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Teen-Ager Accused of Drowning Baby but May Be Freed

November 30, 1989|JIM CARLTON and SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 15-year-old Garden Grove honor student accused of drowning her newborn baby in a high school toilet may not have knowingly killed the child, an autopsy revealed Wednesday.

Although the mother was booked on suspicion of murdering the full-term, 6-pound boy after giving birth in a girls' restroom Tuesday morning, police and prosecutors say it may take two weeks to decide whether to bring criminal charges against the Vietnamese-American girl, whose culture frowns on unwed mothers.

Contrary to early police reports that nobody at the school knew of her pregnancy, some classmates at Santiago High School and a guidance counselor said Wednesday that they knew she was pregnant. But they said her baggy clothes and evasive answers led them to believe that the pregnancy was in its early stages.

"She didn't look pregnant to me," said counselor Carolyn Rust, who called the girl in a week before Thanksgiving after hearing rumors of the pregnancy. "I thought, the way the conversation went, that she was newly pregnant, a month, two months."

"She didn't tell nobody she was pregnant," said classmate Richard Pan, 17. "But most of us knew."

The girl's parents did not know, however, and the girl apparently was too terrified to tell them, police and classmates said.

The preliminary autopsy results confirmed that the baby died of drowning, said Garden Grove Police Sgt. Kevin Raney. "There's no indication that she drowned it," Raney said.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Conley said prosecutors had ruled out a charge of first-degree murder because there is no evidence that the death was premeditated. But he said they are considering whether to bring a lesser charge, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. Depending on whether the girl knew that the baby would die, Conley added, there may be no criminal charges at all.

Several other female students were in the restroom during the birth, but did not know what was happening until they heard an infant's cry from behind a closed stall door, Raney said.

The students ran to notify the school nurse, but by the time police and paramedics arrived, Raney said, the baby was dead.

The girl was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and was booked on suspicion of murder. She remained in the hospital in stable condition Wednesday and was to be transferred to Orange County Juvenile Hall later this week.

"It's actually to protect her from herself and from her family, because we don't know what they will do," Garden Grove Police Lt. Chuck Gibbs said.

"It is taboo in our culture to talk about sex or errors or mistakes that you made in your sexual relationships," said Long C. Le, a Vietnamese-born English teacher at nearby Fountain Valley High School.

"According to the tradition of the culture of Vietnam, the parents automatically cut off all relations with the girl if they find out she is pregnant and not married," Le said. "They usually kick the girl out of the house. It's that bad."

The girl this fall had taken the high school's required health education course, which includes information on sex and reproduction, Principal Bob O'Higgins said. And basic information about sex was taught in her junior high school, he said.

But a Vietnamese-American classmate--who had taken the same courses--said Wednesday that she did not know much about birth control, would not know how to obtain it, and assumed that the young mother did not either.

"Our parents don't teach us about sex," said the 18-year-old senior. "All they teach you is to be a good kid."

Counselor Rust said she urged the teen-ager to tell her parents.

"I said, 'You have to do that,' and I explained all the reasons," Rust said. "If she couldn't do it, I said I would be happy to have her parents come in, or go to her home with her. She never came back."

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

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