comes out of nowhere to ask about a baby abandoned so nearby. She didn’t seem surprised, or particularly interested, or kind of excited the way people who aren’t involved are. She didn’t ask gossipy questions, like, Gee, what did it look like? Was it really in the trash? Any idea who the mother is?

She asked only one question, as Frost left his card, and turned to leave.

“How’s the baby?”

In the corner office, Vincent Tifer, president of Hallmark, agonized over what he had to do that afternoon: fire Judy Pemberton. The company was automating, putting in computers, and Judy just didn’t take to them. It was a shame. Tifer hated to let her go. She had been a reliable, punctual, hard-working employee, always willing if she didn’t do something right to do it again. She was well-liked around the office. Tifer was so relieved the day before, Thursday, when she called in sick, which she had never done before. He was interviewing several candidates to replace her, and it would have been awkward with her sitting there. She had no idea that she was going to lose her job.

Tifer knew this would be hard on Judy. She had had some tough times. Two years before, she had left her husband of 21 years and her home in Colorado. She came with her 20-year-old daughter to Tampa, where she was born and raised. She soon learned her daughter was pregnant. Judy supported the family, and for a time, the father of the baby, on low wages she made working for a temporary office services company. Since her office skills were limited, Hallmark did not pay much either: about $5 an hour.

Later, Judy’s daughter broke up with the boyfriend and then moved with her baby back to Colorado. They left behind a lot of unpaid bills.

At the same time, Tifer knew Judy was having health problems. She discussed it with the women there. She had missed a lot of periods and said she was going through menopause.

Not that Judy was one of these chronic complainers. She really kept to herself until she got to know you. Then, she opened up and talked about her life _ especially about Russell.

Russell! When it came to Russell Hayes, Judy was a love-struck teen-ager. They had been dating about a year, living together since January. An 8-by-10 picture of him in his National Guard uniform dominated one corner of her desk. Sometimes, Tifer saw her staring at it, all lovey-eyed, as he described it. When she and Russell went to a carnival or fair, she would bring in a stuffed animal he won for her. At night, she would put all her stuffed animals near the picture and say good night to them.

It was obvious to everyone at Hallmark that Russell was good for Judy. They had fun. They bowled. They went out to eat often, which, she said, was why they both were gaining weight. Tifer got the impression it was the first time Judy had felt relatively carefree in a long while.

The last thing she needed, Tifer thought, as the work day drew to a close, was to lose her job. But he had no choice. After paychecks were passed out, Tifer asked Judy to come into his office. As gently as he could, he told her they had to let her go. He explained why.

Judy listened quietly. Tears trickled down her face. But, so like Judy, she didn’t get emotional. She said she understood, and that it had been a pleasure working for him and the company. Then she left.

Tifer felt rotten.

In those first crucial days after the baby was found, progress on the police investigation was sluggish. The VCR box had an old serial number, so it would take time to trace where it was purchased. A couple of people called saying they had seen pregnant women near Wildwood Acres, one near a traffic accident, to no avail.

Human hair had been found, and there were fingerprints on the items found in the dumpster. DNA testing and other lab tests on these items would also take time. The baby had been featured on television and in newspapers in an attempt to solicit public involvement. The detectives knew that’s what usually cracked these cases. Someone who knows the mother finally makes an anonymous call. Someone with a conscience. Someone who despite other loyalties cannot ignore that baby.

Hallberg, Lingo and the other detectives working the case waited for that call. The more time that passed, the less likely it would come.

Friday night, Judy Pemberton and Russell Hayes visited Raymond and Mary Duncan. The couple are Russell’s aunt and uncle, but Russell thought of them as Mom and Dad. They had raised him since he was a little boy. He was very close to them. Judy had grown close to them, too. They were an affectionate family, and she seemed to soak in that affection, as if she had never known it before. The four spent a lot of time together at the Duncans’ cozy, two-bedroom Tampa apartment.

In the year or so Russell and Judy had been dating, Mrs. Duncan had grown fond of Judy. At first, the 15-year age difference between Russell and Judy seemed more important, but the two seemed so well-suited. Russell enjoyed Judy’s tomboyishness, her sarcastic wit, her interest in sports. Judy seemed both mother and girlfriend to Russell, dependent on him at times, lending her own shoulder at others. Russell seemed to understand her and accept her as she was. She had quite a temper sometimes. When she lashed out, cursing and saying things she didn’t mean, Russell just let it bounce off.

This night, Mrs. Duncan was quieter than usual as Judy, Russell and one of Russell’s aunts watched the 11 o’clock news. Mrs. Duncan put up a good front, but something was bothering her, deep. When the report about the baby was shown, Mrs. Duncan’s eyes shifted from the TV to Judy. Judy was undeniably thinner than she was 24 hours before, Mrs. Duncan thought.

It’s like she had a pin stuck in her. Her feet isn’t swollen. Her hands isn’t swollen. I’m a listener and a looker. And I can guess things. I just know.

What am I gonna do? I read every little thing about the baby, what they found. I never have seen anything that could connect me with it. All I can go by is a picture of the baby on television, and the circumstances what happened, and the weight loss. You don’t lose that much weight overnight, see. I can tell.

Maybe I should go to her, but how would I do this? What if I’m wrong? I know in my heart I’m not wrong. I really in my heart know that’s my grandbaby.

The baby looked rosy and chubby on television. The reporter was describing where and how the baby was found.

“I don’t see how a mother could do that,” Russell’s other aunt said. “They oughta take and shoot that person.”

Mary watched Judy. Judy was looking away from the television, and she was humming very softly.

• • •

‘A gift abandoned’ series

Day 2: “Love me, don’t leave me’

Day 3: Taking the stand

Day 4: Judgment Day