Mom who threw twins in river raises awareness of mental illness

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 8, 2009 - 4:26 PM

Six years ago on July 4th, Naomi Gaines took her 14-month-old twins from a stroller and tossed them from a St. Paul bridge 60 feet into the Mississippi River. Then she jumped in. This is her story.

Florida Doss was watching fireworks from her 12th-floor apartment, having decided that just for one night it was safe to leave her troubled daughter, Naomi, alone with her twin boys. 

The boys' father, Khalid Allah, also was enjoying the July 4th show along St. Paul's riverfront, unaware that Naomi had hit her breaking point, up on the Wabasha Street Bridge.

 Shortly after 9 p.m., she took her 14-month-old boys out of their stroller on the bridge's observation deck, leaned over the railing and dropped them 60 feet into the churning water. Gaines then jumped herself, screaming as she fell.

 Bystanders rescued her and one of her sons. The other boy's body was found two days later, 11 miles downstream.

 Six years since that night, Gaines' family has rallied around her and her three surviving kids. Their heartache has galvanized her ex-boyfriend, sister and mother to become closer than they ever would have imagined. 

Convinced that postpartum psychosis brought her to the tipping point in a years-long battle with depression and made her do the unthinkable, Gaines and her family hope to spread the word about the dangers of ignoring or misunderstanding mental illness.

'If people were to ask me what happened that day and expect it to make sense, it won't," Gaines said. "What went wrong that day? It wasn't that day. It was months, and possibly even years, prior."

Doss, still wracked with guilt about not being there that night, regularly visits her daughter at the state women's prison in Shakopee.

"Until mental illness is addressed like it's supposed to be, these stories are going to keep happening and keep happening because they just sweep it under the rug," Doss said.

Since Gaines pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the death of her son, lawmakers have enacted a law that mandates the screening of new mothers for postpartum depression. Hospitals also now give new parents information about the severe mental reactions childbirth can bring. An annual conference on the topic was held last month in Minnesota.

"Naomi Gaines is one of the women who raised awareness about postpartum depression," said Sue Abderholden, director the state's National Alliance on Mental Illness.

'I just sit ... and shake'

Gaines remembers sobbing in her bed at Regions Hospital a few days after she was pulled from the river.

"I was crying, thinking that maybe I didn't deserve to live or that I didn't want to," she said.

A nurse leaned into the doorway of her room.

"I don't remember her name, but she was that one person who was unbiased and didn't know me from a can of paint," Gaines said. "She said: 'Naomi, if you were driving your car with the twins in the back seat and you crashed because you had a heart attack and your twins died, would people be blaming you or your heart attack?'''

Gaines credits that observation as the beginning of her recovery.

Now 30, and no longer on medications after being stable for five years, Gaines said during a recent visit that "right now, my life is actually pretty good."

Wearing hair braids, gray sweat pants, sneakers, a blue shirt and a necklace of the goddess Isis, Gaines said she loves working in the prison library. She's teaching herself to play guitar and plans to perform Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," at an upcoming prison recital.

Her older kids, 13-year-old Jalani and 8-year-old Kaylah, are able to spend occasional long days with their mom beyond the visitors' area, thanks to the prison's teen and Girl Scouts programs. The twin who survived the fall into the river, now, 7, has yet to meet his mother.

Gaines spends most of her time writing -- from ballads to raps to the first chapters of a memoir, titled Victory.

"I absolutely use writing as a form of therapy," she said. "Sometimes I just sit at my typewriter and shake. It's really painful to think about, because you not only live it in your memory, but you actually bring it to life and, re-reading it on paper, I experience it all over again.''

By all accounts, Gaines tried to be a good mom. She took parenting classes, read to her kids and clearly loved them, according to family members and friends.

She remembers everything about July 4, 2003, but said it hurts to talk about it.

"It's very painful to be judged and to be looked at like a horrible mom when that's far from the truth," she said. "That's the most frustrating thing. People look at that day and say: 'Oh, what a terrible mother' ... 'Oh, I could never do that.'

"Well, I'm glad you could never know what it's like to want to do something like that. I'm glad. Consider yourself blessed."

'I was so paranoid'

Gaines grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes projects in Chicago. She said she had never heard the term mental illness before moving to Minnesota 13 years ago.

"It's not looked at the same way in the African-American community," she said. "It has a stigma attached and you're supposed to just pick yourself up.''

Some of her early bouts with depression were severe -- she once cut her wrists in a suicide attempt -- but the aftermath of the twins' birth brought a new intensity to her struggles.

Those struggles were revealed to authorities in the predawn dark of a St. Paul street in early August 2002.

Gaines was wandering with her children -- the twins were nearly 3 months old -- singing and "talking nonsensically," according to court documents. Police noticed the mother with four small children and took Gaines to Regions, where she told a social worker that God could feel her. Then she "started singing again quite loudly to the point the social worker is unable to ask further questions."

She was sent to Abbott Northwestern Hospital's psych ward, her third time there since the twins were born. According to a medical file that her mother describes as "thicker than a phone book," Gaines had been diagnosed with "Major Depression with Psychotic Features," schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Gaines remembers the wandering episode less clinically.

"I was having these thoughts that I wasn't safe in my house," she said. "For whatever reason, I don't know, I was paranoid and needed to get out of the house."

Abbott Northwestern released her after 72 hours because medications were making her more stable. They asked her to stay longer, but she refused. Ramsey County social workers and nurses, under court order, visited her home for the next six months to make sure she took her medications.

When the nurses stopped visiting, Gaines quit taking the pills. That was five months before the twins were thrown from the bridge.

"I was so paranoid, I felt people were poisoning me," she said. "It was another symptom of delusional thinking."

'I like to help people'

When Gaines' world was unraveling, she was no longer with the twins' father, Allah, 29.

The two had met at a St. Paul recording studio. His hip-hop group needed a singer and she was waiting for her recording session. They hit it off for a while, but then went their own ways. Allah was there at the Caesarean section and he named the twins Supreme Knowledge and Sincere Understanding because he wanted names with meaning and strength.

Long after the fireworks ended six years ago, about 4 a.m., Allah got the word about what had happened to his sons. He has had custody of Supreme ever since -- along with a tombstone tattoo with Sincere's dates of birth and death on his neck.

Gaines' younger sister, Natalie Doss, is raising the older kids, who were in Chicago, visiting their father, on July 4, 2003. Often a patchwork of caregivers -- Natalie, Allah, grandmother Florida Doss --tend to the three children.

On Father's Day, they all gathered at Natalie's Frogtown house for baked chicken, greens and homemade desserts.

Allah and Natalie laugh about how they disliked each other when he and Naomi started going out.

"We were like two bulls, bumping heads all the time," he said. "But the kids have brought us together. I'll do anything for Nat and she'll do anything for me."

Supreme -- nicknamed "Preme" -- will be a second-grader next year. He loves SpongeBob, reading, football and rap. His favorite rapper?

"My dad.''

Ask him what he wants to be and he doesn't hesitate: "A policeman, because I like to help people.''

Supreme knows he's a twin and that his brother is dead. Allah anticipates the time is coming when he will want to meet his mother in jail.

"When he comes out and says 'I want to see her,' he can," Allah said.

The boy's curiosity is growing and Allah tries to manage the delicate situation.

"I explain to him the best I can or the best I think he can understand right now," he said, sitting on the front stoop with Supreme at his Frogtown home.

Doss gets out to Shakopee every couple of weeks when she can get a ride.

"If I thought for a minute my child wasn't sick and she just did that, I wouldn't support her and visit her," she said. "But I believe she was sick. ... I never thought my child would take my grandchild's life -- not ever in a million years."

'Not going to be there'

Gaines gives Allah, her sister and her mother credit for keeping her three surviving kids together.

She has six years to go before she can be free, but even if she could leave prison now, Gaines said it would make little difference "because my son is not going to be there when I walk out these doors.''

"I will never meet the man he was becoming or the teenager he would have been or the husband and father he could have potentially been. And I will have to live with that for the rest of my life."

curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767

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