The Story Behind the Teen Mom Arrested with a Dead Baby in Her Bag
When she was 17, Tiona Rodriguez was arrested for allegedly shoplifting at Victoria's Secret, and cops quickly discovered her third child's corpse in her bag. Now she's facing life in prison in a case that may rest on shaky science.
Illustration by Deshi Deng
It's been a year since Tiona Rodriguez arrived on Rikers Island. That means a year since medical workers at Rosie—as the jail complex's Rose M. Singer Center is affectionately called—removed the implant that was supposed to spare her getting pregnant again. (They replaced it, at her request, with a Mirena IUD.) In the time since her July 2015 indictment, Rodriguez has earned her GED and begun college courses, though what New York City's most reviled mother mostly does is count down the hours until her next visit with her son.
"You don't understand life until you have a child. You don't understand love," Rodriguez told me when I asked about her now five-year-old son Shakim, who she said visits her on weekends and sleeps every night in her old bed. The 20-year-old inmate sports her boy's name tattooed on her right shoulder and brags about him in the manner of mothers everywhere, telling me how he walked the day before his first birthday and as a kindergartener can hold a conversation with anyone.
It's hard to reconcile Rodriquez's evident maternal devotion with her tabloid infamy—as the "teen who carried dead tot into store" almost three years ago, according to the New York Post. On October 17, 2013, the then 17-year-old and her friend were stopped by a security guard in a Manhattan Victoria's Secret on suspicion of shoplifting. According to court documents, the guard opened her bag to find a pair of jeans she later told police were stained with menstrual blood, along with the remains of what she said was a miscarriage. Prosecutors contend it was the body of an eight-pound baby boy who was delivered full-term and alive late the previous morning in the bathtub of a friend's home in Glendale, Queens, and who they claim lived for several minutes prior to being asphyxiated by his mother.
Rodriguez and her lawyers have maintained from the start that the baby was stillborn. Though she wouldn't discuss the specifics of the birth with me when I visited Rikers to ask her about it, she repeatedly insisted she hadn't known she was pregnant—in part because the etonogestrel rod she'd had implanted in her upper arm is among the most effective methods of birth control in the world.
While being treated at Bellevue Medical Center after getting caught with the baby in her bag, she told a detective she gave birth in a bathtub with the water running. Thirty-odd hours later, Rodriguez and her friend were arraigned on charges of petit larceny and possession of stolen property, misdemeanor offenses that were quietly dismissed before the end of the year. The baby's corpse now lies in the sprawling Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx. His tiny gravestone bears no name. NYPD detectives and investigators from the DA's office, the Daily News reported, attended the funeral.
Rodriguez's lawyer would not comment on the case, but prosecutors say she delivered another baby alone in her own bathtub the year before giving birth to the infant she's accused of killing—just one year after her son Shakim was born at Brooklyn's Woodhull Hospital. That first delivery—Shakim's—was unexpected and unmedicated, the first inkling anyone in her family had she might be pregnant, prosecutors say.
No one knows what happened to the second child, though prosecutors believe Rodriguez texted her boyfriend throughout the ordeal, let him know the infant was dead, and debated how to dispose of its remains. A similarly callous text exchange with a friend around the 2013 delivery is likely to be a linchpin in the case against her; at one point, the teenager apparently talked about a plan to "dig a hole, put [the baby] somewhere, lol, then we go eat IHOP."
Tabloids basically dubbed Rodriguez a murderer 20 months before she was indicted, and six months before her son's death had even been ruled a homicide by the medical examiner's office. The Post and other outlets generally parroted the prosecution's narrative of a calculating monster devoid of the most basic human instinct to love and protect a helpless child.
What everyone including Rodriguez agrees is that what happened that morning in Queens is unspeakable.
But this story is more complex than a mere tabloid tale. Stillbirth and suffocation can look identical under a microscope, and regardless of her culpability or the callous texts she sent, Rodriguez herself was a victim of circumstance—a teenager who'd given birth three times and essentially been constantly pregnant since age 14, a child who tumbled through every possible crack before landing on Rikers. Her alleged crime is awful to contemplate, but it is also one only committed by the desperate. As forensic pathologist and infanticide expert Gregory Davis told me, "I have yet to see a wealthy white woman get charged" with killing a child she claimed was stillborn.
What everyone including Rodriguez agrees is that what happened that morning in Queens is unspeakable. I'm not sure someone who's never given birth can even begin to imagine the horror of doing it alone in the bathroom, or of ripping a blood-slick umbilical cord between their bare hands. I know I couldn't imagine it before I had my own son. Even in early labor, the contractions felt like a meat grinder made of my body was grinding itself into hamburger—a pain that bled quickly into raw, animal fear.
The love I felt for my son was like that, impossible to convey to someone who has not felt it. As a mother I could hear the same love in Rodriguez's voice when she spoke about Shakim—which she did, at length, her eyes alighting on this or that child in the visiting room whose hair or voice or smile reminded her of her own.
"That's what scares me the most, that I'll lose him forever," she told me.
This was not the soulless "blank-eyed" baby-killer the Daily Beast described at excruciating length after her shoplifting arraignment in 2013, nor the "adept" pregnancy-hider from the New York Times account of her murder indictment. It certainly wasn't the infant-hating woman I feared would recoil from me because I'd been forced by one of those banal crises of working motherhood to schlep my own eight-month-old along on the 9-to-5 round trip trek that is a Rikers visit—or else lose the only day I could wrangle free to meet before her next court date.
My son was hardly the only young child in the visitor's room. In fact, we were surrounded by kids, among them a kindergartener who clung to her incarcerated mother at the table beside us, a newborn asleep in the arms of the visitor just behind her seat, and a preschooler in braids like the ones Rodriguez used to weave for her son plopped down in the seat behind mine. Scores pass through the island each day, their diapers sniffed for drugs and their onesies patted down for contraband. I brought mine because I didn't have another place to leave him, and because unlike many of the places my work takes me, I knew we would be safe there.
The first question I asked Rodriquez was how a mother who loved her son like I did could end up where she was. Though I returned to the question several times over our hour-long interview, I left no closer to understanding how she could have killed her own child than when I'd arrived. Instead, I was haunted by a new question.
What if she didn't?
The New York City Housing Authority complex where Tiona Rodriguez lived with her family before her first arrest is probably best known as the place where Jay-Z grew up. These days, the Marcy Houses are neither the worst nor the best of the city's sprawling public housing projects. But with boutique coffee roasters encroaching from the gentrified blocks to the south and slick Kosher grocers catering to the Satmar Hasidim who've moved here from Williamsburg to the north, it's about as far a cry from "Murder Marcyville" as it is from Mayberry.
The other defining characteristic of these baby-killers is that very often nobody knows they're pregnant until they go into labor—frequently not even the mothers themselves.
That apartment in Bed-Stuy is the home Rodriguez told me she longs for every morning just after she wakes up and realizes she's locked up in Rosie. Her homesickness is second only to her longing for her son, whom an uncle said still lives there with her mother, Marissa.
Before her initial arrest, Rodriguez confirmed, she was a student at the nearby Williamsburg Charter Academy High School, just blocks from the hospital where she first gave birth in 2011. She described her relationships both at the school and at home as warm, but what little she would say about childhood made her early life sound difficult. Though she insisted she knew she could get pregnant at 14, Rodriguez described her circumstances as too chaotic for her to care about it at the time. She said her son's father was a neighbor about her age, and that the baby had been named for him.
Rodriguez added that she nursed Shakim until he was six months old, despite the excruciating pain many mothers will recognize that still made her wince and clutch her arms over her chest when she spoke about it. If she is convicted of the sole offense with which she is charged—murder in the second degree—Shakim will be his mother's age before her minimum sentence is up.
"There is perhaps no victim more defenseless than a newborn child," the Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, declared when he announced Rodriguez's indictment. "I am confident that the experienced homicide and child-abuse prosecutors in my office will see that justice is served in this tragic case."
But what exactly counts as justice for baby Rodriguez looks dramatically different in the United States than it does almost anywhere else in the developed world. According to experts and academic sources, the defining characteristic of women who kill their newborns is that they aren't women at all, but teenage girls. Like Rodriguez, they are almost always poor and living with parents. Also like her, most give birth outside a hospital and have no prenatal care.
Prosecutors contend that Rodriguez deliberately hid her pregnancies from those closest to her while calculating a cold-blooded murder, but she told me she had no idea she was pregnant in 2013—a fact most women who have ever been pregnant will find hard to believe. But a 2013 international review of recent neonaticide studies published in Aggression and Violent Behavior finds "denial of pregnancy"—the belief that one is not pregnant until the evidence is an irrefutable infant—is actually quite common. According to the study:
The pattern of delivery in these neonatal women is highly consistent. The young women, often in some state of denial even during the delivery, experience cramps, and believe they have indigestion or flu. Over a period of hours between remaining in bed and attempting to have a bowel movement, a newborn is produced. Sometimes over the course of hours they may realize they are in labor, but sometimes denial continues until they are presented with an actual newborn.
In this case, part of the reason Rodriguez didn't know she was pregnant, she said, is that she had no reason to think she could get pregnant—she was on birth control.
Rodriguez explained she was given her first dose of the injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera at the Mount Sinai medical office on Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn just six weeks after Shakim was born, a testament to the fact that both she and her doctors were eager to prevent another pregnancy. As many as 20 percent of teen mothers in New York City use no form of birth control at all postpartum, and many breastfeeding mothers avoid hormonal methods until their babies are weaned. By contrast, Rodriguez said she continued with several courses of Depo before deciding she couldn't stand the side effects. (She told me it made her hair fall out.) It's not clear precisely when her second birth fell along this timeline, but it's almost certain she was already pregnant with her third baby, the one she's accused of murdering, when the etonogestrel implant was slipped under the skin over her bicep.
I asked her how she felt when she discovered she was expecting again despite all her precautions.
"It was a shock," she said.
Shock, too, is common among girls who kill their newborns, according to the Aggression and Violent Behavior study. "The response is then often an immediate one, given the breakdown of the denial, into an act to undo the product," as though a baby were a Snapchat profile you could delete from your phone.
It's precisely because the response is so consistently irrational, so grossly incompatible with our most basic concept of motherhood, so statistically isolated to the young and traumatized, that most countries don't treat these acts as murders. The United States is virtually alone among developed countries in lumping mothers who kill their newborns together with domestic homicides and drug shootings in its criminal justice system.
"The contrast between the way infanticides and neonaticides are handled legally in the United States compared to the rest of the world is striking," wrote the author of the 2013 review. "If it is argued a mother killing her child is so blameworthy that no special legal consideration need be given, it ignores the well-documented psychological and physiological changes that exist. To ignore these phenomena also begs the question why other countries acknowledge such changes in mothers with neonates."
According to the study, roughly 50 countries have special charges for mothers who kill while "not fully recovered from the effects of giving birth or the effects of lactation" that are more forgiving than murder. The authors argue that an even more fine-grained distinction should be made between mothers who kill children less than a year old and those who kill babies in their first day of life, the latter being almost invariably adolescents whose "cognitive and cortical functions are still in a state of development."
"The science on this is very fuzzy in 2016." —Thomas Andrew, former New York City Medical Examiner
Regardless, what today is tried as murder in the US would be charged as a lesser offense in Canada, where infanticide carries a maximum of five years behind bars. If convicted, Tiona Rodriguez could spend the rest of her life in prison.
All of which assumes the prosecution is correct and Rodriguez killed her child— a supposition many experts say could rest on shaky science.
Statistically speaking, the day a baby is born is the day it is most likely to die. More than a million babies worldwide die on the first day of their lives, a quarter of them from labor complications. While 98 percent of those deaths take place in developing countries, the United States leads the industrialized world for infants who breathe their last breath within 24 hours of their first—almost 11,300 a year. In 2013, when Tiona Rodriguez's son was found dead, nearly 400 newborns died in New York City alone, meaning infant deaths outnumbered murders by at least 44 tiny bodies.
"We all want children to be born alive and healthy and happy and fulfilled. Sometimes when that doesn't happen, we want somebody to blame," said Dr. Davis, the neonaticide expert, who's based at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Often, that blame falls on the mother, he told me, though he warned that "just because you don't like the mom, doesn't make her a criminal."
Davis couldn't speak specifically to Rodriguez's case. But he said part of the reason he's never seen—in his 30 years of medical practice—a woman of means charged with killing a baby she claimed was born dead is that proving a baby has ever lived when the sole witness says otherwise is "virtually impossible."
"Unless there's food in the stomach, like milk, or unless there are bruises around the mouth and gums that can show pinching of the mouth and nose shut, there is really no way to diagnose live versus stillbirth" from an autopsy alone, he told me.
Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner for the state of New Hampshire and a veteran of the New York City Medical Examiner's Office who served for six years in the 1990s—at the tail-end of an era when annual homicides sometimes numbered in the thousands—agreed. Like Davis, he couldn't speak specifically to Rodriguez's case, but said he'd seen many like it in his years as a death investigator.
"The science on this is very fuzzy in 2016," he told me. "As a matter of fact, as science has improved, the question has become more murky."
In the absence of clear trauma, some experts still debate the value of laboratory tests to tell stillbirth and homicide apart. Yet many medical examiners still use scientifically contested methods to rule an infant death a homicide. The New York City Medical Examiner's Office can only share the cause and manner of death—homicide by asphyxiation—not how the examiner reached their conclusion, so it's impossible to know before trial precisely what tests or evidence were brought to bear.
But among the most common is an old method called the hydrostatic or "float" test, which involves dropping a lung in liquid, sometimes with a piece of liver as a control. In theory, the lungs of someone who has drawn breath will float. But the physical pressure of a fast birth can force air into the baby's lungs, and almost any degree of decomposition can create the same effect. Other tests can be similarly inconclusive.
All this leaves pathologists only circumstantial evidence to tease criminal intent from tragedy.
"Every medical examiner who's been practicing for any length of time has been faced by a case like this," Andrew explained. "These are hard, hard cases. The defense is inevitably stillbirth—Yes, I gave birth to the baby, but the baby was dead."
Neither the district attorney nor the medical examiner's office could tell me why it took six months to rule the baby's death a homicide, nor why no charges were filed in connection with the killing for another year. But in Andrew's opinion, "The delay has everything to do with making sure the case is airtight."
"The medical examiner doesn't perform an autopsy and consider that in a vacuum. The history is hugely important," the former NYC medical examiner explained. A witness who heard the baby cry or a pattern of bloodstains at the crime scene might shift the balance, as might texts like the one Rodriguez is alleged to have sent to a friend. Still, Andrews said he "would have to have pretty compelling circumstantial evidence" to call a newborn's death a homicide.
What makes a homicide even more complicated to prove in Rodriguez's case is that poor babies already have miserable mortality rates in New York without any help from their mothers.
A major driver of New York's infant mortality rate is the city's stubborn teen pregnancy rate. Teen births and infant mortality are often in perfect overlapping lines of statistical misery—babies born to adolescent mothers are as much as 50 percent more likely to be born dead or die within weeks than babies born to even slightly older parents.
New Yorkers from the neighborhood around the Marcy Houses where Rodriguez lived with her family are among those most likely to become parents as teens; they bear the brunt of the city's abysmal maternal mortality rate, and as children are among those most likely to die in the first year of life. New York's education department spends an estimated $10 million a year on day care alone for the children of its teen parents, the health department an additional $1.87 million on school-based pregnancy-prevention programs, and yet neither of those initiatives reached Rodriguez despite her obvious need of them.
But it gets worse. The neonatal death rate for New York City babies whose mothers received no prenatal care is 21.2 out of 1,000, making that by far the single greatest predictor of infant mortality regardless of cause. Other major points of correlation include a mother who is overweight or obese, a mother with who is under 18 and anyone living in and around certain high-poverty zip codes. Nationally, one in five children born to a teen mom is her second, third, fourth, or even up to sixth child, and repeat births are also a demerit to survival. In this morbid game of bingo, Rodriguez blacks out the board of risk factors.
"If you were to look at the literature on these kinds of cases, she really fits the profile," Andrew told me.
The problem is, that profile is also a perfect fit for a killer.
Rodriguez is slated to appear in court again in October, three years after she was arrested for shoplifting with the corpse in her purse. Last week, she turned 20, and ten days earlier, her son Shakim turned five, crossing the invisible barrier from the nursery to the school yard.
"I want to have another baby," Rodriguez blurted out suddenly toward the end of our conversation at Rikers. "I want to do it the right way, with a big belly and everything. I want to do all the planning," she added, noting that she hoped her next baby would be a girl.
I was taken aback. What part of pregnancy could she possibly miss given the how the previous ones had turned out? Why put herself through it again, plan a nursery for a child she might never hold? Hadn't her belly swollen enough?
The young mother was adamant.
"I never got that chance," she told me. "Because I never knew."
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Illustration by Deshi Deng