The Journal Gazette
Monday, June 10, 2019 10:00 am

Mother's arrest leads to baffling questions

Kyle Swenson | The Washington Post

The cemetery sits off a lonely two-lane road, tucked between cornfields and the occasional house screened from passing traffic by thick clumps of trees. The neat rows of tombstones rest in rural Thompson Township, Ohio, 42 miles northeast of Cleveland.

One marker stands out among the usual epitaphs memorializing long-gone loved ones.

A single year is chiseled into the stone – 1993  under an odd name: "Geauga's Child." One side of the grave marker reaches for poetry. "Geauga's Child lies here now in safety  just too late," it reads. "Too late to save his life / Too late to make things right/ But not too late to teach us all to love and cherish life."

The stone's other side lays out the facts: How on March 25, 1993, a newborn boy was found dead in a trash bag on a nearby muddy country road. How the child  who the coroner determined was alive at birth  tore so deeply at the community that volunteers donated money for the burial and the tombstone. How the community named the boy Geauga's Child after the county where he was discovered, an effort to wrench the discarded baby away from the anonymity of his death and adopt him as their own.

But until recently, the simple story told on the tombstone was all anyone knew about Geauga's Child.

Despite hundreds of tips and decades of investigation, police failed to not only identify the child, but understand who had left him behind. The community, however, did not forget. Residents reportedly still leave gifts and flowers on the child's grave.

That included Thomas Dewey, a now-retired Geauga County Sheriff's detective who was the first law enforcement officer on the scene when the boy was discovered.

"I periodically would stop down at the gravesite and tell the kid, 'I'm sorry this happened to you and I'm trying to do what I can to find you mother [sic] to find out why it happened to you,' " Dewey recently told the Geauga Maple Leaf. "And I kind of felt like it was going to be a lost cause."

Twenty-six years after Geauga's Child was discovered, police have answers  or at least some answers.

At a news conference on Thursday, Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand announced the child's mother had been identified using genealogical research. The woman, Gail Eastwood-Ritchey, 49, is a married mother of three from the Cleveland suburbs. She has been charged with aggravated murder and murder. Hildenbrand told reporters the suspect has admitted to abandoning the child.

Despite the announcement, Eastwood-Ritchey's identification has only upended the logic of a cold case arrest.

When these longtime mysteries are finally cracked, answers are supposed to pour out, the long-sought who filling in the elusive why. But the bizarre details revealed last week only sink the case in more obscurity.

"Her reaction was that she had not even thought about this until we brought it up," Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand said, according to WEWS. "She had completely put it out of her mind. She always referred to the baby as 'it.' She really had no emotions as far as that's concerned."

The most shocking new detail, according to authorities, is that Eastwood-Ritchey allegedly confessed that Geauga's Child was not the first baby she had secretly abandoned.

The story of Geauga's Child begins on March 25, 1993. That morning, 21-year-old Cheryl Jenkins was bouncing down an empty county road in a pickup truck with a friend. They were driving their route delivering newspapers. Watching the edge of the road, where melting snow brushed against the woods, Jenkins noticed something that made her stop the car and swing back around.

It was a dead baby, stuffed inside a garbage bag. The infant's arm and leg were gone, likely the result of animals. A piece of the umbilical cord was still connected to the newborn.

"It was a horrific scene," Dewey, the first deputy on the scene, would later tell the News-Herald.

Authorities later determined the child was between 1 and 5 days old. They could not discern whether he was dead when he was abandoned or had died in the cold.

"I just hope they find out who did it," Jenkins told WOIO in 1993. "I hope they're punished because there are a lot of people out there who want babies, they could have gave it up for adoption."

Man-hours and tips and legwork could not lead investigators to answer who would leave a child in such a state. According to the News-Herald, 34 individuals were investigated, 24 subpoenas were issued. Nothing.

Wondering if the publicity swirling around Geauga's Child would kick loose remorse in the parents, investigators hid a camera at the child's grave, hoping to catch the parents returning to secretly pay their respects.

In 2003, years after the boy was found, a ceremony was held at the grave to mark the occasion. Dewey, the deputy, placed a baseball mitt and ball near the tombstone.

"He would be 10 years old now, probably have a crew cut with a baseball cap," he told the News-Herald at the time. "He would like to play ball and run around with his siblings. That's what should have happened for Geauga's Child."

As Hildenbrand detailed at last week's news conference, the real break in the case came in 2018, when headlines across the nation began blaring news about how forensic genealogy was being used to crack long-cold cases, including the Golden State Killer.

Using a DNA sample collected from the child, investigators began to piece together familial connections.

"A family tree was produced consisting of over 1,400 people in an effort to identify the parents of Geauga's Child," Hildenbrand said. "These people were from around the world, in different countries, when they started. They were narrowed down by their DNA that they had previously submitted voluntarily to an online database. With their permission, we were able to compare their DNA to one another and to Geauga's Child."

Eventually in late 2018, the matches led to Eastwood-Ritchey. Two weeks ago, her DNA sample was matched with the dead child's sample.

There were more surprises.

Investigators learned that Eastwood-Ritchey had been married and raised three now-adult children. The DNA testing, however, determined that Eastwood-Ritchey's husband was the father of Geauga's Child.

When confronted by investigators, Eastwood-Ritchey admitted to abandoning the boy. She was arrested last Thursday. According to Hildenbrand, she told authorities "that she hid the pregnancy and that nobody knew she was pregnant," the Maple Leaf reported. But Eastwood-Ritchey showed "absolutely no remorse and takes no ownership" of the baby, the sheriff added.

"I don't know how you could up the next morning like that [sic], let alone 26 years later, and raise a family and go one like a normal person," he said.

She also told investigators that she had committed a similar crime with another baby in 1991, police said. Hildenbrand told reporters authorities are investigating the claim, but have yet to find any remains.

"She gave us a pretty specific area where she had taken the first baby," Hildenbrand said. "That was 30 years ago and there's no evidence there."

The news shocked Eastwood-Ritchey's friends and neighbors. For the last three years, she worked as a receptionist at a dance studio. The studio's director, Colleen Rhode, told WKYC Eastwood-Ritchey was a friendly Christian woman.

"She was a lovely lady and she was well liked by our whole entire studio," Rhode said. "She always had a smile on her face. She was always involved in her kids' activities."

Eastwood-Ritchey is in police custody. She will be formally arraigned on Monday. Court records do not indicate whether she has an attorney.

Dewey, now retired from law enforcement, told the Maple Leaf he was tipped off to the coming arrest by the sheriff two weeks ago.

"Actually, on Memorial Day I went down to the cemetery and I put a flower on the kid's grave and told him, 'Little guy, we found your mother and I hope to make her pay,' " he said.

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