Woman abandoned in car 26 years ago seeks answers to past
Posted April 9
JERRY CITY, Ohio — A snippet of shoestring is one of the only clues to Jamie Smith's mysterious birth 26 years ago.
On March 24, 1991, she was found in the back seat of an unlocked sedan in Fostoria. She appeared on the plush upholstery as if dropped by a stork one Sunday afternoon.
The unexpected bundle contained a pastel blanket, a blue towel, a boyish striped shirt sized for a kindergartner, and a quiet, 6-plus pound baby girl.
She was a couple days old and likely recently fed. A bit of string tied off her umbilical cord.
Those few threaded inches link Smith to her secret past, which she's trying to unravel as she searches for her birth mother.
"I've always wanted to know more. I've always wanted answers. I just run through scenarios in my head," she said.
Those yearnings become more poignant this time of year.
Smith's documented life began as Baby Jane Doe, the moniker scrawled on the birth record at Fostoria City Hospital, where she was taken after being discovered.
Her birth certificate, filed later under the name Lisa Baby Doe, approximated her birth date between March 21 and March 24. She spent four months in foster care before her adoptive parents took her home to Jerry City, a Wood County village of about 400 people.
LeeAnn and Dale Smith still live in the house where they raised their daughter from a happy baby they named Jamie Lee to a toddler with a cloud of blond ringlets to the poised young woman now looking for answers.
They chose March 21 to celebrate her birthday because that marked the first day of spring that year. Her grandmother even calls her chickadee.
"I've tried to make it so clear to all my family I don't feel like I'm missing anything. I have a very wonderful family. I have loving parents and grandparents," Jamie Smith said. "I just want to know why. Why? Maybe they were facing some really horrible things."
The first questions she would ask her biological mother are heart-breakingly simple — the basic building blocks that form a sense of identity. When was she born? Where?
"If she's thought about me," she said. "If she thinks about me this week in March."
LeeAnn and Dale Smith support their daughter's search, which recently spread throughout the country when she posted on Facebook a plea for information that has been shared by nearly 10,000 people.
"I think she deserves to know where she came from, I really do. I think everybody deserves to know that," LeeAnn Smith said. "I'm hoping that it works out well for her, but in my heart I don't think it's going to. I just think it's going to be ugly. . I mean there's a reason they did what they did."
"She just wants closure," Dale Smith said.
Baby Jane Doe appeared in the back seat of Norma and Kenneth Drake's car mysteriously, suddenly, and with barely a trace as to her origin.
On that spring day in 1991, the Drakes, then approaching retirement, were enjoying a Sunday after church. About noon, Kenneth Drake and their college-age son went to a coin show at the UAW Hall in Fostoria and returned home to Courtly Drive, a residential street just off U.S. 23 on the city's Wood County side.
They settled into a typical weekend routine. Kenneth Drake watched sports on television. Norma Drake, an elementary school teacher, worked on report-card grades.
Their unlocked car was parked in the open garage until about 2:45 p.m. Police said it was during this time that they believe the baby was placed in the back seat.
Kenneth Drake discovered the infant about 6 p.m. after driving a few minutes to the Food Town store.
Perplexed, he drove to the home of a relative who had recently had a newborn. But any fleeting thought that this could be a strange mix-up or practical joke soon dissolved when he discovered nobody knew anything about the baby left in his back seat.
He called his wife.
"The phone rang. Here I sent him to the store for popcorn, he got on the phone and he said, 'Norma, are you going with me or not? I'm going to the police station,' "Norma Drake remembered. "He said, 'Someone put a baby in the back of my car.' "
Norma Drake said her husband was so shaken he couldn't write the police report.
"It was like a dream or a nightmare. It was unbelievable. We were in shock," she said.
The police took the baby to the Fostoria City Hospital, where medical staff found her to be in good health and guessed she had recently been fed.
"She just had on a diaper and (was) wrapped in a blanket and a little boy toddler T-shirt was thrown in the mix, but why she never cried I cannot figure it out," Norma Drake said. "She never uttered a sound."
Soon after the Drakes returned home, police descended on the neighborhood. Investigators canvassed the street, stopped at every house, and interviewed residents and their guests.
Speculation swirled about who abandoned the baby, when, and why.
"They never really got any leads," said Barb Reineck, who still lives on Courtly Drive and remembers the hunt.
Norma Drake has no idea if she and her husband were picked on purpose or by chance.
Police suggested that perhaps a former student who trusted her had left the child for her to find, but that suspicion never panned out. Another theory: A stranger driving down the highway spotted the open garage door and seized the opportunity.
Investigators dusted the car for fingerprints. The makeshift umbilical cord tie made authorities think the mother delivered the baby outside a hospital, so they alerted medical centers to check for any women suffering from childbirth-related problems.
LeeAnn Smith said two women tried to claim the baby, but police quickly ruled them out.
The last time she recalls any contact with police was in September of 1992, when she asked for the items left in the car along with the baby.
She meticulously saved every scrap to document what she could of her adopted daughter's life: From the earliest hospital photos and a tiny box of baby teeth to the foster parent's handwritten log detailing her eating and sleeping habits.
The sheriff's office gave her the shirt and shoelace, which LeeAnn Smith keeps tucked inside a plastic film canister. She also has the blanket and towel, though investigators cut out swatches from both to preserve as evidence.
The detective who handled the case died 11 months ago.
In the days following the abandonment, the sheriff's office said the mother could face a first-degree misdemeanor charge of child endangering.
It would be another decade before Ohio enacted a Safe Haven law that gives legal amnesty to birth parents who drop off newborns with an official at a hospital, fire station, or law enforcement agency.
In the last eight years, since Ohio instituted a statewide reporting system, parents voluntarily surrendered 37 newborns. No babies were left in Wood County during that period, while Lucas County had four infants.
Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said he highly doubts the biological mother in this case would face criminal charges more than 20 years later, and Jamie Smith doesn't want anyone to get in trouble or to be shamed.
Norma Drake keeps in touch with the little girl who entered her life so dramatically and abruptly. Jamie Smith gives her a card each year on the date of her discovery, and they meet to chat.
"There's such a yearning to know. You've just got to know, and I hope the mother comes forward and doesn't feel like she's going to be condemned, because she might even be afraid to come forward if nobody knows," Norma Drake said.
LeeAnn Smith saw her daughter for the first time on a local television news report.
She and her husband had been trying to adopt a child, and had already completed many of the necessary steps.
Her reaction to the unclaimed newborn girl was swift and certain.
"'That's going to be my baby.' I called my caseworker right away and said, 'What do we do?' " she said.
After a stay in foster care and months of waiting they picked up their daughter.
"That ride home was something else," Dale Smith said. "She screamed the whole way."
Everyone was smiling on a June day in 1992, when the Smiths officially adopted their daughter in the courtroom of Judge Robert Pollex. It was the couple's 13th wedding anniversary.
Judge Pollex gave the Smiths a framed plaque with a poem. It hangs in the family living room, and hearing the sentimental words about a mother's love for her adopted child still makes Jamie Smith's grandmother sob.
"They waited so long to get one, and all of a sudden this one shows up. This was meant to be," said Gloria Snyder, LeeAnn Smith's mother.
Abandonment cases like Jamie Smith's are rare, said former probate Judge Pollex, who retired last year from the common pleas court.
"It makes it tough on her because you've got nothing to go on," he said.
A few years later, the Smiths adopted a son through a more conventional adoption. They chose to be open and honest with their children about their adoptions, and Jamie Smith said she doesn't really remember learning her story for the first time.
Over the years, her desire to know more about her birth mother grew, and she's planning to take DNA tests to try to learn more about her ancestry.
Jamie Smith paints, sketches, and crafts; at Christmas she made snow globes out of mason jars for her regulars at the Bowling Green restaurant where she waitresses.
She wonders if her birth mother also is artistic and would like to know more about her medical history and genetics.
Mostly, she just hopes for answers.
"I know the possibility that they could want nothing to do with me. They could say . 'We left you for a reason,' " Jamie Smith said. "I feel prepared for that because I still have my family. I'm just curious about the second one."