Why Killer Women Steal Fetuses
There have been 45 fetal abductions in recent decades, and an expert on such cases says the one thing they have in common is not what you’d think.
Warning: This story contains details that may be disturbing.
The case of a mother and daughter who allegedly strangled a Chicago teenager and cut out her fetus is at least the 45th instance of this type of crime—which is usually fueled by desire for attention or fear of losing a male partner, according to an expert who has studied the phenomenon for years.
These fetal abductions are so brutal—and so easily solved—that conventional wisdom holds that the perpetrators must be psychotic, plunged into mental illness by a recent miscarriage or a long struggle with infertility.
Not so, says Theresa Porter, a psychologist with Connecticut Valley Hospital and an authority on female-perpetrated violence.
“Women are human and have the potential to be really good or really evil,” she told The Daily Beast.
In the Chicago case, police say Clarisa Figueroa, 46, and her daughter Desiree lured 19-year-old Marlen Ochoa-Lopez to their home and choked the life out of her with a coaxial cable. They then allegedly used a butcher knife to slice open her uterus and remove the baby, who suffered severe brain damage in the process. Ochoa-Lopez’s body was found stuffed in the family’s trash bin weeks later by police investigating her disappearance.
Investigators say Figueroa’s adult son died last year of natural causes, and soon after she announced she was pregnant—despite having had her Fallopian tubes tied—and began posting ultrasounds and asking for baby clothes.
It was, police said, a very calculated crime, which comes as no surprise to Porter.
Porter started researching violence committed by women in the 1990s, when she was studying psychology and was troubled by the black-and-white narrative that society seemed to present: men were the perpetrators, women were the victims.
“I worked in federal prisons and saw women who had committed violent and aggressive crimes,” she said. “Society forgets that women are people who have the potential to be good and bad.”
In 2010, after publishing an article on infanticide, she dove deep into a particular strain of crime: women who assaulted or killed other women before performing crude C-sections and presenting the baby as their own.
The first case Porter examined was Norma Jean Armistead, a California maternity ward nurse who was arrested after she checked into the hospital with a newborn baby who, it turned out, had been cut out of a woman found stabbed to death. Police searching Armistead’s apartment found an 8-month-old baby; Armistead had abducted the girl from a maternity ward after telling the patient she’d had a stillbirth.
“It took months for the parents of the first baby to get the baby back, having to wait for blood tests,” Porter said. “This case stays with me because it showed the persistence that Armistead had to obtain her goal, escalating from kidnapping to murder.”
Porter said the idea that infertility or miscarriages drive women like Armistead to commit such murders makes no sense.
“Infertility affects about 9 percent of women of childbearing age in the world,” she said. “If infertile or miscarried women are somehow crazed because of that, we should see women running amok doing more of these crimes. It doesn’t make sense to think of this as maternal instinct.”
Such ideas, she said, underscore a deeply ingrained view of women and crime. “The first thing we look for is a mitigating circumstance,” she said. “We say, ‘She must be crazy.’ But we don’t do that to a male. It’s odd to me, this stereotyping women as harmless.”
Porter said there are two motivations that have emerged in these grisly cases.
“One is forcing a male partner to stay,” she said.
That was the case with Brooke Crews, who admitted she sliced out Savanna Greywind’s baby in North Dakota in 2017 because she was afraid of losing her boyfriend after presenting him with a faked pregnancy test and sonogram.
The second motive: the attention that comes with being an expectant and then new mother.
Much of that is driven by societal norms that suggest a woman’s worth is derived from motherhood. “That becomes a tool in a means to an end,” Porter said. “There’s a weird sort of temporary cultural prestige to being pregnant.”
Some of these killers are having an identity crisis fueled by the feeling of being forgotten or overlooked. It makes having a child, by whatever means necessary, attractive or almost compulsory.
Sometimes the suspect also has help. Brooke Crews’ boyfriend covered up Greywind’s murder and misled her family and police. And Jacqueline Williams brought her boyfriend and cousin with her when she killed Deborah Evans outside Chicago in 1995.
But in every case Porter has researched, the person actually taking the baby from the womb is a woman—and that is not the only commonality.
For example, the women she has studied are all under 50 and heterosexual.
“I haven’t had a case of a lesbian who told her partner ‘I’m pregnant’ to keep her partner,” Porter said. “This [crime] is a tool to keep a male.”
Most of the suspects went to great lengths to fake pregnancies, just like police say Figueroa did.
“They don’t just come home with a baby,” Porter said. “They claim to be pregnant, sometimes for more than 9 months.” The biggest unanswered question is why close family and friends simply go along with these far-fetched narratives; in Figueroa’s case, her tubes had been tied, making a pregnancy all but impossible.
Many of the women throw baby showers, post Facebook and Instagram announcements counting down to the delivery day, and document a new nursery or toys and clothes. Figueroa fits this description: Police say she joined a social media group seeking donated baby items and posted photos of the crib she got for “her” baby.
Technology has made it easier for women to carry off the ruse.
“A lot of them will go to fakeababy.com,” Porter said, pointing to tools to create fake sonograms and obtain bogus documents like birth certificates.
They also dress the part, wearing maternity clothes that advertise a pregnancy and seem out of step with current maternity fashions that look more like everyday womenswear. “It’s a performance marker, costuming for this con,” Porter said.
It’s no surprise that the pregnancies are so meticulously documented; many of the women have a have a history of lying or being involved in fraudulent schemes.
What they don’t have is a history of violent crime.
“You can’t trust what they say,” Porter said. “They’re not impulsive, though—they’re very well thought out. Most of them have a tool or weapon [to commit the crime].”
As conniving as they might be, these women do trip up; they forget they will need a government document or they don’t behave like a woman who has just given birth. Figueroa, police noted, dropped Ochoa-Lopez’s baby off at the hospital when he struggled to breathe, but then didn’t come to check on him.
Another tic: The new “moms” often don’t refer to the baby as a “he” or “she,” but rather an “it.”
“They think of it as a tool and an object,” Porter explained.
One aspect that puzzles Porter after years of studying these cases is the fact that it’s a “highly” American crime.
“I have some cases in South Africa, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico,” Porter said, scrolling through her list. But she has no documented cases in Europe or Asia. She also isn’t sure if the 1974 Armistead case is the first documented case of a woman committing the crime in the U.S., or if it had been committed before and we simply have no proof.
She’s struck by just how physically vicious the killings are. There’s usually a strangling, suffocation, stabbing, or shooting before the amateur C-section. One case that sticks with Porter is the 1987 murder of Cindy Ray; her killer, Darci Pierce, cut her open with car keys. Tiffany Hall drowned Jimella Tunstall’s three children before killing her and her unborn child in Illinois in 2016. In a 1995 Chicago-area case, pregnant mom Deborah Evans’ two small children were also murdered before the killers took a pair of scissors to her.
The brutality, however, is often counterproductive. Killing the mother cuts oxygen to the fetus, leaving the baby’s life at risk.
Yet a few women—and their babies—have survived these attacks.
Teka Adams was lured to Veronica Deramous’ Maryland apartment in 2009 by the promise of baby clothes, held hostage for days and beaten before a bungled attempt to remove the baby.
“The pain was so excruciating that it got to a point where I just couldn't even feel it anymore,” Adams later said.
She eventually escaped with her placenta and intestines hanging out, but her life intact. She named the baby Miracle Sky.
Another common thread is women being enticed with the promise of baby items.
In 2011, Pamela Causey-Fregia, who thought a baby would stop her husband from leaving her, went to a Louisiana hospital in search of pregnant women and offered 22-year-old Victoria Perez baby clothes. Back at her house, she attacked Perez with a hammer and buried her in the woods after failing to take the baby; Causey-Fregia’s children witnessed the slaying and tipped off police several years later. An offer of free baby furniture and diapers led Margarita Lopez into the clutches of Josephina Saldana in Fresno, California, in 1998; her dismembered remains were scattered around southern California and Mexico.
Porter said those circumstances are a reminder that pregnant women should never go alone to pick up items from a stranger.
“Just because they’re women doesn’t mean they’re safe,” she said. “They wouldn’t meet a man all by themselves; they shouldn’t with a female.”