A woman who pretended to be pregnant stole her half-sister's newborn boy from a Wisconsin home and left him in a storage crate outside an Iowa gas station in frigid temperatures as police closed in, according to court documents filed Friday.
Federal prosecutors in Madison charged Kristen Smith of Denver with kidnapping Friday afternoon, hours after an Iowa police chief miraculously discovered Kayden Powell, who is nearly a week old, alive and well in the plastic storage crate that morning. Police had found a prosthetic pregnancy belly in Smith's car along with baby clothes, a car seat and a stroller, but no sign of Kayden, according to the affidavit.
The discovery of the infant shortly after 10 a.m. Friday capped a frantic search that involved scores of police officers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.
"He's strong," the newborn's great-uncle, Mark Bennett, said of the boy. "I'm glad that baby is still living instead of in a ditch somewhere on a strange highway."
Online court records didn't list Smith's case or a defense attorney Friday evening. She faces life in prison if convicted.
According to police and the affidavit, the boy's mother, Brianna Marshall, called police around 4:30 a.m. Thursday to report her newborn had vanished from his bassinet in Bennett's home, where she and the baby's father, Bruce Powell, had been staying.
She said Smith had been at the house but left a couple hours earlier to return to Colorado. Police contacted Smith on her cellphone and told her to pull over for questioning. A police officer met her at a Kum & Go gas station near Interstate 80 in West Branch, Iowa. She was arrested about 5:30 a.m. on an outstanding Texas warrant.
The affidavit said when police found the prosthetic pregnancy belly and other items in Smith's car, she denied any knowledge of Kayden's whereabouts. A search of her cellphone revealed emails in which she said she gave birth on Feb. 5, according to the document. A search of her Facebook page turned up postings in which she claimed she was pregnant.
Smith didn't appear pregnant, according to the affidavit. A pregnancy test that was administered while she was in custody came back negative, U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil said. Smith also failed a lie-detector test regarding Kayden's location, eventually saying that the infant's parents had given the infant to another family member in Chicago, the prosecutor said.
Meanwhile, dozens of police officers began searching for the child at possible stop-offs along Smith's route from Wisconsin to Iowa. West Branch Police Chief Mike Horihan decided to check the area around a BP station about 500 yards from the station where Smith was arrested. He heard a baby's cries and discovered Kayden in a closed storage crate alongside the building. The newborn was swaddled in blankets and was responsive and healthy, the chief said.
"I had tears in my eyes," BP station manager Jay Patel said, recalling his reaction to the police chief telling him that the infant had been found. "It's good news but it's sad, too."
Temperatures in West Branch, about 180 miles southwest of the Town of Beloit, dipped below zero Thursday night into Friday. They were still in the single digits when the baby was found.
"Surprisingly with the weather the way it was, he was surprisingly healthy," Horihan, the Iowa police chief, said. "To be honest with you, that's not what I expected."
The baby was transported to an Iowa City hospital, where he was reunited with his parents and released Friday evening.
Police interviewed Smith again in jail after the baby was found at the gas station, the affidavit said. She told officers she took the boy from her sister's home and put him behind the BP station and she offered a hand-drawn map of where the baby was found, the affidavit said.
Bennett, the baby's great-uncle, told The Associated Press he came home on Thursday night to find a black SUV with Illinois license plates parked in front of his house. Inside he found his mother, the baby's mother and father, and a woman he had never met. His mother introduced her as Brianna Marshall's stepsister, he said, explaining later that the two women had the same father but different mothers.
He said he never learned Smith's name and went straight to his room in the basement. When he woke up, the baby and Smith were gone.
He kept telling Marshall that Smith had to have taken the child but Marshall refused to believe it, he said. The baby's bassinet was 2 feet from the parents' bed and he found a paring knife on the ground next to the bed.
"I could have woke up to a bloody mess," Bennett said.
He questioned how Smith could have taken the baby without waking the couple. He said he hopes she gets locked up for life.
"You stole him like you're stealing something from the grocery store," the great-uncle said. "Nobody in their right mind should have thought of that."
Smith appears to go by multiple names and has had run-ins with the law in multiple states, authorities said. The Texas warrant stems from a felony indictment charging her with tampering with government documents late last year while she was in jail in Colorado.
A spokesman for the Arapahoe County, Colo., sheriff's office declined to discuss the details of her arrest there. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office in Tarrant County, Texas, said it's not clear why Colorado authorities released Smith instead of sending her back to Texas.