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Turlock mother will face murder charge
Jessica Mae Betts
A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that there is enough evidence present to hold a 20-year-old woman over on charges that she murdered her newborn daughter and left it wrapped in a plastic bag inside a Dumpster behind a Turlock grocery store.
Jessica Mae Betts will stand trial on a felony charge of premeditated murder in the first degree. The Turlock woman could face a life spent behind bars if she is convicted of the charges against her. Betts has pleaded not guilty and has been held at the Public Safety Center on a $1 million bail since her arrest last year.
“This is a tragic case and makes you wonder wasn’t there something that could have happened to prevent this,” Judge Donald Shaver said when handing down his ruling during the preliminary hearing. “It’s certainly an unfortunate lapse in judgment that had tragic consequences. It’s hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, the mother or the baby.”
Shaver’s comment vocalized an unasked question that seemed to linger in the courtroom throughout the two days of the proceedings — what if she would have told someone about her pregnancy?
Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees laid out a series of occasions of when Betts’ co-workers, boyfriend, and her mother, asked her if she was pregnant and she repeatedly denied it.
“The defendant denied being pregnant to everyone she knew,” Rees said in her closing arguments. “Denied, denied, denied. She never planned to reveal this child to anyone.”
On Nov. 8, 2008, a man looking for discarded video tapes, found the newborn infant in a Dumpster behind the Save Mart grocery store at 1631 Lander Ave. The newborn was wrapped in a green-printed towel and placed inside a plastic Target shopping bag, along with a pair of bloodied purple sweatpants. Betts’ fingerprints were found on the bag.
Betts was arrested on Nov. 20, 2008, after her mother, Lillie Mae Betts, went to the police with her suspicion that her daughter was the woman who had given birth and discarded the newborn in the trash bin. A subsequent DNA test confirmed she was the mother of the baby, later named Maria Mae Betts.
Prior to her arrest, Betts spoke with Turlock Police Detective Sergio Perez for several hours, detailing the baby’s birth and giving her account of how the baby died.
According to Perez’s testimony, Betts initially was “bubbly” when he started speaking with her and told him that she didn’t have a child and that she wasn’t ready for one. Perez said about two hours later, Betts was sobbing and had admitted to giving birth to a baby on a bathroom floor.
Betts admitted she gave birth to the 8 pounds, 1 ounce baby girl in the bathroom of her boyfriend’s parent’s house on English Avenue in Turlock around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2008. She told the detective the baby came out head first and that she wrapped it in a towel. She said the baby made “whimpering” noises and moved her arms.
She described to the detective of cutting the afterbirth and flushing it down the toilet, then placing the baby in the car and driving to the Save Mart parking lot.
Perez testified Monday that Betts told him she sat in the back seat of the car holding the baby as her breathing became shallow and eventually stopped.
“She said she kissed the baby and said she loved it,” Perez testified.
According to Betts’ statement to the detective, she doesn’t remember anything after that point until she was driving back home.
Surveillance footage shows the same model car Betts admitted driving, pull up towards the Dumpster at 9:35 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2008, and leave at 9:41 a.m. The sole occupant of the car could not be identified through the footage.
The boyfriend, Paul Alexander Aguiar Jr., and his mother were both at the English Avenue residence when Betts went into labor, but both said they heard nothing. The boyfriend told investigators he didn’t know Betts was pregnant, even though he said they had intercourse four weeks before Betts gave birth. He said he had asked her about the possibility that she was pregnant around August or September, but that she told him she was not expecting.
Betts’ mother also had her own suspicions that her daughter was pregnant. She told Turlock police investigators that her daughter had put on about 30 pounds and was always wearing loose clothing. Lillie Mae Betts told the investigators she repeatedly asked her daughter if she was pregnant and was always told no. At one point she bought a pregnancy test and some baby clothes for a newborn, but she said Betts refused to take the test and wouldn’t talk about it any further.
The mother recognized the purple sweatpants mentioned in news reports and contacted the police with her suspicions.
Before the preliminary hearing got underway on Monday, the defense argued that Betts’ statements should be thrown out because her rights were violated. Public Defender Sonny Sandhu said Betts was held for more than five hours before being charged and advised of her rights to remain silent and have an attorney present. He also contended that during that time, Betts was emotionally manipulated into making her statements.
“The detective told Miss Betts her baby was looking down on her from heaven and she needs to know someone cares about her,” Sandhu said.
Sandhu said “the totality of the circumstances” added up to a detention and an interrogation and Betts should have been advised of her rights earlier.
Judge Shaver ruled against the motion to suppress Betts’ statements, saying she went to the police department willingly with the detectives and could have left at any point and that there was no appearance that the detective “took advantage of her emotional state.”
During the preliminary hearing the defense argued that a murder charge was unsustainable because there was no medical evidence that indicated the baby was born alive, nor was there a determined cause of death.
Dr. Eugene Carpenter, a forensic pathologist for Stanislaus County, testified that there was no one piece of conclusive medical evidence that would point to the newborn having been born alive, or if it died in birth. He did say that a set of contributing factors led him to conclude that it was “most probable” that the baby was born alive.
“Everything was consistent with a live birth,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter could also not say with any certainty how the baby died. It’s possible the newborn died from suffocation, but Carpenter said there was “no way to distinguish between suffocation during the birthing process and afterwards.”
“There is no way of knowing whether this baby was born alive,” Sandhu said during his closing arguments. “There is no evidence Miss Betts took any willful acts to kill this baby.”
The judge found in favor of the prosecution, stating there was a “strong suspicion” that some criminal acts had occurred and that Betts would have to stand trial.
During the cross-examination of Carpenter, the defense showed photos from the autopsy, which brought Lillie Mae Betts, who was present in the gallery, to tears as she clutched a pink baby blanket.
Betts will be in court again at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 8 for an arraignment.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.