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A 6-Year-Old's Tragic Death

November 25, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The call to police and emergency services Nov. 2 reported a child having difficulty breathing.

But when officers and technicians arrived at the Greenwich Village apartment, in a building where Mark Twain once lived, they found an infant boy tethered to a chair, covered with dirt and soaking in his own urine. Blood was spattered on the walls and on the single mattress the family apparently shared. On the kitchen floor lay a naked 6-year-old girl. Oxygen revived her breathing, but she never again regained consciousness.

Declared Brain Dead

At St. Vincent's Hospital, a CAT scan showed blood on the brain of Elizabeth (Lisa) Steinberg. Two days later, she was declared brain dead. The 16-month-old infant, Mitchell Steinberg, was found to be filthy, but unharmed. A court consigned him to foster care.

The parents, 46-year-old attorney Joel B. Steinberg, and former children's book author and editor Hedda Nussbaum, 45, have been charged with her murder.

Human Resources Administration officials here said they had investigated complaints of child abuse charges at the Steinberg residence three years ago but "could not find adequate evidence of abuse or neglect."

A search of the Steinberg apartment turned up $25,000 in cash, as well as large quantities of cocaine, marijuana, hashish and at least 20 crack pipes, police said. Hedda Nussbaum, who had made the 6 a.m. call, was hospitalized with nine fractured ribs, a fractured jaw, a broken nose, bruises, cigarette burns on her body and a right leg infected with gangrene.

An autopsy performed on Lisa's body concluded that the child was killed by repeated blows to her head and body. On Nov. 12, following a dramatic court appeal by the child's birth mother, Michelle Launders, Lisa was buried in a joint Catholic-Jewish ceremony.

Launders, 25, said that as an unwed 19-year-old, she had turned the child over to Joel Steinberg with the promise that he would find a suitable family to adopt the baby.

In court, Launders said her family had paid Steinberg $500 to find a home for the infant girl. When Steinberg was unsuccessful in his attempt to place the child for a $50,000 fee with another family, he apparently decided to keep her.

Late last week, Nicole Smigiel, the 18-year-old birth mother of Mitchell Steinberg, successfully petitioned for custody of the baby. After first contesting the petition, Hedda Nussbaum submitted a hand-written letter to court records relinquishing custody of the boy. His birth mother has renamed him Travis Christian, and was reported to be living with the child at her family's home on Long Island.

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