Death In A Dumpster

AMY GROSSBERG WENT INTO labor just after midnight. She was in her freshman dorm room at the University of Delaware, in pain and terrified. She couldn't go to the hospital. Only 18, she had spent the last nine months hiding her pregnancy from her well-to-do parents, perhaps afraid to shatter their suburb- perfect image of their lovely, artistic daughter. So she called the baby's father, Brian Peterson Jr., also 18, at his college in Gettysburg, Pa. He arrived three hours later in his black Toyota Celica, took her to a nearby Comfort Inn motel and paid $52 for Room 220. What happened next is equal parts mystery and tragedy. Police say a healthy baby boy--20 inches long; 6 pounds, 2 ounces--was born toward morning. Brian told the authorities that he put the child in a plastic bag and deposited him in the motel Dumpster. The students returned to their colleges--stopping at a carwash, perhaps to clean up the Celica's interior--and hoped that their gilded, carefree lives would go on as if nothing had happened. But something had. The next day, police say, they found the infant--shaken to death and with his skull and brain crushed. Amy and Brian were charged with murder. If they're convicted, the Delaware attorney general says she will ask for the death penalty.

Such grisly crimes aren't entirely uncommon. Last week a cleaning woman at a movie theater in New York's Long Island found an hours-old boy asphyxiated in a toilet. FBI statistics show that 207 children younger than a week were murdered in 1994, a 92 percent increase since 1973. There is a pattern to these deaths. The parents are usually young and poor; the mother frequently acts alone. But Grossberg and Peterson don't fit the profile, which is one reason their families--and suburban parents around the country--are so shaken. Both Grossberg and Peterson come from wealthy, stable homes. Friends describe them as ""good'' kids. They had access to abortion clinics, adoption agencies and counseling to handle an unwanted child. ""They were two wealthy kids who had so many options in life,'' Constantine Maroulis, a Grossberg family friend, told NEWSWEEK. Seeking out an abortion, or putting the baby up for adoption, perhaps seemed too risky to the teens: their families could somehow find out. The fear that this child would cost Grossberg and Peterson their privileged lives--and disappoint the people who had made their comfortable worlds possible--may have led the too-young parents into a spiral of fatal decisions.

They met at Ramapo Regional High School in Franklin Lakes, N.J., an affluent suburb of golf courses and million-dollar houses 20 miles northwest of New York City. Theirs was a classic teenage courtship--the proms, the glowing yearbook photos--in a town where everything was above average. She excelled at art and French. He was a jock: captain of the golf team, cocaptain of the soccer squad. Both kids grew up in new-money suburban manses and drove their own cars (hers was a white Cherokee). Grossberg's father owns a large furniture business; her mother is an interior designer. Peterson's mother and stepfather run a successful video-rental business. Walking the halls at Ramapo, the popular couple seemed an ideal match. ""It was probably about as serious as a teenage relationship gets,'' Amy Lucibello, who worked for a summer with Grossberg at the Market Basket gourmet-food store, told NEWSWEEK.

When they left for college late last summer, Grossberg was six months pregnant. Peterson made the three-hour trip from Gettysburg College to Delaware every other weekend; she visited him once. Though Grossberg--who is just over five feet tall and wears size-1 pants--somehow managed to hide her pregnancy from friends and family at home, she made no secret of her condition at school. ""She wore tight shirts--she didn't hide it,'' says Seth Chorba, 18, who lived on the same floor of Thompson Hall as Grossberg. ""Nobody approached her because we kind of respected her privacy.'' Students who met them at both schools say Grossberg and Peterson seemed perfectly well adjusted. There are no reports of missed classes or other signs of stress. The only potential trouble came when Grossberg's mother, Sonye, said she planned to go to Delaware for homecoming last month. Her daughter told her she'd be away visiting friends. Perhaps Amy--in her eighth month of pregnancy--couldn't face her.

When her water broke in her dorm at about 12:45 a.m. on Nov. 12, Grossberg apparently wasn't sure what was happening. According to police reports, she called Peterson and said ""her stomach was bothering her and she might be in labor.'' After he picked her up, they drove past several cheap motels along the highway before deciding on the Comfort Inn. They checked in at 3:10 a.m. About an hour later, Grossberg gave birth. Around 5 a.m., they checked out and returned to her dorm room, where the couple slept for a few hours before Peterson drove back to Gettysburg. The only evidence left of their ordeal lay wrapped in a gray plastic bag in the Dumpster behind the motel.

They almost got away with it. Grossberg's dormmates didn't notice anything about her demeanor or body that indicated she had given birth. ""There was really no change. It was the same Amy,'' Chorba says. But later that day, at about 5 p.m., Grossberg began to complain of stomach pain and slumped to the floor of her dorm. She had turned very pale and blood was seeping into her pants. Her roommate went running down the hall for help. Someone called an ambulance. When Grossberg arrived at Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, doctors discovered that the baby's placenta had not passed through her uterus during delivery, which caused complications. She finally broke down and told doctors about the motel birth--and her boyfriend's role in disposing of the baby. Police in Delaware and Pennsylvania began to investigate. They found damp and bloody sheets, clothes and sanitary napkins in Amy's room.

By then, Peterson had also begun to snap. Just hours after returning to his Gettysburg campus, he confided to a student-residence counselor that he had helped his girlfriend give birth and they had ""gotten rid'' of the child, according to police. Investigators found a bag of bloody sheets in his dorm as well. In his car was a receipt from the White Glove Car Wash stamped with the time 11:28 a.m., about seven hours after the baby was born. Pennsylvania officials held Peterson on misdemeanor charges of concealing the death of a baby, but they were forced to release him because the alleged crime occurred in another state and they had no evidence to hold him. Peterson promptly disappeared.

Meanwhile, police in Delaware had discovered the baby's corpse. An autopsy completed a few days later showed that he had died of ""multiple skull fractures, with injury to the brain, blunt-force head trauma and shaking,'' according to the official report. As she was released after five days in the hospital, police arrested Grossberg--looking pale and eerie in a hooded sweat shirt--and charged her with first-degree murder. The Delaware attorney general, M. Jane Brady, announced that because the victim was younger than 14, the state planned to seek the death penalty against both teens.

Facing the prospect of death, Peterson went deeper into hiding. A national manhunt, headed by the FBI, mobilized the media. While the New York tabloids screamed HOW COULD THEY?, friends and neighbors defended the couple. ""She was the sweetest girl you ever met. It's like Barbie getting busted,'' Maroulis said. Peterson's lawyer, Joseph Hurley, tried to soften his client's baby-killer image in the face of a potential death sentence by announcing that Peterson wasn't fleeing; he was in seclusion with his mother, Barbara Zuchowski. True, the family had considered secreting him to a country without an extradition treaty with the United States. ""How can I give my only born child to the state to die?'' Hurley reported Zuchowski as saying. But with the Feds threatening to step up their search, Peterson's family realized he would have to turn himself in.

The night before surrendering, Peterson and his family moved to an undisclosed hotel in the Wilmington area. The young fugitive spent the evening praying, Hurley said. At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Hurley, Peterson and his parents drove from the hotel to a Wilmington street corner two blocks from the local FBI office. The blue-eyed teen wore a baseball cap, blue jeans, T shirt--the antithesis of a rich boy's jacket and tie. Worried about death threats, Peterson also sported a bulletproof vest, a loan from the FBI. As the family moved slowly through a mass of about 50 pushing, shouting reporters, Peterson's mother clung tightly to his arm. She sobbed as someone yelled, ""Baby killer!'' As they arrived at the courthouse, she wailed, ""I want to go with him!'' Inside, Peterson said just one word--""yes''--as the judge asked him to confirm his name. When asked how his client would plead, Hurley responded just as Grossberg's lawyer did: ""We take the position that he did not murder.''

But the defense is not taking any chances. The teens' lawyers have hired Dr. Michael Baden, a well-known forensic pathologist who testified for O. J. Simpson at his murder trial, to work as a consultant. One possible argument is that, rather than beating the baby to death, the scared young parents accidentally crushed his skull while trying to deliver their own child. That could still get a manslaughter conviction, but it avoids the death penalty. With a grand jury expected to convene this week, lawyers for both sides say they're still formulating strategy. They haven't decided whether they will seek separate trials, though Hurley started to point the finger at Grossberg last week. ""I think her concerns are the major thing that led them to where they ended up,'' he said. ""She was totally concerned with not letting Mom find out.''

Both sides will no doubt try to appeal to the jury's sympathies. Were these rich kids who callously killed so they could continue to lead worry-free, country-club lives? Or can their lawyers put their youth and upbringing in a perspective that will explain what they did? ""Time after time we see teenagers who don't fully understand the consequences,'' says James Fox, a juvenile-crime expert at Northeastern University. ""They understand cognitively that murder is wrong. But emotionally, they're immature.'' John Daley, 20, a childhood friend of Peterson's, says, ""There's a lot of pressure in a neighborhood like that, especially with the girls, to be the perfect princess. She must have built up in her mind how terrible it would be if her mother found out, how everybody would look down at her. Image is everything.'' Now Grossberg and Peterson must confront something far more terrifying than humiliation: the pros- pect of death row.