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Couple's attempt to do the right thing brings more grief

March 11, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Jessica Tebow, a freelance writer living in Glendale, was one month pregnant when she got the wrenching news.

A sonogram showed that her baby's heart had stopped.

Tebow and her husband, psychologist Michael Ohlde, are both 34. They grew up in Kansas and moved to California six years ago, and this would have been their first child. They were traumatized, and they had no idea how much worse things would get.

Tebow decided she wanted to miscarry naturally, rather than undergo a medical procedure. Nine days later, her body began to expel the fetal tissue while she was at home. That took about three days, and she saved the tissue in a small bag and called her doctor's office.

"I know this is going to sound weird," she said, "but what do I do with the baby?"

Tebow was told she could bring the tissue to the doctor for genetic testing, or she could call a mortuary to handle the remains. If she wasn't ready to decide, the doctor's office said, she should freeze the remains while making up her mind. And so she did.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Lopez column: The Steve Lopez column in Wednesday's Section A about a Glendale woman who suffered a miscarriage used the word "fetus" when it should have said embryo. Prior to the eighth week of pregnancy, the correct term is embryo.

"It was a rough weekend," Ohlde said.

"We felt so lost," Tebow said. "We didn't know how to make the decision."

But she knew she didn't want to toss the fetal tissue in the trash or down the toilet. Years ago, her mother had a miscarriage and said the hospital had disposed of the tissue, and Tebow never got that image out of her head.

She and her husband did some research and found that genetic testing of fetuses is not often conclusive, and they decided after several days of soul-searching to have the remains cremated and the ashes scattered over a family farm in Kansas. Ohlde began calling mortuaries and spoke to someone who asked an unexpected question.

"Do you have a death certificate?"

When he said no, Ohlde was instructed to call the L.A. County coroner's office. That sounded a bit odd, but perhaps not as odd as what the coroner's office told him to do: Call the Glendale police.

"So I called the Police Department," Ohlde said, "and good grief."

It sounded, he said, as if they were ready to rush to the apartment and "break down our door."

A dispatcher told him police needed to enter his apartment immediately. Ohlde, who was at work in San Bernardino, said he forbade them to enter until he arrived. What was the need? He then got into his car and sped toward Glendale.

"I was sobbing," Ohlde said, "and people from the Midwest are not prone to sobbing."

Tebow, meanwhile, was stuck at work in West L.A., and she couldn't believe what Ohlde was telling her by phone.

"I was a wreck," said Tebow, who is the daughter of a career police officer in Kansas and couldn't understand why police were descending on their home as if they were criminals.

Ohlde got home to find several police cars outside the apartment and a cluster of six officers at his door. He and his wife had tried to do the right thing about a private matter, and now they had become a spectacle, with neighbors left to wonder what manner of high crimes might have brought out a squadron of Glendale's finest.

Ohlde said the police asked why they'd kept the remains in the house, and he explained again. Once he allowed officers inside, he could tell things had been disturbed and realized the police had already been in the apartment -- something they later admitted. Now police were in the kitchen, where they found the tissue in the freezer and handed it over to coroner investigator Denise Bertone when she arrived.

"The husband was nothing other than cooperative and gracious, and I felt very bad for him. We run into cases where people don't want anything to do with the baby, and here you run into circumstances where someone wants to do the right thing," she said. "I was a little surprised to see a detective there."

The more I learned about this case, the clearer it became that the whole thing could have been avoided if not for a chain of misunderstanding, lack of communication and overreaction.

The doctor's office, for starters, could have done a better job of explaining Tebow's options and offering her more support.

The mortuary, according to Jack Jensen of the California Funeral Directors Assn., should have known that under ordinary circumstances no death certificate is required if a fetus is younger than 20 weeks old. The parents can simply take the remains to a mortuary with a doctor's letter confirming the circumstances.

Things really spun out of control when coroner and police authorities focused on "human remains in freezer" and sprang into action. But even at that, why would six officers be sent to the apartment of a couple trying to properly dispose of a fetus?

And how do police justify entering the apartment without a search warrant?

"Exigent circumstances," said Sgt. Tom Lorenz, a spokesman, meaning that police feared someone was in imminent danger given the report of a frozen fetus, a husband who was not there and a wife who had not been contacted.

In legal terms, this is known as a stretch.

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