The Fetal Snatcher: Desperate to Be a Mom

Desperate delusions can grow into fatal obsessions.

Posted Jan 18, 2021

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

On January 13, Lisa Montgomery was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Supreme Court denied an effort by her defense attorneys to hold a competency hearing to determine if her mental illness made her ineligible for the death penalty. In 2004, Montgomery had duped Bobbie Jo Stinnett, then 8 months pregnant, into believing she was a friend and a customer. Once inside Stinnett’s home, Montgomery strangled her and cut the baby from her womb. Police learned about Montgomery via emails and recovered the child. Montgomery went to prison.

There are around 30 such cases on record of female predators who steal unborn babies. Variously labeled womb raiding, fetal snatching, and Caesarean kidnapping, the act is a rare but dangerous form of stalking. Its clinical name is “newborn kidnapping by cesarean section.” These women become so desperate to acquire a baby they’ll kill for it—even quite brutally. In 1987, Darci Pierce, a 19-year-old married woman, abducted Cindy Ray near a prenatal clinical in New Mexico. Pierce strangled the pregnant woman and used a car key to remove the unborn baby girl. She tried to get a birth certificate from a local hospital, and they required her to submit to an exam. It showed she hadn’t given birth, and she was caught. Found guilty but mentally ill, Pierce received a 30-year prison sentence.

These predators plan in advance, watching for the right woman in the right place at the right time. Their MO tends to involve a confidence-style approach, with ruses aimed at winning their victims’ trust. They’ve also conned others into believing they’re pregnant, using fake announcements or ultrasound images to prepare them for the sudden appearance of a baby. They’ll gain weight or pad their clothing to appear to be pregnant. If people know they’ve had a procedure to prevent pregnancy, they might announce the “miracle” birth or say something had gone wrong.

When the date approaches, the wannabe mom lures the target to a private place or visits her home. Then she kills or renders the target unconscious and uses a sharp implement (knife, keys, scissors, box cutter) to remove the child. Strangely enough, these predators are often so engrossed with preparing for the abduction day that they fail to anticipate the need for a birth certificate or to devise answers for questions they’ll be asked. These holes in their stories are usually how they get caught.

Or, they leave behind evidence. One of the most tragic cases happened in 2006 in Illinois. Tiffany Hall not only murdered her close friend, Jimella Tunstall, to acquire her baby (which died in the process) but also drowned her three other children. She left their bodies in the family’s washer and dryer machines.

Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, an expert on child murder, has described the act of fetal theft as the maternal instinct gone wrong. The perpetrators, he says, are typically women who cannot have children or who’ve lost a child. Their longing to be mothers develops into a crafty determination to get a baby. Often, they’ll search through online chat groups. The baby, they think, will complete them.

However, many of these women already had children, and some committed this crime not for themselves but for a man. Obstetrics nurse Norma Jean Armistead wanted to please her lover, who was married and had a family. He’d threatened to leave her, and she thought he’d stay if she gave him a baby. However, she’d had a hysterectomy. So she came up with a plan. In 1974, Armistead targeted Mary Childs, who’d arrived at the hospital where she worked to give birth. Armistead drugged her, stole the female infant, and replaced it with a stillborn infant. She was a trusted nurse, so no one questioned her account. However, her lover reportedly wanted a boy. So, she tried it again. This time, she made mistakes. She checked herself and a new baby into the hospital, but a suspicious doctor found no evidence she’d given birth. Police linked her to the murder of a pregnant woman, Kathryn Viramontes. Her baby had been removed and was missing. The investigation found that Armistead had faked a medical record of her pregnancy nine months earlier and then used hospital files to find her next victim.

Some offenders use accomplices. On April 23, Clarisa Figueroa lured 19-year-old Marlen Ochoa-Lopez to her home with an offer of free baby clothes. While Ochoa-Lopez sat on their couch, Figueroa’s adult daughter distracted her with pictures. Then Figueroa strangled her with a cable before taking the baby.

Although fetal snatchers tend to live in a delusional fantasy world, they’re not considered psychotic. That is, they’re aware of reality but prefer their fantasy. Usually, their attempts at an insanity defense fall short. But not always.

The first documented case of Cesarean abduction occurred in 1974. Winifred Ransom attacked Margaret Sweeney and cut out her unborn child. Sweeney regained consciousness, so Ransom repeatedly struck her with a hatchet and then shot her. Ransom buried Sweeney’s body beneath the kitchen floorboards. She confessed to her husband that she’d killed Sweeney, but said it was to protect the baby. After three days, he went to the police. Officers found the hatchet and the body. At trial, Ransom’s psychologist argued that her inability to have a baby had triggered a psychotic delusion. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Ransom was acquitted on the basis of insanity and sent for a short period to a psychiatric hospital.

The case for Lisa Montgomery’s lack of competency derives from her history of head injuries and mental illness. She’d been raised in an abusive home where she’d been subjected to multiple sexual assaults. She’d had four children, but had lost custody. In 1990, she’d had a tubal ligation procedure. Thereafter, she’d falsely claimed to be pregnant on several occasions. Her defense attorney offered the defense of pseudocyesis, or the delusional belief of being pregnant. Experts for the prosecution firmly disagreed. Montgomery had carried out a calculated long-range plan that indicated she knew right from wrong and had acted anyway.

References

Burgess, A. W., Dillon, M. A., Chiou, K. Y., Hulsopple, S. B. (2016). Fetal Abduction: Comparison of two cases. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. 54(11):37-43.

Burgess, A., Baker, T., Nahirny, C., & Rabun, J., (2002). Newborn Kidnapping by Cesarean Section. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 47(4), 1-4.