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COLUMN ONE : A Mother Who Lost Five Babies : One after another, Waneta Hoyt's children died. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was blamed. Years later, Hoyt said she killed them--then recanted. Now, she faces murder trial amid a swirl of questions.

May 22, 1994|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWARK VALLEY, N.Y. — Between 1965 and 1971, five healthy babies were born here to a poor woman who seemed to want them desperately and who mourned each of their deaths with a convulsive grief that quavered the soul.

At one funeral, Waneta Hoyt fainted after the lowering of the tiny, pitiful coffin and at another, her body collapsed with the great force of her sobbing. She had to be helped away from the freshly turned soil at the graveside.

These family tragedies, one after another, puzzled friends and relatives as well as the doctors. The deaths were always sudden, the causes inexplicable. The final two babies spent most of their short lives in a Syracuse hospital, their every breath monitored by machines. On occasion, they suffered slightly abnormal pauses in respiration. Then, like matchsticks lit against an unforgiving wind, they each died within a day after being sent home.

As a medical case history, this haunting clockwork of mortality seemed a significant tale to share. One of the hospital's attending physicians, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, wrote it up for the noted journal Pediatrics. He went on to become a national expert on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

That 1972 article was seen as pioneering work. Pediatricians often cited it as evidence that the unexplained phenomenon of SIDS may well run in families. Those abnormal pauses in breathing could be foretellers of a sudden death. If so, SIDS was possibly preventable with the use of monitoring devices at home.

Those conclusions aside, there was also a second, starkly contrary view of Steinschneider's report. Some doctors thought it naive. SIDS cases were too often indistinguishable from smothering. To them, the repeating catastrophes of this woebegone family read like the relentless clues in a murder mystery.

It was an arcane, scholarly conflict, easing into obscurity over the years. But time on occasion has a remarkable way of turning backflips, the present reaching into the past. That is what has happened here. A chance remark to a young prosecutor made him look up the old article and he also began to wonder: Were there awful secrets afloat in a grieving mother's tears?

Two months ago, 23 years after the death of her fifth baby, Waneta Hoyt was interrogated by police for the first time. Questioning went on for almost two hours before something gave way. The mother then began to confess the details of five suffocations, by pillows, with a towel, against the soft flesh of her shoulder: "I could not stand the crying," she told police. "It was the thing that caused me to kill them all, because I didn't know what to do for them."

And, for a while, that appeared to be that. Waneta Hoyt--47, housewife, churchgoer, the mother of an adopted boy now in high school--was arrested. It added yet another to a peculiar string of cases, women accused of murdering their babies, the deaths often first thought to be SIDS.

But now, through her two court-appointed attorneys, Hoyt has recanted. They say their frail, emotionally scarred client would have admitted to anything that day merely to end the long cross-fire of painful questions.

Certainly, that is what her many friends here in Upstate New York choose to believe. Memories are vivid of Waneta making her visits to the graves, laying crocuses near the headstones, pining to give birth to yet another child.

Life may be complicated, they acknowledge, and the human mind is capable of who knows what. But, really now, could that woman love her babies so much and then kill them?

*

Waneta Hoyt was born in nearby Richford, N.Y., the same birthplace as John D. Rockefeller, himself a pauper who left the town as a boy and went on to become the wealthiest man in the world. He would return from time to time and hand out shiny dimes in front of the general store from his chauffeured car.

In Rockefeller's time, a century ago, this was a poor, if picturesque, part of America. These days, good jobs are still scarce in the northern reaches of Appalachia. Tim Hoyt, Waneta's husband for the last 30 years, has had trouble finding construction work and is a Pinkerton guard at Cornell University, 30 miles away through the dairy farms and hilly stands of hemlock.

Here in Newark Valley, population 1,190, the Hoyts live in a weather-beaten house along a two-lane highway. Many people not only leave their front doors unlocked, some can't even recall if they have a key. At the United Methodist Church up the road, Waneta is known for her generous nature, the craftsmanship of her crocheted afghans and a long, mind-boggling run of heartache.

Her own health is a continuing ordeal. Waneta has a heart murmur and is bent over from arthritis. High-blood pressure and diabetes have weakened her eyesight. Breathing is a labor. Her bones are brittle from osteoporosis.

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