July 8, 2009— -- The body of a little girl who was once declared a "miracle baby" was stolen from her Connecticut grave and police believe it was for some kind of ritual to capture her "fighting spirit."
Stamford police said they may investigate whether the graves of other children have been disturbed.
The body of tiny Imani Joyner, encased in a plastic bag, was pulled from the Passaic River in Clifton, N.J., by fishermen Sunday.
Police were able to identify the corpse from a bracelet on the girl's wrist from the hospice where she was being treated when she died. They were stunned to learn that the girl had died and been buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in 2007.
"It's boggling. It's bizarre," Stamford Police Captain Richard Conklin told ABCNews.com.
The chief said neither Stamford authorities nor the parents of the little girl had any idea that the grave had been disturbed.
"This information came out of left field," he said. "They had no inkling of this."
When authorities went to Imani's gravesite, Conklin said there was nothing to indicate her resting place had been invaded. But a look underneath the turf, authorized by her parents, showed something very different.
"The casket was broken and smashed in and it looks like the body was pulled up through that hole," he said.
Conklin said she had to have been taken from her coffin at least several months prior given how the vegetation on top of the gravesite had grown back normally by the time she was found to be missing.
The body found in the New Jersey river was in "amazingly good condition for a child that died in 2007," Conklin said, attributing the preservation to a combination of embalming procedures, the plastic bag she was found in and the belief that the body had not been in the river for very long.
The girl was born in 2004 with semilobar holoprosencephaly, a condition that kept her brain from developing fully and generally results in death shortly after birth. Imani was dubbed a "mircacle baby" by Connecticut newspapers for surviving for more than two years.
Santeria Suspected in Theft of Little Girl's Grave
"It actually got notoriety of somewhat of a miracle baby," Conklin said.
The toddler, he said, may have been chosen specifically by those who thought her triumph, however short, over her illness represented a power the thieves thought she possessed -- "grab some of that fighting spirit or whatever."
Conklin said police are looking into possible links to Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Santeria is a religion practiced by people of Caribbean descent, while Palo Mayombe originated in Africa and was brought to the U.S. by slaves.
"We've seen on a number of narcotics raids I've been on where there have been Santeria altars," the chief said.
Now Stamford police are weighing whether to broaden their investigation to determine if any other children had been removed from their graves. None appear to have been disturbed, he said, but neither did Imani's grave seem to be broken into.
Imani's body remains in the custody of the New Jersey State Medical Examiner's Office.