true crime

'Nobody knew she was pregnant.' The unfolding US case reminding Australians of Keli Lane.

On March 25, 1993, Cheryl Jenkins and Wendy Sweeney were delivering newspapers when they found what they thought was a doll on the side of a dirt road in the woods near Thompson Township, Ohio. But when they looked more closely, they realised it was the body of a newborn baby.

The little boy, who still had his umbilical cord attached, had been wrapped in a garbage bag. Wild animals appeared to have found him before people did.

A coroner would later find that the baby had been born alive. Whether he was alive or dead when he was dumped was unknown.

“I always think about him,” Jenkins told Cleveland19News last week. “I’ve never forgotten that day. I mean, it’s burned in my memory.”

Tom Dewey was the first police officer to arrive. The sight of the tiny body tore at his heart. For the rest of his career, he never gave up hope of solving the case.

Twenty-six years later, he still gets teary talking about the “horror scene”.

“I saw the damage that was done to that child by the animals and I could see its rib cages and that and I knew right away this was a human being,” Dewey told News5Cleveland.

The small community of Thompson Township grieved for the abandoned little boy. They called the boy “Geauga’s Child”, after the county of Geauga, where he was found. They made clothes for him, and donated money to pay for a burial – Dewey was one of the pallbearers – and a tombstone. The tombstone read: “Geauga’s Child lies here now in safety, loved by many — just too late.”

Dewey and other officers followed every lead they could, even placing a hidden camera at the gravesite. But no one was ever charged.

The community never forgot the little boy. In 2003, 10 years after his body was discovered, they held a memorial service at the gravesite.

Terry Thomas was one of the locals who turned up to the service and shed a tear, telling The News-Herald, “Someone has to come and remember this baby boy.”

Dewey was also there, adding a baseball mitt and a ball to the flowers already placed near the tombstone.

“He would be 10 years old now, probably have a crew cut with a baseball cap,” he said to the mourners. “He would like to play ball and run around with his siblings. That’s what should have happened for Geauga’s Child.

“Until I take my last breath of air, I’ll look at Geauga’s Child as if he is my own.”

Dewey kept visiting the gravesite and following leads. But he retired from the force without ever having found who abandoned the baby boy.

Last year, with more and more cold cases in the US being solved using familial DNA techniques, investigators decided to try a new approach. A DNA sample was taken from the little boy’s blood and tissue, which had been stored all these years.

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That sample was used to find relatives of the boy, through an online database. Hundreds of hours of research led investigators to believe that the child’s mother was Gail Eastwood-Ritchey, a 49-year-old receptionist, married with three adult children and living in Cleveland.

Last Thursday, Geauga County sheriff Scott Hildenbrand announced that Eastwood-Ritchey had been charged with aggravated murder and murder. At a press conference, he explained how a search warrant had been issued to obtain DNA from Eastwood-Ritchey.

“At that time, she admitted that she had birthed a child, placed him in a trash bag and left him in a wooded area,” Hildenbrand said.

“Her reaction was that she had not even thought about this until we brought it up,” he added. “She had completely put it out of her mind.”

The father of the abandoned baby is believed to be Eastwood-Ritchey’s current husband.

“Her statement was that she hid the pregnancy and that nobody knew she was pregnant,” Hildenbrand said.

But there was more. According to the sheriff’s office, Eastwood-Ritchey allegedly told investigators she had committed a similar crime with another baby in 1991.

“She gave us a pretty specific area where she had taken the first baby,” Hildenbrand said. “That was 30 years ago and there’s no evidence there.”

It’s a case that’s likely to remind Australians of the Keli Lane case. Lane was found guilty in 2010 of murdering her two-day-old daughter Tegan in 1996. Lane claimed to have given the baby to her biological father, but the child has never been found. It was alleged in court that Lane had been pregnant five times – terminating two pregnancies, adopting out two babies and murdering Tegan – and each time, she had hidden her pregnancies from her family and friends.

Lane is currently serving an 18-year jail sentence. Eastwood-Ritchey, if convicted, faces a possible life sentence.

Jenkins, who found the little boy’s body in 1993, was relieved to hear that Eastwood-Ritchey had been charged over the crime.

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “Now this poor baby can rest in peace.”

As for Dewey, when he heard the news, he went to the cemetery and put a flower next to the little boy’s tombstone, telling him what had happened.

“I’ll go to my grave thinking of this and I hope I get a chance to see that young man up there,” Dewey said.

Eastwood-Ritchey appeared in court Monday morning. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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