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Violence trails expectant mothers, data indicate

Missouri case may be part of a larger pattern

WASHINGTON -- Their deaths passed quietly. Tara Chambers, 29, was gunned down on a June morning inside her North Carolina home. Rebecca Johnson, 16, was shot in the chest as she sat in a pickup in Oklahoma. Ana Diaz, 28, was killed in a parking lot in Reston, Va., as she stopped to get a friend on their way to work.

All were pregnant, with futures that seemed sure to unfold over many years. One was a nurse's assistant who planned to name her daughter T'Kaiya. Another had just bought a house. The youngest was a high school cheerleader.

Their killings produced a few local headlines and then faded, each a seeming aberration in the community where it happened.

But pregnant women like them have been slain in Maryland and Mississippi, in California and Kansas, in Ohio and Illinois. Jenny McMechen, 24, was shot in a friend's home in Plainfield, Conn., and Kerry Repp, 29, was shot in her Oregon bedroom, and Tasha Winters, 16, was shot in Indiana the day she told her boyfriend that she was pregnant.

Ardena Carter, 24, was found dead in the Georgia woods, and Kathleen Terry, 22, was run over in Idaho, and Melesha Francis, 26, was strangled in New York, and Thelma Jones, 21, was shot sitting on her back steps in Louisiana, the day her mother ordered a cake for her baby shower.

A yearlong examination by The Washington Post of death-record data in states across the country documents the killings of 1,367 pregnant women and new mothers since 1990. This is only part of the national toll, because no reliable system is in place to track such cases.

Largely unseen by the public, it is a phenomenon that is as consequential as it is poorly understood. Even in the past two years -- as the Laci Peterson homicide case has become a public fascination, with a jury last week recommending that her husband, Scott, be sentenced to death in her killing -- little has been said about the larger convergence of pregnancy and homicide: how often it happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome.

Another pregnant woman, Bobbi Jo Stinnett, 23, was found Thursday in a pool of blood inside her small home in Skidmore, Mo. Her baby had been surgically cut from her womb.

Lisa M. Montgomery, 36, of Melvern, Kan., was arrested later Friday and charged with kidnapping resulting in death. Hours before her arrest, Montgomery and her husband showed off a newborn girl at a restaurant, Kathy Sage, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe, told the Associated Press.

Stinnett, who was eight months' pregnant, had earlier been talking with her mother on the phone, and hung up saying a woman she had chatted with online had just arrived at her door, authorities said.

US Attorney Todd Graves said Montgomery contacted Stinnett through an online message board, and authorities zeroed in on her using computer forensics. Montgomery was seeking to buy a dog from Stinnett, who raised rat terriers, he said.

Stinnett, married for little more than a year and expecting her first child, worked at an engine factory in nearby Maryville. Her husband was at work when she was killed, authorities said.

The baby was named Victoria Jo and was united with her father, Zeb Stinnett, late Friday, Stormont-Vail Regional Health Center in Topeka said in a statement yesterday on its website. She was listed in good condition at the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit

Until recently, many of the cases have gone virtually unstudied, uncounted, untracked. Police agencies across the country do not regularly ask about maternal status when they investigate homicides. And health specialists have focused historically on the medical complications of pregnancy -- embolism, hemorrhage, infection -- not on fatal violence.

"It's very hard to connect the dots when you don't even see the dots," said Elaine Alpert, a public health specialist at Boston University. "It's only just starting to be recognized that there is a trend or any commonalities between these deaths."

The Post's analysis shows that the killings span racial and ethnic groups. In cases whose details were known, 67 percent of women were killed with firearms. Many women were slain at home -- in bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens -- usually by men they knew. Husbands. Boyfriends. Lovers.

The cases are not commonplace compared with other homicides but are more frequent than most people know, and have changed the way some specialists think about pregnancy.

Five years ago in Maryland, state health researchers Isabelle Horon and Diana Cheng set out to study maternal deaths, using sophisticated methods to spot dozens of overlooked cases in their state. They assumed they would find more deaths from medical complications than the state's statistics showed. The last thing they expected was murder.

But in their study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, they wrote that in Maryland, "a pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be a victim of homicide than to die of any other cause."

"It was a huge surprise," said Horon, who recalls paperwork covering the researchers' kitchen tables on weekends and evenings as they sought to understand the astonishing numbers. "We thought we had to have made a mistake. We kept checking and checking and rechecking."

Their findings, as it turned out, were no error. Homicide accounted for 50 of 247 maternal deaths in Maryland over a six-year period, more than 20 percent. It had caused more deaths than cardiovascular disorders, embolisms, or accidents.

"People have this misconception that pregnancy is a safe haven," Cheng said.

In 2002, Massachusetts weighed in with a study that also showed homicide as the top cause of maternal death, followed by cancer. Two of three homicides involved domestic violence. "This is clearly a major health problem for women," said Angela Nannini, who led the study.

Building upon the Maryland study and others, The Post contacted 50 states and the District of Columbia for all possible data about maternal deaths during pregnancy or postpartum months. Few states track homicides in a comprehensive way, but many states could provide some data, mostly from death certificates. The Post combined what it collected with cases culled from other sources.

The resulting 1,367 maternal homicides took place over 14 years.

"That's a formidable number -- and that's just the tip," said Judith McFarlane, who studies violence and pregnancy at Texas Woman's University and who described the void of reliable numbers as "embarrassing." She observed: "You can't address a problem that we don't document. You can't reduce them. You can't prevent them. In essence, they don't exist."

In all, 13 states said they had no way of telling how many pregnant and postpartum women had been killed in recent years.

The states included California, where the Peterson case has flashed across television screens and filled newspaper columns since Christmas Eve 2002, when Laci Peterson, eight months' pregnant, disappeared. Her body was discovered in San Francisco Bay in April 2003.

That year, California for the first time changed its death-certificate process to include a female victim's maternity status, but no data are available yet. In the nation's most populous state, no one can say how many pregnant women like Peterson have been killed.

Three weeks after Peterson disappeared in Modesto, a teenager named Quinnisha Thomas lost her life in Sacramento, 80 miles away. Eight months' pregnant, Thomas, 18, was walking home from a grocery store when her ex-boyfriend shot her in the head at close range because, prosecutors said, he believed fatherhood would get in the way of his music career. "This was a big, major inconvenience for him," prosecutor Mark Curry said.

Other states that say they have no way of counting pregnant and postpartum homicides include Arizona, where mother-to-be Melinda Gonzalez, 20, was found dead in a park when she was three months' pregnant; and Pennsylvania, where Christina Colon, 24, five months' pregnant, was shot and found dead in a quarry.

Dr. Cara Krulewitch, a University of Maryland researcher who has studied maternal deaths in Washington and Maryland, contended that states are not to blame so much as the lack of a national focus.

The FBI collects comprehensive homicide statistics but does not look at pregnancy. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks maternal health but has no uniform way of monitoring maternal killings.

"The system is flawed," Krulewitch said.

One recent year of homicides -- 2002 -- was examined in greater detail to get a closer look at how and why the cases happened. For a group of 72 homicides in 24 states, The Post interviewed family members, friends, prosecutors, and police. The analysis showed that nearly two-thirds of the cases had a strong relation to pregnancy or involved a domestic-violence clash in which pregnancy may have been a factor.

Louis Mizell, who heads a firm that tracks incidents of crime and terrorism, observed that "when husbands or boyfriends attack pregnant partners, it usually has to do with an unwillingness to deal with fatherhood, marriage, child support or public scandal."

Young women may be at more risk than others, several statewide studies suggest -- possibly because of more volatile relationships with young men or less money or greater uncertainty about parenthood. Of women whose cases were researched in detail, 16 of 72 were teenage victims -- or about 1 in 5.

They included Vanessa Youngbear, a 16-year-old cheerleader in Oklahoma who was nearly seven months' pregnant when her former boyfriend, then 18, blasted her with a shotgun. Witnesses said the boyfriend had not wanted to pay child support and had worried that he might face charges of statutory rape if authorities found out he had impregnated a minor.

At any age, "pregnancy is a huge, life-altering event for both the male and the female," said Pat Brown, a criminal profiler based in Minneapolis. "It is certainly a more dangerous moment in life. You are escalating people's responsibilities and curtailing their freedoms."

For some men, she said, the situation boils down to one set of unadorned facts: "If the woman doesn't want the baby, she can get an abortion. If the guy doesn't want it, he can't do a damn thing about it. He is stuck with a child for the rest of his life, he is stuck with child support for the rest of his life, and he's stuck with that woman for the rest of his life. If she goes away, the problem goes away."

Although maternal homicide is only recently drawing notice, considerable research has been done on battering of pregnant women. Studies go back 20 years, and many specialists have come to agree that 4 percent to 8 percent of pregnant women, 160,000 to 320,000 a year, are physically hurt by husbands, boyfriends or partners.

Research shows that for more than 70 percent of abused women, pregnancy does little to change the status quo. For a smaller group, pregnancy brings a peaceful period, when abuse stops. But that is mostly offset by a third group: the 27 percent for whom domestic abuse starts during pregnancy.

Some specialists conclude that pregnancy is more "protective" than dangerous, but McFarlane, of Texas Woman's University, maintains that it goes both ways. "It can be a protective time for an abused woman, but it also can be a very vulnerable time," she said.

Many women endure hitting and shoving in pregnancy -- or choking and threats to kill -- because they want their child to have a father, or because they feel financially dependent or too vulnerable to break away.

The analysis of 72 deaths in 2002 shows that nearly 30 percent were caused by violence that did not seem related to childbearing: drug dealing, robberies, gunfire.

A total of 15 cases started with a missing-person report -- and ended with a body discovered in a remote field or woods. Near Huron, N.Y., a body was found, with no missing-person report. The woman had been seven months' pregnant. Mizell said, "You have to wonder how many missing-person cases happened because she was pregnant."

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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