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Just when Randy Forst thinks he has put his family's chilling discovery behind him, "I see a young little child and it makes me think back."
Forst, his wife and two teenage sons were boating on a wide, bluff-lined channel in the Mississippi River on Labor Day when 14-year-old Joshua spotted a floating canvas bag.
With his brother Caleb's help, he plucked the satchel from the water. Inside two airtight garbage bags, they found the body of a newborn girl with a few inches of her umbilical cord still attached.
"She looked like a perfectly healthy baby, with fingernails and everything, that you could pick up and hold," Forst said.
"It was so unnerving," said his wife, Sharon. "It looked like she just fell asleep."
Nearly three weeks later, as the trees along the steep river bluffs begin to turn golden, Winona County Sheriff David Brand shrugs and shakes his head. Given the seven unique clues found with the baby that investigators are calling Angel, the sheriff is frustrated that no one has come forward.
"It's disappointing," Brand said. "I thought somebody at least would say something."
Something solid, that is.
More than 50 people have called and e-mailed his office, suggesting where to look for the mother and offering theories behind the meaning of the four angel figurines and the glass-eye beaded bracelet found with the baby.
She was wrapped in a green T-shirt with a faded image of a slice of toast inside a zippered bag embroidered with sailboats and the name of the Mexican Pacific port city, Manzanillo.
Winona County investigators and state agents from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) have gone to schools, hospitals, social service agencies, campgrounds, factories and businesses. They're looking for a no-longer pregnant woman without a baby or an explanation.
"Nothing has panned out," Brand said.
That's why Randy Forst, for one, thinks the mother came from elsewhere and left the baby in the river on a holiday with heavy boat traffic.
"It doesn't make sense to dump a baby's body in the area you're from," he said.
Brand has been in contact from the start with authorities on the Wisconsin side of the river. Forst and the sheriff both think the baby was put in the river the same day she was found about 2:30 p.m., on Sept. 5, possibly dropped from another boat.
The Forsts had cruised down to Lock and Dam No. 6 near Trempealeau, Wis., about 1:30 p.m. and hadn't seen the bag until they turned around and were heading upriver to their campsite at Prairie Island. At first, they thought it was trash. Then they realized it was a canvas bag.
"We thought somebody had gone shopping in La Crosse and lost it," Randy said. "My wife wanted to go on. But I was curious and turned around."
Sharon told her sons to check for a billfold. That's when they found the baby and called 911.
The bag was three-quarters submerged when they found it out in the main channel. Forst doubts it could have floated out that far if cast off from shore.
"The river is very large there, with a number of backwaters and tributaries," said Drew Evans, BCA senior special agent back in St. Paul, where forensic scientists are combing through the clues and hoping DNA testing can help solve the mystery of who gave birth to the baby and why she was placed in the river.
The medical examiner in Hastings still has the body and has yet to determine if she drowned or was dead before she went into the river, Evans said.
"Water can interfere with the analysis because it can wash off latent prints, cause trouble with such trace evidence as hairs and fibers, and degrade DNA, which works best if kept in a cool, dry environment," said Kris Deters, a BCA forensic supervisor. "It's certainly more of a challenge, but we've gotten really good results off bodies recovered from water."
Fourth baby in 12 years
Among the DNA tests the body is undergoing is an analysis to see if there's any connection with three babies found in the Mississippi in the last dozen years 60 miles upriver near Red Wing. Those cases remain unsolved and DNA confirmed that the first two of those babies, found in 1999 and 2003, were brother and sister.
The BCA has issued a deck of Minnesota cold-case playing cards with its tip line and photos from unsolved cases. Three aces in the deck have images of the babies found upriver in Goodhue County.
The private citizens in Red Wing who buried those babies offered to eventually bury Angel with the others. But Winona's Woodlawn Cemetery has stepped up to make sure the baby is buried near where she was found. Evans said the body might still be released to family -- if relatives can be found.
Investigators continue to track down leads, and Evans says the optimism that surrounded the case hasn't waned "because there are such unique, identifiable items."
The sheriff said many people have called to suggest the glass-eye jewelry "would keep evil spirits away" while the two small angel bells and the larger angelic figurines "would protect the child to go to heaven."
Randy Forst thinks whoever put the girl in the river added the items "to ease their mind."
Evans thinks that one clue alone might not be enough for a friend or relative to recognize, "but the items in connection together" should be enough to trigger someone's memory.
The BCA agent insists that the focus of the investigation isn't to punish the mother, but to make sure she is safe, connect her with whatever resources she might need "and find the truth.
"There's a whole host of reasons why the baby may have ended up in the river, and we just want to talk to her to determine the facts and circumstances," Evans said.
He reminds anyone who might be facing childbirth without the resources to care for a newborn that Minnesota's safe-haven law allows babies to be dropped off at any emergency room or fire station for 72 hours with no questions asked.
"Somebody's got to come forward," said Randy Forst, a Winona State University maintenance worker.
He said his sons have had a few sleepless nights and have met with their pastor and are doing well.
"There's a spectrum of emotions from anger to sadness," said Sharon Forst, a teacher and principal at a private Lutheran school, who wept when they first saw the baby.
"I was so upset that anyone would treat another human being this way," she said, "throwing a beautiful baby girl overboard like trash. We hope and pray every day that someone will come forward."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767