Thursday, July 01, 2004

Infant discovered in back yard of Santa Maria home

Santa Maria Police on Wednesday were trying to determine what led a Oaxacan woman to bury her newborn son under a patch of dirt in her West Polk Street back yard, where the baby was found dead Tuesday night.

Reyna Garcia Hernandez, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was being held without bail Wednesday in Santa Barbara County Jail on suspicion of killing her son and burying him about two weeks ago, behind a shed at her family home in the 700 block of West Polk Street, according to Lt. Larry Ralston of the Santa Maria Police Department.

A shallow grave marks the spot where the body of an infant was discovered Tuesday night at the rear of a home in the 700 block of Polk Street in Santa Maria.//Ed Souza/Staff

Hernandez told police that she disguised her pregnancy as she carried it to term, then secretly gave birth to what she said was a lifeless baby boy in the bathroom of the home she shared with six other people, Ralston said.

She told police that, believing the baby was dead, she placed him in a plastic grocery bag and buried him in an 8-inch hole she dug in the back yard without alerting anybody else at the house, Ralston said.

An autopsy was to be performed today by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, which may show exactly when and how the child died.

Police began investigating the incident Tuesday night when a resident at the home called to complain of a bad odor emanating from a patch of dirt in the back yard, Ralston said. When officers arrived, the resident led them to the location, where the baby's corpse was discovered, he said. Soon after, Hernandez surrendered without incident at the home, he said.

She was first taken for a medical checkup, then booked into the jail. An arraignment in the case will occur Friday at the earliest.

Assistant Public Defender Jim Voysey said he met with Hernandez at jail Wednesday, and it appears likely that his office will represent her if charges are filed.

Hernandez lives in a well-maintained, one-story tract home with family and friends, including her two children, ages 2 and 4, Ralston said.

Hernandez has lived in Santa Maria for about five years, working as a field worker, according to a male cousin living at her house who declined to give his name. The cousin indicated that no one in the house knew she was pregnant and that he did not believe she had a boyfriend or husband.

The suspect's children are staying with a female friend who lives next door. That woman also would not give her name to reporters, but indicated that she'd asked Hernandez if she was pregnant, and that she denied it. The woman added that the suspect was a good mother to her living children.

Neighbors on the quiet street said that they were surprised by Hernandez' alleged act.

Ive Lopez, 16, a Santa Maria High School student lives two houses down from the suspect. She knew several people at the home, but not the suspect.

"I'm scared right now," she said. "I've seen her walking around here, and she seemed nice."

The incident is reminiscent of the case of Juana Orocio, a Mexican national who abandoned her infant son in the trash near her Santa Maria Home in 2001. A jury eventually found her guilty of felony child abuse/endangerment, but acquitted her on a more serious attempted murder charge. She was eventually deported to Mexico and her baby was adopted.

Up to 25,000 Oaxaca natives live in Santa Maria, according to the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front - a political rights group in Fresno.

Oaxaca is an impoverished, rural state in southern Mexico where conservative values prevail, said Leoncio Vasquez, spokesman for the group.

Pregnancies in which the father is not known are rare in the Oaxacan community, according to Vasquez, adding that such a situation could be seen as shameful.

Vasquez also added that if indeed the baby was born deceased, it would not be uncommon for the woman to bury the body herself.

* Staff writer Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at


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