One of the happiest times in many women’s lives is pregnancy. However, pregnancy is not without its risks, including complications for mother or child, some severe enough to lead to death. Crime is another risk faced by pregnant women from all walks of life. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the startling results of a Maryland study focusing on pregnancy-associated deaths over the prior five years. Out of the 247 deaths, 50 were due to murder, making homicide the leading cause of death. Other studies, including those done in Illinois and New York, have yielded similar results.
Many of the more well-known cases in which a pregnant woman was murdered involve the woman’s husband or boyfriend. Californian Scott Peterson, for example, was found guilty of murdering his wife Laci and their unborn son Conner on or about Christmas Eve of 2002. Police soon learned of Scott’s extramarital affairs, including one he carried on with Amber Frey while Laci was reportedly missing. Almost four months after Laci’s disappearance, the remains of mother and son washed up on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, where Scott had been fishing. Scott was arrested a few days later, apparently while preparing to flee the country with a passport, $15,000 cash and altered appearance. Citing Scott’s reluctance to become a father, prosecutors won a conviction and death sentence in March 2005.
Two years after Laci Peterson’s murder, Utah resident Lori Hacking learned of her husband Mark’s double life. Mark faked a college education and acceptance to a North Carolina medical school, which Lori eventually discovered. After she learned of Mark’s deception, he shot her as she slept and disposed of her body in a dumpster. Family members said Lori was approximately five weeks pregnant; however, by the time searchers discovered her body in the local landfill, this could not be physically confirmed. But Mark himself admitted in court to killing his wife and his child, lending credence to the pregnancy claims. Hacking received a sentence of six years to life in prison, a term which may seem light but was the strongest allowed by state law with the evidence prosecutors possessed.
In Pennsylvania in 2005, LaToyia Figueroa was murdered five months into her pregnancy by Stephen Poaches, the father of her unborn child. Unlike the previously mentioned cases, Figueroa was a minority – half black and half Hispanic. Her disappearance did not receive the media attention garnered by Laci and Lori, a phenomenon eventually referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The defense argued that Poaches strangled Figueroa in the heat of the moment during a fight over whether she should have an abortion. This strategy was unsuccessful, however, and Poaches was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Although partners are most likely to be involved in the murders of pregnant women, expecting mothers also face danger from acquaintances or even total strangers. This will be covered in part two of this series.