BOWDOINHAM — For four days in April 2002, newspaper articles in Maine detailed the macabre travels of a nomadic couple suspected of killing their babies and carrying their bodies in plastic totes, before being arrested at a motel in Portland.
There were gruesome stories about Jason Hann and Krissy Werntz, the young couple suspected of killing two infants and hiding their bodies in abandoned camper trailers. And there were stories about the “hero,” a Motel 6 clerk who recognized the pair from a flier and called police, likely saving the life of the young baby they had with them.
But just as quickly as Hann and Werntz appeared in the news in Maine, they were gone, brought to other states to face murder charges. It went largely unnoticed last week when Werntz was sentenced in California to 15 years to life in prison. Hann is already on death row for his role in the deaths.
The whole incident – the quick but dramatic arrest at the motel and the disturbing details of the infants’ deaths from physical abuse – was soon a faint memory to even the police chief who oversaw the arrests.
But it will never be a faint memory for Steve Reed, the motel clerk who was credited with saving the life of the 5-week-old baby severely injured from being beaten.
“I’m not sure I’m a hero,” said Reed, now 56 and living in Bowdoinham. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Reed recently published a book, “Finding God Through Gracie,” that details his involvement in the case and its connections to the life and death of his own daughter, Amanda Grace.
Even 12 years after the arrest, Reed kept tabs on the fates of Hann and Werntz, who have each been convicted in the death of at least one of their children, 6-week-old Jason in 1999 and 2-month-old Montana in 2001.
Hann pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in Vermont and was sentenced to 27 to 30 years in prison for the death of his first son, Jason, at a campground. Hann’s arrest in Maine led authorities to Jason’s body in a sealed plastic box in a camper trailer in Arizona.
Last December in Southern California, Hann was convicted of first-degree murder and assault on a child in the 2001 death of Montana in California. It was the discovery of her body in a plastic bin inside a camper trailer at an Arkansas storage unit that first prompted arrest warrants and alerts sent out across the country warning motel clerks such as Reed to watch out for the couple.
In April, Werntz was convicted in California of second-degree murder in the death of Montana, and on June 27 she was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. She was never charged in the death of her older son.
The baby who survived – also named Jason – was renamed Michael and adopted by his foster parents in Maine. Reed has never met Michael, but has been in contact with his parents, Walter and Jane Riseman, and said the boy is now a happy and healthy 12-year-old.
The family did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
FACE-TO-FACE WITH FUGITIVES
Reed wasn’t supposed to work the night of April 22, 2002, but agreed to pick up a shift so a co-worker could attend a family event. As he settled in for a quiet evening at the motel on Riverside Street, he grabbed a fax off the machine warning Motel 6 employees to be on the lookout for a couple wanted for killing their daughter.
A half-hour later, Reed looked up from his desk to see the couple, toting a baby carrier covered in a blue blanket, standing in front of him.
“I tried to stay calm,” he said.
Reed made small talk with the couple and checked them into a second-floor room. As soon as they were settled, he called police. Police Chief Michael Chitwood, now superintendent of the Upper Darby Police Department in Pennsylvania, arrived with a few officers.
As the officers discussed how to separate the couple from each other before arresting them, Werntz called the front desk to ask where she could find vending machines. Reed directed her to the first floor, where she was arrested.
“They took her away kicking and screaming, ‘I didn’t kill my babies, I didn’t kill my babies,’ ” Reed said.
At that point, police were unaware that more than one baby had died.
Reed then helped lure Hann out of the motel room by telling him Werntz had fallen in the parking lot. Hann was taken into custody without a struggle, but gave Reed a chilling look as he was led out of the motel, Reed said.
“If looks could kill, I think I would have been dead in my tracks,” he said.
In the first news accounts of the arrests, police said the baby – named Jason like the baby who had been killed three years before – was being checked out at a hospital, but seemed OK. Three days later, Chitwood called Reed to tell him more: The baby had two broken legs, multiple broken ribs, a fractured skull and other injuries consistent with being beaten.
“I cried,” Reed said, his eyes filling with tears at the memory. “I couldn’t believe anyone would do that to their child.”
In the first few days after the arrest, Reed declined to talk to the media, uncomfortable with being characterized as a hero and being given so much credit for calling police. But with urging from his wife, Kathy, and Chitwood, Reed agreed to speak out at a news conference to bring attention to child abuse.
“If it wasn’t for his alertness and willingness to get involved, who knows what could have happened to that child. He was sharp enough to know there was something wrong,” Chitwood said recently in a phone interview from Pennsylvania. “The baby could have been on death’s doorstep. I have to credit him for coming forward and giving us the information leading to the arrest.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Even as Reed was reluctantly thrust into the brief media spotlight, his mind was more focused on his daughter, Amanda. A young mother of two, she was in and out of the hospital dealing with chronic pain and complications from a gallstone that damaged her pancreas. Amanda, whom Reed always called Gracie, had 28 surgeries in five years.
As Reed stood at a lectern to answer questions during that post-arrest news conference, his two young granddaughters waited inside. His daughter was in the hospital, leaving Reed and his wife to watch the children.
He couldn’t comprehend how one set of parents could abuse their babies while he was trying so hard to save his own child.
“There were times Amanda was flat on her back and could hardly do anything,” Reed said recently while sitting in his living room, a portrait of Amanda hanging on the wall behind him.
As the baby Jason story faded from the news and Reed focused on caring for his daughter, he would occasionally call for updates on the baby’s condition. Those stopped once Jason – now Michael – was being adopted by his foster parents, but Reed knew the boy was in good hands.
“(His foster mother) held this little boy for four straight days without letting go of him,” Reed said of the baby’s first few days in the hospital, when doctors weren’t sure he would survive. “She said, ‘If he dies, I want the last thing he feels to be love.’ I would call her the hero in this story. She was obviously just what he needed.”
Reed’s own daughter, meanwhile, became more ill as time passed. On Nov. 2, 2005, Amanda died at Reed’s home, despite his attempts to revive her with CPR. She was 26.
“She was my child and I was responsible for her,” Reed said of his efforts to resuscitate his daughter. “For the first time in my life, I was not in control.”
After coming home from Amanda’s funeral, Reed sat down and turned on the news. There on the screen were the Risemans, celebrating Michael’s official adoption.
The day after the funeral, the phone rang. It was Jane Riseman, Michael’s adoptive mother. She wanted to thank Reed for calling the police and becoming her son’s “guardian angel,” he said. It gave him hope when he was at one of the lowest points in his life.
“It got me thinking about this whole thing from start to finish,” he said. “Is it a coincidence, or a higher power giving me what I need when I need it?”
In the years since his daughter died, Reed has found solace in his faith, which he said took time to rediscover. It was through his relationship with his church and God that Reed said he has come to peace with saving one baby and losing his own child.
“In looking back, I believe that baby Jason was put on this Earth to help heal me, and to save me,” Reed wrote in his book. “This little child, who back then was beaten nearly to the point of death, reminds me that God was with me that whole time.”