ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was a miserable day to be pregnant.
Hot, humid, late in July, 1987. Afternoon thunderheads teased the mountains to the east of the city, and even skinny people sweated.
Had it not been for motherhood, Darci Pierce and Cindy Ray might never have met on a broiling blacktop parking lot outside an obstetrics clinic. On this day, particularly, it was no place for a mother to be.
Ray had parked her cherry-red Chevy Blazer near the clinic door and hurried inside to lie on a cold vinyl examining table and listen to her child's heart scratch lines on a paper tape. The sound was music, for unlike her first child, this one had been quiet within her.
Due to give birth in two weeks, Ray was tired, a little iron deficient, and, on a day busy with Tupperware deliveries, she had stopped only long enough for a snack. It had taken a Coke to stimulate the fetus enough for a good reading. A Mormon who never drank anything with caffeine, she swallowed it willingly, for peace of mind.
The fetal monitor, held fast to her abdomen by a soft pink belt, scratched on, and Ray relaxed in the coolness and chatted with her pregnant friends and a midwife before hurrying on.
Outside, Darci Pierce had pulled into the slot next to the Blazer in a dirt-white Volkswagen Beetle. She sat sweating in a tent of a dress, a white maternity housecoat with blue vertical stripes, big enough to hide a belly that everyone thought was an overdue baby.
In three hours, at 5 p.m., she and her husband, Ray, were due at the University of New Mexico Hospital where labor would be induced. The procedure had already been put off a week, draining her family, who for two years had shared her pain and longing to be a mother.
Now, her suitcase was packed again. The nursery at home was ready. Everyone awaited a call from the new father.
Looking for a Baby
Only Pierce knew that on that suffocating afternoon, July 23, 1987, she was not pregnant.
She had to deliver a baby by 5 p.m., and she had come to the obstetrics clinic at Kirtland Air Force Base to get one.
What occurred next--even after a confession and murder trial--is not entirely clear. But this much is known from interviews and court records: Ray, 23, and Pierce, 20, two women came together that afternoon in one of the nation's most bizarre cases of baby lust. The story would unfold in the next 24 hours.
Psychiatrists say what happened is an extreme example of maternal instinct run amok, the same force that drove women in this country to steal 17 newborns since 1980. The desire to have a baby is tied to a woman's identity, experts say, and even with the changing roles of women, the maternal instinct has not been lost.
But baby stealers often have deep psychological needs that go far beyond simple unfilled maternal feelings. Psychologists and psychiatrists say common denominators include a fragile sense of self-esteem, a disturbed family background and dependency on others.
At about 3:15 p.m. Cindy Ray's husband, Sam, a military policeman, walked across the street from his office to the tan, two-story Ambulatory Health Center, where he stopped to put his gun belt in the Blazer. His wife's Tupperware order was still in the seat. But in the clinic, where he expected to find her, another pregnant woman was on the examining table.
"You just missed her," a nurse told him. "She just left, not five minutes ago." He checked through the long building again, but found no sign of his wife. Returning to the truck, he left to pick up his 2-year-old son, Luke, from a baby-sitter.
Sam Ray was still looking for his wife when Theron Hartshorn, a stockroom supervisor at an Albuquerque wallboard company, left work and drove his Chevy pickup into the mountains, east on Interstate 40, south on 14, and east again onto a U.S. Forest Service lane where he was building a house. He lived 15 miles from town and turned onto his road about 4 p.m.
A quarter-mile past the cattle guard an off-white Volkswagen sat in the road facing him, with both doors open. Hartshorn got out to close one.
A woman suddenly appeared from the junipers on his left, straightening her white dress, and saying, "My friend and I need to be left alone."
Thought She Was With a Man
"Fine, I need to get by," he said. The thought occurred to him that she was with a man in the bushes.
"My friend and I need to be alone," she insisted, three or four times. He closed the door and drove by, glancing back. There on the hillside was another woman lying on her back. As the woman in the white dress crawled back up toward her, Hartshorn changed his mind. It was two women messing around.
For the next two hours, as fear rose in his throat, Sam Ray carried Luke in his arms around the air base. No one had seen his wife since she had left the clinic. It was so unlike her.