Iowa police chief describes finding missing baby, abandoned in freezing weather

Police Chief Mike Horihan canceled his time off and got dressed for a cold, grim day of searching the interstate. Long underwear. Boots. A heavy jacket. The night before, the temperature had dropped to 11 below zero, a record-setting low in eastern Iowa.

Out there, somewhere in that cold, was a six-day-old baby.

“There was no mention of a quitting time or a giving-up time. I had the impression that everyone was going to be looking until we had exhausted all possibilities,” Horihan said. He is the chief of the three-man police department in West Branch, Iowa.

This was Friday morning, Feb. 7. Early on Thursday, a newborn baby had been kidnapped in Beloit, Wis., allegedly by his aunt. Police had found the aunt, pulled over at a gas station in West Branch. But she didn’t have the baby, and she denied knowing where he was.

So now, more than 24 hours later, police officers and FBI agents were still retracing her route, looking for something terrible: a bundle in a Dumpster or snowy footprints leading into the long grass along the highway.

Kayden Powell, seen here in an undated photo, was found alive in a gray plastic storage bin outside a gas station in eastern Iowa. (Town of Beloit Police Department/AP)

“Realistically, we thought the baby could have been anywhere between Wisconsin and here,” Horihan said in a telephone interview. That was more than 170 miles, of which he was to search a stretch on the north side of Interstate 80.

Before this job, Horihan spent 30-plus years in the Iowa State Patrol, searching highways for runaways or suspects or crime victims. He was rarely the guy who found them. And he knew that they were never in the first place you looked.

This one was in the first place he looked.

It was a BP gas station, the first thing you came to when you got off the highway in West Branch. Behind the station, there was a stack of recycling bins — and a gray-brown plastic tote bin.

“The lid was on it. There was frost on the lid,” Horihan said. He opened the lid and saw a black blanket inside. This was not a load of recycling.

“It was sending up red flags. So I went back into the station. I didn’t open it up any further. And I said to the owner, I says, ‘Is this your container?’ He says, ‘No, I’ve never seen this before in my life.’ ”

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Horihan said.

It looked like he had found the baby, but far too late. The container was sealed. It had been out there all night.

Horihan went back to the bin and carefully opened the lid. “I was opening that container like I was trying to preserve evidence,” he said.

Once the lid was off, he saw that the black blanket inside lay on top of a deep pile of other blankets. Then Horihan heard something.

“It was just a — just a — more than a whimper. I don’t know how to duplicate it without sounding like an idiot. But it was loud enough [so that] you heard it,” Horihan said. He looked around to see if an animal had made a noise nearby. “Am I wanting to find the baby so bad that I’m hearing things?”

Then he heard it again. Horihan looked under the blanket, then turned to yell at his partner, who had the radio.

“I got a baby crying here! Baby crying here!” Horihan yelled. “I found the baby!”

“Infant inside a tote,” the other officer told the dispatcher. “It’s still cryin’ and alive.”

Under the blanket, it turned out, was a thick cocoon of swaddling blankets. And inside the swaddle was the baby, Kayden Powell. He was wearing a white sleeper suit and a little stocking hat. “The container was pretty much filled with either baby or blankets,” Horihan said. He thinks that when he opened the tote, cold air rushed in and startled the child.

The paramedics carried Kayden into their warm truck and unwrapped him. He was alert, with no signs of frostbite, they told the chief. He didn’t even cry very much.

“I’ve got to tell you, it was totally disbelief. It was total surprise, I just could not believe this was happening,” Horihan said. “Even when the baby was crying, I was thinking, how could this be?”

In the days since then, the baby’s aunt — Kristen R. Smith, 31 — has been charged with kidnapping. Charging documents say Smith had falsely claimed to be pregnant and then told others that she had given birth Feb. 5, the day before the kidnapping. Police said they found a prosthetic pregnancy belly in her car.

In West Branch, Horihan said he’s been thinking about it since.

“I keep on wondering. And I keep on thinking. And I wonder, how could the baby survive? It must have taken a right combination of the right type of clothes on the baby” and the right placement of the bin, he said. Although the bin was outside, it was behind a building, out of the wind.

“And there must have been just enough air” inside, Horihan said.

In the excitement after the baby was found, Horihan had a reminder of the conditions that the infant had lived through.

He ran back to his car to get a camera so he could photograph the baby in the bin, before paramedics arrived and disturbed the evidence. But he couldn’t.

“It was so cold, the battery in my camera wouldn’t work,” Horihan said.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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