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Freezer Discovery In South St. Louis Unearths Family Mystery

September 30, 2019 Michelle Oberman and Ryan Krull
Sumit Kohli (Michelle Oberman) and St. Louis Public Radio (Ryan Krull)

The discovery of a dead baby in a south St. Louis freezer this summer was one of those macabre stories that had the nation riveted. Adam Smith told KSDK that he was cleaning out the freezer after his mother’s death from cancer when he made the grisly discovery. He said the container holding the tiny corpse had been in the freezer for decades.

The story drew national attention from all the usual suspects, but then everyone moved on. Everyone, that is, except Ryan Krull. The freelance writer and faculty member at the University of Missouri-St. Louis pushed below the surface to get a tale that is, in many ways, even more sad and surprising than the initial discovery. It is the latest Riverfront Times cover story.   

As Krull discussed on today’s show, he learned that soon after the freezer discovery, Barbara Smith’s family discovered another shocking secret. Unbeknownst to them, she’d been secretly pregnant when her other children were young. She gave that daughter up for adoption. The woman, Laura Sorenson, grew up in the St. Louis area and even heard about Adam Smith’s freezer discovery. It was only a short time later, and pure coincidence, that she realized that the woman who’d given her up for adoption was linked to that mystery.

Michelle Oberman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and an expert in mothers who kill, shared that in many cases, women who conceal their pregnancies are deeply passive. They have no intention of harming their babies, but they engage in “magical thinking” that the pregnancy may simply go away. The reality sets in too late ⁠— when, for example, they find themselves giving birth on a toilet. Those almost accidental births can lead to terrible outcomes for their offspring.

While we don’t know what happened specifically to the baby in Smith’s freezer, family members now believe she likely concealed both that pregnancy and the one that led to Laura Sorenson being put up for adoption. 

Oberman said it’s very unusual to learn of someone who’s concealed two pregnancies. But she noted that Sorenson’s adoption likely suggests “moral growth” on her birth mother’s part, no matter what happened to the earlier fetus.

“The act of placing a baby is such a brave, courageous, loving act,” Oberman added, “to opt to carry to term and then to place your baby, it’s worth noticing that somebody who does something monstrous at some point in their life isn’t necessarily always a monster.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, Alexis Moore and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.