The Garden of Angels; In Death, Discarded Babies Are Adopted by A Stranger

The San Diego Union-Tribune
July 12, 1998, Sunday

Domestic-Church.Com - Vindication - The Garden of Angels

SOURCE: Copley News Service


Editor's Note: Be warned, this article is horrifying, but ultimately beautiful. It's about a woman who on her own time and money retrieves dead, abandoned newborn babies and gives them a name and a resting place in a plot called the Garden of Angels.

It's also about the effect her actions have had on cops, coroners, and everyone else who's come in contact with her activities. Many would say that she's wasting her time, better to help the living. Others would call this story sentimental, pointless drivel. I think it says volumes about the enduring importance and necessity of ritual and the undeniable difference between man and animal.

The nauseating stench of death chokes the air in the "body pickup area" of the county morgue. Debi Faris wears a mask over her nose and latex gloves as she hovers over a small gurney carrying a pint-sized corpse wrapped in plastic from an autopsy and bundled with ropes.

It has become a heart-wrenching routine.

Steeling herself, Faris replaces the dirtied sheeting with clean plastic, and swaddles a tiny body, which was stored for three months in a cold crypt, in a cozy receiving blanket flocked with tiny pastel footprints and handprints.

Slowly and lovingly, she tucks each side of the soft comforter around the newborn who was never rocked to sleep. Then Faris, herself a mother of three, cradles a stranger's dead child and carries it to a 2-foot-long pale pink casket in her Dodge Caravan.

"It's just hard to believe that someone can do that to a human being," Faris says quietly, her eyes teary and her chest heaving.

She snugly wraps the blanketed remains in a crocheted afghan inside the coffin, places a doll and a single yellow rose atop and snaps the lid shut.

At the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, the red-haired, 20-inch girl was tagged Baby Jane Doe No. 21.

Faris named her Grace.

Grace was discovered in March by two 13-year-old boys who saw her body floating face down in 14 feet of water in the California Aqueduct in Palmdale.

Sheriff's deputies initially thought she may have been strangled before being dumped, although they may never know for sure because the body was badly decomposed. Some of her organs were missing, but her lifeline to her mother, the umbilical cord, was still attached.

If Faris hadn't offered to collect Grace — and others before her — she would have been cremated like the other unclaimed bodies at the morgue and unceremoniously put in a common grave.

In death, however, the discarded have been adopted.

Two years ago — in a touching gesture that would eventually extend to all of Southern California and across the country — Faris began burying the children, most of them infants, who, especially in Los Angeles County, turn up with horrifying regularity in trash cans, on roads, on front lawns and on beaches.

Wanting to give the castoffs a name and a dignified funeral, Faris and her husband, Mark, paid $27,000 for 44 small plots in Desert Lawn Cemetery in Calimesa, a Riverside County town along Interstate 10.

Soon, the hardened homicide cops were naming the babies they had plucked out of the rubbish. The detectives came to the services and cried. So did the grizzled coroner's investigator. As many as 150 people with no connection to the little ones showed up to weep and pay last respects.

It seemed to touch everyone.

A group of senior citizens started knitting baby blankets. Local school kids donated money from candy sales to buy toys to put in the caskets. The macho guys from a '50s Ford truck club dedicated their cruise night to raise funds for burial expenses.

Faris called the 44 sites the Garden of Angels, and figured she would never see it filled in her lifetime.

Last month, Grace, the 31st child, was laid to rest.

"The last picture in your mind is that child you took out of the trash bin," Ruedas says with a sigh. "You don't get to see the child being buried or given a name. You know it as a number. You can feel better about it … knowing that this child is being given a place to rest."

Too soon, there was a fourth infant, found by a transient looking for food in a trash can on a Malibu beach.

The week-old baby wore a T-shirt and one blue booty -- the other one he'd apparently kicked off. Faris suddenly felt the need to go to the morgue herself for the boy she named Jordan.

"I was not prepared for what I would see," she says, her voice cracking. " It was such a perfect looking little child. He was in clear plastic, and I remember looking through and seeing the dark head of hair, and these perfect little features and his little foot.

"When I wrapped him in his blanket, I thought as hard as it is to be here, this is where I need to be the most. This may be the only time these children are ever held or touched with any love."

The police and the coroner seemed to call nonstop.

The one time she almost lost her composure, she says, was while wrapping the body of a 7-month-old who had been shaken to death by his parents.

As she was digging deep for extra strength, she suddenly heard what sounded like her favorite hymn. Standing behind, watching over her were 18 coroner's workers, faintly singing, "Amazing Grace."

The tiny plots began filling up. Each was topped by a white cross made by Faris' father, Dale Thurman, that she adorned with a pink or blue heart.

Faris started retrieving babies from the coroner's offices in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, although the bulk … 23 of the 31 … are from Los Angeles.

She plans to contact the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office to care for the seven to 10 unclaimed infants it has each year, or to help someone start a Garden of Angels in the area.

Last month, she contacted Tennessee authorities to make airline arrangements to bring a dead baby found in a Dumpster.

Back home, the interred now include "Patrick," named by the LAPD detective investigating the newborn whom someone strangled with his own umbilical cord.

There is "Michael," a 2-week-old who crawled out of his diaper trying to get to the top of a trash can he was thrown into on Skid Row. A police sergeant named him and sobbed at his memorial.

Why, the cops asked, couldn't he have been left at their nearby station or at a church just a block away?

The oldest child is a 5-year-old thought to have been killed by his parents before being buried in a shallow grave in the San Bernardino woods. The leg of "Jeremiah" was gnawed by wild animals before he was found by hunters.

His grandmother eventually visited his Garden of Angels grave, bringing a tiny red stuffed teddy bear that remains next to his cross today.

When Faris asked if she wanted to move Jeremiah to another cemetery, the grandmother shook her head. "No," she said, "He can be the big brother."

Burly, gruff coroner's investigator Doyle Tolbert is about as tough as they come.

An LAPD and Fullerton police officer for 30 years, he also did three tours in Vietnam. A framed poster of the electric chair hangs on his office wall. It asks: How do you like it … "regular or extra crispy?"

Mention the babies and he melts.

For years, Tolbert, a grandfather who has three grown children, tried to shame anyone he could into burying the abandoned infants so they wouldn't end up in the mass grave at the county's crematory-cemetery in East Los Angeles.

He'd get cops at a precinct to chip in. He'd call local business groups. Once, some schoolchildren in Los Angeles' South Bay scraped together their pennies and dimes to buy a headstone.

"You pick up this perfectly formed child who was born screaming and raising hell and you see one of these cords wrapped around his neck," he says, pointing to the window blinds in his office.

"What did this guy do to deserve this? He was born -- that was it."

His eyes appear misty. He holds up a photo of an adorable, smiling 2-year- old girl. She is "Papa's girl," his granddaughter. The toddler who washed up on the beach was the same age.

About 250 unclaimed John and Jane Does turn up each year at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. About 10 to 15 are children, who like the adults would be cremated after being held at least 30 days.

Some may have been born to panicked teenagers who hid their pregnancy from their parents or to undocumented workers or to homeless women. No one knows for sure, since most would-be caretakers are never found.

Police say there likely are many more infants who aren't discovered, especially the trash-can babies whose final resting place could be a landfill.

Tolbert takes out a paper with the imprints of two teensy baby feet with 10 perfect toes, the kind of memento a mother puts in a baby book. This, though, is a coroner's identification card. It's for case No. 98-02204.

The footprints belong to Grace.

"That brings it home, doesn't it?" he asks, his voice dripping with disgust.

"Someone really hated her, I guess. Not only did they murder her, they threw her into a flood channel."

No one knows how long Grace bobbed in the water like a doll. "What was left weighed 5 pounds," Tolbert says. "There were no eyes

"It's tough when it's so much, so often. It hardly gives you time to catch your breath," Faris woefully says. "But there's no other choice, no other option."

Faris follows behind the slow-moving hearse, which takes about 20 minutes to get to the cemetery. Already, 50 people … some who saw the obituary that Faris puts in the local paper for each child … are gathered in the blazing sun and under a canopy.

A man who showed up last week returns to play his Indian flute during the rites. The owner of the White Wing Ceremony Co., which provides white doves for free each service, is there with her caged birds.

One couple, Maria and Carlos Benavides, the parents of two teen-age sons, drove 40 minutes to bring a plush yellow bunny and a bouquet for a baby they never knew.

Amid the sniffles, there are songs, prayers and a poem for Grace, whose name means "God's blessing."

Garden of Angels volunteer Chris Meelker releases one white dove symbolizing Grace into the blue skies. Faris lets go 30 more doves for the others buried in the garden.

There is pure silence as the grieving crowd watches the single bird circle around and catch up with the others over the nearby freeway. The flutist plays mournfully in the background.

"So sad; I cry all the time," 78-year-old Rosita Alfieri of Banning says afterward. A great-grandmother, she and her friends at her TOPS weight-loss club throw money into a coffee can each week to help the garden.

When everyone is gone, two cemetery workers set the casket into a deep hole in the ground. Faris asks them to bring the coffin back up, so she can slip in the bunny toy that the Benavideses brought and another pale yellow rose.

Five lines of miniature crosses, all overseen by four sculptured angels, sit on a nearby wall. Grace is the start of a new, sixth row.

During the week, townsfolk and tourists who have heard about the babies drop by to leave flowers. Once, a woman who spoke in broken English called Faris for directions. The next day, Nathan's cross and an angel were gone. Police think his mother paid a visit.

Hopefully, Faris says, her work will reach at least one of these moms, who will put an infant up for adoption instead of snuffing out its life. Maybe a parent won't act selfishly; maybe desperation won't close in.

In the meantime, she's looking to buy more cemetery space, for a garden in Los Angeles. It will be closer to the coroner's office.

"It just gets overwhelming," Faris sorrowfully says, staring at what could've been a classroom of kids. "You just think, gosh. I never in my life would've imagined burying 31 children like this."

For more information about the Garden of Angels:

We need to send this lady money.

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