Owen reached for a pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord. Blood drained from Owen's end, but not a drop came from her baby.
A couple of hours earlier, Owen had been curled up on a love seat in the living room of her parents' home, watching a Chiefs game with her mom and dad. It was family tradition. On Sundays when she could break away, Owen drove home from Kansas State University to the cul-de-sac in Olathe.
But on this second weekend in October 2003, the trip was different. During the two-hour drive from Manhattan, Owen, then 20, had rehearsed how she might reveal the secret that she'd hidden under baggy clothes for nearly eight months.
Later, questioned by police, she would claim that she was humiliated and didn't know whom she could trust. A man had slipped something into her drink at a fraternity party, she would say; she'd awakened the next morning naked, with no memory of the night. A few weeks later, she learned she was pregnant.
Owen was excited about having a little girl, despite the circumstances of its conception. Her name would be Izabella.
But she still hadn't told her parents, fearing they would push her to give up the baby for adoption or, worse, get an abortion.
Owen's water broke while she was sitting on the love seat during the second quarter of the Chiefs game.
Panicked, she rushed out of the house, telling her parents she was going for a drive to do some thinking. Her parents didn't consider this odd Owen was talking about applying to study abroad in Spain the following semester and was putting a lot of pressure on herself to excel in her classes.
Owen drove to Olathe Lake and parked near the bathrooms. She hadn't felt Izabella move for a week and a half, after Owen had fallen on a mound of sand at Tuttle Creek State Park in Manhattan. She thought there was a chance that landing on her abdomen had injured or killed her unborn daughter.
The contractions slowed after Owen spent about half an hour sitting alone at Olathe Lake. She went back to her parents' house, passing Olathe Medical Center on the way, and told her mom that she was going upstairs to take a shower.
The contractions started again in quick spasms. Owen realized she had to make a choice: call out for help, or fill the bathtub and deliver the baby alone.
She turned on the faucet and undressed. When the water was high enough, Owen lay down. As Izabella's head came out, Owen pushed, but she couldn't free her baby's shoulders. After struggling for at least 10 minutes, Owen finally pulled out Izabella.
"She was not alive," Owen would later tell the Pitch. "There was absolutely no response."
Owen cut the umbilical cord.
Fearing she might bleed to death, she wrapped her end of the cord with a hair tie. She flushed the blood clots down the toilet and took a shower to clean herself and wash away the blood still in the tub.
Then she wrapped Izabella in a green towel and rocked her in her arms for more than an hour. Owen eventually placed her baby, its umbilical cord and its placenta inside a backpack and left the house. Driving around in search of a place she could bury Izabella, Owen saw the Dumpster behind a strip mall at 2121 East 151st Street.
She peeked inside and found it nearly empty. Owen laid the backpack inside, then drove home.
She greeted her parents again and sat down with them to share dinner.
When Aubrey Owen was sentenced last November, the Johnson County courtroom was filled to capacity. Reporters had gathered in front of the Olathe Police Station soon after the dead baby was discovered; in the months that followed, they trailed Owen into court for her hearings. Each report was a chance to recap Owen's seemingly heartless choice to abandon her baby in a Dumpster.
But court documents, Owen's letters from prison and interviews with her friends and family members reveal that the story of Owen's abandoned baby involves three babies and Owen's strained relationship with her own mother.
The day after Owen abandoned Izabella, a garbage worker pulled the backpack out of a dump truck and opened it. A crowd gathered as police and the medical examiner arrived to take away the tiny corpse.
Detectives had a lead. Inside the bag was a note card with Owen's name and Social Security number printed on it.
Two detectives went to Rebecca and Jay Owen's home, where Aubrey Owen broke down, admitting the backpack and the baby were hers.
A few hours later, Olathe Police Detective Bill Wall videotaped Owen in a white interrogation room.
On the tape, Wall repeatedly tells Owen that she may have had a hand in the baby's death, intentional or not. Owen hadn't even visited a doctor during the pregnancy.
"I know," she says, pointing to her head. "I don't think something's right.... Besides the fact that physically I'm not OK and mentally I'm not OK, I just lost a baby."
Wall pushes Owen harder.
"How come you didn't go to the hospital?" he asks.
"My mom is a nurse," Owen answers with a nervous laugh. "I don't know. The whole situation was a one-night stand that a guy had taken advantage of me. I was too drunk and woke up without clothes on. It's not like I wanted people to know about it."
Wall tells her that a rational person might assume she was planning on letting her baby die all along. "I don't think that's morally sane," Owen responds.
During the first day's questioning, Owen appeared certain that Izabella had been stillborn. But after an autopsy the next day, Owen returned to talk with Wall and learned that Izabella had taken at least one breath before dying. Medical Examiner Michael Handler ruled the death a homicide. Had Owen gone to the hospital or called out for help, Handler determined, Izabella probably would have survived.
On a videotape of the next day's interrogation, Wall tells Owen that Izabella was alive. Owen starts shaking. Wall listens as she moans through the memory of the birth, then Wall tells her that it looked as though she never intended to have the baby.
"I feel horrible," Owen's voice cracks through sobs. "It's wrong that I was going to throw her away, but I panicked. Because she was dead. She was not breathing and not shaking, and her face was blue and her hands were blue and her feet were blue. I didn't know what to do. But I didn't deliberately hurt her."
Wall leaves the room, but the camera keeps rolling. Owen sobs uncontrollably, moaning and talking to herself. She puts her head against the wall then rocks back and forth, putting her hand over her heart and wailing.
When Wall returns, the tears stop instantly. Owen wipes her eyes, then speaks in a monotone. She wants to make one thing clear: Although she didn't ask for help, she wanted that baby but was afraid that Izabella would come out dead because of the fall the week before.
Owen explains that she couldn't confide in her parents, after an adolescence during which she believed that she constantly let her mother down.
"I didn't know how to be like, 'Mom, I think I'm going to have a baby but I don't think it's alive,'" Owen says. "So I just went into the bathroom and closed the door."
On an unseasonably warm evening in early April, three toddlers next door wave to Rebecca Owen over her backyard fence as a chorus of barking dogs rises in the neighborhood.
Across the street, two kids are jumping on a trampoline, shrieking in delight. Another family is playing badminton in its well-manicured backyard. A basketball hoop is cemented to a driveway a few houses down, where a little boy and his dad tug a trash barrel to the curb.
Rebecca Owen waves back at the children next door with a forced smile. Aubrey was about their age when Rebecca and Jay Owen (a traffic manager for Cartwright International Van Lines, a Grandview trucking company) moved their daughter and her older brother from the Waldo neighborhood to Olathe.
Before the move, Rebecca recalls, Aubrey loved to ride her bike down the hill by their old home near 85th Street and Wornall.
"She had scabs on top of scabs," Rebecca says. "Every time she would ride her bike down this hill, she'd hit this patch of gravel and wipe out. But she kept doing it, over and over and over again, loving it. The rush of going down was worth the risk that maybe next time she wouldn't wipe out."
Sprawled on the gravel, Aubrey would call out for her mother. Rebecca would run down the hill and scoop her daughter into her arms.
The memory sounds idyllic, but the Owen family wanted out of Waldo. Seeking a slower pace and better schools, they moved to Olathe when Aubrey was in sixth grade, a bubbly 12-year-old.
The transition was difficult for her. The schools were more demanding, so her grades started to slip. And she had a hard time relating to the cliquey circles in the suburbs.
One exception was Nina Wiglesworth. The two were inseparable. When the boys and girls started making out at social gatherings, Aubrey and Nina would steal away to a corner of the room and laugh at the absurdity of getting caught up in such serious things.
But when Aubrey was 13, she started dating a popular basketball player and fell in love. It was around that time, Rebecca says, that she lost touch with her daughter. Aubrey began to rebel and started hanging out with a bad crowd. "One of them has killed themselves drugs, alcohol, you name it," Rebecca says of Aubrey's friends. Rebecca says they always bickered, and Aubrey never listened or did as she was told.
One Friday during her eighth-grade year at Frontier Trail Junior High, Aubrey stayed home sick from school. By early afternoon, she had miraculously recovered, so she went to school for the last hour of classes and told her mom that she was going to a sleepover at a girlfriend's house. Rebecca told her she couldn't, but Aubrey did it anyway.
Rebecca Owen says she didn't speak a word to her daughter for almost two months.
"She basically disowned me. She surrendered all parental duties to my dad," Aubrey tells the Pitch.
Rebecca says she wanted to teach Aubrey a lesson, that she had to make logical decisions on her own. Wiglesworth says that's when Aubrey changed. "She kind of stuck to one group of people that were kind of the bad girls, and she started getting into trouble with them."
Wiglesworth remembers that Aubrey was having trouble with a particular girl and bumped into her accidentally one day. "It turned into this big brawl," Wiglesworth says. "Hair was pulled, and people were kicked and hit and slapped. It was the crowd she was hanging out with."
Wiglesworth saw less of Aubrey because she didn't want to be around the other girls. "They all kind of dabbled in drugs, lots of drinking."
Rebecca Owen has trouble forgiving herself. She failed to see how her popular and pretty daughter was deteriorating through years of what she now says was untreated depression. "That's what was the most upsetting for me as a mom, to realize what level of pain and grief she carried inside of her, alone," Rebecca says.
When Aubrey was 16, she broke up with her boyfriend. A week later, she found out she was pregnant.
"I saw him and hung out with him when I was pregnant," Aubrey tells the Pitch. "But he went and got another girlfriend to make it clear he didn't want to have anything to do with the situation of me being pregnant."
Aubrey told Wiglesworth and a couple of other close friends about the pregnancy, but she didn't tell her parents. Then she had her period and figured that she'd miscarried. The gossip died down.
When she should have been at midterm, Aubrey went to the hospital for surgery on her eardrum. During the pre-operation procedure, doctors conducted a routine pregnancy test that came back negative, Rebecca says. Aubrey was further convinced that she'd miscarried.
But a few months later, on May 15, 2000 her 17th birthday Aubrey fell to the floor of her bedroom in a grand mal seizure.
Rebecca found her and called 911. A registered nurse at Kansas City Hospice, Rebecca knelt down to help her daughter until an ambulance arrived. "The paramedics got to working on her, and the minute they disrobed her, you could see that belly," Rebecca recalls. "I was like, 'Oh, my God.' Then they told us in the ER that she was pregnant."
Doctors told the Owens that their daughter had gone into a seizure because she hadn't received proper prenatal care. Aubrey delivered a baby, though the frontal lobe in the baby's brain had not developed. Doctors didn't believe the infant would live long, but she survived.
Aubrey named her Samantha and, at the urging of her parents and the doctors, gave her up for adoption.
After she came home from the hospital, Aubrey was never the same.
"In hindsight, she needed to be in counseling," Wiglesworth says. "She didn't understand her own actions, why she was coping the way she was coping. She didn't understand why she would get mad for some reason, mood swings.... There were a series of bad choices and bad things that happened that led to this awful thing."
Wiglesworth says Aubrey felt that her mother had responded to the situation with suspicion, which created a bigger divide between mother and daughter.
"I think Aubrey avoided her mom and I think her mom kind of didn't trust her for that," Wiglesworth says. "If she could hide that, what else was she hiding?"
Rebecca Owen says she never saw any signs of depression until after Aubrey gave up Samantha. She says she wishes that she had forced Aubrey to get therapy.
Instead, Owen enrolled at Kansas State University in the fall of 2001. Owen wanted a career so that she could help Samantha if her daughter one day came looking for her.
She pledged Chi Omega. Rebecca says her daughter loved sorority life the parties, the sisterhood, decorating floats for homecoming. She felt as though she belonged. But she still struggled with the memory of Samantha from time to time. Before she left for school, Owen had written and received letters from Samantha's adoptive parents. When she went to K-State, she lost touch. "That's when I hit a depression," she says. "Because I no longer knew about her development or how she was doing."
When Owen took psychology during her sophomore year and began to learn about child development, she says, "It just really started opening up wounds that were hard to deal with, with the loss of Samantha."
Overall, though, Owen seemed to have adjusted. Then, in February 2003, she went to a party at the Alpha Tau Omega house.
After her arrest for abandoning Izabella in the Dumpster, Owen gave slightly differing accounts of what happened that night. In the videotaped interrogation with Wall, she claimed that a "one-night stand" took advantage of her because she was drunk. Later in the interview, she called it a "date rape" and said she didn't want to talk about it because she'd known other women on campus who had tried to prosecute date rapes and failed.
Jay Owen was convinced that his daughter had been raped. She could hold her liquor, he says; it would have taken a lot more than a few beers for someone to lead her into a bedroom. "She can hang," he says. "We've been down tailgating with her, and she can go all day long."
But there was no proof. Jay Owen figures that investigating the fraternity would have been a hopeless cause. "Who are you going to get?" he asks. "Are you going to wipe out the whole house?"
In the months that followed, Owen knew that she needed help, says one sorority sister who asked not to be named. It was the fall of 2003, and Owen was secretly pregnant, living off-campus in an apartment.
"We went to lunch sometime in September, and she was kind of explaining some of the depression she went through," the sorority sister says. "I didn't want to pry, though, because I didn't really know of some of the problems she'd had in the past and how every now and then it snuck up on her."
She says Owen was a great and caring friend but didn't seem herself the outgoing girl who liked a good party. "She just seemed a little bit like a loner fall semester.... I thought that was a little bit of a red flag."
By the end of the next month, Owen had given birth and Johnson County prosecutors had charged her with unintentional second-degree murder. The autopsy revealed a twist in the evidence Owen had taken cocaine in the 48 hours before the birth. Though Handler said at a preliminary hearing that the amount of cocaine in Izabella's bloodstream probably wouldn't have caused the baby's death, it didn't help during the unassisted childbirth.
Owen's defense attorney, Carl Cornwell, knew the state's case was strong enough to potentially send Owen to prison for 20 years.
"Carl prepared us," Rebecca says. "They were going to make Aubrey out to be a slut, a drug addict, a party girl who cared only about partying and playing, who had the potential of going to Spain for a semester and didn't want this baby because it would interfere with that."
Owen had made no police reports after the frat party at Kansas State, so it was virtually impossible to prove that she'd been raped.
Cornwell says he was never able to fully understand his client's state of mind. If Owen didn't want the baby, he wonders, why didn't she have an abortion? "What am I going to do, let it go full-term, kill it, hide it? It doesn't make sense," he says. Cornwell says he thought that Owen's cocaine use and failure to seek prenatal care would cause prosecutors to question whether Owen really wanted the baby.
"Aubrey told me that she was going to have the baby and then she would take this beautiful little girl downstairs and her parents would have to accept it. That was her rationale. That's Aubrey. She has a puzzling affect. It's kinda like she's not all there."
Psychological evaluations paid for by the family attempted to explain Owen's behavior. In the months after her arrest, she was diagnosed as suicidal, with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Owen, according to the evaluation, had been "disassociating" herself from the alleged assault in the frat house and the pregnancy, which allowed her to maintain good grades and go on with her life as if Izabella wasn't growing inside her. In a conversation with the Pitch from prison on May 5, Owen said that she used cocaine only a couple of times, hoping to numb the memory of the pregnancy when it surfaced. "It didn't," she said.
While Cornwell worked on her legal case, Owen's behavior continued in a destructive pattern. She was arrested twice for drunken driving while out on bail. Each time, she blew higher than a 0.2 on a Breathalyzer. (The legal limit in Kansas is 0.08.) Her case was slipping away. "I told Aubrey, 'Maybe you really need to be on your best behavior here,'" Cornwell says.
Cornwell declined the prosecutor's offer of four years in prison if Owen pleaded no contest. He hoped that the Johnson County District Attorney's Office would consider Owen's situation the possibility that she needed mental help rather than hard time and come back with a softer plea agreement, such as 120-day shock time in prison or probation.
But Assistant District Attorney Chris McMullin wanted her sent to prison.
"When you talk about a harsh sentence, that's 20 years," McMullin tells the Pitch. "Nobody was there in support of the baby, that's for sure, other than myself and the people with me.... I would have slept at night if she had gotten 10 years in prison."
As Cornwell weighed the evidence against Owen, she walked into his office to report a surprise.
She was pregnant again.
Six months after Izabella was born, Owen met Mark Huston at a barbecue in Lawrence. They fell in love.
"I could tell she was kind of in despair and needed somebody to understand her and be in her corner that wasn't already tied to everything," Huston says. "It all just kind of grew from there."
Owen had withdrawn from K-State and was living at home in Olathe when she found out that she and Huston were going to have a baby.
Rebecca was mad at first. She told Owen that she had just blown her legal case.
But Owen was thrilled. "She said, 'I guess I'm supposed to be a mom, Mom,'" Rebecca says.
Eventually, Rebecca decided to make the best of the situation. "I said, 'OK, for once in your life, you're going to experience a healthy pregnancy and all the joy that you missed by not telling anybody.' The fun little stuff of it that she never got to enjoy. And we did. The first time we went to look for baby clothes, it was so much fun. We went to Burlington Coat Factory here at the Great Mall. You see the strollers and you see the cribs and you see all this stuff, the little booties. And I never knew that Aubrey was ever into feet at all, but baby feet? Oh, if it's a booty or a little shoe, she would just squeal and go, 'Oh, my God, this is so cute!'"
Owen also told her counselors about the new pregnancy. She said she felt blessed. Michele Paynter, a clinical coordinator at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, whom Owen began seeing about a year after her arrest, wrote in court documents: "The client beamed with excitement. Her specialist expressed concerns upon her rape case, and how potential jurors would view this recent development. The client was overwhelmingly happy, and didn't seem concerned about the matter."
But it killed the case. If they'd gone to trial, Cornwell notes, Owen would have walked into court each day nearly nine months pregnant. The county returned with a new offer this time five years instead of four if Owen pleaded no contest.
Owen was seven months pregnant when she agreed to the plea on August 18, 2005. Her sentencing hearing was delayed so that she could give birth and have a few weeks to bond with her daughter. Alexis was born on October 3.
At Owens' November 17 sentencing, family members and friends pleaded for District Judge Thomas Bornholdt to show mercy. As a condition to speak, everyone who stood on Owen's behalf, including her mother and father, had to concede that Owen deserved to go away, Cornwell tells the Pitch.
So each of Owen's supporters hesitantly agreed that she deserved the terms of the plea agreement: five years in prison for unintentional second-degree murder.
Bornholdt handed down the full five years.
In the visiting room at the Topeka Correctional Facility, a couple of dozen small tables are surrounded by blue plastic chairs. Relatives line up at the vending machines to buy their incarcerated family members Cokes and sandwiches. Others huddle around their tables playing cards and talking quietly. Kids run around the room laughing.
Owen is allowed to see Huston and their daughter, Alexis, on Saturdays and Sundays for six-hour visits. On the weekend before Mother's Day, Owen wears jeans and a white sweatshirt. Her eyes light up as her mother hobbles into the room; Rebecca sprained her ankle in a fall earlier in the week.
The two share a long embrace, then Rebecca notices the half-inch cut on her daughter's left eyebrow. Aubrey tells her mother she's fine, that the cut came from a mishap with Buddy, a German Shepard she's been assigned to give obedience training in the yard, readying him for a dog shelter. Buddy got too excited and accidentally bit her as they wrestled the previous Monday, Aubrey says, downplaying the wound. She's more concerned about her mother's ankle.
When Aubrey sees Huston walk in with Alexis in a carrier, she jumps up to greet her baby. Alexis seems to recognize her mother right away.
"Good morning, sunshine," Aubrey says. She picks up her baby and swings her in the air, smiling wide. She gives Alexis a dozen kisses, swinging her up again and again, saying a loud, shrill "Hi!"
She hugs Huston, then returns her attention to her little girl. She holds Alexis in her lap, and Alexis, in what has become a habit, tugs at the inmate tag on Aubrey's shirt and then starts chewing on it.
Huston tells Aubrey about how Alexis chewed on a barbecued rib, how she loves to sing during American Idol. Aubrey feeds Alexis a bottle, then yogurt from a spoon, then sings the alphabet to her daughter.
Huston, who has custody of Alexis, says they'll be waiting for Owen when she gets out. He hasn't proposed to her, but their plan, he says, is to marry when Owen is released.
"I understand the mistakes I made," Owen tells the Pitch. "It's nobody's fault but mine." But she says she wants other women caught in similar circumstances to know her story so that they can seek help.
Though they admit they missed obvious signs that their daughter was troubled, her parents remain adamant that she belongs in counseling, not prison. They, too, visit her every Saturday.
For his part, Cornwell calls it one of the strangest cases he's ever defended.
"I have always been troubled and I have never had this answered to my satisfaction, why she didn't tell mom and dad, why she didn't tell her best friend. She's just a lost soul. It's just so goddamned sad."