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'It Can't Happen Here' : Simi Valley Asks Tough Questions in Wake of 2 Dead Baby Cases

December 10, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

The girl was 15. Maybe her parents knew she was pregnant, and maybe they didn't--the police won't say. Alone in her bedroom one night in January, she gave birth to a baby daughter. Within seconds, the infant was dead.

So the girl wrapped this small body in a green plastic trash bag. She went behind an Alpha Beta supermarket and left it in a dumpster. A man picking through garbage found it the next day.

People in Simi Valley said this was the kind of story you read in Los Angeles newspapers. Except this time it happened in their town. Police said nothing like it had ever happened in Simi Valley.

Then it happened again. On Nov. 17, a dead baby girl was found in a shopping bag on the road to the town dump.

Nearly 100 mourners attended separate funerals for the infants, Baby Jane Doe I and Baby Jane Doe II. Simi Valley police officers took up a collection for the headstones, and the babies were buried side by side.

'Full of Good People'

"Simi Valley is full of good people," Detective Sgt. Tony Harper said. "This just sickens them."

The bedroom community of 95,000 is in many ways sheltered from urban pressures and tragedies, as if protected by the Santa Susana Mountains that separate it from Los Angeles. There is one high-rise--six stories tall--and occasional traffic jams on the freeway leading out of town. There have been two murders this year. Amid tract neighborhoods of middle-class families, no one ever abandons babies.

"We're good here," said Karen Catrucco, a 17-year-old senior at Royal High School. "We don't do things like that."

Councilwoman Ann Rock said: "There's always an attitude that it can't happen here. When it happens not once, but twice, that's a jolt."

At Simi Valley High School, the abandonments still weigh heavy on campus, the principal said. One teen-ager said he has nightmares about seeing the babies. Holiday shoppers at Sycamore Plaza, a town gathering place of sorts, became visibly upset when the infants were mentioned.

"It was so large in our community that my 9-year-old heard about it at school," said Cathy Rendon, who lives near the Alpha Beta where the first baby was found. "She came home and asked me why that would happen. You don't have answers for those kinds of 'whys.'

"I still get very emotional about this. I don't like to think that those kinds of things happen at all," Rendon said. "To have them happen where I live . . . that's too close to home."

Nowhere has Simi Valley's frustration and anger been more apparent than among the city's police officers. Tracking down the mothers has been trying for investigators because such cases usually offer few clues. In September, after months of going nowhere, officers questioned a youth about an unrelated burglary and were led to the mother of Baby Jane Doe I. She was arrested at her high school.

Last week, the Ventura County district attorney's office decided not to file charges against the girl, who is now 16. She has entered therapy. Prosecution would serve no purpose, the district attorney's office said.

Natalie Harrigan shook her head when told of the decision. The 17-year-old high school student said she knew of the teen-age mother through a friend.

"She was pregnant and all of a sudden she went flat, and the baby was nowhere to be found," Harrigan said. "We got the clue that it was her.

'Gone Way Downhill'

"Sick," she said. "Simi Valley has gone way downhill."

Councilwoman Rock and health officials worry that Harrigan may be right. They say that two abandonments in one year might not indicate a major problem but does warrant concern. (In the last seven years, only two other babies have been abandoned and found dead in all of Ventura County, according to the coroner's office.)

In a small, conservative town like Simi Valley, some suggest, teen-age sex and unwanted pregnancies might not be discussed as openly as they should be. Rock and others wonder if Simi Valley has kept its eyes closed to a problem that eventually occurs in any growing community.

"The problem is not just the problem of losing tiny babies," Rock said. "The problem is deeper into the social structure. Are we dealing with unwed mothers, mothers who are children themselves? I think that is a question the community needs to ask itself."

Planned Parenthood officials in Los Angeles speak bluntly on this subject.

"There is little question that these two tragedies suggest there is a lot of sexual activity going on in the teen community," said Dr. Hugh Anwyl, executive director of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. "I would hope that the response is not merely to bewail and bemoan, but to see what can be done in a positive way to produce sex-education programs in schools and churches."

Planned Parenthood does not operate a clinic in Simi Valley. A Ventura County Health Department office in the town offers birth-control counseling and pregnancy testing twice a month. County health officials say the Simi Valley clinic gets more teen-age girls than any other office in the county.

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