Why Pregnant Women Become Murder Victims

ByBryan Robinson

April 25, 2003 -- While the media spotlight shines on the grisly recovery of Laci Peterson's remains in California, authorities 3,000 miles away in rural North Carolina made a less-publicized, equally grim — and far too common — discovery.

On Monday, police found the remains of 20-year-old April Renee Greer, whose dismembered body was found in a trash can that had washed into a farmer's field. Greer was 8½ months pregnant when she was reported missing on March 8. Her boyfriend, Jerry Lynn Stuart, 27, has been charged with first-degree murder in the case.

Meanwhile, the slaying of Evelyn Hernandez — another case eerily similar to Laci Peterson's but not as well-known — remains a mystery almost a year after she disappeared.

Hernandez was eight months pregnant when she and her 5-year-old son were reported missing last May. Three months later, Hernandez's torso washed up along a San Francisco bay beach.

Her son and the fetus she carried have not been found, and police have been unable to make an arrest. The father of her child — who is married to another woman and has a child — has not been called a suspect. Authorities say he has been cooperating with investigators.

These cases seem to support studies from recent years that have found that homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant women outside of medical complications.

According to a 2001 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately 20 percent of Maryland women who died during pregnancy were murdered. This supported the findings of previous studies in Cook County, Ill., and New York.

Experts and women's advocates are not surprised to find that pregnant women are especially prone to violent deaths. In many cases, pregnant women are killed by their husbands or significant others.

"Most pregnant women are killed by people they know, like husbands or boyfriends," said Pat Brown, a criminal profiler and CEO of the Sexual Homicide Exchange.

"Sometimes it depends on how far along the woman is in the pregnancy," she said. "If it's a serial killer, they normally go after women who may be three months pregnant and are not showing very much. With serial killers, the women are tiny, easy to handle, not too big — someone they can easily overcome. They go after a 'neat package,' something that is desirable where they could get something big.

"With husbands or boyfriends, the women tend to be eight months pregnant — they're there and the baby is coming," Brown continued. "They can see the woman and unborn child as something that is in the way, keeps them from living the lifestyle they want."

Jealous of the Unborn

While pregnancy is supposed to be a happy time, it can aggravate an already troubled relationship undermined by either extramarital affairs or a long history of abuse.

"Her body begins to change," said Sheryl Cates, executive director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "There are also hormone changes that a woman experiences. … Emotionally, she may cry a lot, which may be irritating and frustrating. If you already have a volatile situation, add those factors [and] you have an escalation of violence. Often, that leads to death."

Sometimes pregnancy can make husbands or boyfriends feel ignored, prompting them to seek gratification elsewhere. Soon, the pregnant wife and unborn child become obstacles, not sources of happiness, and that can lead to premeditated 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," said Tod Burke, associate professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer. "But, there really is no typical motive in cases like these. It really is situational."

The Need for Control … or Escape

Despite the various motives, experts say all these killings have a common denominator: a need for control. Pregnancy can make domineering husbands and boyfriends feel like they are no longer powerful and in control, especially in abusive relationships. Murder is the ultimate demonstration of control.

"What we find with men who are violent toward their intimate partner is that he feels that he's lost control or possession over her or her body," said Cates. "He feels that he is not getting the attention that he deserves. He often feels … that he's lost his place to the baby."

Sometimes the desire to continue an extramarital affair, cover it up or make it go away can endanger a pregnant woman. In Ohio, Dr. Maynard Muntzing is serving a five-year prison sentence for contamination of a substance for human consumption and attempted felonious assault after dropping anti-ulcer medication in his pregnant girlfriend's drink.

Muntzing was still married when Michelle Baker told him she was pregnant with his child. Muntzing, who wanted to reconcile with his estranged wife, Tammy, asked Baker to get an abortion and she refused.

One of the side effects of the medication Muntzing put in Baker's drink was miscarriage, and two months later she lost the child she was carrying. Muntzing was arrested in August 2000 after police, observing him through a pinhole video camera, saw him tamper with another drink meant for Baker in her kitchen.

Baker was never charged with the fetus' death because coroners could not definitively tie the miscarriage to the medication placed in Baker's drink. However, Baker is suing Maynard and his wife — who admitted obtaining the medication for her husband — for wrongful death.

Unsuspecting Families

Sometimes the actions are money-driven. Former rising NFL star Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiracy in 2000 for hiring a man to shoot and kill his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, because, prosecutors said, he didn't want to pay child support. Their child survived the attack, but he was born with cerebral palsy.

In the case of Charles Stuart, the 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.

"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 Radford University's 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?' "

Still, most families never see trouble coming. Charles Stuart's in-laws stood by him and believed his claim that a black man wounded him and gunned down Carol DiMaiti Stuart during a robbery.

"Our suspicions were never aroused," Carl DiMaiti, Carol's brother, told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America on Wednesday. "And up until the moment that Chuck took his own life, we felt that there was someone out there that had committed the murder."

While Scott Peterson has pleaded not guilty, he has admitted to having an affair, and both Laci's and his parents have said the young couple seemed to have a great relationship and no financial woes. If Scott Peterson is convicted, it would fit the pattern.

Maybe a More Serious Problem

Aside from their basic motivations, the people who kill pregnant women do not fit a particular profile. Experts say they cross racial barriers and can be upstanding citizens with no prior criminal record, like Charles Stuart, or rising football stars like Carruth.

According to the most recent statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 33 percent of all the women slain nationwide in 2000 were killed by intimate partners. Some experts suspect that many more pregnant women may be in danger and even dying because they keep their domestic abuse secret.

"It's about shame, and feeling embarrassed," Cates said. "Women want to keep it secret. They want to have the family that everyone dreams of having."

In many cases, she said, the fact that a slain woman or domestic abuse victim was pregnant may never be reported.

"Only 17 states … are reporting that a woman was pregnant at the time of death," Cates said. "It's not on the death certificate, so it may mean … that women are dying at a much greater rate than we know."

The phone number for National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

ABCNEWS' Jay Schadler and John Kennedy contributed to this report.

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