By: Joe McGinty, CCS Contributor
In the early morning hours of Mother’s Day, May 11, 1986, a man in Needham, Massachusetts would make a disturbing discovery inside of a trash barrel as he searched for recyclable bottles at Claxton Field, a local playground in the community. Wrapped inside of a local supermarket shopping bag was the deceased remains of an infant baby girl with her umbilical cord still attached. The Needham Police Department in conjunction with the Massachusetts State Police from the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office, would launch a widespread investigation into who was responsible for the infant’s death. Authorities would quickly focus on several leads in the course of their investigation and an exhaustive search of local area hospitals was conducted for evidence of a woman seeking medical treatment for symptoms related to delivering a child. In the days following the infant’s discovery, heartbreak and anguish would sweep the community. A member of the local clergy would posthumously baptize the infant girl as “Fredericka Mary”. An autopsy would conclude the full-term, four pound seven ounce infant was alive at the time of her birth and most likely died from exposure. The case was classified as a homicide by authorities investigating her death.
Unfortunately, over the course of a few weeks, the case of Fredericka Mary, once a major story in the Boston media, would slowly fade away. The police investigation would remain open on an inactive basis for the next several decades.
I first became aware of the case of Fredericka Mary in early 2006 while reading a book by author Lisa Brems entitled, “Policing Needham, A Story of Suburban Cops”. As a journalist for the Needham Channel News, the town’s local cable television station, I was intrigued by this unsolved mystery from twenty years earlier. How could a horrific tragedy of an infant being discarded in a trash barrel in one of Boston’s most ideal suburbs simply disappear from the public conscious and receive only a few weeks of media attention? On May 11, 2006, the twentieth anniversary of Fredericka Mary’s death, The Needham Channel News aired a short story reminding the community of the homicide that had taken place two decades earlier. With Baby Safe Haven Laws becoming popular throughout the country, I figured we would generate a tremendous amount of interest in the investigation by revisiting the story. Unfortunately, our story gained little to no attention in town. Social Media was in its infancy but our story on Fredericka Mary’s murder quickly faded away as it had previously done twenty years earlier.
For the next six years, I would intermittently research this case to see if new leads had developed or if someone had come forward with information. Not privy to the police reports only available to law enforcement officials, I obtained a copy of Fredericka Mary’s death certificate at Needham Town Hall. The official cause of death would be listed as “Unattended Birth” and the name on the death certificate would read, “Baby X”. While the infant was baptized as Fredericka Mary, she was effectively a “Jane Doe” in legal terms. I would spend countless hours at the Needham Library searching through old microfilm and microfiche following the investigation in the newspapers of the time as the story unfolded trying to pinpoint why the attention surrounding this once major homicide investigation had simply stopped.
While I could not definitely determine why the case seemingly went cold in terms of the official police investigation, through my research I was able to reach a hypothesis that might explain why the investigation vanished from the newspaper headlines of the time. Fredericka Mary’s death coincided directly with two of the biggest news events of the twentieth century that would dominate headlines for the foreseeable future.
Three and a half months prior to Fredericka Mary’s death, the Space Shuttle Challenger would explode 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986 claiming the lives of local teacher turned astronaut, Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts. The investigation of the Challenger accident would last several years, but in the immediate aftermath following the accident, the headlines of the time were focused on how space exploration for the United States now seemed in jeopardy.
Sixteen days prior to Fredericka Mary’s death on April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union would produce the largest nuclear disaster to date. Cloaked in secrecy, the leaders of the Soviet Union down played the nuclear accident until large levels of radiation started to appear throughout Europe in the weeks following the explosion. As the magnitude of Chernobyl became apparent, the enormity of the disaster and the political fallout would begin to dominate media coverage around the world – including the greater Boston area.
While it would be simple to draw a direct correlation between these two events as the sole reason Fredericka Mary’s murder vanished from the headlines, it can not be definitely proven – although it most likely played a contributory cause. The simple fact is that Fredericka Mary had no immediate family or next of kin to keep her story alive in both the public eye and the media. Whatever family she did have evidently did not cherish her welfare as she was left to die, exposed to the elements and abandoned in a trash barrel.
Myself and Needham Channel News Director, Natalie Guthrie, decided we needed to revisit the original story we aired from 2006 and bring the case back into the public spotlight. On March 19, 2012, I contacted the Needham Police Department and requested an interview to inquire on the status of the homicide investigation. Armed with the research I had obtained from the previous six years, I wanted to find out exactly where the investigation stood on this case from a law enforcement perspective after nearly 26 years. I was not sure what to expect. One of the challenges I felt that could derail my interview request was that in the time since Fredericka Mary’s discovery at Claxton Field, many of the police officers from the original investigation had retired or passed away. However, I also knew that in that same time span, DNA analysis and forensic testing had undergone major advancements and were now commonplace in police investigations involving murder. Was there evidence collected from the crime scene at Claxton Field that could be subjected to modern forensic testing?
With social media an integral part of journalism, I was confident we could attract much more attention to the story in hopes of someone coming forward with evidence or with a key piece of information that could assist investigators in this now cold case. After several weeks, I received a phone call from Needham Police Chief Philip Droney on May 4, 2012. In our ten minute discussion, Chief Droney informed me that based on my inquiry to the Needham Police Department on the status of the case, the investigation was reopened by both the Needham Police Department and the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office. The evidence and the reports from the original investigation from 1986 would receive a fresh look from investigators. On May 8, 2012, Natalie Guthrie and I interviewed Chief Droney at the Needham Police Station to discuss the status of the investigation. The following is the story we aired on The Needham Channel News based on that interview and the research I conducted on the investigation.
Additional Links on the Case: