[Original publication date: February 24, 2004]
Years later, Phifer talks of regrets, forgiveness
RALEIGH — The baby would be 7 now, in elementary school and learning to read.
By NANCY H. McLAUGHLIN, Staff Writer
News & Record
In an ideal world, her death never would have happened. In an ideal world, the teenage mom wouldn’t be longing for forgiveness.
An ideal world is the one Racquel Phifer wants to be a part of — not the concrete-and-glass world of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where she is serving 10 to 13 years for the second-degree murder of her only child.
“I wished my mother could have looked at me and known something was wrong,” the petite 27-year-old says of the concealed pregnancy in Greensboro in 1997 that led to her life spiraling out of control.
The high school dropout who had been raped as a child had already showed signs of undiagnosed mental illnesses before she gave birth that January to the infant the Greensboro community would come to know as Baby Jane Doe.
With her parents at work and her brother in school, Phifer laid out blankets on a cold day and delivered the baby on the floor of a room in her parent’s upper-middle-class home.
After bathing her, playing with her dark hair and counting tiny fingers and toes, Phifer wrapped the hours-old newborn in a clean white blanket and placed her in a dumpster in nearby Oka T. Hester Park. A man looking for cans the next day found her among the garbage.
Phifer’s was the latest in a string of concealed pregnancies on the East Coast that ended in dead newborns that year. But the discovery of the dead baby in a Greensboro trash bin touched the heart of the community. It responded by taking care of Phifer’s baby as if she were its own, dressing her tiny body in a donated white gown and diaper, transporting her to a graveyard in a hearse followed by a caravan of cars and carefully etching a grave marker that read: “May we reach out in love to every child in need.”
“The fact that she was buried and put away nicely — that all helps,” says Phifer’s mother, Baleria Phifer, a teacher who wouldn’t know that the infant dominating local news coverage was her grandbaby until her daughter’s arrest. “She was taken care of, she was surrounded by love” from the community.
More than 500 people showed up for the funeral.
“What I remember most are the pictures of that little infant in the bottom of that Dumpster,” says Howard Neumann, the Guilford County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case that summer. “I can still close my eyes and see her there.”
Phifer, who won’t be eligible for parole for at least three years, wants people to know she’s sorry. She also wants to say “thank you” to the people who saw that the child she named Ri’vene Lea Anderson had a proper burial.
Phifer, dressed in a dark-blue prison jumpsuit and girlishly pretty with her sliver of silver eye shadow, has spent years in therapy dealing with illnesses diagnosed after she was arrested, including dissociative amnesia, which causes fragmented memory, and schizoaffective disorder, which is marked by major depression and psychotic symptoms.
She says she can’t remember all of what happened the day she put her daughter in the Dumpster, but she knows it never should have happened. She wants girls who may face her predicament to know her story and how a split-second decision could ruin their lives and the lives of others.
“If you don’t want to tell your parents, tell somebody,” says a suddenly subdued Phifer, also known as Inmate 58449, who still looks 19 except for the natural burst of gray in her hair. “I would love to have (the public’s) forgiveness. I would love to have their understanding. But I’m doing this so that anybody else going through this will tell somebody.
“I know that type of fear is unbearable,” Phifer says.
Phifer remains troubled by the past. She wishes she could go back to the day she thought she was pregnant. She says she knows it will be hard for people to understand how she could hold her baby and then place her in the trash bin in frigid weather.
“I actually thought of it as a baby sitter,” Phifer says. “I got in and out of it four times. There was no trash in it. I put her there and told her I would come back.”
Growing up in a strict home, Phifer had an exaggerated fear of disappointing her parents. Life already had been difficult. She had flunked at least three grades and dropped out of high school. In their investigation, police would find years-old suicide letters Phifer had written after she was raped at 11 by an older male relative.
In her devout Jehovah’s Witness family, Phifer grew up hearing that sex before marriage was immoral. Her parents didn’t know about the rape. They would have been mortified had they known about the pregnancy. She saw her situation as hopeless and believed she had no options.
“That would have been disgraceful to my mother,” Phifer says. ” ‘What people think’ is how I was raised.”
Baleria Phifer didn’t know about the deep-seeded antagonism her daughter held against her until she heard Racquel’s confession read in court. Phifer says she was closer to her father, Larry, a long-distance truck driver.
She was able to hide her pregnancy because she had gained and lost 100 pounds the year before, something doctors later attributed to bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder.
As the baby grew inside her, Phifer began reading baby books and decided that she would ask an aunt if she could move into the aunt’s home. But her aunt began helping someone else, so Phifer kept silent. The baby’s father, a young man she had met at a part-time job, had moved back to Illinois. He wanted her to join him, but she had said no.
She says she called crisis-pregnancy agencies but somehow got it in her head that they just wanted to take her baby.
“I said, ‘Could you help me tell my parents?’ and they said, ‘We can send you somewhere.’ ”
Her water broke about midnight on Jan. 29. She delivered the baby at 2:27 p.m. the next day.
She had read “The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth” and, remembering what she had learned in some medical classes, had already gathered blankets and scissors.
She says she was in labor when she drove her mother to work that morning.
“It was like I was doctor, nurse, coach,” Phifer says. “I had read a lot, but then I was worried: What if she was breeched or needed special care?”
After delivering the baby, Phifer got into the bathtub with the baby and played with her until the phone rang.
“I’d decided I was just going to hand her to my mother,” Phifer remembers thinking.
But her mother, who wanted her daughter to pick her up at work, was already angry when Phifer picked up the telephone.
“She was saying, ‘Why aren’t you here?’ ” Phifer says. “I wished I could have been woman enough to say, ‘I’m late because I’ve just delivered my baby.’ ”
Instead, she panicked.
She drove around her neighborhood and then to nearby Hester Park, where she came upon the Dumpster.
Then she drove to her mother’s job and picked her up, falling asleep in the car as her mother carried out her errands. Back at home she slept for the next 16 hours.
She didn’t go back to the Dumpster. She says she doesn’t know why. In her mind, it was almost as if none of it had happened.
But it had.
Darlene Maynard, a grief counselor who had already helped survivors and relatives of the Columbine school shootings and Oklahoma City bombing with their recovery, was one of the first to step forward when word got out that a dead baby had been found in a park.
“There had been several babies up north left to die. It was like, ‘My goodness, this has come home,’ ” says Maynard, then-director of a Greensboro grief and loss-education center.
She began organizing a community funeral. People began calling, wanting to help. The city donated a burial plot at Maplewood Cemetery. The funeral drew a crowd that reflected the city’s races, ages and economics.
Saying it touched the community emotionally is not an overstatement, says Maynard, who was part of the 150-car funeral procession.
“We get to the corner of Florida and Aycock streets, and these two old ‘bummy-type’ men, they stopped when her hearse went by and put their hands across their heart and saluted,” Maynard says.
“She had become a symbol for our community,” Maynard says. “I thought it was one of the most healing things our community has come together to do. Here was this child that belonged to no one, and all of a sudden we were getting all kinds of toys and dolls and books and balloons to be placed on her grave.”
Phifer says she knew none of that. For the next few weeks, she didn’t watch the news. Only after a detective showed up at her door, saying someone had called police to report she had been pregnant, were her thoughts drawn back to the Dumpster. A co-worker who had guessed early on that she was pregnant called Crime Stoppers.
Investigators talked to Phifer and other potential suspects. After taking a lie-detector test, Phifer was arrested. The first-degree murder charge eventually would be reduced to one of second-degree murder.
“It lacked that component of evil that so many crimes we deal with up here involve,” Neumann says. “This was not a crime where she hated that child. This was an immature child herself who was confronted with a situation … and she couldn’t figure out how to deal with it.”
During those few months in jail, she had heard of the other East Coast cases similar to hers, including the case of college students Brian Peterson and Amy Grossberg, who put their baby in a Dumpster and were eventually sentenced to less than two years in jail.
“I think half of me thought it would be OK and I would go home,” Phifer says. “When Amy had the baby in the hotel, there were complications, but Brian beat the baby in the head with a baseball bat. I didn’t harm Ri’vene in any way. No scars. No bruises. No nothing. I was the only one to hold her. I loved her.”
Phifer’s judge could have given her as little as seven years, 10 months in prison or as much as 16 years, 5 months. He sentenced her to 10 to 13 years.
Almost immediately strangers began writing her.
“I was waiting for the hate mail, but they were very encouraging,” Phifer says of the letters, one of which advised her to “Keep your head up, sister.” “Older people… were telling me it’s going to be OK, people make mistakes.”
At first, other inmates, many of them mothers, responded to her in anger.
“I’ve been called everything but a child of God. I went through, ‘It’s Daddy’s baby, Mama did it,’ and I took the rap.”
A couple of inmates from Greensboro took her under their wings, and today she considers many of the people there like family.
Since then Phifer has earned her high school diploma and taken every self-improvement class available except culinary arts. “I simply can’t cook,” she says with a shy smile.
She has also drawn closer to her mother.
“She tries. I think she does,” Phifer says of her mother. “My mother does blame herself for this. But I also had to think about it. I wasn’t a child who came with instructions. She did the best she could.”
Her parents visit frequently.
“We were really close. She was just sick,” says Baleria Phifer, who says she has seen her daughter mature with therapy.
“I deal with it better now, but I think it’s something that will always be with me,” Baleria Phifer says of the loss that she, too, feels.
Baleria Phifer has given her daughter one of the pictures she was able to get of Ri’vene in her white casket. The rest, including the newspaper clippings and a few of the stuffed animals people left at her grave, have been packed up and placed in Phifer’s bedroom closet, waiting for her return.
“I really don’t see her as gone,” Phifer says. “I know she is. I just don’t have that closure.”
[Nancy H. McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org]