A New Iberia woman was arrested on a count of first-degree murder Wednesday, more than 25 years after the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office says she left her newborn daughter in a Jeanerette trash can, where it died from hypothermia.
Sonia Charles, 50, was arrested by Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Scott Hotard, according to a statement from department spokesperson Maj. Wendell Raborn.
Hotard developed Charles as a suspect after advocacy from a local cold case homicide group brought renewed interest and community members came forward with new leads. As information developed, the case was reopened, Raborn said.
DNA evidence collected from the scene and the infant was retested by the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory, which developed a DNA profile that was matched to a family relation through the Combined DNA Index System. Hotard connected the infant to Charles and DNA testing confirmed she was the infant’s mother, Raborn said.
The major said the seriousness of a homicide doesn’t diminish over time and it’s important to pursue justice for every death.
“It hit hard in a small community. Everyone took it kind of personally,” Raborn said. “Every homicide, every death somehow needs to be accounted for. We do our best on these old cases and if we can solve one it’s a plus for the community.”
“Baby Jane Doe” was found in a 55-gallon garbage can behind Bob’s Car Wash on the west side of Jeanerette on Jan. 24, 1994. The 6-pound infant was found with a thumb in her mouth. Her body was found by Alderman Bob Fontenot, who owned the car wash.
The Iberia Parish Coroner at the time, James Falterman, determined the baby only lived for a few hours. Aside from hypothermia, he found no other internal or external trauma on the child’s body, according to The Advocate’s archives.
A 4-day-old receipt, blanket and girdle, which police believed was evidence of a hidden pregnancy, were found near where the baby was abandoned, but DNA evidence wasn’t definitive enough to produce a suspect and the leads fizzled.
The abandoned baby was embraced by the community, who rallied to donate all the finery and necessities for her funeral services. The infant was buried wearing a donated white christening gown and bonnet, archives stories said.
Around 300 people attended her funeral at Beau Pre Cemetery. Officers with the Jeanerette Police Department acted as pallbearers and other groups, including the local Knights of Columbus, walked in the procession.
“It’s almost like we’re the only family she’s got. The whole city is her family now,” Jeanerette police officer Sheila Granger said at the baby’s funeral. “When somebody dies, somebody mourns them. Somebody had to mourn her.”
One officer placed a raggedy Ann doll in the open casket beside the baby. Granger said acting police Chief Kerri Davis didn’t want the child buried alone, so officers purchased the doll for the funeral, according to The Advocate’s archives.
Private investigator Stephen Menard, a retired narcotics agent with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office, started the cold case advocacy group in the spring and has been working his way through Acadiana collecting information on unsolved homicides. He, victims’ family members and other community members have been working to keep various cases alive.
Menard said when he started the project a friend texted him photos of Baby Jane Doe’s grave and asked that he consider promoting the case. Hopefully now that an arrest has been made, some peace can be found in the heartbreaking case, he said.
“It’s going to take a long time to heal. For 25 years the baby has been lost and now she’s been found by family members. Family members know who she is now,” Menard said. “Maybe the baby can finally get a name.”
The private investigator said the use of DNA in the case provides hope for other cold cases. But technology alone can’t bring about justice, he said.
“I hope we can keep on solving cases,” Menard said. “It’s going to take work from everybody, not just law enforcement, but everybody. We all have to come together.”