Los Angeles police identify owner of trunk that held mummified baby remains

Investigators have identified the owner of a trunk in which the mummified remains of two babies were found, bringing them a step closer to solving the intriguing international mystery.

The owner of the steamer trunk, abandoned for decades in the basement of an apartment building, was Janet M. Barrie, a Scottish immigrant who was born in 1897 and worked as a nurse in Los Angeles before moving to Vancouver, where she died, officials said Thursday.

Confirming her identity will help investigators as they try to solve the puzzle of the abandoned remains found wrapped in sheets and nestled in doctor bags amid scrunched up copies of 1930s newspapers.

The coroner's office has been unable to determine how the babies died, and it may never be known why they were placed in the trunk or who put them there. DNA tests are currently under way to see if the babies were related to each other.

Investigators with the coroner's office tracked down Barrie's nieces and nephews in Canada. The family members have agreed to submit DNA samples to see if they are related to the babies, said a law enforcement official who asked not to be named because the investigation was ongoing.

The abandoned trunk was found Aug. 17 by two women clearing out an apartment building basement that was filled with items that accumulated during years of remodels.

The trunk was like a time capsule from the 1930s, containing a pearl necklace, an iron with a thick electric cord, girdle, figurine, books, photos, documents and a cigar box painted with depictions of saints.

The women found the babies when they peeked into the doctors bags. It is not known if they had been born alive or had been miscarried or aborted.

One of them, a girl, was about the age of a newborn and extremely well preserved. She had thick brown hair and her arms lay by her sides while her legs were folded up to her chest, the law enforcement official said.

The other baby was much smaller and in worse condition, and could have been a fetus or born prematurely. There were no signs of trauma to the babies.

Speculation was heightened because the trunk contained Peter Pan memorabilia, and Barrie shared the same initials as the character's creator, James M. Barrie, leading some to wonder if there was a connection.

Police on Thursday ruled out any immediate links to the Scottish author.

The name on the trunk was Jean Barrie but investigators established the owner's name was Janet after reading letters and postcards from relatives. Coroner's investigator Joyce Kato traced surviving Barrie family members to Canada by studying an online ancestry database and census forms and by examining immigration forms and other items from the trunk.

Several amateur sleuths and genealogy enthusiasts contacted the coroner's office to offer help, but much of their information was based on the name Jean, not Janet, so turned out to be wrong, Kato said.

Investigators are working on a number of theories about why someone would put the babies in a trunk.

Barrie worked as a private nurse in the home of dentist George Knapp, mainly looking after his wife Mary Downs Knapp. After the wife died of breast cancer in 1964, Barrie married George Knapp and stayed with him until his death in 1968.

After her husband's death, Barrie moved to Vancouver, where she died of natural causes in 1995, the law enforcement official said. Her remains were returned to Los Angeles and were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, along with those of George and Mary Knapp.

Among the theories being explored is that Barrie had children with Knapp but they did not survive or were aborted. Or perhaps they were babies she helped deliver in the apartment building that died.

Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck said it was important to continue investing resources into the case, even though it was three-quarters of a century old, because it could turn out the babies were homicide victims.

"Justice, even when delayed, is still justice," Beck said.