PRESCOTT, Ariz. — At first, they thought it was a baby doll. Burned and blackened, covered still by bits of red, white and blue baby outfit, it sat upright with stiff arms outstretched toward the desert sky, as if it were reaching to the heavens.
Alan Kessler saw it first, amid an old busted-up TV and some other trash in a ravine in the southeast corner of the sprawling Orme Ranch. He rode by and was almost up the other side of the ravine when his son, J.B., riding behind him, cried out:
"Dad, it's a baby!"
"It's just a doll," replied Kessler, eager to get across the pasture to round up calves on the ranch he manages.
"No, no. It's a baby."
The late afternoon sun cast long shadows as Kessler got off his horse and, with ranch hand Robert Greene, approached the tiny figure. Unbelieving, he watched as Greene took a pen from his pocket and touched its shiny, blackened face. The skin gave, and fluids leaked out.
Kessler rode to the ranch house to call the sheriff. It was Oct. 9, 1990, and nearly six years would pass before the world would know the baby's name and how she came to this desolate place.
It was hard for a visitor to miss Baby Jane Doe in the red brick offices of the Yavapai County Sheriff's office on Prescott's main street. Sitting in the entryway was a plaster bust of the baby's head, a silent, daily reminder of the failure to crack the case.
Every time Sheriff Buck Buchanan walked by, he had an eerie feeling. He could almost hear the whispered plea: "Help me."
In the detective unit, an artist's rendering suggested what Baby Jane Doe might have looked like before the flames burned and blistered her face.
But from the time the baby was found about a mile off Interstate 17 in the rocky hills between Phoenix and Flagstaff, investigators were stumped. Some tire marks at the scene and a partly burned sock covering one foot were about all they had to go on.
It was a miracle of sorts that the baby had even been found. Coyotes team with ravens to scavenge the carcasses of dead animals in the area. If it had rained, the body would have been washed down the ravine. And any other time of year, the cowboys moving cattle to another pasture wouldn't have been in the ranch's southeast corner.
Baby Jane Doe touched Prescott, a town in the high desert north of Phoenix. Two dozen people watched when she was buried beside "Little Miss Nobody," another nameless child who died in 1960 under circumstances no one can remember.
The detectives tried everything. They looked up birth records of every baby born in the sprawling county in 1988 and 1989 and visited homes to check on the welfare of each one. Pleas were sent to other police departments in communities who might have missing babies. "America's Most Wanted" did a segment on the case.
Nothing turned up. Only psychics called. No one else.
James and Lillian Meegan knew all about Baby Jane Doe. They knew her real name was Francine Lori Toni Meegan. And they knew from the start that they didn't want her.
The dingy motel room where the Meegans lived was close to, but far removed from, the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip. They lived there with their four other children, eking out an existence on wages from occasional work as laborers.
James was 33, a tall man with a large nose and piercing eyes. Lillian was 29, with a perpetually sad
look on her face. In the fall of 1989, Lillian was pregnant again, and the last thing the Meegans needed was another mouth to feed. Worse yet, This story was reconstructed from trial testimony, police reports and interviews with investigators and witnesses. The Meegans, through their attorney, declined to be interviewed.
both suspected that James wasn't the baby's father.
"If the baby's a girl, you can have it," Lillian told a stunned Valerie Jensen in the days before Francine's birth.
Valerie Jensen had been Lillian's close friend in high school. She and Dennis Jensen were godparents to Maria Meegan, the Meegans' oldest daughter.
But the lives of the two women had gone vastly different ways. While the Meegans struggled to get by, Valerie and Dennis Jensen lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Santa Ana, Calif. Valerie Jensen couldn't even imagine living with a domineering man like James Meegan.
The Jensens, who already had three boys of their own, had talked about wanting a girl. Doctors, though, told Valerie she would be risking her health by having another baby.
Lillian's offer of her baby was no joke. The Jensens quickly agreed, promising to help James and Lillian financially in return for the baby, who was born Dec. 8, 1989.
From the start, the arrangement was rocky. A few days after the Meegans gave up the baby, Lillian demanded her back. Her husband talked her out of it.
The Jensens gave James $1,000 cash. Then they bought him a new car. They agreed to make a big down payment on a house for the Meegans.