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Mystery deepens over woman at heart of L.A.'s basement babies case

The LAPD is trying to learn about Jean M. Barrie, whose trunk contained the mummified remains of two babies. It could be one of two women: a possible nurse or a relative of the author of 'Peter Pan.'

August 20, 2010|By Andrew Blankstein and Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

Who was Jean M. Barrie, the woman whose steamer trunk stored for decades in the basement of a Los Angeles apartment building contained the mummified remains of two babies?

That's the question investigators were mulling Thursday, two days after the babies — wrapped in newspapers from the 1930s — were discovered when the basement was being cleared out. As the county coroner began an autopsy on the bodies Thursday, Los Angeles Police Department detectives were left to sift through a crime scene that also is a time capsule.

Inside the trunk, police found a fur wrap, a flapper dress, a beaded purse and a bundle of blank medical test forms.

The medical forms, detectives said, point them in the direction of a woman named Jean M. Barrie, who lived in the area and may have worked as a nurse. She was born in San Francisco in 1916. Detectives said they found postcards in the trunk addressed to a Jean M. Barrie from a brother, Thomas, in San Francisco.

LAPD sources said one of the biggest challenges will be to determine whether a crime was committed. Detectives from the LAPD juvenile division's abused child section are hoping medical tests can determine whether the babies were stillborn, aborted or subjected to trauma.

Detectives also are considering other leads, including the possibility that the trunk may have belonged to a different woman — also named Jean M. Barrie — who was a well-known storyteller and performer at the time.

This Jean Barrie apparently lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast and was a relative of James M. Barrie, the author of the children's book "Peter Pan."

Several clues point in this woman's direction. A copy of "Peter Pan" was found inside the trunk Tuesday along with a membership certificate for the Peter Pan Woodland Club, a Big Bear resort.

But it's unclear whether Barrie ever lived in Los Angeles. An ad in the 1918 edition of Lyceum Magazine shows a stern-faced Barrie in a decorative lace and velvet dress. The ad hails her as a "Reader of Plays and Miscellaneous Programs."

Gloria Gomez, manager of the Glen-Donald apartment building near MacArthur Park, said the trunk had been sitting in storage, unclaimed, for decades. On Tuesday night, Gomez and building resident Yeming Xing broke the lock with a screwdriver to see what was inside.

They found books, postcards, a beautiful crystal bowl and two leather doctor's satchels. Inside each satchel was the body of a baby. Each was swaddled in a blanket and wrapped in a faded, 1930s-era Los Angeles Times newspaper.

Xing, who discovered the first body, said Wednesday that it appeared to be a fetus.

"It looked like a baby, but it didn't have any shape to it," she said. A USC geneticist, Xing said she believes the baby had been miscarried or possibly had been aborted.

John Medford, a resident at the building, also thinks the bodies may be linked to illegal abortions.

"It was kept secret for 74 years and my theory is that this rolls back the cover on a cruel, tragic and unjust time in America for women," Medford said. "Ending pregnancies this way would have been commonplace. This was business as usual in all social strata."

A team of coroner's investigators, including a pathologist and an anthropologist, will use DNA, toxicology and other tests to determine how the babies died, while detectives try to piece together the life of the woman who kept their bodies tucked carefully among her possessions.

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