Recently, Americans were shocked at the grisly murder of 19-year-old Marlen Ochoa-Lopez. On April 23, the 9-months-pregnant teen was lured to the Chicago-area home of 46-year-old Clarisa Figueroa by an offer of free baby clothes. While Ochoa-Lopez sat on their couch, Figueroa’s 24-year-old daughter, Desiree, distracted her with pictures on her phone. Then Clarisa came up behind her and strangled her with a coaxial cable.
But that was not the end of this gruesome crime. Once Ochoa-Lopez was dead, Clarisa cut the infant from her body with a butcher knife.
Thankfully, this kind of horrific crime, where a pregnant woman is killed and her unborn baby cut out of her womb, is extremely rare. Called “fetal abductions” or “Cesarean kidnappings,” there have only been about 30 known cases worldwide. The first known case occurred in 1974 in Philadelphia, when Winifred Ransom killed Margaret Sweeney and cut out her unborn child with a pocket knife. That case serves as a kind of gruesome template for every other fetal abduction that has followed. The cases and the perpetrators (sometimes dubbed “womb raiders”) are all eerily similar.
The perpetrators can be very different in terms of race or socioeconomic class, but they share some important traits. For one, they are nearly all mothers, but can no longer have children. Clarisa Figueroa had at least two children — Desiree and an adult son, Xander, who had died previously. (Ransom, who was infertile, is the single exception to this rule).
Their personalities are very similar too: usually compulsive, manipulative narcissists, driven to have a baby not because they want a child to love and nurture, but as a means to coerce or manipulate a boyfriend or husband into staying with them.
Their MOs follow an almost scripted pattern: perpetrators begin planning their crimes months in advance, beginning with public pregnancy announcements (despite previous sterilization or infertility). They may forge pregnancy tests, download ultrasound images, and otherwise fabricate “evidence” of a pregnancy. As the months go on, they will intentionally gain weight or pad their clothing so as to appear pregnant.
Indeed, searches of Figueroa’s social media revealed that she had been planning the crime since at least last October, when she announced she was pregnant. Friends and family were surprised — and skeptical — given that Figueroa had undergone a tubal ligation. Yet she continued posting about her “miracle pregnancy,” including photos of a stolen ultrasound image and a decorated nursery. Adding to their suspicions, several neighbors spotted Figueroa drinking and smoking during this time.
The perpetrator’s next step is to befriend another pregnant woman who has a due date similar to hers (and whose baby would be a “match” for hers). In the days before the internet, perpetrators would haunt daycares, schools, parks, and other places mothers might hang out. In 1974, Ransom met Sweeney at a store weeks before the attack, and went out of her way to make friends and bond over their mutual pregnancies. Figueroa befriended Ochoa-Lopez though a Facebook group for expectant mothers.
Once the perpetrator has earned her victim’s trust, she lures her victim to a private place to commit the crime, usually with an offer of free baby clothes or supplies. Often this is the perpetrator’s home, but not always. True to form, Figueroa lured Ochoa-Lopez to her home under the guise of giving her some baby clothes and a stroller.
Then, when the perpetrator has the victim where she wants her, that’s when she commits the unthinkable. The exact method of killing differs. Whereas Figueroa used a coaxial cable as a garrote, Ransom knocked Sweeney out with a blow to the head. When Sweeney regained consciousness, Ransom struck her over 20 times with a hatchet before shooting her twice with a .32-caliber revolver.
After she removes the baby, the perpetrator will then hide the body — sometimes, with help. Ransom’s nephew, Robert Bullard, helped her wrap Sweeney’s body in a sheet, then place it in a plastic bag before burying it beneath Ransom’s kitchen floor. Figueroa’s daughter not only helped her mother kill Ochoa-Lopez, she helped her stuff the body into a trash can in their back yard.
Finally, the perpetrator will claim the newborn infant as her own. Unfortunately, in almost half the cases, the infant doesn’t survive the attack. In Figueroa’s case, once the baby was outside his mother’s womb, he had problems breathing, so Figueroa called 911. She told them she had just given birth to the baby, and the two were rushed to Advocate Christ Medical Center.
But the ruse never works; the perpetrators are always caught sooner or later. In 1974, Ransom confessed to John that she had killed Sweeney, though she said it was because Sweeney had tried to take “her” baby. Three days later, John’s conscience was too loud to ignore. He went to the police and told them what Winifred had told him. In the house, they found the newborn baby. In the kitchen, they found the hatchet. Under the kitchen floorboards, in a shallow grave, they found Sweeney’s body.
In Figueroa’s case, it took a little longer. Once she arrived at the hospital with “her” baby, staff noticed she had blood on her upper body and face, but not on her shorts. An exam showed no signs that she had actually given birth. Yet despite the suspicious nature of the incident, the hospital did not alert any authorities for two weeks.
(As an interesting side note, while Figueroa was in the hospital, she and her boyfriend, Piotr Bobak, started a GoFundMe page to help cover the infant’s funeral expenses.)
The police didn’t catch their first break in the case until May 7, when one of Ochoa-Lopez’ friends told police about her online exchanges with Figueroa, including that she had planned to go to Figueroa’s house the day she went missing.
When officers visited Figueroa’s house, they noticed Ochoa-Lopez’ car nearby. Desiree first told officers her mother was in the hospital for a problem with her legs, then told them she had recently given birth.
When officers interviewed Clarisa at the hospital, she denied meeting Ochoa-Lopez on the 23rd. Suspicious, the police subpoenaed the hospital’s records, which raised numerous red flags. DNA testing later revealed that Figueroa was not, in fact, the baby’s mother.
Armed with a warrant, police searched the Figueroa home and found Ochoa-Lopez’ body in the trash can, the coaxial cable still around her neck.
The baby, whom the victim’s family named Yovanny Jadiel, suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation. He remains on life support in “grave” condition and is not expected to survive. (Update: Sadly, Yovanny passed away June 14, 2019).
According to criminal experts, the fact that they never get away with their crimes only underscores the fact that the perpetrators are “clearly delusional.” In fact, at trial, Ransom’s psychologist argued that she was driven by a psychotic delusion triggered by her inability to have a baby. Ransom was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was acquitted as insane, but sentenced to an indeterminate term at the Byberry State Hospital. Only 20 months later, the hospital declared her “cured,” and she was released.
Clarisa Figueroa and Desiree Figueroa were each charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery. Bobak was charged with concealing a death. All three are being held without bail in Cook County Jail.
Fetal abduction cases may be rare, but they have been increasing in the last 20 years. Some experts blame it on the increase in hospital security since the 1990s, which made kidnapping newborns virtually impossible. Desperate, delusional women may have begun turning to more direct, and deadly, methods to obtain a baby.
While the risk of falling victim to a fetal kidnapper is virtually zero, it pays to be aware of that risk. Elizabeth Petrucelli, a doula who formerly worked in hospital security, advises pregnant women not to be overly alarmed, but to be educated: “You need to be more careful about who you interact with, who you are alone with.” She warned pregnant women against old friends who had lost touch, or acquaintances who suddenly become “your best friend” when they find out you are expecting (source: The Guardian). If all pregnant women are cautioned to practice basic internet safety, hopefully we won’t see any more fetal abductions.