Mysterious woman is at center of probe into dead babies found in L.A. basement
The first two trunks were empty. Using a screwdriver, she broke the lock on the third. Gomez, the building’s manager and an amateur antique collector, was giddy over what she found in the former ballroom: a gleaming crystal bowl, stacks of beautiful books, including a copy of “Peter Pan,” and two leather doctor’s satchels.
Inside the bag was a small bundle wrapped in copies of the Los Angeles Times from the 1930s. Xing unpeeled the newspapers and shrank back in horror. Inside the satchels were the mummified remains of two babies. The women immediately called police, who are now trying to unravel a mystery worthy of Raymond Chandler.
Investigators say the babies may have died up to eight decades ago, although they won’t know for sure until tests are completed on the remains.
Detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department are working with few solid leads but some tantalizing clues, including a ticket stub from the closing ceremonies of the 1932 Olympics at the L.A. Coliseum.
The trunk appears to have belonged to a woman named Jean M. Barrie. Inside it were postcards sent to her from far-flung locales like Korea and South America and a pile of black-and-white photographs.
They show a beautiful, light-haired woman -- who may have been Barrie -– on vacation and in a long white wedding dress. Among Barrie’s possessions was a membership to the Peter Pan Woodland Club, an upscale resort in Big Bear that offered guests swimming pools, skating ponds and hunting preserves.
Detectives are examining Barrie’s apparent interest in Peter Pan, especially considering that she shared the last name and initials of the book’s author, J.M. Barrie, who died in 1937. Records show that a Jean Barrie who worked as a nurse lived about three miles from the apartment on South Lake Street in 1933.
Authorities said they are classifying the discovery as a “death investigation.” They stressed that it's too early to tell whether this is a homicide case but vowed to find out what happened to the babies.
“We'll put detectives on this case for the long term,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. “We'll try to reconstruct the circumstances based on what the coroner tells us, based on the history of the residence and based on science. We have many more tools and technology available to us than before, which may allow for identification of the victims and closure to any family members.”
Sources with knowledge of the case said one of the babies appeared to be premature – and might have been miscarried or aborted. The other baby appeared to be a newborn.
The remains will be examined Thursday by a pathologist and an anthropologist, according to Los Angeles County Coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter. He said investigators will also try to use DNA testing to determine whether the babies are related and toxicology tests to find out why they died.
Capt. Fabian Lizzaraga of the LAPD’s juvenile division stressed that detectives don’t know much, including whether the babies were born at the apartment building or whether the trunks were moved there later. It’s also possible the babies died later and were wrapped in old newspapers.
-- Kate Linthicum and Andrew Blankstein
Photos: Items found with the bodies
Photo: Building manager Gloria Gomez, left, and tenant Yiming Xing were checking out the contents of three trunks in the storage room of a Los Angeles apartment building when they found the remains of two infants. Below: Items found in basement. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times