Waneta Ethel HOYT
Characteristics: Killed 5 of her 6 her own children, disguised as SIDS
Number of victims: 5
Date of murders: 1965 - 1971
Date of arrest: March 23, 1994
Date of birth: May 13, 1946
Victims profile: Her children: Erik (died Jan. 26, 1965, at 3 months, 10 days) / Julie (died Sept. 5, 1968, 1 month, 17 days) / James (died Sept. 26, 1968, 2 years, 4 months) / Molly (died June 5, 1970, 2 months, 18 days) / Noah (died July 28, 1971, 2 months, 19 days)
Method of murder: Suffocation
Location: Oswego, Oswego County, New York, USA
Status: Sentenced to 75 years to life in prison on September 11, 1995. Died in prison on August 13, 1998
Waneta Hoyt (1965-1971) killed 5 of her 6 children in Oswego, New York by suffocation, claiming they had just stopped breathing.
The case came on the advent and discovery of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and one of her children became the first in the nation to be placed on a special monitor at home. The child died anyway, and Waneta said the machine malfunctioned. The trial became a test case on the medical validity of SIDS. The syndrome was determined valid, and Waneta was found innocent.
In 1994, however, she confessed to the killings, but later recanted in 1995. A trial in 1995 convicted her and was sentenced to life in prison.
Waneta Ethel (Nixon) Hoyt (May 13, 1946 – August 13, 1998) was an alleged American serial killer.
Hoyt was born in Richford, New York and died at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She dropped out of Newark Valley High School in the 10th grade to marry Tim Hoyt on January 11, 1964.
Their son Eric died on January 26, 1965, only 101 days after he was born on October 17, 1964. None of the couple's other children — James (May 31, 1966 – September 26, 1968), Julie (July 19 – September 5, 1968), Molly (March 18 – June 5, 1970), and Noah (May 9 – July 28, 1971) — lived past 28 months. For over 20 years, it was believed that the babies had died of sudden infant death syndrome. Several years after the death of their last child, Mr. and Mrs. Hoyt adopted a child, Jay, who remained healthy through childhood and was 17 years old when Mrs. Hoyt was arrested in 1994.
The last two biological Hoyt children, Molly and Noah, were subjects of pediatric research conducted by Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, who published an article in 1972 in the Journal Pediatrics proposing a connection between sleep apnea and SIDS. The article was controversial.
Investigation and trial
In 1985 a prosecutor in a neighboring county who had been dealing with a murder case that was initially thought to involve SIDS was told by one of his experts, Dr. Linda Norton, a forensic pathologist from Dallas, that there may be a serial killer in his area of New York. Dr. Norton suspected this after reviewing Steinschneider's report on the Hoyt case (in which the Hoyts were not identified by name). When the prosecutor became District Attorney in 1992, he tracked the case down and sent it to forensic pathologist Michael Baden for review. Baden concluded that the deaths were the result of murder.
In 1994, because of jurisdictional issues, the case was transferred to the District Attorney of the county where the Hoyts resided. In March 1994 Hoyt was approached while at the Post Office by a New York State trooper with whom she was acquainted. He asked her for help in research he was doing on SIDS, and she agreed. She was then questioned by the trooper and two other policemen. At the end of the interrogation she confessed to the murders of all five children by suffocation. Consequently she was arrested. The reason she gave for the murders was that the babies were crying and she wanted to silence them.
Hoyt later recanted her confession and its validity was an important issue during the trial. An expert hired by the Defense, Dr. Charles Patrick Ewing, testified that: "It is my conclusion that her statement to the police on that day was not made knowingly, and it was not made voluntarily." He diagnosed Mrs. Hoyt with dependent and avoidant personality disorders, and opined that she was particularly vulnerable to the tactics used during her interrogation. Dr. David Barry, a psychiatrist hired by the prosecution agreed that Waneta Hoyt had been manipulated by the police tactics. Nevertheless, Hoyt was convicted in April 1995.
On September 11, 1995, she was sentenced to 75 years to life (15 years for each murder, to be served consecutively). It has been speculated since her conviction that Hoyt suffered from Münchausen syndrome by proxy, a diagnosis not universally accepted in this case.
Hoyt died in prison of pancreatic cancer in August 1998. She was formally exonerated under New York law because she died before her appeal had been heard.
A Mother's Fatal Embrace
Tormented by Their Crying, Waneta Hoyt Killed Five Children, One by One
By Cynthia Sanz - People.com
October 9, 1995
FOR MORE THAN 25 YEARS, WANETA Nixon Hoyt would drive each Memorial Day to the small cemetery beside her childhood home in Richford, N.Y., to lay flowers on the graves of her babies. Over a 6½-year period, from 1965 to 1971, five of them, Eric, Julie, James, Molly and Noah, ranging in age from just 48 days to 28 months, had died one by one, victims of what doctors classified as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Scratching out a modest living in the farming community of Newark Valley, some 70 miles south of Syracuse, Waneta, a home-maker, and her husband, Tim, for many-years a security guard at Cornell University's art museum in Ithaca, were regarded as a quiet couple who bore stoically their unfathomable loss—though Waneta occasionally betrayed a flicker of guilt. "She'd say, 'I don't know what I did wrong,' " recalls former neighbor Georgia Garray. "We used to tell her, 'You're not a bad mother.' "
Little did they know. On Sept. 11, Tioga County Judge Vincent Sgueglia sentenced Hoyt, 49, to 75 years-to-life in prison for "depraved indifference to human life," in this case a devastatingly apt euphemism for murder. In April an Owego, N.Y., jury ruled that Hoyt had suffocated each of her children—with pillows, a towel, even her shoulder. "Five young people aren't here today because of her," Tioga County prosecutor Robert Simpson told the jury in closing arguments during the four-week trial. "They would have had families, jobs. But they don't get that opportunity because their mother couldn't stand their crying."
Last month, as she contemplated a life behind bars, it was Waneta Hoyt's turn to weep. Claiming her statement to police—in which she confessed to the murders—was coerced, she declared after her conviction, "I didn't kill my babies. I never did nothing in my life, and now to have this happen?" Suffering from a variety of ailments including high blood pressure and osteoporosis, and looking far older than her years, she was comforted by the supportive arm of husband Tim, 52, and the presence of their surviving, adopted son, Jay, 19. "Despite the cruelty of her acts," said William Fitzpatrick, district attorney of neighboring Onondaga County, after viewing Hoyt's broken-down appearance, "you'd be less than human not to have some degree of sympathy for her."
It was Fitzpatrick, 48, who first began investigating Waneta Hoyt. In 1985, while prosecuting a case of murder originally diagnosed as SIDS, he consulted forensic pathologist Linda Norton of Dallas. In the course of their conversation, Fitzpatrick recalls, Norton made an offhand remark: "You know, you have a serial killer right there in Syracuse."
Norton had read a 1972 medical-journal article by pediatrician Alfred Steinschneider—Hoyt's physician—describing the "H" family in which five children had succumbed to SIDS. Norton, an expert on SIDS, told Fitzpatrick the odds against five such deaths in one family were incalculably high. She also found it suspicious that the mother was always alone with the babies when they died.
Shortly thereafter, Fitzpatrick left the prosecutor's office, but Norton's comments still gnawed at him. And in 1992, when he was sworn in as DA, he immediately began tracking down the H family, soon identified as the Hoyts. Fitzpatrick pulled the autopsy records on the Hoyt children and sent them to New York State Police forensic expert Michael Baden for review. In each case, Baden told him, the records did not support the stated cause of death. "They were all healthy children," says Baden. "They had no natural cause for death. The only reasonable cause is homicidal suffocation."
In fact, as one Hoyt baby after another died, some health-care professionals did grow suspicious at the time. Four nurses who testified at Hoyt's trial said that Waneta showed little interest in the babies. "There was no bonding at all," said Thelma Schneider. "Most of us went to Dr. Steinschneider and expressed our fears—we had a gut feeling that something was going on. Either he was in total denial or not being very objective." Ambulance worker Robert Vanek, who went to the Hoyt residence when Julie, James and Noah died, recalled being stunned by the coroner's conclusion that all had died of SIDS. Says Vanek: "I thought, three in a row? It bothered me." As for the faulty SIDS postmortem diagnoses, Baden says the children's bodies were examined not by dispassionate forensic pathologists but by family physicians. "Doctors," he says, "don't want to think parents harm children."
Because the Hoyts lived outside his jurisdiction, Fitzpatrick turned the case over to Tioga County DA Simpson. In March 1994, New York State trooper Bobby Bleck, a family friend of the Hoyts, approached Waneta at a local post office and asked for her help with research he was doing on SIDS. At the station house, Bleck, with police investigators Susan Mulvey and Robert Courtright, took Hoyt, step by step, over the official version of her babies' deaths. After about an hour, Mulvey gently clasped Hoyt's hand and told her they didn't believe her.
Fifteen minutes later, Waneta Hoyt confessed to having killed all five children. Her candor was chilling. "I suffocated Eric in the living room," she began. "He was crying all the time, and I wanted to stop him....Julie was the next one to die...I cradled her up to my shoulder...when she quit crying I released her, and she wasn't breathing." In September 1968, Hoyt said, she was dressing in the bathroom when a tearful, agitated James tried to break in on her. "He kept screaming, 'Mommy, Mommy,' " she recalled. "I used a bath towel to smother him. He got a bloody nose from fighting against the towel." Molly was next, suffocated with a pillow, at age 2½ months, as was Noah one year later. "I didn't want them to die," their mother told police. "I wanted them to quiet down."
Hoyt's life history yields few clues to her murderous bent. She was the sixth of eight children born to Arthur Nixon, a Richford, N.Y., laborer, and his wife, Dorothy, a seamstress. Waneta met Tim Hoyt on a school bus in ninth grade. Two years later, at 17, she dropped out of high school to marry him, and within nine months she gave birth to Eric. Forty-eight days later, confessed Waneta, she killed him. "I asked God to forgive me over and over and over," said Hoyt, who had sought counseling after the last death.
Despite the explicitness of her confession, Hoyt's family staunchly supports her claim that police twisted her description of the deaths into a confession. "She was used like an old tire," says Tim, now a factory worker. Adds Jay, whom the Hoyts adopted when he was 7 weeks old and whose crying apparently didn't bother Hoyt the same way: "I love her, and she shouldn't be here. The system sucks."
Waneta Hoyt would seem to agree. In the cavernous Tioga County courthouse last month, she told the court in a barely audible voice, "God forgive all of you who done this to me." Judge Sgueglia was not so inclined. He stared at her for a time, then handed down his sentence. "I only have one thing to say to you," he advised, "and that is to consider your sixth child.... Whatever you tell this court, your husband, your God, you owe it to that boy to tell him the truth." With that, four deputies escorted Hoyt from the courtroom, and her only surviving child bowed his head and wept.
On April 25, 1995, a jury of 6 men and 6 women found guilty to Waneta Hoyt, 48, of murder 5 of her children, during a 6 years, between 1965 and 1971. She may be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Originally, the children's deaths were all found to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Four of the five were less than three months old when they died. The other was two years old. Not much is known about SIDS. It is an explanation often used simply because no other cause can be found for a child's death. It means little more than that the child stopped breathing.
It's unusual for more than one child in a family to die of SIDS. In 1970 when Waneta Hoyt's fourth child was born, it was believed she had already lost three children to SIDS. Therefore, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, an expert on SIDS, became involved. He hospitalized both of Hoyt's last two children for observation for much of their short lives. Both died anyway. Both were autopsied. The cause of death was listed as SIDS for each.
Dr. Steinschneider wrote a paper about the remarkable case of a family with five SIDS deaths, and no survivors except an adopted son. This last seemed to strengthen the belief that something hereditary caused the children to stop breathing. The paper was published in the journal Pediatrics in 1972. In a common practice, the people were referred to only by initials, not full names.
In 1986, assistant prosecutor William Fitzpatrick read the article while researching possible defenses in an upcoming child murder case. He was immediately struck by the unlikeliness of five consecutive children dying of natural causes. He was certain the children were murdered. In 1992 Fitzpatrick became the Onondaga County District Attorney and followed up on his beliefs from years before. Knowing that Dr. Steinschneider was also based in Onondaga County, he checked infant death records in the county until he found some that fit the facts of the Pediatrics article. He found the two Hoyt children Steinschneider dealt with. He then traced their mother back to her home in Tioga county and notified the district attorney there of a possible murder case.
After an investigation, five charges of second-degree murder were filed against Waneta Hoyt on Wednesday, March 23, 1994. State police took her in for questioning that morning. During questioning, she confessed to murdering the children. Hoyt claimed she felt useless because she could not stop the children from crying, so she smothered them. [Note: This is a slightly self-serving explanation. Feelings of uselessness may lead to despair and then surrender or passivity. Murder will occur only if despair is followed by rage, which Hoyt did not mention.]
The methods of killing the children could have been chosen to avoid detection, though they may also have been chosen because they were easy:
Eric was smothered with a pillow at the age of three months January 26, 1965.
Julie Marie, age one and one half months, was pressed into her mother's shoulder until she stopped struggling el 5 de septiembre de 1968.
James Avery, age two years, was smothered with a bath towel on September 26, 1968. Hoyt said she killed him because he cried so much over his sister's death. He fought hard enough to get a bloody nose.
Molly, age two and one half months, was smothered with a pillow June 5, 1970.
Noah, age three and one half months, was smothered with a pillow July 28, 1971.
None of the children was strangled, as in a fit of rage. This would have left bruises. Smothering would still cause petechiae (burst cappillaries), but these are difficult to detect in very young children. In particular, they would not be found if no one even looked, because they accepted the claims of the distraught mother that she simply found her child dead.
A fifth child, an adopted son, survived and is now an adult. Hoyt said she did not kill him when he was a child because her husband was always around and would have seen her. Apparently, her husband's support did nothing to decrease her feelings of uselessness.
After an intial request to exhume the bodies of the children was denied, prosecutors eventually received permission to recover and autopsy the bodies. Since the newest was still twenty-five years old, they found little.
Dr. Steinschneider testified that the last two children to die suffered severe episodes of apnea (interrupted breathing) which was possibly connected to the SIDS that he believed had killed them. His testimony, however, was contradicted by three nurses and a nurse's aid.
This is quite an unusual case. Mothers don't often kill their children. Even the few who do, don't tend to make a habit of it. One interesting - and appalling - feature is the fact that Hoyt continued having children. After the second or third she must have known she was going to kill them, unless she was experiencing an extreme form of denial.
Friends and neighbors reported that Hoyt was an exceptionally nice person. They certainly felt no qualms about leaving their own children in her care briefly. There are no reports that she gave them cause to worry. She was not some predator hunting for every target of opportunity. She was a threat only to her own children. This is particularly noticeable in the cases of two non-biological children who spent time in her house. One was adopted and grew up safely. The other was sent back at the age of nine months, after Hoyt told a social worker she was afraid she would hurt him.
The deaths of two children in only three weeks - one of them long past the age at which all the others died - could be interpreted as showing that Hoyt developed a taste for the killing. If she didn't actually enjoy it, she certainly embraced its utility.
A mother who kills her children over a period of time, is unusual enough to require careful consideration. Serial killers of children are often pedophiles. Westley Dodd, for example, kidnapped very young children, molested them and murdered them. Two he stabbed (one of those without molesting him), one he hanged. No one mistook their deaths for SIDS. There has been no suggestion that sexual molestation played any roll in the deaths of the Hoyt children, nor does there appear to be any reason for such a suggestion. Hoyt's motivation was different.
Other women who've killed children have also done so without overt sexual overtones. However, they each manipulated the situation for special gratification. Christine Falling claimed to enjoy watching police and medical examiners rush around without a clue what had really happened and falsely conclude that the children she had murdered really died of SIDS.
Nurse Genene Jones frequently was first on the scene when a child "mysteriously" collapsed. She took a leading role in dealing with the emergencies and gained a reputation for being an extremely good nurse. She reveled in the urgency of the situation and in the praise she received for being calm and competent under intense pressure.
Similarly, Waneta Hoyt, rushing into the street with her dead two year old in her arms and flagging down a garbage truck was certainly milking a manufactured emergency for everything she could get. (In fairness, it's worth wondering whether she was consciously aware of doing this. It's likely that she was but it's conceivable that she was repressing any awareness of her own actions.)
When each of her last two children was hospitalized for observation because all of their previous siblings had died, Hoyt secretly knew that the others were murdered and that she would murder them, too. It didn't frighten her into seeking psychiatric help as far as we know. Nor did she take steps to protect the children. She didn't confess to her husband and ask him to take them away, or attempt suicide out of remorse. She pretended to be innocent, faked confusion and unhappiness over the "mysterious" deaths of her children. Most probably, like other serial killers, her secret gave her great pleasure.
The head games killers like Jones and Falling played on those around them raise another interesting possibility: Did Hoyt tell Dr. Steinschneider about apnea incidents that never happened? This would explain him testifying to things that could not be supported by any other evidence and would seem to fit the behavior patterns of this type of killer.
This case was portrayed by the media as putting SIDS on trial. It did not. SIDS is a last resort non-explanation, meaning only that no adequate reason could be found for an infant's death. Five impossible-to-explain deaths, all when the victims' mother was alone with them, formed a pattern that pointed to a known, if equally incomprehensible, cause.
Waneta Hoyt's confession sealed the case after more than twenty years of silence.
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
By Barry Bearak - Los Angeles Times
May 22, 1994
NEWARK VALLEY, N.Y. — Between 1965 and 1971, five healthy babies were born here to a poor woman who seemed to want them desperately and who mourned each of their deaths with a convulsive grief that quavered the soul.
At one funeral, Waneta Hoyt fainted after the lowering of the tiny, pitiful coffin and at another, her body collapsed with the great force of her sobbing. She had to be helped away from the freshly turned soil at the graveside.
These family tragedies, one after another, puzzled friends and relatives as well as the doctors. The deaths were always sudden, the causes inexplicable. The final two babies spent most of their short lives in a Syracuse hospital, their every breath monitored by machines. On occasion, they suffered slightly abnormal pauses in respiration. Then, like matchsticks lit against an unforgiving wind, they each died within a day after being sent home.
As a medical case history, this haunting clockwork of mortality seemed a significant tale to share. One of the hospital's attending physicians, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, wrote it up for the noted journal Pediatrics. He went on to become a national expert on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
That 1972 article was seen as pioneering work. Pediatricians often cited it as evidence that the unexplained phenomenon of SIDS may well run in families. Those abnormal pauses in breathing could be foretellers of a sudden death. If so, SIDS was possibly preventable with the use of monitoring devices at home.
Those conclusions aside, there was also a second, starkly contrary view of Steinschneider's report. Some doctors thought it naive. SIDS cases were too often indistinguishable from smothering. To them, the repeating catastrophes of this woebegone family read like the relentless clues in a murder mystery.
It was an arcane, scholarly conflict, easing into obscurity over the years. But time on occasion has a remarkable way of turning backflips, the present reaching into the past. That is what has happened here. A chance remark to a young prosecutor made him look up the old article and he also began to wonder: Were there awful secrets afloat in a grieving mother's tears?
Two months ago, 23 years after the death of her fifth baby, Waneta Hoyt was interrogated by police for the first time. Questioning went on for almost two hours before something gave way. The mother then began to confess the details of five suffocations, by pillows, with a towel, against the soft flesh of her shoulder: "I could not stand the crying," she told police. "It was the thing that caused me to kill them all, because I didn't know what to do for them."
And, for a while, that appeared to be that. Waneta Hoyt--47, housewife, churchgoer, the mother of an adopted boy now in high school--was arrested. It added yet another to a peculiar string of cases, women accused of murdering their babies, the deaths often first thought to be SIDS.
But now, through her two court-appointed attorneys, Hoyt has recanted. They say their frail, emotionally scarred client would have admitted to anything that day merely to end the long cross-fire of painful questions.
Certainly, that is what her many friends here in Upstate New York choose to believe. Memories are vivid of Waneta making her visits to the graves, laying crocuses near the headstones, pining to give birth to yet another child.
Life may be complicated, they acknowledge, and the human mind is capable of who knows what. But, really now, could that woman love her babies so much and then kill them?
Waneta Hoyt was born in nearby Richford, N.Y., the same birthplace as John D. Rockefeller, himself a pauper who left the town as a boy and went on to become the wealthiest man in the world. He would return from time to time and hand out shiny dimes in front of the general store from his chauffeured car.
In Rockefeller's time, a century ago, this was a poor, if picturesque, part of America. These days, good jobs are still scarce in the northern reaches of Appalachia. Tim Hoyt, Waneta's husband for the last 30 years, has had trouble finding construction work and is a Pinkerton guard at Cornell University, 30 miles away through the dairy farms and hilly stands of hemlock.
Here in Newark Valley, population 1,190, the Hoyts live in a weather-beaten house along a two-lane highway. Many people not only leave their front doors unlocked, some can't even recall if they have a key. At the United Methodist Church up the road, Waneta is known for her generous nature, the craftsmanship of her crocheted afghans and a long, mind-boggling run of heartache.
Her own health is a continuing ordeal. Waneta has a heart murmur and is bent over from arthritis. High-blood pressure and diabetes have weakened her eyesight. Breathing is a labor. Her bones are brittle from osteoporosis.
Family troubles add to the strain. One of Waneta's brothers is disabled from a hip degeneration. Another has cancer. One sister suffers from a brain tumor. Another, immobile from the waist down, is married to Tim's brother, who has multiple sclerosis. In 1989, Waneta's mother died in an auto accident.
"There isn't a well person in the family," said Art Hilliard, a friend of the Hoyts since their childhoods. "It has just been one trauma after another."
Of course, nothing has been harder to endure than the loss of the babies. Erik died at 3 months, Julie at only 7 weeks, James at 28 months (thought to have choked after eating breakfast). Those were impossible times for the Hoyts. "They'd be leaning on each other, crying, trying to be strong for each other," recalled Hilliard's wife, Natalie.
Around town, the common sentiments were ones of sympathy, not suspicion. An autopsy was performed on only one of the three children; it was inconclusive. The Hoyts simply seemed to be an impossibly star-crossed couple.
They lamented as much themselves. Something haywire must be deep-set within their babies, they told friends. The Hilliards and the Hoyts would play canasta late into the night, trying to keep their minds from morbid thoughts.
When Molly was born, and then again with Noah, the Hoyts sought help from the best doctors around, at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, nearly two hours away. Dr. Steinschneider was there. He already had an emerging interest in the phenomenon that most people called "crib death" and doctors recently had named the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
As a medical term, SIDS is certainly an unusual one. Rather than a cause of death, it is actually the absence of any detectable cause after an autopsy and investigation: a catchall for the unexplained. Each year, about 7,000 deaths in the United States are categorized as SIDS. Devastated parents find the term something to cling to, better than the maddening "cause unknown."
Steinschneider's paper, and similar work by others, gave doctors something to latch onto as well. Maybe some babies in jeopardy could be identified--and the fatal attack prevented. "It was a happier scenario," Steinschneider recently recalled. "I think that's why it had such a major impact."
But the facts in the article, merely striking to some, were incredible to others. The journal printed a letter from a doctor who raised the matter of child abuse. The babies should have been put in foster care rather than sent home, the writer said: "Perhaps the outcome would have been different?"
In his reply, Steinschneider agreed that child abuse must always be considered in SIDS cases. But, in this instance, both he and the nurses had found the babies' parents to be warm and supportive people. He had this to add about the couple he identified only as Mr. and Mrs. H.:
"Both parents often would be found sitting by the crib and had to be urged to make physical contact with the baby. It was my impression that they feared becoming too attached emotionally . . . because they anticipated a tragic outcome.
"Mrs. H. expressed, on a number of occasions, considerable guilt over the death of her children, and, because of the inability of physicians to define the cause of death, felt there must be something she did or failed to do that was responsible. Following the death of the fifth infant, Mrs. H. did seek and receive outpatient psychiatric care."
One skeptic of the 1972 article was Dr. Linda Norton of Dallas, a forensic pathologist prone to complaining about the medical Establishment. In lectures, she sometimes singled out the Steinschneider report for particular scorn.
Norton does a lot of consulting. In 1986, she found herself in Syracuse, working on a case where a father had murdered his three young children.
The assistant district attorney was William Fitzpatrick, an aggressive, steely prosecutor from Brooklyn. He thought the crime extraordinary.
Hell, Norton told him, you may have the same kind of trouble "right in your own back yard, and that case is famous. You can look it up."
The remark ate at Fitzpatrick. He got the article. Doctors comfort the bereft and may be inclined to overlook the possibility of foul play. But a prosecutor is paid to be suspicious. To Fitzpatrick, this read like homicide.
"I asked myself: How could this be, the killing of five children, obvious to anyone, going undetected?" he said. He opened a preliminary file.
Then, in the happenstances of career, he left the job for private practice only to return in 1992 after winning election as district attorney. This time, he ordered an investigation. There were these clues to go on: the initials of the babies, the name of the hospital, the general time frame of the deaths.
"One child had been autopsied, so there had to be some kind of report on file," Fitzpatrick said. "The name Noah Hoyt popped out. It fit perfectly. He was 2 1/2 months old. His diagnosis was SIDS. So now I had a name and an autopsy number. I subpoenaed the medical records from Upstate Medical Center.
"Several hundred sheets of paper came in, chronicling the life history of this young lad, Noah Hoyt. It was really so sad. For some reason, I developed an emotional attachment to Noah, you know, reading a record of virtually every day in his life. He was going to end up like the other four babies. You wanted to just reach back in through the hands of time and protect him."
Noah had suffered those breathing problems, sometimes bad enough to turn blue. There was a curious pattern to the attacks, the prosecutor noted: "They all happened while the child was in the exclusive control of the mother."
Two medical examiners were brought in to confer. They also went through the records, including autopsies of the fourth and fifth children. Based on the circumstantial evidence, both agreed with Fitzpatrick: They thought the mother was a murderer.
The last address in the file was in Tioga County. The Hoyts were not hard to find. The local prosecutor was notified, and the state police began their own investigation--criminal checks, employment records, birth certificates, marriage license, credit profile, toll calls. The Hoyts were as clean as could be, and there was only one more thing to do: bring the woman in for a talk.
Three state troopers sat in the interrogation room with Waneta. Several observers, including Fitzpatrick, were able to watch and listen through a two-way mirror.
The woman seemed unruffled as they dredged up her tragedies. Then, near the two-hour mark, the questioning took a sharper turn, with the police bluffing that they knew the whole truth, that she had killed them all. Suddenly, Waneta stiffened. And then this is what she said of her five babies, according to court records:
Erik (died Jan. 26, 1965, at 3 months, 10 days): "He was crying at the time and I wanted him to stop. I held a pillow--it might have been a sofa throw pillow--over his face while I was sitting on the couch. I don't remember if he struggled or not, but he did bleed from the mouth and nose."
Julie (died Sept. 5, 1968, 1 month, 17 days): "I held her nose and mouth into my shoulder until she stopped struggling."
James (died Sept. 26, 1968, 2 years, 4 months): "I was in the bathroom getting dressed and he wanted to come in. He came in . . . and I made him go out. He started crying, 'Mommy, mommy.' I wanted him to stop crying for me so I used a bath towel to smother him."
Molly (died June 5, 1970, 2 months, 18 days): "She was just home from the hospital overnight and was crying in her crib. I used a pillow that was in the crib to smother her. After she was dead, I called Mom Hoyt (Tim's mother) and Dr. Steinschneider."
Noah (died July 28, 1971, 2 months, 19 days): "I held a baby pillow over his face until he was dead. I then called for Mom Hoyt and Dr. Steinschneider. I remember it was a hot day in July."
According to some of the witnesses, at this point Waneta began to worry what people were going to think of her. She asked to see her husband.
Tim was brought in, and Waneta told him of her great unburdening. He chose not to believe her. Words were put in your mouth, he suggested. She insisted otherwise. He told her he still loved her, and the confessing began again.
She had seen counselors and a psychiatrist, she said in her signed confession. "I feel that if I had got help from them, it would have prevented me from killing the rest of my children. I feel that I am a good person, but I know that I did wrong.
"I loved my children. I love my (adopted) son, Jay, and my husband. I feel the burden I have carried by keeping the secret of killing my children has been a tremendous punishment. I most definitely feel remorse and regret for my actions. I cannot go back and undo the wrong that I have done."
Waneta's court-appointed attorneys say they received 541 calls from the media in just the first days after her arrest for second-degree murder. TV shows tried to fax her a contract: Would the alleged baby-killer agree to tell all on camera?
Since her confession, neither of the Hoyts has spoken publicly. Waneta is free on bond and a trial is not likely to occur for months. Her lawyers intend to attack the confession, arguing that it was taken under duress. They also hope to show that SIDS has in fact slain more than one baby in the same family.
There is evidence to support this in the medical literature, but the odds of five in one home are astronomical, many experts say. In most families, the risk of even a second SIDS death is "less than 1%," wrote Dr. Susan Beal in a 1992 article in the journal Clinics in Perinatology.
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 \o7 show biz\f7 , 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.
What is behind this feeding frenzy for vengeance, they ask. "They arrested Waneta and then put her on suicide watch so they could keep her safe and kill her later," said her minister, the Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner. "Nothing is going to bring those kids back now. In the meantime, we destroy Jay and Tim and Waneta. What sense is that?"
Newark Valley seems to have been invaded by big-city experts and their big-city ideas. What strikes people as particularly odd are notions such as Munchausen by Proxy. "If you want to be psychological, let's ask if this is Fitzpatrick's way of getting back at his mother," the minister said. "Or ask what office he's running for. Is this his way of getting attention?"
Their neighbor Waneta holds a blank check on their loyalty. How could it be otherwise? Natalie Hilliard, in defending her friend, was struck by another memory. She recalled how she had helped a pregnant Waneta set up a room for the little ones about to be born.
And how, time and again, they had tearfully packed the baby things away.
SEX: F RACE: W TYPE: S MOTIVE: PC-nonspecific
MO: Killed her own children, disguised as SIDS.
DISPOSITION: 75 years to life on five counts, 1995; died in prison, Aug. 13, 1998.