The missed call was from Louisville, somewhere I’d never been.
I squinted unhappily at the resulting one-and-a-half-minute voicemail message. I had assumed the number was one of the Bangalore-based scammers who’d been trying to shake me down for the last week, or perhaps a debt collector – but neither usually left lengthy messages.
I didn’t want to listen to the voicemail. I don’t like unknowns and assume the worst-case scenario lies behind every closed door. But worst-case scenarios often make the best articles, so I tapped the play button, put my phone on speaker, then warily leaned back in my chair.
The automated robot-voice was already mid-sentence.
“I’m calling with the information you requested from the New York Statewide Victim Information and Notification Service…”
Tara Tomlin was out of prison.
Tara steps out of the state police SUV wearing a baby blue hospital gown. Her hands are cuffed together and chained to a thick leather belt around her mid-section. Her artificially blonde hair is pulled into a haggard ponytail and a black headband sits on her skull like a halo. Before the trooper slams the door behind her, you can glimpse the pink cloth they’ve stretched over her seat.
She turns towards the street before the trooper takes her arm and guides her the other way, towards the courthouse.
Lance Wheeler, the CBS 6 stringer shooting the video, calls out from behind the camera.
“Tara, what happened? What happened?”
Her face starts to collapse, and she opens her mouth to say something before the trooper guides her away from the camera.
Inside, the camera bores into Tara’s face, which is so strained you can see her veins and emaciated musculature as though she was skinless. She’s sniffing constantly and a tear falls on the table in front of her. Her mouth is part-way open, and her remaining teeth look like fangs. A camera flash goes off.
Tara Tomlin was being arraigned on a second-degree murder charge. The victim was her newborn.
The 20-year-old was working the overnight shift at the Bell’s Pond Xtra-Mart in Columbia County that Thanksgiving. She gave birth in the bathroom, then put her newborn in a plastic trash bag and threw him into the gas station’s dumpster, where he eventually suffocated.
Tara then walked back into the gas station and continued her shift.
Though I was not there the day of the arraignment, I covered the Tara Tomlin case for more than a year as a reporter for the Register-Star.
There’s a certain one-sided intimacy to covering someone’s prosecution. You might never talk to them, but you wring information from the cops, the prosecutors, the defensive attorneys, their family and friends. You stare at them throughout every court proceeding, wondering what they were thinking.
James and his girlfriend sat across from me on a threadbare couch in their dimly lit trailer. The space was devoid of decoration and stuffed with cigarette smoke; the only thing on the walls was a wallet-sized photograph stuck through with a crooked thumbtack. I couldn’t make out the image.
James had been getting a lot of shit online about being the father of Tara’s baby, and he was here to state, for the record, that none of it was true.
Yeah, Tara had been into him, James said. They met on social media and she just showed up at his place one day and asked if he wanted to get dinner.
They had fooled around, yeah, James said, but they never fucked. It was mostly about the money. Tara worked and would pay for stuff and bought presents for him and his grandma.
That ended on New Years Eve, James said, when he came home drunk to his grandmother’s and found Tara sleeping on the couch. He violently dragged her out of the house and threw her onto the lawn, telling her to fuck off.
Tara was mentally challenged. Her public defender, Mike Howard, put it as her having “limited cognitive abilities.” Patrons at the Xtra-Mart said she was slow, that it took her a while. Her classmates at Germantown High, where she took special education classes and graduated at 19 ½, said the same thing.
James was not what I would call intelligent, but he wasn’t mentally challenged either. His current girlfriend, who smiled adoringly up at him through his profane monologue, was also clearly mentally challenged.
James called Tara a slut, said she was always getting calls from other guys, but told me he didn’t care because he was only interested in her money.
The girlfriend rubbed his arm and smiled again.
Tara Tomlin had a difficult life before she killed her newborn son. The result was a dark and difficult case. Columbia Court Judge Jonathan Nichols, who presided over the proceedings, said it was one of the saddest, “if not THE saddest case I have ever presided over.”
I got a lot of shit while covering the Tara Tomlin case. Columbia County was highly engaged, and everyone was angry. Several women wrote on social media and contacted me directly lambasting my use of the word “mother” to describe Tara. She was no mother, they said, that baby-killer, and didn’t deserve the designation.
Others wrote in the comments of my articles she should be killed – not unheard of below Register-Star crime stories. One person said justice would only be served if Tara was also suffocated.
The story – or at least the initial report of Tara being charged with murder – got some national attention. It was even picked up by the U.K. Daily Mail, which pissed me off, since Tara’s story was also running in the Catskill Daily Mail, the Register-Star’s companion paper.
The most cutting attacks were not aimed at Tara, nor at the people around her that failed to help a mentally challenged 20 year old entering her third trimester. They were aimed at me.
Why are you covering this? – The baby’s dead, the girl who killed her was arrested, why draw out the tragedy? Just to sell papers, hm? If it bleeds, it leads?
Tara’s story was not the darkest I covered on the crime beat at the Register-Star. In fact, I’d say there were at least three darker.
Due to law enforcement ineptitude, one of the crimes never produced charges that matched the extent of the sin. The other two stories – an incestuous pedophile ring and the case of David Agan – were only reported on by local media.
The ring wasn’t just the darkest thing I’ve ever written about in a newspaper – it was the darkest thing I’ve ever read about in a newspaper. I’ll go one farther: it was the darkest thing, real or fictional, I have ever heard about.
The public didn’t know the extent of the evil: both prosecutors and journalists aim to protect the victims from further harm, and this involves leaving out a lot of details.
People slow down to look at car crashes, to see the rent metal, perhaps a still-sputtering wire. But would they stop to see a suicide victim? What about a massacre?
Or what about Tara, walking away from the dumpster as her baby boy screamed?
The Register-Star requested state police documents under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) related to their response that Thanksgiving night.
We were trying to find out if the police fucked up. Troopers responded to the XtraMart at about 3:45 a.m. to the report of a baby crying outside. They left after finding nothing. The baby’s body was recovered from the dumpster more than five hours later.
The state police did NOT want to give us the documents. The battle went on for almost a year and a half, through tense snail-mail exchanges, advisory opinions from the state Committee on Open Government, and the threat of a lawsuit.
My doggedness finally prevailed, and I got the complete file. The stories were written by Nick Oliveri, the Register-Star’s investigative reporter at the time.
Though the state police went through obnoxious lengths to block their release, the documents did not reveal neglect or ineptitude on the part of responding officers. Tara left the bathroom at 3:02 a.m. for the dumpster. At 3:33 a.m., another employee at the store went outside to toss garbage, then returned with a flashlight after thinking he had heard a baby’s cries. He called 911 at 3:40 a.m., and police were at the scene two minutes later.
Two, then three troopers searched the dumpster for 40 minutes, but didn’t hear or see anything. The employee told them towards the end of the search the noise might have been an animal.
Troopers returned at about 6:15 a.m., after Tara was sent home by her manager, who was arriving for her morning shift. They searched until the found the deceased baby just before 9 a.m.
The two troopers did not interview Tara, or go into the store at all, when they first responded. Could they have saved the baby? Most likely not. Either way, it was not their fault, and I hope they hold no guilt.
So why did the state police fight us so hard to keep the documents out of public view? First, they are police, and police generally default to not revealing anything about anything unless they absolutely have to.
They usually don’t fight that hard, though.
There is a darkness below our everyday existence, a subterranean plain where everything is cold and nebulous forms move rapidly. We walk above it on a thin façade that crinkles like wax paper whenever we step. We smile straight ahead.
Sometimes one of the forms worms its way up into this surface existence. It’s the jobs of police, of prosecutors, to be on the lookout for these intrusions, and to hammer them back down with all the power of society and government. To keep everyone safe from the forms’ reaching tentacles, yes. But also to keep people from seeing what’s below them.
Because then people wouldn’t be able to smile and walk. They would stop and stare downwards, and the façade between the two worlds would be no more.
The FOIL revealed Tomlin told detectives she was in a relationship with a man while she was pregnant, but the baby was from a previous entanglement.
Tomlin lied to the man, telling him the baby was his, but he did not believe her, saying he didn’t want anything to do with it or her.
Tomlin went to find the father, who lived in the Albany area.
“I drove up to Albany to tell him,” Tomlin said, according to Oliveri’s write-up of the FOILed police interrogation. “I went into the gas station where he buys his beer. They said he still comes in, so I waited for him. I told him I was pregnant. He said he didn’t want nothing to do with me or it [the baby]. I didn’t want it [the baby]. That’s when I started to do things to kill it.”
Some things are too ugly for people to see. When part of the darkness erupts through the façade, the police and prosecutors are there to protect them. But that’s not the job of a journalist.
Our job is to tell people about the eruptions, so they know where not to step.