Teen charged in baby's death; Guatemalan immigrant came to Shore in Dec. to pack eggs on farm


MARYDEL -- When the Rev. Chris LaBarge arrived at the ramshackle trailer in rural Caroline County on Monday afternoon, he found the body of a newborn boy wrapped in a plastic grocery bag on the bathroom floor and Erminia Escalante Berdugo curled in a bed nearby.

"She was nearly incoherent, lying in almost a fetal position," said LaBarge, a Roman Catholic priest who ministers to a growing number of Hispanic immigrants in Marydel, a small town that straddles the Maryland-Delaware border about 12 miles from Dover, Del.

Escalante, a native of Guatemala who told police she is 17 and had entered the United States illegally, was ordered held without bail yesterday on first-degree murder and other charges in the child's death. A hearing will be held March 1.

The teen-ager, who speaks no English, has been charged as an adult, but police and prosecutors have not ruled out that she might have used a false identity and exaggerated her age.

LaBarge said the 5-foot, 2-inch, 120-pound Escalantemight be as young as 13.

"Since she is illegal, of course she would tell the police she's 17," LaBarge said. "She has to have a birth certificate to get a Social Security number, and she has to be at least 16 in order to go to work here."

Court records show that Escalante apparently delivered the child around 10: 30 a.m. She lived near Marydel with her aunt and uncle in Walker's Trailer Park, a collection of more than 100 trailers occupied by Guatemalans who work in nearby food-processing plants.

A preliminary report from the state medical examiner's office found that the baby was alive at birth. The cause of death has not been determined.

Speaking through an interpreter, Escalante told Circuit Judge L. Edgar Brown that she did not understand the severity of the charges, which could bring a death sentence or life in prison.

When asked if she could understand never being allowed to go home, she answered quietly to an interpreter that she did.

Escalante, who has requested a public defender, is being held in the Caroline County Detention Center in Denton.

Investigators with the county Sheriff's Department said they have no reason to believe she has used a false identity.

"We're as sure as we're ever going to be," said Sgt. Ron Russum. "She's been interviewed by everybody you can think of, including the [U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service], and she keeps insisting she's who she says she is and that her age is 17. Right now, that's all we have to go on."

Escalante arrived in December for a job in the poultry industry, packing eggs at Decoster Egg Farms in Kent County.

Workers, particularly those from Guatemala, are drawn to Marydel because of cheap housing, said LaBarge, who is assigned to Immaculate Conception Church here.

Because they work one of three shifts at nearby poultry plants, six, eight or more workers often share a trailer, with each paying about $100 a month rent, the priest said.

LaBarge said 500 to 1,500 immigrants live within a few miles of his church, but county officials said they have no accurate estimate.

Benedict J. Ferro, director for the Maryland district of the INS, said the agency has been investigating and deporting as many as 200 to 300 illegal immigrants a year from the Eastern Shore.

"The agricultural and food-processing and poultry industry has been given a good deal of attention by us ," he said. "It's much improved, however."

Social service and health department officials say they have tried to start outreach programs, but that wary Guatemalans, legal or illegal, have not responded.

"We tried a once-a-month clinic and just gave up because no one showed up," said Jane R. Conlin, director of social services. "Given their experiences in their own country with their government, it's very difficult to penetrate that community and earn trust."

LaBarge said that almost all those in the trailer park are Mayan Indians, who were often victimized by government forces during a 30-year civil war in Guatemala.

"For them, Spanish is a second language," said LaBarge, the only person to appear at yesterday's hearing on behalf of Escalante.

Yesterday, no one answered the door at the dilapidated blue trailer where the baby died.

LaBarge said his parishioners have told him that Escalante's aunt Flora Perez, her uncle Jaime Escalante and their three children have moved from Marydel.

Sunday night, during the church's Spanish language Mass, LaBarge will conduct a memorial service for the dead infant.

"The people of this church community are very touched by the death of this baby," he said.

Sun staff writer Joanna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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