It took her a long time, but Lillie Betts at last can talk about what happened to her family four years ago.
Lillie still struggles at times when discussing her daughter, Jessica Betts, and the baby Jessica left in a Dumpster in Turlock. Though Jessica denied any involvement and had denied to friends, co-workers, her mother and her boyfriend that she was pregnant Lillie knew better.
She said she knew her daughter was pregnant after seeing her for the first time in about three months Jessica had been living with her boyfriend in Turlock.
Lillie said she got a baby gift for Jessica. "She threw it onto the ground," Lillie said. "She said she was tired of people asking her if she was pregnant. But I knew. There was no way she couldn't be."
Lillie said her daughter now admits she had the baby, but still won't talk about the day she gave birth.
According to court testimony, Jessica told police she delivered a baby girl on the bathroom floor of the home she shared with her boyfriend about 6 a.m. Nov. 8, 2008.
Jessica told police she wrapped the newborn, who was whimpering, in a pair of purple sweat pants and a towel and drove to Save Mart on Lander Avenue. She sat and cried as her baby's breathing slowed and then stopped, then kissed the baby and said, "I love you," according to testimony.
Jessica told detectives she didn't know how the baby got in the Dumpster, and she still won't talk about it, Lillie said.
When she heard news accounts that a passer-by had discovered a baby's body, Lillie immediately suspected her daughter. Those suspicions were confirmed when she learned that a pair of purple sweat pants had been found with the body.
"I knew Jessica had purple sweats," Lillie said.
So she called the police. For Lillie, it was a tremendously hard call, but not a difficult decision.
"I always told my daughters, 'If you do something illegal, I will be the one to report you,' " Lillie said. The single mother of four girls Jessica is the youngest even went so far as to accompany one of her daughters to school after the youngster had ditched class one day.
Investigators pieced together a case against Jessica Betts, then 19, who eventually pleaded no contest to felony child abuse that caused the death of the baby her mother named Maria Mae Betts. Lillie wanted to see her daughter punished, but negotiated with prosecutors to reduce Jessica's sentence.
A devout Christian, Lillie said she knew that calling the authorities was the right thing to do. And now, she feels strongly that the right thing to do is to tell her story to young people and inform them about the Safely Surrendered Baby law, which allows parents to leave an infant at a site such as a hospital within 72 hours of the baby's birth.
In many areas, fire and police stations are included as "Safe Surrender" sites. Stanislaus County lists only hospitals, which have reported 11 safely surrendered babies since January 2008, said county spokesman David Jones.
"I don't want this to happen to any more babies," said Lillie, who has contacted the Victim Witness program of the Stanislaus County district attorney's office about her wish to talk about the law when her schedule allows. She works at a large retail store in Stanislaus County.
DA's office ready to help
Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees, who prosecuted Jessica Betts, said she's glad Lillie is moving forward with her efforts. She said her office can help set up programs through which Lillie could speak to students and other young people.
"I know they're doing a lot at the hospitals with this, but somebody like Jessica Betts who didn't go for any kind of prenatal care wouldn't hear about it," Rees said, adding that other targets could be schools, shelters and presentations to community service groups.
Rees said Lillie Betts' decision to contact authorities was "very brave. Lillie literally had to balance the love for her granddaughter who was gone and her own child, her daughter, and her desire to do the same thing."
Rees said that while she was prosecuting the Betts case, she asked a group of high school students if they were aware of the safe surrender law and was surprised to learn the kids weren't.
Lillie said she also is surprised at how many people don't know about the law, including a politician who came knocking on her door this fall, seeking her vote. Lillie said she would like to see signs posted prominently at police and fire stations, hospitals, even on Dumpsters.
Lillie voiced her intention to speak on the safe surrender law during her daughter's 2010 sentencing hearing. But only recently has she felt strong enough to follow through on her promise.
"I'm getting better," she said softly. "Six months ago, I couldn't do this."
Strengthening her resolve
Her resolve is strengthened each time she hears about another abandoned baby. She feels particularly protective of an anonymous baby found dead in a trash can in Waterford a year ago.
The infant, J. Doe, is buried a couple of spots away from Maria at a cemetery in Ceres.
Lillie and her other daughters visit the grave regularly, celebrating Maria's birthday and bringing a Christmas tree for the holidays. She's started bringing items for the grave site of the Waterford baby, too. And last week, when she hung an ornament she'd made for Maria during the Candlelight Vigil for Victims at the Stanislaus County Courthouse, she put up a shiny red ball for J. Doe.
In memory of granddaughter
Lillie still gets emotional when talking about Maria, her only grandchild. She sleeps with the blanket that wrapped Maria's tiny body as Lillie held her at the Stanislaus County coroner's office.
"No parent should have to hold their deceased grandchild," Lillie said.
She and her daughters see Jessica, who is serving her eight-year sentence at a prison Lillie asked not be named. They spoke regularly on the telephone until it got too expensive.
"She's still angry," Lillie said of her daughter. And her other daughters, each of whom has special needs, continue to struggle with what happened in November 2008, as well as Jessica's incarceration. "They miss their sister," Lillie said.
And there are others affected. "There were two sets of families that were hurt," Lillie said. Jessica's boyfriend, who fathered the child, did not face charges in the baby's death. Lillie said she let him choose his daughter's first name.
Lillie said she is hopeful that when Jessica, now 23, is released, they can mend their relationship and the girl who won scholastic awards in junior high and high school and befriended children who had suffered at the hands of bullies can repair her life. With continued good behavior, Jessica Betts could be paroled in 2014.
In the meantime, her mother is focused on reaching out to others who might find themselves in a similar situation to Jessica's, to let them know about a better option than leaving a baby to die.
"I want them to know that no matter what, that baby is someone special," Lillie said. "I'm not doing it for me. I'm doing it in memory of Maria."
Bee Director of Multimedia Images Joan Barnett Lee contributed to this report.
Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.