washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Crime
Maternal Homicide: The Unknown Toll

Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page A01

Their killings produced only a few headlines, but across the country in the last decade, hundreds of pregnant women and new mothers have been slain. Even as Scott Peterson's trial became a public fascination, little was said about how often is happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome.

First of three articles


Christina Colon, 24, was fatally shot this year in Pennsylvania, where her boyfriend is awaiting trial. She was five months pregnant.


_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

TOMORROW

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

_____Multimedia_____
Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
_____Charts_____
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Violence Intersects Lives of Promise (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335

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 truck in Oklahoma. Ana Diaz, 28, was killed in a parking lot in Reston as she stopped to get a friend on their way to work.

They 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, 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 about the baby. 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 year-long 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 invisible, 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.

In the Washington region alone, at least three pregnant women have been killed in the past seven weeks -- one in St. Mary's County, a second in Manassas, a third in Fairfax County. Another pregnant woman was found slain Thursday in Missouri.

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 experts 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 expert 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 experts 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.


CONTINUED    1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company