Waneta Hoyt: The Serial Killer Paper

By Neuroskeptic | January 16, 2018 12:16 pm

I just learned about a truly remarkable case in which a doctor apparently wrote a paper about a serial killer who murdered her five children – without realizing what had happened. It’s an old case, but it doesn’t seem to be widely known today.

The paper is called Prolonged apnea and the sudden infant death syndrome: clinical and laboratory observations and it was written in 1972 by Dr Alfred Steinschneider of Syracuse, New York. In this paper, Steinschneider described the case of a woman, “Mrs H”, who had already lost three children, ostensibly to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Dr Steinschneider describes how two additional children from the “H” family were studied in his sleep laboratory in an effort to determine whether sleep apnea was a risk factor for SIDS. Both children did show apnea in the lab, and both died shortly after being discharged from the clinic back home with Mrs H.

Steinschneider concluded that apnea was “part of the final pathway” leading to infant death in SIDS.

steinschneiderBut over twenty years later, “Mrs H” – her real name Waneta Hoyt – was convicted of murdering her children by smothering.

A forensic pathologist, Linda Norton, had formed suspicions about “Mrs H” after reading Steinschneider’s paper, and she brought them to the attention of a prosecutor in Syracuse. In 1992, the prosecutor opened a case against Hoyt.

Under police interrogation, Hoyt confessed to killing each of her five children by smothering. She later retracted her confession and denied the charges, pointing to Steinschneider’s paper as evidence of her innocence. It didn’t work: Hoyt was convicted of murder in 1994. She died in jail four years later.

*

This is a tragic case, but also a fascinating one. Why did Dr Steinschneider fail to suspect Hoyt – even after the nurses working in Steinschneider’s lab did repeatedly raise concerns about her? Was he blinded by his desire to confirm his apnea hypothesis?

The nurses in Steinschneider’s clinic emotionally recall their sense that Waneta Hoyt was a menace to her children, and they make clear Steinschneider’s rejection of any reported data that controverted the results he sought to find…

During the trial, two defense lawyers were overheard speaking of Steinschneider’s nurses, one asking, ”Did any of them go to Steinschneider, talk to him, say something’s wrong?”
“At least two did.”
“What’d he do, just slough it off?”
“Apparently.”
Said the first lawyer: “He had a paper to write.”

Could there be other cases like Hoyt’s in the medical literature? Could there be case reports and studies of apparently genuine medical conditions or injuries that have a more sinister explanation? I can’t think of any other examples, but if they were out there, how would we know? Hoyt’s story was in the medical literature for 20 years before she was detected.

*

The closest parallel to this paper I can think of is “The Role of Communication in Thought“, published in 2011. It was supposedly written by a disabled man, DMan Johnson. The paper was retracted after Anna Stubblefield, who claimed to have helped Johnson to write the paper using ‘facilitated communication‘ (FC) was convicted of sexually assaulting him. In the paper, ‘Johnson’, or more likely Stubblefield, praised FC. (Edit: Thanks to commenter Chris Borthwick for pointing out that Stubblefield’s conviction for assaulting Johnson has been overturned and she is currently awaiting a second trial.)

Clearly there are many differences between the Hoyt paper and the DMan Johnson case. However, in both cases, we had a paper that was seemingly an account of a scientifically interesting phenomenon – SIDS following sleep apnea, or the success of FC – but it later turned out to have a criminal explanation.

Are there any other similar examples?

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  • Maia Szalavitz

    There’s a great book about this called The Deaths of Innocents by Jaime Talan and Richard Firstman. It’s still relevant because differentiating between SIDS deaths and “shaken baby” and other deaths is extremely hard and the “experts” seem to have a habit of prematurely making claims that go way beyond the data.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks. The quote about Steinschneider’s nurses is actually from that book (via a book review in NYT).

    • camacg

      Absolutely a first rate book, whether your interest is true crime or the very real damage done by bad science– aside from hubris, Steinschneider’s major failing was a willingness to torture the data to get it to say what he wanted– from start to finish, he only admitted seeing results that supported his foregone conclusion. It’s a frightening, infuriating, and absolutely devastating read.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Look for petechial hemorrhages.

    • mentalresearchman

      Yes as that is found in at least some cases of SIDS if I recall properly; and so of course would be evidence of SIDS. The cell Danger response is most likely the cause namely in the Fight Flight Sudden Reaction

  • Pingback: Waneta Hoyt: The Serial Killer Paper - The Zodiac Killer()

  • OneGoodEye
    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      It’s true that a false confession is possible in this case.

  • mentalresearchman

    What is the point of this story. She was found guilty, and she also admitted to that; and it is very unlikely that she would lose so many babies to SIDs and if I recall correctly; at least some of them were not infants. SIDS only occurs in infants; and so what was the point of this story?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      The story is that she got away with it, despite all the details being published in a medical journal, for 20 years.

      One of her children was 28 months when he died, yes.

      • mentalresearchman

        Thank U, i see the point. She got away with it for a long time and yes there are other cases because they eventually came up with a name for women like her. I think that (fatal Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, and infanticide) relates to that.

        • Everett Williams

          Finally, the answer. Munchausens can be very difficult to detect, as the perpetrators are often quite ingenious. Of course, there is always simple infanticide, which, until recently was often missed because authorities just could not conceive of such or did not want to deal with the notoriety. This was especially common when wealthy or influential families were involved.

      • OneGoodEye

        Caution is a better part of common sense as it applies to our understandings and diligence to uncover underlying cause.

        There is a lesser known syndrome afflicting toddlers and older children: Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC). See: https://sudc.org/sudc-facts/facts-about-sudc

        Enlightening the topic See:
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3286023/
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26782962

        Does anyone believe proper studies with sufficient prudence had been executed on behave of Ms. Hoyt’s children ?

  • smut clyde

    One aspect of Steinschneider’s paper was the creation of the whole lucrative baby-apnea-monitor industry.

    Another aspect was the swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction after Schneiderstein was discredited. Roy Meadows became a regular witness in UK courtrooms, testifying that two or more cases of SIDS in a family was proof of murder, and putting a lot of women in prison.

  • nik

    ”Was he blinded by his desire to confirm his apnea hypothesis?”
    Almost certainly.
    Reminds me of the man who made the first report on the ”ice man” found in the Alps.
    He had his pet theory which he peddled out to the world, totally overlooking the fact the the man had an arrow in his back which mad his theory a total joke!

  • Chris Borthwick

    Sorry, you’ve missed another reversal. You say
    “The paper was retracted after Anna Stubblefield, who claimed to have helped Johnson to write the paper using ‘facilitated communication‘ (FC) was convicted of sexually assaulting him”. Yes, but no; the conviction was overturned on appeal and she’s now once again innocent till proven guilty.
    http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2017/06/conviction_overturned_for_professor_accused_of_sex.html

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks! I missed that important part of the story. I have updated the post.

  • Andrea O

    Neuroskeptic, please post your email address. Yes, there are other other examples. I have recently uncovered 5 serial homicides committed by one Illinois mom, and 4 serial homicides committed by a different Illinois mom. Regarding the woman who killed 5 kids, I sent my documentation off to the Cook County Medical Examiner and 2 chiefs of police, and didn’t hear back. Nada. Zip. The perp is alive and well and I’ve even found her facebook page (complete with her stepson’s baby). It’s downright chilling.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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