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Mother Charged in Cross-Country Mummified Babies Case

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. - New York state police charged a Pennsylvania woman with three counts of second-degree murder after three infants' remains were found in Safford, Ariz.

Diane O'Dell drove to New York on Monday night to be questioned by police. She was arraigned on three counts of second-degree murder and ordered held without bail in Sullivan County Jail. There was no immediate comment on the cause of death.

O'Dell admitted this weekend that she gave birth to the three children whose mummified remains were found last week in the abandoned contents of a storage locker. The children were born between 1981 and 1984, she said.

They were fine when she went to bed and dead when she woke up, O'Dell told Graham County sheriff's deputies who tracked her to a small eastern Pennsylvania town.

She took their remains - one wrapped in a bedspread, the other two wrapped in plastic - as she traveled the country, living in Utah, Arizona and Texas.

She dropped another bombshell on investigators: There was a fourth child, before the others, that she had at 16. That child also had gone to bed healthy and was dead when O'Dell woke up. That was in New York, where all the births and deaths happened, according to O'Dell, who since has had eight children.

"There are still a lot unanswered questions," said Kenny Angle, Graham County's prosecutor.

"There's a lot of answered questions, but a lot more that don't have answers, and really, we don't know what happened. Our investigation isn't over. Not at all."

Because the deaths happened in New York, the Graham County Sheriff's Department transferred the case to New York authorities. On Monday, two New York State Police detectives traveled to Waverly, N.Y., to begin investigating there after meeting with Graham County detectives.

Arizona detectives interviewed O'Dell, whose age was unavailable, and her common-law husband, Robert Sauerstein, on Saturday.

"They asked her if she knew there were three dead bodies in her storage locker," Graham County Sheriff Frank Hughes said. "She said no. But her reaction was so calm. That's when our investigators knew something was up."

O'Dell and Sauerstein both consented to giving DNA samples and to taking a polygraph test the next day.

Sauerstein showed up Sunday, but O'Dell didn't. When detectives visited her again in her South Gibson, Pa., home - not necessarily to reinterview her but to get her fingerprints, which they had forgotten to record on Saturday - she admitted the babies were hers.

Her admission filled in some holes, but tore open plenty of others.Much of the investigation will focus on why O'Dell carted the bodies of the three children around for nearly a decade.

Another part will focus on who Diane O'Dell was, and why she spent so little time in the Graham County town of Pima, eight miles west of Safford. She arrived in late 1991 and stayed only seven months, long enough for Sauerstein to be charged twice with assaults on minors.

The charges were dropped the first time, and the second time they had moved out of the state after abruptly pulling their three children out of the school just weeks before graduation.

The only details available on the charges Monday were that they involved O'Dell's children.

"No one remembers her," Pima Police Chief Ray Landry said. "We interviewed the teachers at the school, and none of them even remembered the children."

The couple lived in a ramshackle house, clapped together with a travel trailer built into the structure. It's gone, now, torn down in 2000.

No one can remember if they worked, although records in the storage locker indicate they were receiving state aid.

Leroy Smith rented O'Dell the storage locker. He doesn't remember her. She paid by check, but she didn't pay often. She disappeared in April 1992, but continued to pay the storage bill, usually late, until 1994. Smith gave it little mind. He has a lenient attitude, he said, maybe too lenient.

Now, like everyone else in this town, he wonders what happened, and he hopes it was nothing more than a young, scared mother who couldn't afford to pay the funeral expenses.

But that doesn't answer what investigators have been referring to as "the $64,000 question." Why carry the mummified remains of dead babies around? And why leave them after packing them with you for more than a decade?

Upstate New York has had other high-profile cases of women killing several children over the course of many years.

In 1987, Mary Beth Tinning of Schenectady was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1985 death of her 3 1/2 -month-old daughter Tami Lynne. Beginning in 1972, nine of Tinning's children died before age 5, some as young as 7 days old. Tinning is serving 20 years to life in prison.

In 1995, Waneta Hoyt of Newark Valley, south of Syracuse, was convicted of murdering her five young children from 1965-1971. Hoyt died in prison, serving a sentence of 75 years to life.

A landmark 1972 study cited the deaths of Hoyt's children as evidence that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, ran in families.

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