Born to Believe

Page 6 of 9

Barbara Reed, 24, and her husband, Billy, 31, had been eagerly awaiting the birth of their fifth child. They had three other living children, ages five, three and one; a fourth, age two, had burned to death in a fire a month earlier. Esther Byers, the "helper" who'd delivered Warren Glory, and several other First Born helpers were on hand to assist Barbara. On the morning of July 7, after only a few hard pushes, Billy Ray Reed, weighing a little over five pounds, slipped easily from his mother's womb. Fat-cheeked and hungry, the infant "pinked up" right away and began to nurse.

Like the Glorys, the couple had a constant stream of visitors to their trailer over the next two days. Church members believe new mothers need about ten days of bedrest after giving birth, so several women from the church took turns taking care of the baby while Barbara recuperated.

Everything seemed normal at first, but early Sunday morning Billy noticed that his newborn son was having a hard time catching his breath. "All our other kids seemed like they had done the same thing, and then everything was fine," he told Mesa County Sheriff's investigator G. A. Barley. "It was like they got colicky or something in their throat and they needed to spit up, and then everything was fine."

Billy was concerned enough, though, to wake up Barbara and tell her about the problem. She checked the baby thoroughly and noticed that his hands and feet seemed a little cold, so she turned off the swamp cooler and began rubbing them. When the infant continued to whimper, she called her mother and asked her what colicky babies looked like. Then she called Esther Byers, who in turn contacted Lenora Hermann, another helper who was present at Billy Ray's birth and had assisted in the delivery of seventy infants.

Hermann and her husband, an elder in the church, decided to drive over and have a look for themselves. Hermann thought the baby's color was poor, so the Reeds decided to summon the elders. When the elders arrived, they each said a prayer for the baby, then anointed the infant's head with oil and prayed again. An hour later, the baby seemed fine. "His skin got warm, he appeared to be acting normally, and he was not whimpering or crying," Barbara told investigators.

Later that afternoon, Billy Ray took a turn for the worse. Clarice Faith Anderson, another friend who had dropped by, noticed that the baby, who was in his mother's lap, was not breathing. Anderson, who is certified in CPR, laid the child on the floor and began trying to revive him. She warned the parents that CPR would only work if "it was God's will."

For ten minutes, she breathed into his mouth and then did light compressions of his chest. When the baby's fingers and face turned blue, Anderson knew he was dead. The elders returned and again prayed over the baby, who was lying on a blue flannel blanket. But it was too late.

Autopsy duties fell once again to Dr. Kurtzman, the Mesa County coroner, whose laboratory is located at Community Hospital in Grand Junction. He discovered that the child had a rather common congenital heart defect that normally is easily detected and repaired; Billy Ray might have survived had he received timely medical attention. Kurtzman wanted to rule the death a homicide, but ultimately decided against it because he didn't know for sure if the infant's symptoms had been severe enough for his parents to recognize, or if medical intervention definitely would have prevented the death. Still, in his report he noted: "If provided with basic medical care at the first recognized sign of distress, it would have been highly improbable that this infant would have died, and the manner of death appears most consistent with a homicide."

After the funeral, Billy Ray was taken to the Pea Green cemetery and buried next to his brother, John, who had died in the fire. More company would arrive a few days later, when the entourage bearing Ishmael Berger Belebbas wound its way up to the bluff.

A couple of days before Ruth Berger Belebbas went into labor, friends remembered seeing her on her front porch, waving and then patting her stomach happily, as if to say, "Any day now." On a hot steaming morning in mid-July, that day arrived. But something went terribly wrong during the delivery, and the baby got stuck by the shoulders in the birth canal.

By the time Montrose County sheriff's deputies arrived on July 17, the baby was dead, and Ruth herself was in grave danger of dying. Tad Rowan, an emergency medical technician supervisor, begged Ruth to get medical help. Still competent and alert, she refused. "Ruth acknowledged her condition, she said that she understood, and then said it's all in God's hands," investigator Scott Wagner later wrote.

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Eileen Welsome