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New twists in basement babies case as woman is identified

September 2, 2010 |  1:35 pm

The woman poses in front of a shining Dodge roadster, squinting into the sun.

She wears a snow-white fur stole around her neck and an uneasy smile on her face, as if she isn’t accustomed to being photographed. Police say she was the owner of the steamer trunk that last month was found to contain the mummified remains of two babies, wrapped in newspaper from the 1930s.

On Thursday, police identified her –- a move that puts them closer to solving a case that has puzzled detectives here and transfixed mystery-lovers across the world.

Janet M. Barrie was a private nurse who worked for a Los Angeles couple from the 1930s to the 1960s. The couple, a dentist and his wife, lived in the same MacArthur Park apartment building where the trunk was discovered.

When the dentist’s wife died in 1964, Barrie married her former employer. It is unclear whether the children belonged to Barrie, the wife of the dentist, or someone else, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference Thursday.

“You are able to speculate as well as we can,” Beck said. Detectives working on the case say they have contacted Barrie’s nieces and nephews, who live in Canada, to ask for DNA samples to see whether it matches the DNA of the babies, whose carefully wrapped bodies were stowed in two leathers doctor’s satchels at the bottom of the trunk kept in storage at the Glen-Donald apartment building.

Coroner’s officials have not determined the cause of death of the babies, one of which was a fetus, and the other of which was a newborn. Ed Winter, spokesman for the coroner’s office, said on Thursday that a team of two pathologists and one forensic anthropologist had found no obvious signs of trauma.

Winters said investigators are waiting the results of a toxicology report, which may come back in the next few weeks, and a DNA test, which will determine whether the babies were related to each other. The trunk had been sitting unclaimed in storage at the apartment building for decades, according to the building manager, Gloria Gomez.

Two weeks ago, 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 the doctor's satchels, which contained the bodies. Pictures, postcards and letters also discovered in the trunk suggest the owner was at one point a “single, independent-type of woman,” according to detectives working on the case. The name Jean M. Barrie was inscribed on the trunk. But several clues suggest that Jean may have been a nickname for Janet M. Barrie, who was born in Scotland in 1901 and immigrated to Canada and then the United States.

A Los Angeles directory from 1929 lists a Jean Barrie living with a woman named Ada LuRoss in an apartment near MacArthur Park. The 1930 census shows a Janet Barrie living with LuRoss. During the 1930s, Janet Barrie worked as a private nurse for Dr. George Knapp and his wife, Mary. Records show the Knapps did not have any children. In 1968, Mary Knapp died.

Later that year, Barrie, then 67, married George Knapp, then 81. He died four years later and was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale. Janet Barrie Knapp died in 1992. Police on Thursday said she died in Canada, but records from Forest Lawn indicate she is buried there.

Beck said the department would continue to work on the case. “Justice, even when its delayed, is still justice,” he said. “Even when you have no one to speak for you, we will speak for you.”

--Kate Linthicum

Photo: Al Seib / L.A. Times

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