FOR MORE THAN 25 YEARS, WANETA Nixon Hoyt would
drive each Memorial Day to the small cemetery beside her childhood
home in Richford, N.Y., to lay flowers on the graves of her babies.
Over a 6½-year period, from 1965 to 1971, five of them, Eric, Julie,
James, Molly and Noah, ranging in age from just 48 days to 28 months,
had died one by one, victims of what doctors classified as sudden
infant death syndrome (SIDS). Scratching out a modest living in the
farming community of Newark Valley, some 70 miles south of Syracuse,
Waneta, a home-maker, and her husband, Tim, for many-years a security
guard at Cornell University's art museum in Ithaca, were regarded as a
quiet couple who bore stoically their unfathomable loss—though Waneta
occasionally betrayed a flicker of guilt. "She'd say, 'I don't know
what I did wrong,' " recalls former neighbor Georgia Garray. "We used
to tell her, 'You're not a bad mother.' "
Little did they know. On Sept. 11, Tioga County
Judge Vincent Sgueglia sentenced Hoyt, 49, to 75 years-to-life in
prison for "depraved indifference to human life," in this case a
devastatingly apt euphemism for murder. In April an Owego, N.Y., jury
ruled that Hoyt had suffocated each of her children—with pillows, a
towel, even her shoulder. "Five young people aren't here today because
of her," Tioga County prosecutor Robert Simpson told the jury in
closing arguments during the four-week trial. "They would have had
families, jobs. But they don't get that opportunity because their
mother couldn't stand their crying."
Last month, as she contemplated a life behind bars,
it was Waneta Hoyt's turn to weep. Claiming her statement to police—in
which she confessed to the murders—was coerced, she declared after her
conviction, "I didn't kill my babies. I never did nothing in my life,
and now to have this happen?" Suffering from a variety of ailments
including high blood pressure and osteoporosis, and looking far older
than her years, she was comforted by the supportive arm of husband
Tim, 52, and the presence of their surviving, adopted son, Jay, 19.
"Despite the cruelty of her acts," said William Fitzpatrick, district
attorney of neighboring Onondaga County, after viewing Hoyt's
broken-down appearance, "you'd be less than human not to have some
degree of sympathy for her."
It was Fitzpatrick, 48, who first began
investigating Waneta Hoyt. In 1985, while prosecuting a case of murder
originally diagnosed as SIDS, he consulted forensic pathologist Linda
Norton of Dallas. In the course of their conversation, Fitzpatrick
recalls, Norton made an offhand remark: "You know, you have a serial
killer right there in Syracuse."
Norton had read a 1972 medical-journal article by
pediatrician Alfred Steinschneider—Hoyt's physician—describing the "H"
family in which five children had succumbed to SIDS. Norton, an expert
on SIDS, told Fitzpatrick the odds against five such deaths in one
family were incalculably high. She also found it suspicious that the
mother was always alone with the babies when they died.
Shortly thereafter, Fitzpatrick left the
prosecutor's office, but Norton's comments still gnawed at him. And in
1992, when he was sworn in as DA, he immediately began tracking down
the H family, soon identified as the Hoyts. Fitzpatrick pulled the
autopsy records on the Hoyt children and sent them to New York State
Police forensic expert Michael Baden for review. In each case, Baden
told him, the records did not support the stated cause of death. "They
were all healthy children," says Baden. "They had no natural cause for
death. The only reasonable cause is homicidal suffocation."
In fact, as one Hoyt baby after another died, some
health-care professionals did grow suspicious at the time. Four nurses
who testified at Hoyt's trial said that Waneta showed little interest
in the babies. "There was no bonding at all," said Thelma Schneider.
"Most of us went to Dr. Steinschneider and expressed our fears—we had
a gut feeling that something was going on. Either he was in total
denial or not being very objective." Ambulance worker Robert Vanek,
who went to the Hoyt residence when Julie, James and Noah died,
recalled being stunned by the coroner's conclusion that all had died
of SIDS. Says Vanek: "I thought, three in a row? It bothered me." As
for the faulty SIDS postmortem diagnoses, Baden says the children's
bodies were examined not by dispassionate forensic pathologists but by
family physicians. "Doctors," he says, "don't want to think parents
Because the Hoyts lived outside his jurisdiction,
Fitzpatrick turned the case over to Tioga County DA Simpson. In March
1994, New York State trooper Bobby Bleck, a family friend of the
Hoyts, approached Waneta at a local post office and asked for her help
with research he was doing on SIDS. At the station house, Bleck, with
police investigators Susan Mulvey and Robert Courtright, took Hoyt,
step by step, over the official version of her babies' deaths. After
about an hour, Mulvey gently clasped Hoyt's hand and told her they
didn't believe her.
Fifteen minutes later, Waneta Hoyt confessed to
having killed all five children. Her candor was chilling. "I
suffocated Eric in the living room," she began. "He was crying all the
time, and I wanted to stop him....Julie was the next one to die...I
cradled her up to my shoulder...when she quit crying I released her,
and she wasn't breathing." In September 1968, Hoyt said, she was
dressing in the bathroom when a tearful, agitated James tried to break
in on her. "He kept screaming, 'Mommy, Mommy,' " she recalled. "I used
a bath towel to smother him. He got a bloody nose from fighting
against the towel." Molly was next, suffocated with a pillow, at age
2½ months, as was Noah one year later. "I didn't want them to die,"
their mother told police. "I wanted them to quiet down."
Hoyt's life history yields few clues to her
murderous bent. She was the sixth of eight children born to Arthur
Nixon, a Richford, N.Y., laborer, and his wife, Dorothy, a seamstress.
Waneta met Tim Hoyt on a school bus in ninth grade. Two years later,
at 17, she dropped out of high school to marry him, and within nine
months she gave birth to Eric. Forty-eight days later, confessed
Waneta, she killed him. "I asked God to forgive me over and over and
over," said Hoyt, who had sought counseling after the last death.
Despite the explicitness of her confession, Hoyt's
family staunchly supports her claim that police twisted her
description of the deaths into a confession. "She was used like an old
tire," says Tim, now a factory worker. Adds Jay, whom the Hoyts
adopted when he was 7 weeks old and whose crying apparently didn't
bother Hoyt the same way: "I love her, and she shouldn't be here. The
Waneta Hoyt would seem to agree. In the cavernous
Tioga County courthouse last month, she told the court in a barely
audible voice, "God forgive all of you who done this to me." Judge
Sgueglia was not so inclined. He stared at her for a time, then handed
down his sentence. "I only have one thing to say to you," he advised,
"and that is to consider your sixth child.... Whatever you tell this
court, your husband, your God, you owe it to that boy to tell him the
truth." With that, four deputies escorted Hoyt from the courtroom, and
her only surviving child bowed his head and wept.
The head games
killers like Jones and Falling played on those around them raise
another interesting possibility: Did Hoyt tell Dr. Steinschneider
about apnea incidents that never happened? This would explain him
testifying to things that could not be supported by any other evidence
and would seem to fit the behavior patterns of this type of killer.
This case was
portrayed by the media as putting SIDS on trial. It did not. SIDS is a
last resort non-explanation, meaning only that no adequate reason
could be found for an infant's death. Five impossible-to-explain
deaths, all when the victims' mother was alone with them, formed a
pattern that pointed to a known, if equally incomprehensible, cause.
confession sealed the case after more than twenty years of silence.
A Mother Who Lost Five Babies
One after another, Waneta Hoyt's children died.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was blamed. Years later, Hoyt said she
killed them--then recanted. Now, she faces murder trial amid a swirl
By Barry Bearak - Los Angeles
May 22, 1994
NEWARK VALLEY, N.Y. — Between 1965 and 1971, five
healthy babies were born here to a poor woman who seemed to want them
desperately and who mourned each of their deaths with a convulsive
grief that quavered the soul.
At one funeral, Waneta Hoyt fainted after the
lowering of the tiny, pitiful coffin and at another, her body
collapsed with the great force of her sobbing. She had to be helped
away from the freshly turned soil at the graveside.
These family tragedies, one after another, puzzled
friends and relatives as well as the doctors. The deaths were always
sudden, the causes inexplicable. The final two babies spent most of
their short lives in a Syracuse hospital, their every breath monitored
by machines. On occasion, they suffered slightly abnormal pauses in
respiration. Then, like matchsticks lit against an unforgiving wind,
they each died within a day after being sent home.
As a medical case history, this haunting clockwork
of mortality seemed a significant tale to share. One of the hospital's
attending physicians, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, wrote it up for the
noted journal Pediatrics. He went on to become a national expert on
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
That 1972 article was seen as pioneering work.
Pediatricians often cited it as evidence that the unexplained
phenomenon of SIDS may well run in families. Those abnormal pauses in
breathing could be foretellers of a sudden death. If so, SIDS was
possibly preventable with the use of monitoring devices at home.
Those conclusions aside, there was also a second,
starkly contrary view of Steinschneider's report. Some doctors thought
it naive. SIDS cases were too often indistinguishable from smothering.
To them, the repeating catastrophes of this woebegone family read like
the relentless clues in a murder mystery.
It was an arcane, scholarly conflict, easing into
obscurity over the years. But time on occasion has a remarkable way of
turning backflips, the present reaching into the past. That is what
has happened here. A chance remark to a young prosecutor made him look
up the old article and he also began to wonder: Were there awful
secrets afloat in a grieving mother's tears?
Two months ago, 23 years after the death of her
fifth baby, Waneta Hoyt was interrogated by police for the first time.
Questioning went on for almost two hours before something gave way.
The mother then began to confess the details of five suffocations, by
pillows, with a towel, against the soft flesh of her shoulder: "I
could not stand the crying," she told police. "It was the thing that
caused me to kill them all, because I didn't know what to do for
And, for a while, that appeared to be that. Waneta
Hoyt--47, housewife, churchgoer, the mother of an adopted boy now in
high school--was arrested. It added yet another to a peculiar string
of cases, women accused of murdering their babies, the deaths often
first thought to be SIDS.
But now, through her two court-appointed attorneys,
Hoyt has recanted. They say their frail, emotionally scarred client
would have admitted to anything that day merely to end the long
cross-fire of painful questions.
Certainly, that is what her many friends here in
Upstate New York choose to believe. Memories are vivid of Waneta
making her visits to the graves, laying crocuses near the headstones,
pining to give birth to yet another child.
Life may be complicated, they acknowledge, and the
human mind is capable of who knows what. But, really now, could that
woman love her babies so much and then kill them?
Waneta Hoyt was born in nearby Richford, N.Y., the
same birthplace as John D. Rockefeller, himself a pauper who left the
town as a boy and went on to become the wealthiest man in the world.
He would return from time to time and hand out shiny dimes in front of
the general store from his chauffeured car.
In Rockefeller's time, a century ago, this was a
poor, if picturesque, part of America. These days, good jobs are still
scarce in the northern reaches of Appalachia. Tim Hoyt, Waneta's
husband for the last 30 years, has had trouble finding construction
work and is a Pinkerton guard at Cornell University, 30 miles away
through the dairy farms and hilly stands of hemlock.
Here in Newark Valley, population 1,190, the Hoyts
live in a weather-beaten house along a two-lane highway. Many people
not only leave their front doors unlocked, some can't even recall if
they have a key. At the United Methodist Church up the road, Waneta is
known for her generous nature, the craftsmanship of her crocheted
afghans and a long, mind-boggling run of heartache.
Her own health is a continuing ordeal. Waneta has a
heart murmur and is bent over from arthritis. High-blood pressure and
diabetes have weakened her eyesight. Breathing is a labor. Her bones
are brittle from osteoporosis.
Family troubles add to the strain. One of Waneta's
brothers is disabled from a hip degeneration. Another has cancer. One
sister suffers from a brain tumor. Another, immobile from the waist
down, is married to Tim's brother, who has multiple sclerosis. In
1989, Waneta's mother died in an auto accident.
"There isn't a well person in the family," said Art
Hilliard, a friend of the Hoyts since their childhoods. "It has just
been one trauma after another."
Of course, nothing has been harder to endure than
the loss of the babies. Erik died at 3 months, Julie at only 7 weeks,
James at 28 months (thought to have choked after eating breakfast).
Those were impossible times for the Hoyts. "They'd be leaning on each
other, crying, trying to be strong for each other," recalled
Hilliard's wife, Natalie.
Around town, the common sentiments were ones of
sympathy, not suspicion. An autopsy was performed on only one of the
three children; it was inconclusive. The Hoyts simply seemed to be an
impossibly star-crossed couple.
They lamented as much themselves. Something haywire
must be deep-set within their babies, they told friends. The Hilliards
and the Hoyts would play canasta late into the night, trying to keep
their minds from morbid thoughts.
When Molly was born, and then again with Noah, the
Hoyts sought help from the best doctors around, at Upstate Medical
Center in Syracuse, nearly two hours away. Dr. Steinschneider was
there. He already had an emerging interest in the phenomenon that most
people called "crib death" and doctors recently had named the Sudden
Infant Death Syndrome.
As a medical term, SIDS is certainly an unusual
one. Rather than a cause of death, it is actually the absence of any
detectable cause after an autopsy and investigation: a catchall for
the unexplained. Each year, about 7,000 deaths in the United States
are categorized as SIDS. Devastated parents find the term something to
cling to, better than the maddening "cause unknown."
Steinschneider's paper, and similar work by others,
gave doctors something to latch onto as well. Maybe some babies in
jeopardy could be identified--and the fatal attack prevented. "It was
a happier scenario," Steinschneider recently recalled. "I think that's
why it had such a major impact."
But the facts in the article, merely striking to
some, were incredible to others. The journal printed a letter from a
doctor who raised the matter of child abuse. The babies should have
been put in foster care rather than sent home, the writer said:
"Perhaps the outcome would have been different?"
In his reply, Steinschneider agreed that child
abuse must always be considered in SIDS cases. But, in this instance,
both he and the nurses had found the babies' parents to be warm and
supportive people. He had this to add about the couple he identified
only as Mr. and Mrs. H.:
"Both parents often would be found sitting by the
crib and had to be urged to make physical contact with the baby. It
was my impression that they feared becoming too attached emotionally .
. . because they anticipated a tragic outcome.
"Mrs. H. expressed, on a number of occasions,
considerable guilt over the death of her children, and, because of the
inability of physicians to define the cause of death, felt there must
be something she did or failed to do that was responsible. Following
the death of the fifth infant, Mrs. H. did seek and receive outpatient
One skeptic of the 1972 article was Dr. Linda
Norton of Dallas, a forensic pathologist prone to complaining about
the medical Establishment. In lectures, she sometimes singled out the
Steinschneider report for particular scorn.
Norton does a lot of consulting. In 1986, she found
herself in Syracuse, working on a case where a father had murdered his
three young children.
The assistant district attorney was William
Fitzpatrick, an aggressive, steely prosecutor from Brooklyn. He
thought the crime extraordinary.
Hell, Norton told him, you may have the same kind
of trouble "right in your own back yard, and that case is famous. You
can look it up."
The remark ate at Fitzpatrick. He got the article.
Doctors comfort the bereft and may be inclined to overlook the
possibility of foul play. But a prosecutor is paid to be suspicious.
To Fitzpatrick, this read like homicide.
"I asked myself: How could this be, the killing of
five children, obvious to anyone, going undetected?" he said. He
opened a preliminary file.
Then, in the happenstances of career, he left the
job for private practice only to return in 1992 after winning election
as district attorney. This time, he ordered an investigation. There
were these clues to go on: the initials of the babies, the name of the
hospital, the general time frame of the deaths.
"One child had been autopsied, so there had to be
some kind of report on file," Fitzpatrick said. "The name Noah Hoyt
popped out. It fit perfectly. He was 2 1/2 months old. His diagnosis
was SIDS. So now I had a name and an autopsy number. I subpoenaed the
medical records from Upstate Medical Center.
"Several hundred sheets of paper came in,
chronicling the life history of this young lad, Noah Hoyt. It was
really so sad. For some reason, I developed an emotional attachment to
Noah, you know, reading a record of virtually every day in his life.
He was going to end up like the other four babies. You wanted to just
reach back in through the hands of time and protect him."
Noah had suffered those breathing problems,
sometimes bad enough to turn blue. There was a curious pattern to the
attacks, the prosecutor noted: "They all happened while the child was
in the exclusive control of the mother."
Two medical examiners were brought in to confer.
They also went through the records, including autopsies of the fourth
and fifth children. Based on the circumstantial evidence, both agreed
with Fitzpatrick: They thought the mother was a murderer.
The last address in the file was in Tioga County.
The Hoyts were not hard to find. The local prosecutor was notified,
and the state police began their own investigation--criminal checks,
employment records, birth certificates, marriage license, credit
profile, toll calls. The Hoyts were as clean as could be, and there
was only one more thing to do: bring the woman in for a talk.
Three state troopers sat in the interrogation room
with Waneta. Several observers, including Fitzpatrick, were able to
watch and listen through a two-way mirror.
The woman seemed unruffled as they dredged up her
tragedies. Then, near the two-hour mark, the questioning took a
sharper turn, with the police bluffing that they knew the whole truth,
that she had killed them all. Suddenly, Waneta stiffened. And then
this is what she said of her five babies, according to court records:
Erik (died Jan. 26, 1965, at 3 months, 10 days):
"He was crying at the time and I wanted him to stop. I held a
pillow--it might have been a sofa throw pillow--over his face while I
was sitting on the couch. I don't remember if he struggled or not, but
he did bleed from the mouth and nose."
Julie (died Sept. 5, 1968, 1 month, 17 days): "I
held her nose and mouth into my shoulder until she stopped
James (died Sept. 26, 1968, 2 years, 4 months): "I
was in the bathroom getting dressed and he wanted to come in. He came
in . . . and I made him go out. He started crying, 'Mommy, mommy.' I
wanted him to stop crying for me so I used a bath towel to smother
Molly (died June 5, 1970, 2 months, 18 days): "She
was just home from the hospital overnight and was crying in her crib.
I used a pillow that was in the crib to smother her. After she was
dead, I called Mom Hoyt (Tim's mother) and Dr. Steinschneider."
Noah (died July 28, 1971, 2 months, 19 days): "I
held a baby pillow over his face until he was dead. I then called for
Mom Hoyt and Dr. Steinschneider. I remember it was a hot day in July."
According to some of the witnesses, at this point
Waneta began to worry what people were going to think of her. She
asked to see her husband.
Tim was brought in, and Waneta told him of her
great unburdening. He chose not to believe her. Words were put in your
mouth, he suggested. She insisted otherwise. He told her he still
loved her, and the confessing began again.
She had seen counselors and a psychiatrist, she
said in her signed confession. "I feel that if I had got help from
them, it would have prevented me from killing the rest of my children.
I feel that I am a good person, but I know that I did wrong.
"I loved my children. I love my (adopted) son, Jay,
and my husband. I feel the burden I have carried by keeping the secret
of killing my children has been a tremendous punishment. I most
definitely feel remorse and regret for my actions. I cannot go back
and undo the wrong that I have done."
Waneta's court-appointed attorneys say they
received 541 calls from the media in just the first days after her
arrest for second-degree murder. TV shows tried to fax her a contract:
Would the alleged baby-killer agree to tell all on camera?
Since her confession, neither of the Hoyts has
spoken publicly. Waneta is free on bond and a trial is not likely to
occur for months. Her lawyers intend to attack the confession, arguing
that it was taken under duress. They also hope to show that SIDS has
in fact slain more than one baby in the same family.
There is evidence to support this in the medical
literature, but the odds of five in one home are astronomical, many
experts say. In most families, the risk of even a second SIDS death is
"less than 1%," wrote Dr. Susan Beal in a 1992 article in the journal
Clinics in Perinatology.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome commonly strikes
babies 2 to 4 months old. No single pattern or pathological marker has
been found for it. Clearly, the vast majority of mysterious infant
deaths do not involve murder. Epidemiologist Philip McClain of the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reviewed the
studies and says that estimates show child abuse plays a role in only
1.4% to 4.7% of SIDS cases.
Those percentages, small as they are, make the
questioning of bereft parents a difficult if necessary business.
Horrendous crimes have been uncovered. The best known occurred not far
from here, in Schenectady, N.Y. Friends and physicians alike consoled
Marybeth Tinning as, one by one, her nine children died of mysterious
causes. She was convicted of murder in 1986.
Diana Lumbrera's first five children died between
1976 and 1984; so did a 2 1/2-month-old cousin left in her care.
People who knew her in a string of West Texas towns felt sorry for
Lumbrera. She would rush the children to the hospital, but it was
always too late to save them. Only when her sixth child died in Garden
City, Kan., was a murder suspected and then proved in court.
Psychiatrists speculate on motives in such cases.
One theory has it that a woman who kills her child will repeat the
crime to punish herself, confirming that she is an unfit mother.
Another theory is the bizarre disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by
Proxy, named for the 18th-Century German baron who told fantastic
tales. Typically, the parent--usually the mother--will make up a
child's illness or actually cause harm in order to get attention. Some
doctors say the mothers are "sympathy junkies."
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy has been mentioned
repeatedly in the Hoyt case, but that may be only a fondness for
exotic labeling. Dr. Michael Baden, director of the forensic sciences
unit of the New York State Police, has worked on the case. He views it
"Right now, it seems like straight homicide," he
contended. "She killed the kids because she was tired of their crying.
Waneta and her husband are very close. He was away at work a lot, and
maybe she couldn't handle the stress.
"With her adopted baby, her husband had been laid
off and he was at home to help out. With the other kids, when she
couldn't handle things, she only could figure out one way to keep them
quiet. She killed them."
Dr. Alfred Steinschneider has the affable presence
of a country doctor. His sentences mingle medical jargon with the easy
humor of his native Brooklyn. He remains a believer in this
controversial notion: that some SIDS cases are predictable--and
preventable with the use of monitoring equipment at home.
In hindsight, some people have questioned his
judgment in the Hoyt case. One is prosecutor Fitzpatrick. "How could a
doctor not realize that Molly and Noah were in harm's way? I know it
was 2 1/2 decades ago. But was he overly consumed with expounding on
his theory or was he concerned with his patient?"
That is a hurtful accusation for Steinschneider,
who has devoted much of his life to the study of SIDS. He is a founder
and president of the American SIDS Institute in Atlanta. His ability
to defend himself is limited by confidentiality requirements that he
feels duty-bound to honor.
"What's missing from all this cheap talk, this
impugning of motives, this \o7 show biz\f7 , is that it doesn't save a
single baby," he said. "What they ought to be saying is: 'Let's
examine the deaths of babies and make better identification of the
causes of deaths to help sort things out.'"
In the Hoyt case, he relied on the opinions of the
medical examiners. "If people think there were inadequate autopsies
done, then check the autopsies, big shots," he said. "If they think
these kids were murdered, then show me, because what they are saying
now is at variance with what the people who investigated the case said
then. If there's criticism I'll accept from the pathologists, it's
that I accepted the opinion of other pathologists."
To him, the current focus on his 1972 article
misses the point. "In college, I learned the word heuristic, and
that's what is important here. Was the paper heuristic: Did it lead to
learning? The important thing is not the paper itself; it's that the
paper led to a significant amount of learning."
He paused for a moment. His eyes lit with a
thought. "Without the paper," he said, "would people even know this
These days, Waneta spends a lot of her time caring
for her sister, the one dying of a brain tumor. She has begun to
attend church again after missing some Sundays. Her friends call on
her and try to cheer her up.
Those friends are appalled by what they hear on the
news. This woman described as a baby-killer--this abomination--is not
the Waneta they know. Accepting the allegations is as crazy and
unthinkable to them as summer coming after fall.
What is behind this feeding frenzy for vengeance,
they ask. "They arrested Waneta and then put her on suicide watch so
they could keep her safe and kill her later," said her minister, the
Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner. "Nothing is going to bring those kids back
now. In the meantime, we destroy Jay and Tim and Waneta. What sense is
Newark Valley seems to have been invaded by
big-city experts and their big-city ideas. What strikes people as
particularly odd are notions such as Munchausen by Proxy. "If you want
to be psychological, let's ask if this is Fitzpatrick's way of getting
back at his mother," the minister said. "Or ask what office
he's running for. Is this his way of getting attention?"
Their neighbor Waneta holds a blank check on their
loyalty. How could it be otherwise? Natalie Hilliard, in defending her
friend, was struck by another memory. She recalled how she had helped
a pregnant Waneta set up a room for the little ones about to be born.
And how, time and again, they had tearfully packed
the baby things away.