Loudoun authorities hold memorial service for newborn girl found dead in Sterling pond

September 18, 2013

Baby Michelle was buried Tuesday morning in a solemn service, nearly six months after her naked, newborn body was discovered floating in a man-made pond in Sterling. Those who first found her, and those who were later touched by her death, were determined that Baby Michelle be honored with the dignity and love she never knew in life.

After the public ceremony, the Loudoun County investigators overseeing Baby Michelle’s case waited — for a call, an e-mail, a tip, anything that might shed light on what had happened to the newborn.

A day after she was laid to rest, they were still waiting.

She was found on the morning of April 7, a full-term, seven-pound infant whose identity was first defined by a short list of grim autopsy results. The little body revealed no clear cause of death, no certain ethnicity. There was only the poignant fact of an empty stomach, showing she hadn’t lived long enough to nurse.

Months later, despite an investigation and outreach at local schools and community service organizations, the Loudoun County detectives overseeing the case still struggle with unanswered questions. They hosted the memorial service this week to offer consolation to those affected by the baby’s death, to encourage anyone with knowledge of the newborn’s mother to come forward, and to share information that might prevent similar tragedies.

In her 12 years of law enforcement work, Loudoun County Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Petrakos had never worked an unidentified infant fatality case before. For months, she debated several names for the child, wanting to posthumously bestow her some sense of identity. When Petrakos’s older sister, Michelle, died suddenly about a month ago, the convergence of sorrows decided the infant’s name.

As the region grieved the lives lost in Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Petrakos was among the two dozen community members, first responders, volunteer firefighters and sheriff’s deputies who gathered in the powder-blue chapel of Adams-Green Funeral Home in Herndon to mourn the death of one small child.

There was no one at the service who had known or loved Baby Michelle, no one who had held her, no one to share a story or offer words that might convey the impact of her absence.

Instead, the funeralgoers came bearing the weight of their own memories, taking their places quietly and clutching tissues in their fists. There were the local couple who lost their newborn in 1991; the chaplain who was deployed in Iraq when his child was stillborn; the deputy who assigned her sister’s name to another life that had also ended too soon.

They sat in rows facing the altar, where a bouquet of roses tied with pink ribbon laid atop the small white casket, beside a stuffed teddy bear — plush and new, untouched by a baby’s fingers.

Several speakers ascended the podium in turn to address the mourners. Two chaplains shared prayers. A nurse read a poem. One member of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company talked about Virginia’s safe haven law, which offers protection to any mother who wants to surrender a newborn within the first 14 days of his or her life — so long as the baby is safely delivered to an employee of a hospital, emergency room or emergency medical rescue squad; no action will be taken against the parent, according to law enforcement officials.

Emergency Services Chaplain Andrew Young told the mourners that he had arrived at the pond in the CountrySide community minutes after he was first called by the authorities. He was accustomed to seeing officials hustle at a crime scene, he said, so he was surprised to arrive at the pond and find a crowd of first responders and community members standing together, somber and quiet.

“It was a surreal moment for me,” he said. “You could see on the residents’ faces, and on the first responders’ faces . . . they acted as if this child was theirs.”

Young said he found himself deeply shaken by Baby Michelle’s death, even as he attempted to counsel those around him, including the children who lived in the CountrySide community, many of whom expressed concern for the infant’s mother.

“Why did this happen? I know that we’re helpless, I know that we’re sad, I know that we’re angry,” he said. “Saying this is the providence of God seems too easy.”

But in the absence of facts, there is still a fundamental human need to make sense of the senseless, to ascribe some greater comfort to the unknown final moments. Young said he has returned to the CountrySide pond many times and finds solace in the presence of the birds and small animals there.

“Baby Michelle was never really alone,” Young said. “She was with God. She was with God’s creatures. And then we were there.”

Sterling Volunteer Fire Company Chaplain Charles Grant was the first and last to speak at the 45-minute service. The mourners bowed their heads as he offered a parting prayer.

“We pray for Baby Michelle’s mother,” he said. “I pray that the message about the safe haven program will be spread far and wide, so that all mothers will know that they have this as a way, as a choice, so that this will never happen again.”

As the doors were opened and sunlight streamed into the chapel, Petrakos took her place as a pallbearer. She helped carry the little casket to the hearse waiting outside.

After the burial, Petrakos would head back to work. She said she isn’t giving up on the case.

“We put her to rest today,” she said of the baby, “but the investigation isn’t resting.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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