‘It just struck all of us:’ 25 years after boy found dead in gas station bathroom, a resolution

Baby Boy Doe was found dead Nov. 18, 1997, in the bathroom garbage of a North Seattle gas station. Seattle Police worked over decades to solve the case, and the case was sentenced in King County Superior Court on Jan. 6, 2023. (Image from Seattle Police Department evidence file)

Twenty-five years ago, in November of 1997, a newborn baby boy was found discarded in a gas station trash can.

The boy’s mother, who didn’t tell anyone other than the baby’s father that she was pregnant, went inside, asked to use the bathroom, delivered the boy, and left him to die.

Seattle Police shared a photo of the woman walking towards the bathroom, and the case received significant media coverage, but it remained unknown for years who the mother was. Seattle Police and staff at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office never forgot the case and it was reviewed by generations of detectives.

“I remember exactly where I was when I first pulled out these crime scene photos from this incident,” Seattle Police Detective Rolf Norton said. “It was January 2018. I was laying on my stomach on a bed, the binder was down on the floor, and I’m paging through it. … I come to the photos — Baby Doe, a garbage can — and it’s mind-blowing. Frankly, it’s life changing. You see something that you immediately want to file away and never go back to, but you can’t because you have a job and a mission, and no one is looking out for Baby Doe except for us. That’s why it means so much.”

Norton saw there was DNA collected from the boy, called Baby Boy Doe in news accounts and court records, and found a genetic genealogist who narrowed down a list of potential suspects.

“It’s not like we’ve got a genetic genealogist just sitting around waiting for cases to be handed to them,” Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Maggi Qerimi said. “Detective Norton had to seek that out, out of state, on his own, and take on that initiative for the case to then finally be solved. What the public doesn’t see behind the scenes is the amount of work in cases like this that goes into solving a case like this.”

On March 1, 2021, Detective Norton contacted the boy’s mother at her North Seattle apartment. She admitted that she gave birth to the baby in the gas station restroom, and that she abandoned the baby in the restroom trash can. It was the first time in Washington state that a decades-old infant death case had a suspect identified through genetic genealogy.

That moment was especially powerful for Kelly Rosa, a paralegal in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, who remembers the day police and prosecutors learned about the baby boy’s death in 1997.

“It just struck all of us,” she said. “No matter what your opinion is on choice or any of those things, it just struck all of us as, ‘God, this just is so sad and avoidable.’ … “In this case you didn’t have someone calling on behalf of Baby Doe … There is no grandma or angry father or something going, ‘Why aren’t you working on my daughter’s case?’ And I just think it just speaks volumes about Rolf.”

The mother was convicted of Manslaughter in the First Degree, and with her criminal history, that crime has a sentencing range of up to 8 1/2 years.

At her sentencing, the question before the judge was whether the mother was likely to commit any new crimes. A Superior Court judge — who noted the trauma in the mother’s upbringing, her lack of criminal history for years, and the mother’s progress in therapy — believed evidence showed she would not.

The mother was 27-years-old at the time and was 52 when she was sentenced on Jan. 6, 2023. Today in Washington state the law allows new mothers to leave a newborn with firefighters, hospital emergency department staff, or staff of a federally designated rural health clinic within the first three days of that baby’s birth. That law was enacted in 2002, five years after Baby Boy Doe was found in the gas station trash can.

On an agreed recommendation, Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps sentenced the mother to five years of community custody with the Department of Corrections. That sentence was on the condition that she continues mental health counseling and therapy and continues to make progress. The mother was also ordered not to commit new crimes, among other standard conditions, and can be brought back to court if she doesn’t follow those terms.

“To the question of how do you explain this resolution or where we are today, to a parent — you can’t,” Detective Norton said. “And I don’t think we could have come up with any resolution today that you could offer to a parent and have it make sense. … And for me, I think for a lot of people, today is not about punishment. Today is about accountability. We needed to get to today and it took a long time. And we got here, but no one is happy. There’s no happy angle. There’s no happy edge. We have to recognize that, feel it, and I guess go back to work.”

Detective Norton is also careful to say this this was never a cold case.

“This case wasn’t cold because it’s been worked on continuously by several generations of detectives over two and a half decades. Something’s cold if it’s sitting in the back shelf of a vault and no one’s touching it, it’s collecting dust, and no one’s looking at it or following investigative leads. It’s not cold if someone is taking action. And It took 20-some years, but we got there. It’s a testament to the initial detectives who addressed this scene and the initial phases of this incident back in 1997. It’s a testament to the prosecutors that were involved back in the day. It’s a testament to the scientists that were involved throughout this whole process.

“I think a case like this hopefully sends a message to everyone that we’re not going to quit.”