Pa. mother waives hearing in newborn deaths

November 3, 2010 5:41:39 PM PDT
A teenager who found infant remains in a locked closet, leading police to suspect her mother killed five newborns after secret, extramarital pregnancies, faced her mother in court Wednesday.

Michele Kalina, 44, waived her right to a preliminary hearing on the evidence, so her 19-year-old daughter Elizabeth did not have to testify about the night she found the decomposed bones in their Reading apartment. One set was buried in cement and the others in a cooler, a plastic tub and a cardboard box.

The teen, sporting a shaved head and plaid shirt, sat quietly in the first row as her shackled mother shuffled in for the brief hearing.

"She's a sweetheart. So polite, so well-spoken. ... A free spirit," Chief Berks County Detective Michael Gombar said of the teen. "She's very cooperative with us, but she loves her mother."

Police believe Kalina had as many as six pregnancies with a boyfriend she met through her job as a home-health aide, where she was described as an "exemplary" worker with 14 years on the job.

Her first pregnancy during those years occurred soon after she started dating the boyfriend in 1997, authorities believe. DNA tests on the remains found this summer show the boyfriend fathered at least three and possibly four of the five slain infants; there was not enough material from the fifth set to test.

"I think she was hiding them because they were from the boyfriend," lead prosecutor M. Theresa Johnson said in an interview after Wednesday's hearing.

Tests show the boyfriend also fathered a girl born in a Reading hospital in 2003 and put up for adoption through a Catholic social services agency. Authorities are left to wonder why Kalina went to a hospital in that instance and gave birth secretly in the others.

"I think we all have thoughts on why that happened (the birth), but I think it's too early to say," said Johnson, the county's first assistant district attorney.

Jeffrey Kalina, 54, had wondered at least once if his wife was pregnant. Both he and the daughter knew the boyfriend as a work friend, Johnson said. And Kalina had explained to the boyfriend that she had abdominal "cysts" she sometimes needed to have drained.

The boyfriend, who has not been identified, is not married but has other living children, Johnson said.

"He is overwhelmed and shocked, and has expressed concern about given them a proper burial," she said.

The size of the bones suggests the infants were born at or near term. Kalina is petite, but might not have gained much weight if she were in denial or not eating much, Johnson said. There is no record of any prenatal care after Elizabeth's birth in 1991.

In 2000, the Kalinas' 13-year-old son Andrew died of natural causes. He had been born with cerebral palsy and could not walk. Jeffrey Kalina - described by authorities as a brilliant man who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a time - stayed home due to a disability and cared for the son while Michele Kalina served as the family's breadwinner.

"The daughter said her mother worked a lot," Johnson said.

For the past two years, the family lived in a high-rise apartment house for seniors and the disabled next to the county courthouse. Michele Kalina had moved the tubs containing the remains from a shed at their last home, and kept them in the locked closet, with orders that her husband and daughter keep out, according to court documents.

But in late July, curiosity got the better of the teenager. She called police at 5 a.m. on July 29 after finding the first set of bones.

"Curiosity took her there that evening," Gombar said Wednesday. "She wasn't allowed in the closet."

The responding officers did not think the bones were human. But police were called back later that day when more remains were found.

Michele Kalina fled when her husband told her about the police visits.

According to a police affidavit, she told him: "I don't know where to go." "I can't find peace there." "I can't find peace anymore." "I'm concerned I'm being framed."

She was arrested on a city street several days later.

Kalina faces one count of homicide and multiple counts of abuse of a corpse and concealing the death of a child. Authorities determined that at least four babies were killed in a manner consistent with asphyxia, poisoning or neglect.

Defense lawyer Holly Feeney has not commented on a possible defense strategy and did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Until a trial is scheduled, police and prosecutors are left to keep digging into Kalina's past.

She visited several families a day through her job, but otherwise does not appear to have made many contacts in the community. She has no relatives in the area, except her mother-in-law. And no one has surfaced claiming to be a best friend or confidante.

Authorities concede they may never be able to explain the repeated killings.

"We all have theories," Gombar said. "Whether we're right or not, only she knows the answer."

"She could have stopped it from happening," said Johnson. "Why didn't she?"


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