CANADA

A disquieting mystery

St. John’s rallies behind an abandoned girl

GLEN ALLEN August 7 1989
CANADA

A disquieting mystery

St. John’s rallies behind an abandoned girl

GLEN ALLEN August 7 1989

A disquieting mystery

St. John’s rallies behind an abandoned girl

The crumpled figure on the front steps of the Anglican cathedral in downtown St. John’s, Nfld., immediately caught the attention of a passing pedestrian. Shortly after 7 a.m. on July 7, the passerby noticed a teenage girl dressed in a blue winter coat and red sweatpants slumped in the portico of the stately stone Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, apparently unable to move or speak. The unidentified man then walked to the neighboring Newfoundland Supreme Court building and told security guard Janet Connors: “There’s a girl on the church steps next door. It looks like she’s sick.” Connors, in turn, notified Newfoundland authorities. Now, nearly a month later, the case of the unfailingly cheerful but severely disabled girl known simply as Christina remains a compelling but disquieting enigma that deepens with every passing day. Said John Efford, provincial minister of social services, who has co-ordinated the attempts to solve the mystery of Christina:

“Unless she comes from where E. T. came from, somebody in this world knows who she is.”

But in spite of media reports throughout North America and Europe—and 9 inquiries conducted by po£ lice as far away as Eastern ¿

Europe—Christina’s true “ identity remains a mystery.

When she was found, Christina did not have any identification. Though her coat bore the logo “Aspen,” a U.S.-based manufacturer, and her white leather sneakers the trademark “Prowing,” distributed by a company based in Kansas, other labels had been removed from her clothes. In addition to two small overnight bags holding extra clothing, the five-foot, six-inch, 150-lb. girl had only a teddy bear, one doll, an English-language Bible, a book of religious verses titled Garden of Hope and a ring with the letter “C”. Doctors at The Dr. Charles A. Janeway Child Health Centre in St. John’s—where Christina has recently been living—initially diagnosed her illness as cerebral palsy, but they said that she was otherwise healthy and that there were no signs of abuse. They also discovered that Christina understood not only spoken English but German and Slovene—one of the languages spoken in Yugoslavia—and that she was able to use sign language.

Using that sign language and symbol cards, investigators questioned the girl about her

origins. She initially told them that her name was Christine Yatso and that she had come to Newfoundland aboard a small white yacht with three men, her mother and a nanny. She said that her mother was a Yugoslav who had moved to England, and added that she had attended a small rural school for disabled children in England. She was also able to recognize British money. Christina said that she had lost the power to speak or walk sometime after the age of 10. But as police and a team of psychologists, neurologists, government officials and social workers assigned to her case continued to work with the girl, they found that the story she had first told investigators began to unravel. Said Lieut. Chesley Tapp of the Royal

Newfoundland Constabulary, head of a fourman police group investigating the case: “Obviously, there is something going on with her that she hasn’t told us.”

Under questioning, Christina revealed that she had made up the surname Yatso, and that her first name was not Christine but Christina. And the girl’s story of the mysterious arrival by boat could not be corroborated by Canadian customs or immigration officials. For his part, Efford said that during questioning Christina has been as evasive as she is apparently cheerful. “When you come down to questions like ‘What is your mother’s name?’ and ‘Where does she live?’ there is no way,” Efford said. “She won’t even look at you. And that has been continuous.”

But Christina’s evasiveness also proved dangerous to her health. After their original diagnosis of cerebral palsy, the doctors noticed that Christina’s physical condition appeared to be deteriorating more rapidly than they expected. With Christina steadfastly refusing to say any-

thing about her condition or what medication she had been taking, doctors conducted more tests and initially thought that she may be suffering from a rare muscular degenerative condition called dystonia musculorum deformans. Dr. Alan Goodridge, a Memorial University neurologist called in to consult on Christina’s case, called the disease “an extremely rare, serious, progressive illness.” Goodridge said that while it is controllable by medication, dystonia “can shorten the life-span.” Now doctors are no longer certain that Christina is in fact suffering from dystonia. But they have been administering medication, which has brought about an improvement in Christina’s condition.

Meanwhile, Christina has shown that she shares the tastes of other children her age, favoring food from McDonald’s and clearly enjoying a showing of Ghostbusters lí. And she has become a subject of everyday conversation for Newfoundlanders. “Everybody who comes in here talks about it every day,” said Frances Davis, owner of Frances’ Beauty Shoppe on Topsail Road in St.

John’s. “People wonder what happened to her. They wonder why her mother dropped her there. They wonder how she could have done it.

They wonder why they can’t find out more about her and what’s wrong with her.” Media interest around the world has increased as well.

Meanwhile, some Newfoundlanders have shown pride in the warm welcome extended to Christina— especially in the face of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the province’s Roman Catholic Church.

“Tossing unwanted helpless children onto the streets in this way may not be uncommon in the world’s big cities,” said one newspaper editorial. “It is highly unusual here. A great deal of attention has been called of M late to the sexual abuse of children in ; this province, and some may be 5 thinking of Newfoundland as a haven 5

of pederasts. It is, in fact, a tradition-

al society in which love of children is a central tenet.” Added Susan St. John Capps, co-ordinator of the St. John’s

Early Childhood Training Centre: “If there is anywhere people would pull together over something like this, it’s certainly here.”

Still, many residents say that they cannot understand why Christina refuses to discuss her past in detail. Michelle Coady, for one, a clerk in Lars Fruit Market in downtown St. John’s, said, “I feel she should co-operate with us and let us help her.” Tapp, who says that the case has been without precedent in his career, himself speaks affectionately of Christina, saying: “She is really quite jolly, very bright and not depressed. I think she is confident her mom is going to come back for her.” But he also

noted that, because she has apparently lied to investigators, “We have got to tread carefully. Once bitten, twice shy, that sort of thing.” Added Tapp: “The thing is that this girl could tell us everything if she wanted to.”

Efford says that efforts to uncover Christina’s background will intensify. Tapp already has two officers and an information analyst working full time on the case while he handles

liaison work with local and international media and police. But those inquiries have so far not yielded clues. Officers at Britain’s Scotland Yard, called in early in the case to help trace any British connection, were unable to find any information about Christina. Her photograph has been widely published in the British media, but so far no one has come forward with any information. Interpol, the international police organization, has also tried to identify her, but so far with no results. Tapp is now in the process of sending out color posters with Christina’s photo and information about her to police forces and hospitals across North Ameri-

ca. But, he added: “We are not sure of anything now. We are at a point when we just have to let things take their course.”

Last week, dental experts examined Christina’s teeth in an effort to determine where she came from. “Dentists can tell which part of the world dental work was done,” Efford said. But the experts could only conclude that whatever dental work Christina had received was of high

quality. If her parents or country of origin cannot be determined, Christina will likely be made a ward of the province early this month and placed in a foster home. Said Efford: “I think the next move is putting her back in reality.” To that end, Christina will likely be advised that she should begin to prepare herself for school in September—as the mystery over her origins and arrival in St. John’s continues to puzzle both Newfoundlanders and outsiders alike.

GLEN ALLEN with RUSSELL WANGERSKY in St. John ’s

RUSSELL WANGERSKY