Why Pregnant Women Are Targeted


Feb. 24, 2005 — -- The slaying of a pregnant Texas woman, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, and the recent attack on a Kentucky expectant mom who killed her knife-wielding female assailant after the woman apparently tried to steal her unborn child are reminders that pregnant women can often be targeted for murder. But the alleged motives differ depending on the gender of the attacker.

Stephen Dale Barbee, 37, of Fort Worth, said he suffocated Lisa Underwood, and her 7-year-old son because he feared she would tell his wife about their affair, according to an affidavit. Officials said he led police to a makeshift grave containing the bodies of Underwood, 34, and her son, who had been reported missing Saturday after they failed to show up at her baby shower.

Underwood was seven months pregnant, and Barbee was the father of the unborn child. According to an affidavit in the case, Barbee, who was married in December, told police he killed Underwood as the two argued about whether he should leave his wife. He said he killed Jayden because the boy walked in on them, according to the affidavit.

Underwood's slaying is the latest attack on a pregnant woman to generate national headlines, but statistics show such violence is far from rare. Studies in recent years have found that outside of medical complications, homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant women.

A study published in the March 2005 edition of the American Journal of Public Health found that homicide was a leading cause of death among pregnant women in the United States between 1991 and 1999. Data taken from the Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the pregnancy-associated homicide ratio was 1.7 per 100,000 live births.

A 2001 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association said 20 percent of Maryland women who died during pregnancy were murdered. Researchers found the same trend in New York from 1987-1991 and in the Chicago area from 1986-1989. According to the CDC, approximately 324,000 pregnant women are hurt by an intimate partner or former partner each year.

Experts say that while pregnant women are more commonly targeted by men -- particularly spouses, boyfriends or exes -- they also need to be wary of other women. Each has very different reasons for targeting expectant mothers.

Men who kill pregnant women are most likely romantically involved with their victims and see the pregnancy and unborn child as obstacles and burdens in their lives. They may not want a child, may want to pursue an extramarital affair or may want to keep an affair secret.

"The usual reason when it involves a man is the [unborn] baby. The baby is causing a complication in his life," said Pat Brown, profiler and chief executive officer of The Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency.

Brown cites the infamous case of Scott Peterson, the Modesto, Calif., man convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and the unborn son they planned to name Conner. Prosecutors argued, in part, that Peterson killed his wife so that he could continue his extramarital affair with Amber Frey. A jury has recommended Peterson be executed for his crimes, and a judge is expected to sentence him to death on March 25.

"If it's a husband, like you saw in the Scott Peterson case, he sees the unborn child and his wife as an obstacle to the life he wants to lead, a burden, a lifelong obligation of child support, and he doesn't want that lifelong obligation," said Brown. "The only way he sees to solve his problem is to get rid of her. He can't let her live because there is still that lifetime of responsibility."

In the Underwood case, Texas authorities believe Barbee also saw her as an obstacle and a complication. But unlike Peterson, he wanted to stay married and keep his affair and unborn child a secret.

Unlike men, women who attack pregnant women usually do not know their victims well, if at all. They are usually obsessed with pregnancy and crave the attention -- and what they perceive as power -- associated with carrying a child.

Relatives said Lisa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kan., faked pregnancy five times. During the last false pregnancy, she allegedly zeroed in on Bobbi Jo Stinnett, a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, strangled her and cut Stinnett's baby from her womb. The child was found alive with Montgomery, who allegedly told relatives she had just given birth. Montgomery now faces a capital murder charge.

"With women who actually want to steal a woman's baby, they are usually psychopaths. They claim to be pregnant when they are not," Brown said. "She usually loves the attention and power that is associated with pregnancy and motherhood. ... They like to use the child to get attention for themselves. But they like to try to manipulate others with the issues that motherhood and pregnancy bring."

Kentucky authorities said Katie Smith told family and friends she was pregnant. She wore maternity outfits and had a completely furnished nursery with baby clothes, diapers and formula.

But there was no pregnancy. To get a baby, police said, Smith, 22, lured neighbor Sarah Brady -- who was nine months pregnant -- to her apartment by telling her a package intended for Brady had been delivered to Smith's home by mistake. When Brady, 26, showed up, Smith tried to stab her, but the pregnant woman managed to turn the knife on her attacker, police said. Smith was killed. Investigators said Brady acted in self-defense, and she was not charged.

Brown said that one myth about women who attack or kill pregnant women is that they are failed mothers or are grieving because of past miscarriages or failed attempted pregnancies.

"This is not a matter of grieving," she said. "They are liars. They've usually had histories of lying about being pregnant. And you have to be a pretty cold-blooded killer to kill a pregnant woman."

To an extent, no matter the sex of the alleged assailant, men and women accused of attacking or killing pregnant women all feel a need for control. However, there is no typical profile and multiple factors can fuel a motive for murder.

"There can be an affair going on, where the husband or boyfriend are getting a lack of sexual gratification and they venture out, fall in love and feel like they have to get rid of the wife," Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer, has said in a past report. "But there really is no typical motive in cases like these. It really is situational."

Sometimes, the actions are driven by the prospect of insurance money. In the case of Charles Stuart, a Massachusetts man who killed his pregnant wife in 1989 and committed suicide before he could be formally charged, his younger brother claimed he wanted the insurance money. But some argue that money motives can be overstated in these cases.

"Sometimes the husband or boyfriend can feel the stress of having a family, like they can't afford to have a baby right now and a family," said Burke. "A lot is made about insurance policies being taken out at the time, but really, taking out an insurance policy during pregnancy would be the time to do it. When it's just the two of you and you're young, you feel invincible. But when you have a child on the way, you begin to think about, 'What happens if something happens to me? How will my child be taken care of?' "

Arguably, there's not much expectant mothers can do to prevent random attacks from women who want to steal their child. Brady, who said maternal instinct made her fight to save herself and the daughter she gave birth to last week, was lucky when she managed to ward off her attacker.

But some experts say there is something women can do to protect themselves from male assailants during pregnancy: At the very start, they should be wary of the men they become intimate with. Controlling behavior should be seen as a warning sign.

"Be careful about who you decide you're going to have children with. Be careful about the person you decide to make long-term decisions with," Brown said. "Sometimes we, as women, don't make the best decisions about the people we decide to have a child with or rush into a relationship too quickly and get pregnant too quickly."