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A gift abandoned, Day 2: ‘Love me, don’t leave me’

Published Jun. 15
Updated Jun. 15

temple terrace — Detectives Dennis Hallberg and Larry Lingo were frustrated. Ten days after a newborn baby boy was abandoned at a Temple Terrace apartment complex, they had few clues about the mother. A box of evidence, found in a dumpster near where the baby was abandoned, was addressed to Hallmark Packaging Inc. in Tampa. A detective who interviewed Hallmark’s receptionist noted in his report that she acted strange and should be interviewed again. It was Tuesday, May 2, five days after the baby was found in Wildwood Acres Apartments. Mary Duncan and Judy Pemberton went for a walk in Lettuce Lake Park, near Wildwood Acres, where Judy lived with her boyfriend, Russell Hayes.

Russell had left Saturday to go to Starke for his two-week National Guard training. Mrs. Duncan, Russell’s aunt, was growing more and more anxious. She couldn’t understand why Judy was acting so normal, as if nothing had happened. Could Mrs. Duncan be mistaken? It was all so confusing. But she couldn’t ignore what she knew in her heart: Judy had had a baby, and something, somehow, made her not want to see it or know it.

Mrs. Duncan felt torn in half.

Nobody knows the torture I’m going through. She’s been over here so much before and after. I can’t sleep at night. Raymond says, “Somethin’ wrong with you? What is it? “I’m all right, I’ll be fine.’”

If only I could see the If only I could see the baby’s toes. All my family got that baby toe that turns inward like that. That’s the first thing I want to see is those toes. But. ...

And my boy’s gone at the National Guard right now. If I could just talk to him. Maybe me and him could do something. But he’s got another week to go.

Monday, May 8. Detectives Dennis Hallberg and Larry Lingo were discouraged. They had followed leads, dug through garbage and knocked on countless doors looking for the mother of the abandoned baby. They had come up with no more evidence than some cat food cans, some TV dinner packaging and directions for blond hair dye. And they were running out of time. It had been 10 days since the baby boy was found in the videocassette recorder box. The infant was in the custody of the Florida Department of Rehabilitative Services, living in a shelter home and completely shielded from publicity.

Chances of finding the mother seemed more remote as each day passed.

But then, at 3 p.m., the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous call. It was perhaps only the third anonymous call they had received on this case _ far fewer than they expected. The caller had information about the abandoned baby. There was a woman who recently had lost a lot of weight. She lived in the same complex where the baby was found, on Mar-Jo Drive. 5812.

Lingo followed up the lead. He had no reason to think this lead would prove any more fertile than the others. He pulled his car along the curb in front of the duplex, a brick rectangular building with a door on either end. The duplex on the left was 5810; the one on the right was 5812. There was a nice little garden with freshly planted flowers out front.

Lingo knocked on the door. No one answered. He knocked again. Nothing. He drove up the block to the apartment complex office and talked to the manager. He identified himself and asked to see the lease agreement of the tenants at 5812 Mar-Jo.

He checked the tenant’s name: Judy Pemberton. He checked how long she had been living there: since June. He checked her employer.

Hallmark Packaging.

He thanked the manager, left, and drove slowly back to the duplex.

Hallmark Packaging. The same company that was on the label of the box found in the dumpster. Lingo knew the connection could not be coincidental, that he had, in all likelihood, found the mother. He went up to the duplex door again and knocked. This time, the door swung open.

Judy Pemberton? Lingo asked. Yes, the woman said.

Lingo was a little taken aback by the woman’s apparent age. After years as a detective, little surprised him. But this woman was clearly older than the mid-20s to mid-30s the detectives had estimated the mother to be.

Lingo introduced himself and told her he was investigating the baby that was abandoned down the street April 27. Can I talk to you? he asked.

She agreed and stepped aside. Lingo stepped into the small living room. He immediately saw some clues. A videocassette recorder. Three cats and four kittens playing about everywhere. Judy Pemberton was short, a little plump around the middle. She wore a striped jump suit. And she had blond hair.

She politely answered Lingo’s questions. No, she said, she did not live here alone, she lived with her boyfriend, Russell Hayes, who was at National Guard camp right now. Yes, she had been alone here since he left a week ago Saturday.

Her eyes avoided Lingo’s. Yes, she had heard about the baby being abandoned, but she knew nothing more about it.

Her weight shifted from one foot to the other. She hesitated before answering the questions. Lingo gingerly moved into more personal territory. How was her health? Had she been sick recently or experienced any weight loss?

Yes, she said, she had lost about 10 pounds due to a diet and the start of her monthly period.

That was strange, Lingo thought. Bringing up something as personal as her monthly period.

Was there any unusual bleeding from this cycle?

No, she answered in a small, flat voice. Nothing unusual. Her period had ended three weeks ago.

Lingo couldn’t quite read this woman. She was quiet _ given the situation, this was no surprise. But she also seemed strangely compliant, as if she did not suspect why he was here. She did not seem to mind his questions. She answered them in a voice that did not project or rise and fall the way most people’s speech does. She might have been answering a survey about laundry detergent.

Lingo asked about her job. Yes, she had worked for Hallmark Packaging until the previous Friday, when she was let go because they needed someone who could operate computers.

A kitten jumped up on the kitchen table. Judy retrieved it and put it back on the ground. Did Judy remember a detective coming to Hallmark the day after the baby was born, asking about a box that had been found? Yes, she remembered. Yes, she did bring a box home from work for her kittens, but she had placed it in the dumpster on her street, not the one three blocks away on Kitten Drive.

It was 4:10 p.m. Lingo asked her if he could search her apartment.

Well, go ahead, she said. Again, passivity, as if she were half sleep-walking. She signed a consent form. Lingo headed toward the bedrooms. She did not follow him. She did not talk. She did not sit down.

Lingo started with the master bedroom. The waterbed was unmade. Lingo saw a few blood stains. Either she hadn’t changed her sheets in three weeks, or she was lying about when she had her period. Lingo searched the spare bedroom. He saw a box cut out on one side like the one they had found in the dumpster. It was filled with cat litter. In the bathroom, he found blue and white towels, matching those found in the dumpster. He also saw an open box of sanitary napkins.

He went to the refrigerator. He opened the freezer. Banquet TV dinners. Salisbury Steak.

It was all right there. Paint by numbers. Lingo excused himself and went to his car. He radioed Hallberg. Hallberg, out at MacDill Air Force Base, made it over to Mar-Jo Drive in about 10 minutes. Lingo and Judy stood in stone silence waiting for him.

When Hallberg arrived, Lingo showed him what he had found. They checked the VCR make and serial number: RCA, number 504620465.

A match.

All this time, Judy remained standing. She didn’t act upset, angry or fearful. A little nervous one moment, almost nonchalant another. Lingo didn’t tell her what he had found in the apartment. She didn’t ask.

Lingo retraced his steps around the house with Hallberg: They looked at the sheets, the box, the towels, the frozen dinners. Judy walked with the detectives. They finished in the bedroom. All three faced one another, standing in an awkward triangle: the two taller men, Lingo with silver hair, Hallberg a sandy blond, both wearing suits; and Judy, much shorter, her eyes cast anywhere but at the detectives’ faces.

Kittens tumbled everywhere. Hallberg explained to Judy what they had found in the dumpster. He said that the towels matched the towels in her house. The box they had found was like the one in her house.

A kitten darted into the room. Judy stood with her arms at her side. A few minutes later, another kitten dashed by. Hallberg kept talking. Judy kept watching the kittens or looking away.

Hallberg finished.

The silence between them grew heavier with each moment. Finally, Judy raised her eyes. She looked at Hallberg, then at Lingo, back to Hallberg, back to Lingo. Then she seemed to sigh, almost visibly, Lingo thought.

One hand twisting in the other, she said, “Well, I might as well tell you, the baby is mine.”

It was now 4:50 p.m. Judy quietly led the small procession back into the kitchen. She offered the detectives something to drink. They declined. They made small talk. A kitten scaled Hallberg’s leg. Hallberg gently, rather stiffly, detached it. A moment later, a kitten jumped up on the counter. Judy gently rescued it.

Hallberg advised her of her constitutional rights and asked her to sign an interview consent form. She signed. Then she just started talking, in the same flat voice. Lingo relayed her story in his written report:

“Pemberton advised Detective Lingo on the 27th of April she woke up with pains and thought it was her normal menstrual cycle starting. She stated she had not had a regular period for a while and felt she was going through the change of life. She said she stayed home and did not go to work on the 27th. She stated at approximately 5 p.m., she had a sharp pain, went into the bathroom and the baby “just popped out.” She said she attempted to clean him up, and her, and tied the umbilical cord with blue sewing thread. She then cut the cord with a pair of scissors and put the afterbirth into the toilet. She said she then attempted to stop her bleeding. She then put the baby in a box and the other towels and used pads in plastic garbage bags and put them in the box marked Hallmark Packaging. She then took both boxes to the dumpster. She put the box with the evidence in the dumpster and placed the baby on the ground outside of the dumpster. She then returned home and later went back to the dumpster to make sure someone had found the baby. She said she saw the police there and left. She didn’t tell Russell about it that night, and he did not know that she was pregnant. The following morning, she did go to work and remembered the detective coming by asking about the box with Hallmark Packaging on it. She said she did not remember if she told him at that time that she lived in Wildwood Acres or if she told him she had any knowledge of a box.

“She advised she did not even realize she was pregnant herself until she had the baby. She said she was glad we came to her house because she was wanting to tell someone about it, and had someone not arrived at her house, she would have gone and told someone within the next couple of days. She said she worked for an OBGYN (obstetric and gynecological) clinic in the past as a medical assistant and had been familiar in assisting in a birth. She apparently just acted out of experience when she tied the baby’s cord and cleaned him up. Then she said she would like to have the baby back, and guessed she just panicked when she had the baby, and didn’t realize what she was doing.”

Judy was arrested. The detectives started packing up the VCR, the towels, the box. A crime lab technician came to collect the evidence. Hallberg then led Judy to his car. They drove to the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, off I-4 and Buffalo Ave.

On the way over, Judy kept any emotions she may have had beneath the surface. She asked Hallberg what would happen to her. Hallberg said she would be taken to the county jail and probably charged with child abandonment. Beyond that, he was not sure.

She said nothing else. They reached the sheriff’s office. Judy told Hallberg she did not want to make any more statements before talking to an attorney. She asked to use the phone. She said she wanted to call her boyfriend’s aunt and uncle. Hallberg led her over to a desk. He dialed the number for her.

She was silent for a moment. Then Hallberg heard Judy say in plaintive tones, “You know that baby that was found? He was mine.” Silence, then “I don’t know, I just panicked.”

Judy’s contradictory behavior mystified Hallberg: First she says she wants an attorney, then, with Hallberg right next to her, she admits to the crime all over again.

He heard her voice _ shaky now, pleading. “Love me, don’t leave me,” she said.

She hung up the phone.

And then she began to cry.

It was midnight, May 8. George Cochran, 32, could not sleep. It was all catching up to him. Everything had happened so fast, only now was he able to catalog it, and he was having a hard time.

One: The baby found by his best friends, the Nawrockis, was abandoned by his next-door neighbor, Judy Pemberton.

Two: Judy, a woman who had seemed as innocuous as her kittens, as ordinary as anybody in the mall on a Saturday afternoon, had had a baby next door _ maybe even while he was home _ and put it in a box and left it by a dumpster. This was a woman who was pregnant nearly the entire time he had known her.

Cochran had been interviewed by newspaper and television reporters all evening. He and his wife, Megan, saw the TV report of Judy being escorted to jail. Megan choked up a little.

Late that night they had met a couple who said they were Russell’s mom and dad. The woman spoke with a Southern twang. She asked about the cats and the plants. She was so nice. Upset. She chattered. She worried that she hadn’t said the right things earlier to the reporters. “I hope they don’t twist our words,” she told the Cochrans. “We love Judy. Judy said she flipped out, she just lost it. We need to support her.”

They talked out front for 30 minutes. The Cochrans said they would keep an eye on Judy’s place.

Now, it was all settling in on Cochran. Megan was asleep. His sons, 6 and 4, mercifully had slept through everything that evening. Cochran sat down, and began to sort his feelings out in writing.

It’s May 8, 1989, 12:00 midnight. I can’t sleep tonight because I try to figure the whole thing out. I lived beside a woman for about a year and didn’t even know she had been pregnant. It makes me wonder how observant I really am or how naive and stupid I can be.

But then I start to wonder what kind of person has lived beside me for so long. I wonder how a woman who generally seemed to like children could just abandon a newborn like that. I speculate how a woman who just witnessed new life in a litter of kittens could just throw away a life. How can a woman who cared for animals like she did totally disregard a human life?

Why didn’t she look pregnant? Why didn’t she say she was pregnant? Was this a calculated move? If she just “flipped out,” could she have at any time? How could she have wrapped a baby, tied the umbilical cord and taken it to the dumpster, only hours after having it? Did she have help? And what about the flower bed?

I recall the flower bed being put in around the same time the baby was found. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. But now, I wonder if she expected the baby to die and the flower bed is a memorial. The baby wasn’t actually put in the dumpster, but beside it. Did she intend that someone should find the baby? After all, she did take enough care to clean the baby and tie off the umbilical cord. Therefore, the flower bed could be a remembrance.

Tuesday, May 9, 6 a.m., Florida National Guard’s Camp Blanding in Starke. Russell Hayes was training out in the field. They had just finished maneuvers when his first sergeant came up to him. Their conversation was short and explosive: Do you know anything about your girlfriend having a baby? No, Russell said. Call home, she said.

Russell dialed the Duncans’ number. “What’s the matter?” Russell asked. He knew, but he had to hear it from his aunt. “Did Judy have a baby?”

“Yes, son, she did,” Mrs. Duncan said gravely. She told him everything. “Judy’s in jail.”

Russell started to cry. He didn’t know anything about this, he said. He was hurt, he was shocked, he was mad, he was hurt.

“So am I,” Mrs. Duncan said. “Try to calm down. I’ve talked to Judy. She said she didn’t know what she was doing, she didn’t know why she did it. Just get home, and we’ll work this thing out.”

Russell’s first sergeant drove him back to Tampa. It was a quiet ride. They arrived at the Duncans’ by 1 p.m. Russell was still in his uniform, dirty from his field exercises. Only Mrs. Duncan was home. They embraced. Why did she do it? Russell asked over and over. He hadn’t even known she was pregnant.

“Did you see any blood afterward?” his aunt asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Russell said. “I wasn’t home when she had it.”

He didn’t know what to do.

Mrs. Duncan told him to take some Tylenol and a warm bath. She fixed him a sandwich. But neither Mrs. Duncan nor Russell Hayes could ignore the irony of the situation.

One day in 1966 in Lakeland, when Russell was 5 years old, his mother left him with a babysitter. She was going to visit someone, she said.

She didn’t come back. Not that day. Not the next day. Or the next day.

Russell’s mother had abandoned him.

The babysitter called the police. Eventually, Mrs. Duncan’s brother _ Russell’s father, who was separated from his wife _ picked up the boy and brought him to the Duncans’. He said he couldn’t care for the boy himself. Would the Duncans take him?

Raymond Duncan agreed, but on one condition: If we’re going to raise him, we’re going to raise him as our own son. Russell’s father agreed. And so, in a more benevolent way, Russell’s father left him, too.

But Russell’s father could not have chosen better parents. Raymond Duncan is a down-to-earth man, kind, calm and logical, not the kind to hold a grudge. He was a groundskeeper for the city of Tampa, until he retired a few years ago. Now, he is a groundskeeper for Myrtle Hill Garden of Memories Cemetery.

Mary, oval-faced and talkative, is the self-ordained nursemaid of her family. Through the years, she has taken care of many family members.

Russell was a blessing for the Duncans. They had wanted children very much. Mrs. Duncan became pregnant once, but she miscarried after four months.

But little Russell had serious problems at first. He hovered in corners and trembled. He didn’t eat well. The Duncans fed him with love. They took him to amusement parks and fairs, and picnics. But he remained withdrawn. Mrs. Duncan worried and waited.

The Duncans bought Russell a swing, and hung it on the pecan tree out in the yard. One day, Russell fell off the swing and hit his head. Mrs. Duncan rushed out to him. He cried and cried. She cleaned up the gash on his head, soothed him and held him close.

That was the turning point. Russell clung to her that day; he wouldn’t let go. He’s been like a son ever since.

The Duncans, neither of whom graduated from high school, were proud of Russell. He graduated in 1980 from Tampa Bay Technical Vocational School; he spent four years in the U.S. Army, and then joined the National Guard. He was a hard worker, always holding down a job. Right now, he made pasta and did other jobs at an Italian restaurant in Tampa.

Though Russell had had other girlfriends, he and Judy seemed made for one another. In December 1988, six months after they met, Russell asked Judy to marry him. They were on a cruise to Mexico. He gave her a diamond ring. The couple started living together in Judy’s apartment in January 1989 and planned to marry a year later. Because Judy was 42, they did not plan to have children. Neither thought birth control was necessary.

Now, everything seemed out of control. Russell talked to Judy briefly on the phone. But the detectives told him to stay home until they could interview him. He wasn’t allowed to see the baby, who was in HRS custody. Meanwhile reporters showed up, asking searching questions. Russell had never been interviewed by the media before. He answered the questions, all of them, in honest, short sentences. He was hurt, shocked and angry.

Reporters showed him a videotape of the baby _ his son. “He’s great,” Russell told reporters. “I saw him, and I knew he was mine. I’m so happy he’s healthy.”

But Russell did not feel like a father. How could he? He had known about the baby for only a few hours. He didn’t know what to feel. He didn’t know what to do.

“Are you going to leave her?” a reporter asked about Judy.

After being raised with the Duncans’ unconditional love and optimism, he had learned to support first and ask questions later. This is our problem, he thought, and we’ll work it out somehow.

He answered the question without hesitation. “No.”

Tuesday night, Marci Gilbert, Judy’s sister-in-law, talked by phone to Judy, who had spent the night in jail.

“Get me out of here,” Judy said.

Marci told Judy she was doing everything she could, but so far, Judy couldn’t get out. Judy, charged with child abandonment, a felony, and child abuse, a misdemeanor, had been denied bail in a hearing on Monday, the night she was arrested. Marci told Judy she had contacted the public defender’s office, and two lawyers there were taking her case.

“Right now,” Marci said to Judy, “I need to know some details: Did you do it?”

“I guess I did. They’re telling me I did.”

“Did you do it deliberately?”

“I don’t remember anything about what I did.”

“You don’t remember anything about birthing that baby?”

“I don’t want to talk about any of it,” Judy said. “I just want out of here.”

Wednesday morning, May 10, Mary Duncan, Russell Hayes and Marci Gilbert met at the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex in Tampa for Judy’s bail hearing. They walked into courtroom No. 8 _ the courtroom of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe III. They waited while Coe heard several other cases. Finally, Judy’s case was called.

Judy came through the back door. She wore blue prison clothes. She and Russell’s eyes met and held. It was the first time they had seen each other since all this had happened. A few moments later, Russell, Mrs. Duncan and Marci advanced up to Coe’s bench. Russell embraced Judy, and the two stood, arm in arm. They said nothing.

Coe set bail at $6,000. Marci got the bond, using her home as collateral. About 8 that evening, she and Russell went back to the jail. After spending two days and two nights in jail, Judy _ who had never seen a courtroom before, much less the inside of a jail _ was released.

Marci could see that Judy was tired, anxious and irritable. Marci and Russell were drained and exhausted. Marci suggested they get something to eat. Judy resisted. She was afraid people might recognize her and taunt her. Marci assured her that wouldn’t happen.

They went to the Frisch’s on 56th Street and sat unnoticed at a back table. Judy barely touched her food. Marci took charge, but she went easy. She asked Judy whether she wanted to hire a private lawyer. Judy told her she didn’t have the money to do that. Marci also suggested Judy get some counseling. Judy said she would.

Marci surveyed her sister-in-law and tried to make sense of all this. She had first heard about it on the 11 o’clock news the night Judy was arrested. The news floored her. But when Marci looked back, she realized there had been clues.

A few months before, Marci teased Judy about gaining weight, joking, “Are you pregnant?” And Judy nearly screamed, “No! I’m tired of people asking me that!”

Then there was that Wednesday night at the bowling alley, when Judy was in such pain, as if she wanted to start her period but couldn’t, she said. Of course she couldn’t _ she was in labor!

Judy had called Marci Friday, the day after she had the baby.

“Well, I started,” Judy said.

“You did? Is everything normal?”

“Well, it’s a little heavy, but not bad.”

Judy stopped in the bowling alley later that Friday and then on Sunday, when she bowled as usual. How in the world could she have seemed so normal?

There was little public sympathy for Judy Pemberton. Hallmark Packaging received nasty, anonymous calls just because Judy had worked there. People drove by Judy’s duplex, honked and pointed. The Cochrans were asked what it was like to live next to a baby killer.

The emotional reaction to what had happened was strong enough to split families. Marci Gilbert was the only member of Judy’s family _ five siblings and their families _ who remained loyal to her, but it was at some expense to her marriage. Marci’s husband, Alan, had no sympathy for his sister. As a result, he and Marci lived with a tense truce.

Mary Duncan faced great hostility from the Duncan family. She spent hours on the phone trying to explain and defend Judy’s actions and her loyalty to Judy, largely to no avail.

Women at the bowling alley where Russell and Judy bowled every week were drawn into the fire, too. A couple of them had wondered whether Judy was pregnant, and even laughed when, after the baby was found, Judy came in the bowling alley looking unchanged. “Well, it’s not Judy’s!” they joked. But the women had to admit they never really thought Judy was pregnant. Bonnie Tschuddy agreed to testify to this in court. She argued with her son, himself the father of two children, who could not accept his mother would defend Judy. Irene Staving also said she never guessed Judy was pregnant. When she was 42 _ Judy’s age _ and the mother of five children, she went to the doctor complaining of a chest cold.

The doctor told her she was four to six months pregnant.

On May 18, Judy and Mary Duncan and her husband, Raymond, drove to the W.T. Edwards District Administration Office for HRS, an imposing, five-story white building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

They pulled up to the curb. They got out of the car and approached the doors. Judy was quiet and tense. Mrs. Duncan was excited. She was also disappointed Russell wasn’t here for such an important meeting. He said he couldn’t get off work. Mrs. Duncan wondered if he was afraid. Or maybe he just wasn’t ready.

The small group stepped inside the building. They took the elevator up to the third floor. They turned right, toward a big waiting room. They sat down. They waited for 20 minutes. They didn’t talk much.

Finally, they were called into a small room with baby toys and chairs. Another woman and child were there. Judy slowed down, then stopped at the doorway.

“I don’t know if I can do this or not,” she said.

“Well, you do what you think you can do,” Mrs. Duncan said.

A man came into the room, smiled, and handed to Mrs. Duncan a 3-week-old baby wearing a blue suit.

Mrs. Duncan beamed. “He looks just like Russell did when he was a baby!” she said. Then, unable to wait any longer, she checked his foot.

“Look at that toe!” she said. “See? Just like I said.”

Judy inched into the room. She watched as Raymond Duncan took the baby. The baby began to cry. He instinctively handed the baby to a woman: Judy.

Judy took him in her arms.

She smiled.

“He’s a cute little angel.”

For an hour, they played with the baby. Mrs. Duncan watched Judy closely. She could see the hurt in her face. But she held up, Mrs. Duncan thought. Judy’s just not well right now. She knows she don’t need the baby right now. She’s admittin’ to all of that. She’s not doin’ like some people _ I’m all right. She knows she’s not. And when you can admit somethin’s wrong with you, you’re already on the road to recovery. That’s what I’ve always heard.

“What are you going to name him?” a social worker asked.

Mrs. Duncan thought that was a good sign. “Either Russell Raymond or Raymond Russell, we aren’t sure which,” she said.

Later that day, Judy told a St. Petersburg Times reporter that they loved the baby, that he cried when Raymond Duncan held him, “but as soon as Mary or I took him back, he just hushed right up.

“He trusts us, I guess.”

• • •

‘A gift abandoned’ series

Day 1: Jack-in-the-box

Day 3: Taking the stand

Day 4: Judgment Day