tampabay.com

Missing Baby Alyssa

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published May 20, 2007


BRUNSWICK, Ga. They put her in a pauper's grave in Florida on an ordinary morning. A county-hired minister said a prayer. A grave digger covered the tiny wooden coffin. No one brought flowers or paid for a headstone. She had no name, only a medical examiner case number. Nearly 300 miles away in Georgia, people tried to forget the promise of Baby Alyssa.

A year ago, the news of her expected birth brought dizzy excitement to an adoptive mother and her community.

A church threw a shower, planned to welcome its 13th baby of the year. The mother-to-be, Angel Andino, wrote loving diary entries in a green polka-dotted baby book, letters to read with her daughter someday.

Her friends tell her to close that book, to stop writing and let go, but she cannot.

In her real and painful story, two women reached for motherhood and fell short. One didn't want babies, yet kept having them. The other dreamed of children, yet her body rebelled. When one woman promised the other her unborn child, the result nearly destroyed both.

The crime scene tape, the memorial crosses, the television trucks are gone now from the West Tampa alley where police say Mary Louise Doe went into labor. Mary later told police she was high on cocaine when her "belly went down." She listened to the infant cry for five minutes. Then, she walked away.

On May 9, 2006, police found the lifeless body and arrested Mary on charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Meanwhile, Angel, on news of a birth, drove the 41/2 hours to Tampa. She was there when police discovered the child.

At the scene, Mary stood among police officers and paramedics and stared at Angel.

                                                                                                * * *

Until that moment, Mary had never seen Angel, though they had spoken.

From her home in Brunswick, Ga., a small city near the coast, Angel had agreed to adopt Mary's baby. Angel was unable to have children of her own. Hope came when her sister, who lives in Tampa, heard of Mary's pregnancy from Mary's cousin.

Angel questioned Mary about her family history and drug use.

Their conversations reassured her. Mary's voice sounded kind. In her mind, Angel thought Mary would be pretty, sweet. She didn't realize Mary was so desperate for drugs that she stole her own mother's air conditioner and pawned it for crack.

Angel's church friend, Sue Sams, remembers those calls.

"She was already on Cloud 9, " Sams says. "After that, she went to Cloud 10. We all had baby fever."

Angel picked out a name: Alyssa.

                                                                                                * * *

Raised on a Pasco County dairy farm, Angel grew up one of 12 children. There was little money but plenty of love. Her siblings, some adopted, thought of her as the responsible one, says her brother, Joe Andino, 26.

"Everyone always told Angel, 'You're the mother of the group, ' " he recalls.

After attending Zephyrhills High, she and her brother moved to Brunswick, where paper mills spew the smell of sulphur. She found a secretarial job, joined a church and led its nursery.

She continued to look out for her siblings, even the older ones. It was Angel who kept her sister from getting cigarettes; Angel who kept an eye on bills and went back to the farm to nurse their ailing mother.

In her spare time, she and her brother Joe evangelized at the local Wal-Mart, trying to save souls in the store aisles.

In 2004, she and her fiance learned that she was pregnant. Six months later, she lost the baby. Her doctor recommended a hysterectomy; Angel refused, hoping God would heal her.

"She wants a baby so bad, " her brother says. "It seems like she attracts herself to friends who have children just so she can be around them."

In March 2005, a car pulled in front of Angel. Her truck flipped, and she was pinned beneath it. The impact left a fist-sized crater in her leg, which makes her shy about her body.

During her months of recovery, she re-evaluated her life. Her sister told her about Mary. Angel thought it was a sign.

A phone call from Tampa brought her back to earth.

                                                                                                * * *

Mary was no longer pregnant, the baby missing. Angel drove to Tampa, desperate to find the child. During the search, Angel saw Mary on an ambulance stretcher. Doctors would verify that she had given birth.

"She looked like somebody who had lived a rough life, " Angel recalls.

Mary wore a dirty dress and an angry scowl and looked nothing like Angel had imagined.

Less than an hour later, Angel learned the infant had died.

The drive home was a blur.

Her church held a memorial service. They sang Jesus Loves Me and covered the altar in white lilies and baby's breath. Angel sat in the second row.

She didn't cry. She felt numb.

                                                                                                * * *

For the next few months, she could barely move.

Her brother tried to comfort her. He told her things happen for a reason.

"Everything made her cry, " he recalls.

She stared at the baby clothes and the crib. She wrote diary entries in the baby book. She told Alyssa that she wished she could have held her.

By summer's end, a friend packed up all the baby things and put them in storage.

Another close friend got pregnant. Angel gave her the baby shower gifts and tried to bury her feelings of jealousy.

She kept only a dainty peach dress and a white stuffed fox to make a shadow box, a framed memorial. She wrote in the baby book occasionally, but her friends cautioned her to stop.

In her last entry at summer's end, Angel told the baby that she was still loved, still missed.

                                                                                                * * *

In Tampa, Mary's case moved through the courts. Her attorney argued she was mentally incapable of standing trial. A judge agreed. She was sent to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for treatment.

For a few weeks after the death, people left flowers, crosses and teddy bears in a park near the alley. Now only litter marks the place where Mary gave birth - a beer can in brown paper, an empty bean can, a child's discarded table.

                                                                                                * * *

The baby's body was in the medical examiner's office for 10 months. Angel assumed Mary's family would bury the remains. That didn't happen. Emotionally and financially, the Does were spent.

Finally, Hillsborough County buried Baby Doe among its poor in March.

Rest Haven Memorial Park manager Jim McKeehan pulls out a handwritten map.

"I'll have to take you, " he says. "You'll never find it."

He drives to a section of the cemetery where headstones are small and close together. One is covered with tiny toy cars.

This is Babyland, he says.

McKeehan, a father and grandfather, remembers Baby Doe because he thought no one else did. The cemetery put out chairs and a tent, as usual, that March day, but no one came.

He walks slowly to an empty patch of dirt. He pauses, jabs his cane into the sandy soil. It sinks quickly, then stops when it hits the coffin. He pulls it out, makes a mark in the sand, sticks it in again and again until he traces the outline of Baby Doe's grave.

                                                                                                * * *

Mary's mother, Louise Doe, doesn't remember hearing about the county burial. But she keeps grainy sonogram photographs in a crumpled envelope. One is stamped, "It's a girl!"

Her daughter's abandonment of the baby sent sorrow through the Doe family. They had raised her other five babies. A sixth would have been a hardship but no one wanted a child to die.

"It really got to everybody, " she says. "We all had to be strong."

One day in June, Louise Doe found her mother, Mary's grandma, washing a plastic baby doll in the sink. That was before the grandma died and was buried by the county at Rest Haven.

She told Louise Doe she was giving "Mary's baby" a bath.

                                                                                                * * *

Mary, 42, writes her mother from the hospital and from the county jail, where she waits for a June 25 court hearing.

For Mother's Day, she sent a card on yellow lined paper.

"Mommies are special, " she wrote, next to a sketch of a house, a heart and a platter of cookies. "They bake yummy cookies. They hug away the hurts."

She included magazine clippings of toddlers.

Mary also sent recent photos. In one, she pouts playfully at the camera, hand on her hip. She wears a flouncy jean skirt, a shapeless white T-shirt and Velcro shoes. There's a big gold ring on her finger. Her hair, which fell out by the handful on the streets, is beginning to grow back.

Once a week, she calls her mother collect.

"Mama, I love you, " she says before hanging up. Her mom is grateful for Mary's brevity. She can't afford collect calls.

A judge will decide if Mary is ready to stand trial.

Her mother thinks she looks healthier but doesn't think she's cured.

                                                                                                * * *

Angel, now 25, tries to heal by turning to her faith.

She worships at Abundant Life Fellowship, a church near a Brunswick shopping mall.

But life keeps testing her.

A close friend dies, leaving seven children. Angel offers to help care for them. She takes off work to pitch in at the friend's restaurant. She learns her fiance has been unfaithful. She returns his ring and moves in temporarily with the grieving family.

Her sister calls, marriage in shambles, needing refuge. Her brother, driving them, wrecks the car early in May, aggravating Angel's back injury.

The night of the crash, Angel rushes to get to church. Her hair, long ringlets, is usually pulled back, but tonight it hangs past her shoulders. Her sister and brother trail behind her.

A new mother comes up to her. Angel admires the month-old baby. She scoops up the blanket-swathed child and rocks her.

Inside, the church buzzes with children's voices. It's a youth service, and the room is filled with pool tables, video games and a hot dog stand. Lights dim, and a Christian rock band lets loose.

Angel takes a seat in the balcony, still holding the baby.

Eyes closed, she raises an arm.

The minister calls people to the altar. A high school student joins Angel near the front. The girl's mother has died, and she struggles to finish her senior year. Angel talks to her about the importance of college.

Angel leaves the church after 10:30 p.m. She stops by Wal-Mart for groceries and then heads home. She checks to be sure the children are ready for school.

                                                                                                * * *

The baby's death changed Angel. She knows that. Her family and friends felt the change.

"When she first got back from Florida, as close as I am to her, I noticed right away, " Sams says. "She still ain't quite right. I don't think she ever will be."

They say Angel is less trusting, less willing to give her heart.

That's a good thing, her brother Joe says.

"There's a lot of bad in the world, " he says.

But Angel doesn't want to be the kind of person who believes that. She tries to see the good, even in Mary Doe.

"I pray that God has mercy on her soul, " Angel says. "In the same breath, sometimes I think I would like to choke her myself."

Angel wants to be a full-time minister. With everything she's been through, she could empathize with just about anybody. She says this with a weak smile.

She still wants a baby. She wants a home with a dozen kids.

Recently, she learned a cousin's girlfriend is pregnant. That woman is addicted to drugs. She is young and unsure. The cousin talked to Angel, asked if she might want to adopt the baby.

At first, Angel hesitated. All she could think of was Alyssa.

She knew from the beginning she would soften. She talked to her cousin and came away thinking the baby would have no other place to go.

The baby is two weeks overdue. Angel waits, bracing for what will come.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813-226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.