MODESTO — Alexandrea Bigham was not just the victim of a horrific act at the hands of her mother. She was much more than that to the people who had the chance to know her in a life that ended much too soon. She was a sweet little girl with a loving family and a smile that could warm any heart.
"It's easy to forget that this little person had a life and a family who loved her," said Christina Silvey, Alexandrea's godmother. "I don't want people to remember her for what happened to her, but to know what she was like before that happened."
About 5:50 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2010, Jennifer Lynn Bigham drowned her only child, 3-year-old Alexandrea, in a bathtub at a Patterson home. Doctors have testified that Bigham was suffering from severe depression combined with a psychotic episode.
Because of her mental illness, the court determined Bigham was not guilty of murder and child abuse by reason of insanity.
Doctors said Bigham no longer exhibits the symptoms that led to her psychotic episode and has fully recovered her sanity. A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ordered her release Tuesday after three years in jail awaiting prosecution.
Silvey, who has a lot of animosity toward Bigham, said her cousin should not have been released from custody. She said three years in a jail cell is not enough for what she did.
"I cannot believe she's out in society because she committed this horrific crime," Silvey said about Bigham. "She's just taken someone from us so precious. I do believe she should pay for what she did."
Marlon Simon, Bigham's defense attorney, said he and his client did not want to comment for this report. The deputy public defender has said the judge in this case followed the law by ordering his client's release from jail.
Testimony indicated that Bigham hopes to seek treatment for past alcohol and drug abuse and perhaps find a job in medical billing, a profession in which she has some training. It's unclear where Bigham will restart her life outside of custody.
The child's death has affected Silvey and her family for many reasons. The drowning occurred at Silvey's parents' home. Silvey was close to Alexandrea, spending a lot of time with the child and caring for her like she was her own daughter.
Silvey and her family never have spoken publicly about the child's death or the criminal case that followed. After reading news reports about Bigham's release from jail, Silvey approached The Bee to show others how much Alexandrea meant to her family.
Bigham and Silvey were close as children, but they grew apart as they got older. When Bigham was about six months pregnant with Alexandrea, Silvey said she and her cousin reconnected.
She said Bigham suffered from postpartum depression, but it's unclear to her whether the young mother ever took medication or participated in any type of treatment. Silvey said Bigham appeared to improve, but they constantly checked on her. "Because postpartum depression is a serious thing, and we wanted to make sure Alexandrea would be OK (around her mother)," Silvey said.
But Bigham never showed signs of psychotic or delusional behavior around the Silveys. Had Bigham acted in such a manner, Silvey said, her family would have done something to help. "We wanted nothing but the best for them, for her and Alexandrea," she said.
Alexandrea and her mother spent a lot of time at the Silvey family home in Patterson, at one point moving in for a few months. They became part of the family. "My parents were accepting and very supportive," Silvey said. "(Alexandrea) loved us."
Silvey was there for Alexandrea's first visit to the doctor and her first trip to the dentist. Alexandrea was a flower girl in Silvey's wedding.
She and the little girl would take trips to the park, and Silvey made sure to always have a camera handy. Because Bigham was attending a career college, studying medical billing and coding, Silvey didn't want her cousin to miss these moments.
"I wanted to document as much of her life as I could," Silvey said about the toddler.
She said Alexandrea was a funny little girl who got a kick out of perfumed body sprays being spritzed on her. Silvey's younger brothers treated Alexandrea like a little sister, once dressing her up like a pirate.
"She was never really upset or cranky," Silvey said while fighting back tears during a phone interview with The Bee this week. "She was just a joy to be around."
The clever little girl learned how to tease Silvey's dad by calling for him repeatedly "uncle, uncle, uncle, uncle" for no reason other than just to be funny.
It all ended in January 2010.
Bigham and her daughter had moved around a lot since the child was born, living in Patterson with the Silveys, in Hayward with Bigham's dad and in Castro Valley with Bigham's grandmother. Early reports from authorities indicated that Alexandrea's father was not involved in her upbringing.
Silvey had moved out of her parents' home, and was living in San Francisco and working as a respiratory specialist at Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland. She picked up her cousin and Alexandrea in the Bay Area to take them to Patterson on Jan. 13, 2010.
She said her cousin looked odd, and she suspected Bigham had been using drugs. The young mother did not show signs of her impending psychotic episode.
The following day, shortly after sunset, Bigham was at the Patterson home with Alexandrea. Silvey said her 20-year-old and 15-year-old brothers also were at the home, taking care of their 7-month-old sister. Silvey's mother was on her way home.
The brothers suddenly realized Bigham and her daughter were inside a locked master bedroom. They heard water splashing and the child scream, "no, no," according to a prosecutor's account of the incident.
Silvey said her family does not speak about what happened that night. The dark memories are overwhelming. She said she doesn't know what her brothers heard, but it's clear to her they had no clue what actually was happening inside the bedroom's bathroom. "They did not know what was going on," she said.
Silvey's mother arrived a short time later and found the locked bedroom door. She said her mother made her way around the house and entered the bathroom through a window, finding Alexandrea in the tub.
The prosecutor said Bigham had left the bedroom and grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen. Bigham then cut herself in the chest with the knife, creating superficial wounds.
Authorities tried to resuscitate Alexandrea, but she died at a Modesto hospital about four hours later. Bigham was treated for her wounds at a hospital before she was taken to the Stanislaus County Jail.
Silvey did not attend any of Bigham's court hearings. She said it would have been too upsetting to see her cousin in the courtroom after what she did.
The child's death had a long-lasting effect on the Silveys. Their home was a crime scene, so they had to stay away for a while. When they returned, they found items were, understandably, removed from the home to be analyzed as evidence. Large pieces of carpet were torn out, a vivid reminder of what happened in their home.
The family also spent a lot of time avoiding news media requests for interviews. Silvey said some reporters sought comments from her via her MySpace page. And it was difficult to move on because Patterson is such a small town and everyone knew what had happened in the home.
"For us, it was an absolute nightmare," Silvey said. "It was just too much. It consumed us."
More importantly, their home just wasn't the same without Alexandrea. Silvey's parents split up. Most of the family, including Christina Silvey, moved to Georgia. But they haven't forgotten the little girl who brightened up their lives. Silvey had Alexandrea's name tattooed on the inside of her left arm, she said, "because I can't hold her anymore."
She can't help but think about the moments she didn't get a chance to share with her goddaughter. "I promised I would take Alexandrea to Disneyland on her fifth birthday, no matter what," Silvey said. "Instead of taking her to Disneyland, I took flowers to her grave on her fifth birthday. That's something a person shouldn't have to do."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.