MADISON, Wis. – A woman who admitted to taking her newborn nephew from a Wisconsin home and ditching him in freezing temperatures outside an Iowa gas station was convicted Thursday of kidnapping.
A federal jury deliberated for about three hours before finding Kristen Smith, 31, guilty. She faces 25 years to life in prison when she is sentenced Oct. 27.
Smith said she took her half-sister's 4-day-old son, Kayden Powell, early on Feb. 5 from a home in the Town of Beloit at the father's request. She testified that the boy's parents were planning to move in with her in Aurora, Colorado in the next few days.
But prosecutors dismissed the explanation as ludicrous, saying first-time parents would never let someone take their newborn in the middle of the night – much less without formula, diapers or clothes. They accused Smith of trying to steal a baby to pass off as her own.
Smith also admitted that she abandoned the boy at an Iowa gas station as police closed in on her, saying she did so in a moment of panic and that she planned to return the child to his parents after police searched her car. But she was instead arrested on an outstanding warrant from Texas. As investigators questioned her, she claimed not to know where the baby was. A police chief eventually found the boy alive and well after 29 hours in the cold.
The government alleged that Smith had been planning the kidnapping for months. They say she downloaded other people's sonograms from the Internet and posted them on Facebook as her own; that she bought a prosthetic belly designed to make a person appear pregnant; and that she filled out a birth-certificate application for a son named Kaysin, listing the identical birth weight as Kayden's.
Defense attorney Matthew Noel said that didn't make sense because Smith already has four children and a stepchild.
"If she wanted another child she could have had one. Obviously she's able to have children," he told jurors.
Kayden's parents, 18-year-old Brianna Marshall and 23-year-old Bruce Powell, were staying with the baby's great-uncle on Feb. 5. Smith, who spent the night with them, left around 2 a.m., saying an early start to Colorado would allow her to avoid traffic.
She testified that as she was getting ready to leave, Powell asked her to take the baby with her. She agreed, she said, but didn't check with her sleeping half sister.
Around 4:30 a.m., Marshall called Smith, frantic at her baby's disappearance. At one point an officer took the phone and asked Smith to pull over and wait for officers to question her.
Smith swaddled the baby, put him in a plastic tote and stashed the container outside a gas station. She then drove to another gas station about 500 yards away to meet an officer.
Noel, Smith's attorney, said he planned to appeal the verdict and that he didn't think the government proved its case.
Powell and Marshall told reporters that while they didn't like reliving their ordeal, they were relieved the process was finally over. Powell also said he didn't understand why Smith would say he had given her permission to take his child.
As he spoke, Kayden played in his arms, grabbing playfully for a reporter's microphone. When another reporter asked whether Kayden's frigid ordeal made them see him as something of a Superman, a beaming Marshall nodded.
"He's our king," she said softly, stroking his cheek.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.