originally published: October 10, 2004
in: St. John's Lutheran Church, Des Moines, IA
December 7, 1941.
November 22, 1963.
September 11, 2001.
Remember the raspy crackle of a speaker? The waver in Walter Cronkite’s voice? Gasps when two skyscrapers crumbled off the TV screen? Cold fear gripping your chest when it is certain that this day, this hour, the very second redefines your life?
September 20, 1998. Sunday, 3:30 pm. Blue skies. Warm.
My wife, Jane, picks up the phone.
“Huh? … No. Why would I have him? … What?” Pause.
“What do you mean he’s missing?” Jane asked with a pitched, strangled voice.
I left the lemonade pitcher hovering over my glass. I was paralyzed, curious yet afraid of the details. Jane hung up.
“Jacob is gone.” Baby Jacob, two weeks old, was the pride and joy of Jane’s brother and his wife.
Gone? I couldn’t even process what Jane just said. Like kidnapped? What the hell … Like kidnapped?
What to do? Go there now! Call the TV station. Where are those pictures of Jacob? Dammit. In the Walgreens envelope? No, you go now Jane. Take the baby. Go! Go! They need you. Who can take the kids? Try across the street. Our neighbor opens the door. I practically shove our kids inside. I try to explain. It sounds weird. I have to go. We’ll call. I don’t know how long.
I drill gears in my car, racing just minutes behind Jane. This famous verse won’t leave me:
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31
Without thought, I know our run will be long, our walk farther than we can comprehend now.
From atop the hill leading to Baby Jacob’s house I see the mast of a TV truck piercing the perfect sky. Cold fear.
Police are there, on the street and in the driveway. Jacob’s dad Mike is standing, pacing, staring skyward in the driveway. Mike’s brother Jim stands near-by, blank-faced, stunned, lanky arms hanging. Jacob’s mother Heidi sits in a police car in front of the house. Jane spends a few minutes with her brothers in the drive and with Heidi before the police send Jane across the street.
A few details emerge. Mike had gone four-wheeling in his Jeep. Left at 10:00 am, came back around 3:00 pm. Heidi was sleeping. Mike woke her and asked where the baby was. Heidi answered that Jacob had been in the bouncy chair, napping near her while she slept.
But now, Jacob was gone.
Our small group stood across the street waiting for news that did not come. The police said nothing. We were not allowed to talk with Mike or Heidi.
A TV reporter asked a few questions about the family, trying to gather something to transmit to the news desk. We told how old Jacob was, born September 5th, dad was Mike, mom was Heidi.
The reporter’s professional face fumbled. “Heidi? Anfinson? Did she work at Jimmy’s American Cafe?”
“Yes. Until a few months ago.”
The reporter, Erin Kiernan, could not hide her shock. “Oh no! I used to waitress at Jimmy’s. Heidi was my trainer.” She puzzled a bit. “She was our most requested waitress. People waited extra so they could be seated at Heidi’s tables.”
Police asked Heidi, sequestered inside the squad car, to write an account of her day. We could not see the odd spelling on her statement: Heidi alternately spelled her son’s name J-a-k-o-b and J-a-c-o-b.
Heidi and Mike were separately taken to the police station. Three hours passed. Investigators filtered in and out of the modest green house. Tight-lipped officers watched outside the yellow tape barricade. The only news we were likely to hear would probably come from TV. Our baby was getting fussy. Everyone reluctantly went home about 7:00 pm.
I paced with the phone in our empty kitchen, dialing long-distance. “Hi Mom. Sorry to call so late.” It was now after 11:00 pm.
“Well, no, things aren’t very good… No we’re fine, the kids are fine. Remember Jane’s brother that had the baby a few weeks ago?”
“Is the baby sick?”
“No. Mike called us this afternoon and said the baby was missing.” I replayed the events from 3:00 until 7:00.
“So it got to be about 7:00 and still no word. The cops didn’t tell us anything. We came back here, to the house. I thought maybe we could make a flyer. Post it around.”
“Then they found him? Was he with someone …?” Mom jumped ahead, anxious for a happy ending. I pulled her back. You can’t get to the end without knowing the beginning.
“No, they didn’t find him. Our neighbor works with a woman whose son was kidnapped years ago. We called her and she helped us get Jacob registered in a big missing children’s database.”
“Milk cartons? Oh, I can’t imagine…”
“But wait. It’s worse. We scanned Jacob’s picture. Got a flyer together. We went to the grocery store and ran off a bunch of copies.”
“So where is Mike now? And Heidi?”
“Um, I’ll tell you in a minute. So we’re standing in the kitchen. I have these flyers in my hand. Probably 100. 200. I can’t decide where to post them. I figure, I-80 towards Iowa City then maybe up I-35.”
I pause. I’m not sure I can continue without losing it.
“And, uh, at 10:00 pm, Mike and Jim burst in our front door. ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Mike yells. Then Mike saw the flyers. He ripped them out of my hand and flung them in the trash.”
“Oh. Oh. I’m so sorry for your family. That’s the worst thing I ever …”
“But wait. It gets worse.” Silence.
“Mike told us what happened. The police questioned him all evening and let him go. But they kept Heidi. Then about 9:00 pm the cops called Mike back. ‘Come to the station,’ they said. They wouldn’t say why. From the station they drove in a cop car and followed another cop up to Saylorville Lake by us.”
Mom was beyond guessing, beyond hoping, beyond breathing.
“Heidi was in the lead car. She led them right to Jacob. Jacob was in the lake.”
Words failed. A missing child. A dead child. Jailed mother, shattered father. Doubting husband. Hard questions too murky to utter.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, more to say on September 20, 1998.
Sunday’s sultry sunshine hid on Monday. Clouds, cold and rain mourned Jacob’s passing. Amidst the depression, bewilderment and betrayal facing our family, I unwittingly started my slow understanding of mental illness.
We still had few facts. On Sunday, Heidi was held on child endangerment charges. On Monday, the charges were upped to first-degree murder. Heidi’s dad posted $100,000 bond for her release.
Mike was brave yet lost, hopeful but broken. “I have to talk to her.” he repeated, red-eyed. “I have to ask her what happened. I’ll know if she’s telling the truth when I see her eyes.”
Tuesday afternoon, free on bail, Heidi joined us at the funeral home. Most of us had not seen her since Sunday or longer. The flesh of her face sagged loosely over her bones; her eyes drooped in humiliation; her spirit cowered against the angry reception she expected from us. I greeted her with a long, silent hug, not even attempting trite words of comfort or wisdom. A small line formed, hug after hug.
Mike, after a day of listening to Heidi’s story, asking his questions, and crying with her, was on his way to acceptance and forgiveness. Naturally he struggled with doubts and sleepless nights, but he has been her unapologetic defender.
Forgiving Heidi came in two stages, funeral and long-term. Initially, we focused on the immediate task of loving Mike and Heidi through the agony of putting a doll-house-sized white casket in the ground. No detective work, no finger-pointing.
Later the first week, a sketchy outline of events emerged, pieced together by snippets of conversations with Mike and Heidi: Mike left for his Jeep ride about 10:00 am Heidi got Jacob into his bathtub for a bath. For some reason, she left him in the tub, and returned a while later to find him drowned. In a panic, she drove up to Saylorville Lake and left Jacob there. Then, when Mike arrived home at 3:30 pm, Heidi claimed Jacob was missing.
The family’s conclusion at this early stage was that a medical problem of some sort caused Heidi to leave Jacob in his tub, though details were sparse. Heidi told both her mother and my wife Jane that she felt lightheaded standing at the kitchen sink during Jacob’s bath. Heidi rested at a table about 10 feet away. She may have dozed off.
We were naively certain the legal issues would be resolved when more information became available.
By this time, with facts in hand, and knowing Heidi’s personality, doubts melted from the minds of family and friends. Both Mike’s side and Heidi’s side embraced Heidi from the first uncertain time of Jacob’s visitation to this very day. We have stacks of newspaper editorials, interviews and op-ed pieces shouting their support.
Still, upsetting news continued. Several weeks after Jacob’s death, police reveal Jacob had two rocks on him, holding him under the water, in a foot of water at the lake’s edge.
Early on, the press raised questions of postpartum mental illnesses, a topic new to most of us. The most dangerous form, postpartum psychosis usually occurs in the first three weeks after birth. Mothers can exhibit psychotic symptoms similar to a bipolar person in mania. Obviously, it is an extremely dangerous condition, especially if family members are unaware it is occurring. Mothers, if they can recognize their plunge into psychosis, are often unable or too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Though postpartum illnesses can be the basis for an insanity defense, Heidi’s attorney immediately squashed all talk of a postpartum defense. Jacob wasn’t even buried, but the door to a postpartum defense was closed. Just two days after Jacob’s death, attorney Bill Kutmus saw “no indications that Heidi was suffering from postpartum depression,” the Des Moines Register reported. It was not until two days after making this claim that Kutmus actually had his first lengthy discussion with Heidi.
Heidi was never examined by a psychiatrist or psychologist for her trials.
WOI-TV news ran a postpartum piece two days after Jacob died. A week after his death, a Register article asked if postpartum depression or psychosis was a factor: University of Iowa’s Dr. Michael O’Hara questioned Kutmus’ conclusion that postpartum was not a factor worth exploring. “[Her] motivations may look guilty, but that may not be the case.”
Heidi’s murder trial started one year later in September 1999. The legal system had thrown a blanket of silence over the case. We were all anxious to have Jacob’s story told in full. Early on, Heidi’s lawyer strictly admonished friends and family not to discuss any events or hearsay. The only discussion allowed was between Heidi and Mike, because theirs could not be forced into evidence against Heidi.
I took detailed trial notes, almost verbatim. Even though I had forgiven Heidi, and trusted her story – that Jacob accidentally drowned at home – I hungered for raw evidence. Yet I feared I might learn things that would make Heidi’s story more complex, fractured, painful, and ultimately, untruthful.
Heidi’s first trial ended in a hung jury. When the case was retried in 2000, she was convicted of second-degree murder. Iowa gives a mandatory 50 year sentence. Initially Heidi faced a minimum of 42.5 years before parole, but the law has been amended to 35 years. She was about 40 when she started her sentence.
I looked at the evidence as objectively as I could. A large part of the testimony was autopsy results and technical arguments over the water in Jacob’s lungs. Did water come from the bath or the lake – accident or murder? I saw no forensic evidence that made me doubt the original story I heard – that Jacob had accidentally drowned in his bath and not at the lake.
Mental illness was not mentioned by either side during the trials. Yet, pieces of testimony clearly show Heidi’s thinking was quite different from her loving, attentive self. Shamelessly, most clues were entered by the prosecution as proof that Heidi was a heartless baby killer. The testimony below, from my trial notes, are police recollections of Heidi on the afternoon and evening that Jacob died:
- When police first arrived at the Anfinson home to look for Jacob, Heidi sat calmly at the kitchen table, smoking and slowly looking at pictures. (Stuart Barnes)
- Heidi’s demeanor was “cold. That’s the only way to describe it.” (Larry Van Jinkel)
- “Appeared calm. [Heidi] said ‘This is temporary.’” (Douglas Harvey)
- “No cry, no yell, not common reaction to this situation.” (Randy Dawson)
If Heidi was trying to pull off a faked kidnapping story, wasn’t she doing a remarkably poor job, calmly smoking instead of pleading with police to find her baby?
Heidi’s statement, “This is temporary,” makes no sense. If Heidi understood that Jacob was dead, why would death be “temporary” to her? Did she think Jacob would come back somehow? Was she referring to heaven? Illogical reasoning is a common symptom of mental illness.
Did Heidi perhaps believe her concocted kidnapping story, thinking Jacob would soon be found? Had she deluded herself into believing her fabrication? Had she forgotten taking Jacob up to Saylorville? The testimony points to Heidi’s very muddled grasp of reality in the hours after Jacob’s death.
After Heidi’s conviction, national media started calling.
Because of our bitter disappointment with Dateline’s coverage; we almost nixed an idea from MS-NBC Investigates. But they uncovered clues that went undetected for two years after Jacob’s death. For example, hair-pulling is a predictor for postpartum problems. Heidi started plucking her leg and pubic hairs in the weeks prior to Jacob’s birth. Family snapshots report clearly show red bumps over Heidi’s legs. Embarrassed by her new habit, Heidi told Mike she had insect bites.
Oprah dedicated a show to postpartum illnesses, with guest host Dr. Deborah Sichel, co-author of Women’s Moods. Heidi participated from prison over a satellite feed.
In her book, Dr. Sichel says postpartum psychosis is chemically similar to bipolar mania. Women can have frightening symptoms, including confusion, imagining plots against them, and acting out their internal stories. Postpartum psychosis usually occurs in the first two to three weeks postpartum, exactly the time frame that Jacob died.
No one doubts there is an evil in Jacob’s death. I propose we have two basic choices: either the evil is Heidi, or the evil is mental illness. Iowa’s criminal justice system has concluded Heidi is the evil, but Heidi’s family disagrees. Facts from the trial and later discoveries show Heidi’s confused mind:
- “Flat” – Emergency Room physician, Steve Dawson, saw Jacob 5 days after he was born. Heidi had concerns that Jacob was listless.
- Dr. Dawson observed “(Heidi was) flat. I perceived it to be fatigue. Heidi asked a few questions. She was quiet. [I was] a little surprised. I expected more questions.”
- J-a-k-o-b and J-a-c-o-b – confused spelling from Heidi’s written police statement.
- “Flat” – police find Heidi calm, smoking, “flat” when her son is supposedly kidnapped.
- Saylorville – Heidi left Jacob at Sandpiper recreation area. It is a most unlikely place to hide a body. Jacob’s watery burial site is easily seen from the busy road leading to the parking lot. Heidi drove 16 miles to get there. If she was secretly hiding Jacob, there were many secluded places along the way.
- Why did Heidi place two rocks, weighing 25 pounds, on Jacob? They were set down gently – the autopsy did not find any scratches on the chest or stomach.
- Heidi repeatedly told police she placed Jacob face down, yet he was found face up.
- After Jacob’s death, people noticed Heidi’s dramatically sagging face. I sat next to her at Jacob’s funeral. The distortion of Heidi’s face was far beyond anyone else’s including Mike’s. Her mug shot and booking photos clearly show sagging. Strangers remarked. Frieda Wallace from Indianola called several times to ask if the sagging was from a mini-stroke, which can occur with few outward symptoms but impair the mind.
- Where is the family acrimony? Commonly in family murder trials, “his” side believes one story but “her” side another. In Heidi’s case, she enjoys 100% support, with an ever-growing kinship between Mike and Heidi’s large families.
During one of our visits to Heidi at Mitchellville prison, she unintentionally bundled the previous fours years into one breath: “Mike’s and my dream is to one day be able to tell our story.”
Sadly, Heidi and Mike should not have a story. Society has plenty of academic knowledge about postpartum illnesses, but it has not applied it to everyday medical and legal life.
New mothers and fathers are not routinely informed of the signs and dangers of postpartum depression and psychosis. We spend more time teaching how to breathe during the few hours of labor than about the dangers lurking in the weeks and months after birth.
The entrenched stigma society attaches to all mental illness is compounded by the low awareness of postpartum depression and psychosis. Mothers who “don’t feel quite right” prefer to “push through it” rather than getting labeled a “nut” after asking for help. But when a mind is deteriorating by the hour, moms and babies are in real danger.
Far worse is our criminal justice system. Harsh options are given to mentally ill defendants. The insanity defense is impossibly difficult. I’m outraged that studies consistently say 15-20% of the prison population is mentally ill, yet only 1% of felony cases use the insanity defense. Only a quarter of the insanity pleas succeed. The vast majority of those that do succeed are the result of a rare plea agreement where both prosecution and defense agree the defendant was ill.
The definition of insanity varies by state. Most have roots in the 1800’s even though our medicines and understanding of mental illness have changed dramatically. To use the insanity defense, the defendant usually has to fully admit to the charges, and then hope the medical experts will side with him. It is an all-or-nothing gamble. The whole system smacks more of a crap-shoot than a bona-fide effort to find the truth. If the mentally ill are dissuaded from revealing their illness, or using it as a mitigating factor, why even keep the insanity defense on the books?
Will Heidi die in prison or someday walk free? I honestly don’t know. If mercy seeps into our criminal code, institutions and daily attitudes, perhaps freedom will come.
Heidi appealed her conviction but failed. Next is an unusual post-conviction proceeding: if her lawyer was negligent for not exploring postpartum illness, Heidi will get a new criminal trial. The legal wrangling will take until 2006 or 2007.
Years are passing. Lonely, guilty, tear-filled, angry times linger for us all. Our only earthly hope is a brand new trial and merciful citizens – exactly where we were September 20, 1998.
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.