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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

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome commonly strikes babies 2 to 4 months old. No single pattern or pathological marker has been found for it. Clearly, the vast majority of mysterious infant deaths do not involve murder. Epidemiologist Philip McClain of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reviewed the studies and says that estimates show child abuse plays a role in only 1.4% to 4.7% of SIDS cases.

Those percentages, small as they are, make the questioning of bereft parents a difficult if necessary business. Horrendous crimes have been uncovered. The best known occurred not far from here, in Schenectady, N.Y. Friends and physicians alike consoled Marybeth Tinning as, one by one, her nine children died of mysterious causes. She was convicted of murder in 1986.

Diana Lumbrera's first five children died between 1976 and 1984; so did a 2 1/2-month-old cousin left in her care. People who knew her in a string of West Texas towns felt sorry for Lumbrera. She would rush the children to the hospital, but it was always too late to save them. Only when her sixth child died in Garden City, Kan., was a murder suspected and then proved in court.

Psychiatrists speculate on motives in such cases. One theory has it that a woman who kills her child will repeat the crime to punish herself, confirming that she is an unfit mother. Another theory is the bizarre disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, named for the 18th-Century German baron who told fantastic tales. Typically, the parent--usually the mother--will make up a child's illness or actually cause harm in order to get attention. Some doctors say the mothers are "sympathy junkies."

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy has been mentioned repeatedly in the Hoyt case, but that may be only a fondness for exotic labeling. Dr. Michael Baden, director of the forensic sciences unit of the New York State Police, has worked on the case. He views it more matter-of-factly.

"Right now, it seems like straight homicide," he contended. "She killed the kids because she was tired of their crying. Waneta and her husband are very close. He was away at work a lot, and maybe she couldn't handle the stress.

"With her adopted baby, her husband had been laid off and he was at home to help out. With the other kids, when she couldn't handle things, she only could figure out one way to keep them quiet. She killed them."

*

Dr. Alfred Steinschneider has the affable presence of a country doctor. His sentences mingle medical jargon with the easy humor of his native Brooklyn. He remains a believer in this controversial notion: that some SIDS cases are predictable--and preventable with the use of monitoring equipment at home.

In hindsight, some people have questioned his judgment in the Hoyt case. One is prosecutor Fitzpatrick. "How could a doctor not realize that Molly and Noah were in harm's way? I know it was 2 1/2 decades ago. But was he overly consumed with expounding on his theory or was he concerned with his patient?"

That is a hurtful accusation for Steinschneider, who has devoted much of his life to the study of SIDS. He is a founder and president of the American SIDS Institute in Atlanta. His ability to defend himself is limited by confidentiality requirements that he feels duty-bound to honor.

"What's missing from all this cheap talk, this impugning of motives, this show biz , is that it doesn't save a single baby," he said. "What they ought to be saying is: 'Let's examine the deaths of babies and make better identification of the causes of deaths to help sort things out.' "

In the Hoyt case, he relied on the opinions of the medical examiners. "If people think there were inadequate autopsies done, then check the autopsies, big shots," he said. "If they think these kids were murdered, then show me, because what they are saying now is at variance with what the people who investigated the case said then. If there's criticism I'll accept from the pathologists, it's that I accepted the opinion of other pathologists."

To him, the current focus on his 1972 article misses the point. "In college, I learned the word heuristic, and that's what is important here. Was the paper heuristic: Did it lead to learning? The important thing is not the paper itself; it's that the paper led to a significant amount of learning."

He paused for a moment. His eyes lit with a thought. "Without the paper," he said, "would people even know this case existed?"

*

These days, Waneta spends a lot of her time caring for her sister, the one dying of a brain tumor. She has begun to attend church again after missing some Sundays. Her friends call on her and try to cheer her up.

Those friends are appalled by what they hear on the news. This woman described as a baby-killer--this abomination--is not the Waneta they know. Accepting the allegations is as crazy and unthinkable to them as summer coming after fall.

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