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Baby Jessica: Infant abandoned in B.C. ditch grows up and tracks down her parents

Incredible story of how a woman who traced her birth parents 34 years after she was left for dead near Victoria

On April 14, 1986, a shivering infant, her umbilical cord still attached, was found in a pink-striped Adidas bag in an overgrown, watery ditch on Triangle Mountain in Victoria's Colwood area.

Three 15-year-old Colwood boys, Glen O’Keefe, Ray Wightman and Chris Johnson, were on their way home from Belmont Secondary, making their usual trek up Walfred Road, when they heard crying and pulled the soaking-wet newborn girl to safety.

Police believed that 'Baby Jessica,' as she became known, had been born one or two hours earlier. Colwood RCMP appealed to the public for information, but her mother was never found.

Until now.

The 17-year-old girl, who kept her pregnancy hidden from everyone and gave birth alone, believed she would take her secret to the grave.

But an AncestryDNA test has changed that.

Thirty-four years later, Baby Jessica, now Adriana Jessica Bonner, a married woman with three children of her own, has found her biological father.

Through him, she also discovered the identity of her birth mother. But it’s been a mixed blessing — while one has embraced her, the other has rebuffed her.

The blue-eyed, spiky-haired baby, much fussed over by the nurses at Victoria General Hospital, was adopted by Shelly and Lorne Kelly and grew up in Smithers. From a young age, Adriana knew she was adopted. She also knew she was very loved.

But as the years passed, she became curious about her birth parents. In 2006, she filled out the paperwork to trace her biological parents. Soon after, she received a call from her adoption caseworker, Carol Alexander, who asked her how much she knew about her early history.

“Not much,” replied Adriana, who now lives in Edmonton.

Alexander then told her the story of her lost life — how she’d been abandoned in a ditch and rescued by three teenage boys.

She also told Adriana that the Times Colonist had interviewed Wightman and O’Keefe a few weeks earlier, on the 20th anniversary of the day they found her.

In the article, they remembered how her upper lip was trembling because she had been crying so much. They remembered the water dripping off her face. They talked about how much they would love to meet her and hoped she had a good life.

Adriana hung up the phone, shocked and confused. A few weeks later, she called the Times Colonist newsroom and said: “I’m Baby Jessica.”

The Times Colonist connected her with Wightman and O’Keefe. She phoned them, too, thanking them for rescuing her. She then flew to Victoria and, hand-in-hand with her saviours, visited the ditch where they found her.

“I’m just wondering why … this ditch,” she whispered that day in 2006. “It hurts a little.”

Still, Adriana was willing to forgive,

“If my birth mother comes forward, just know I forgive you and I’m sorry. I wish we had got to know each other,” she wrote in an essay published in the Times Colonist.

The police file was concluded because there were no leads. Then, in 2011, West Shore RCMP reopened the case after receiving a tip about a girl from California who had been visiting an aunt on Triangle Mountain the year Baby Jessica was found. Police obtained a DNA sample from the aunt and asked Adriana for a DNA sample. The results came back negative.

In mid-2019, Cpl. Haydn Barrow picked up the cold case. “This was a serious offence,” he said. “Abandoning a newborn infant could have resulted in a homicide if she had not been found.”

Barrow talked to Adriana and suggested she try a genetic genealogy test through AncestryDNA or 23andme.

“So I ordered the kit and I got it back near the end of February,” she said in an interview this month.

The results led her to a second cousin in Alberta, Doug, who had also tested with AncestryDNA. Adriana contacted him and told him the story of her start in life, saying she was trying to find her birth parents.

Adriana asked Doug if he had any family on Vancouver Island. When she told him her ancestry was English and Indigenous, Doug told her his uncle was married to a First Nations woman who had three children — one of whom was Rick.

Rick, 54, grew up in Victoria, where he still has family, and moved to Elmira, Ont., 20 years ago. He works as a drywall paper finisher and has been married to Rhonda for 25 years. The couple has two daughters. He learned about Adriana in March, when Doug called him for the first time in 30 years.

“Doug asked if Adriana could contact me,” Rick says. “I told him to wait. I told him I dated a girl around that time. ‘Let me check with her first.’ I didn’t want to give anybody any false hope.”

Rick got in touch with his ex-girlfriend.

“I asked her: ‘That baby that was found on Triangle Mountain, did that have anything to do with me and you?’ She said: ‘Absolutely not. We weren’t even dating then.’ I said: ‘OK. I didn’t mean to offend you and I apologize for having to ask this, but this girl is reaching out to me and she’s saying she’s related, so I just want to make sure before I talk to her.’

“She said everything was good and I had nothing to worry about.”

Rick gave Doug the go-ahead to give Adriana his number.

When Adriana called him, he told her he had dated a girl, but she didn’t have a baby. He gave her the woman’s name.

“I told Adriana that I would do a DNA test for her if she wanted. And she said: ‘You’d do that?’ And I said ‘Yeah. Of course.’ I didn’t know what to believe. If someone says they didn’t have a baby, you have to believe her, right? I told Adriana I would do it because I didn’t think anything of it.”

Adriana asked him if she thought his ex-girlfriend would talk to her. Rick said he didn’t know what kind of person she was anymore.

Two months later, Adriana sent Rick a text: “You’re my Dad.”

Adriana said she had been in touch with his ex-girlfriend and she confirmed she was her birth mother.

Rick said he asked Adriana if she would mind doing another test. “I’m going to send you a kit and I’m going to get a kit and I’m going to send it in,” he recalls saying.

Their samples were sent to a private firm in Vancouver for confirmation. “She did her part and I did my part and the results came back 99.999 per cent,” said Rick. “I bawled like a baby. We all cried. And we decided we’d meet Adriana sooner than later. I want to see her now.”

On Father’s Day, Adriana posted on Facebook that after a long difficult journey, she’d found her birth father.

“Rick you may not have gotten to watch me grow, seen me fail, watch me accomplish many things, tuck me in at night, seen me chase my wildest dreams, wipe my tears and share in laughter. But today we have the future, and for that I’m so excited. Happy Father’s Day, love you,” she wrote.

In late July, Adriana drove from Edmonton with her oldest daughter, Kaydence, and spent a week in Falkland, in the B.C. Interior, with her new-found father and his family. (The location was selected because Rick’s in-laws had a farm there.)

“When we met, there wasn’t a night that we went to bed before 3 a.m. We stayed up, talking about stuff, just trying to make up for lost time,” said Rick, who was thrilled to learn he also has three grandchildren.

“It’s a pretty happy time. I’m glad that she’s found me. I’m glad we both know. And things have started off great. I’ve told her she’s not losing me; she’s stuck with me for the rest of her life.”

The week was amazing and overwhelmingly emotional, said Adriana.

“I got to meet my birth father and his wonderful family, they showered my family in love, hugs, kisses and tears. … Memories were made and laughter was shared. I can’t thank them enough for their support,” she wrote on Facebook.

Adriana made an album for Rick filled with photos of her as a baby and a young girl. She showed him the newspaper clippings from 1986 and from the reunion in Victoria with Wightman and O’Keefe in 2006.

“There were tears. It was hard because I have fantastic parents, an amazing family. And Rick called them and talked to them and thanked them for raising me,” said Adriana.

“Being with him, you’re mourning. It’s almost like a death, because I missed out and he didn’t know and he would have kept me. It was mourning the lost time we had, even though I wouldn’t trade my family in. My birth mother has stolen a lot.”

Initially, Adriana, who wanted a relationship with her birth mother, was hesitant when Barrow flew to Edmonton and asked Adriana for a statement.

Today, she is still looking for answers from her birth mother.

The woman’s identity is protected because she was under the age of 18 at the time she abandoned her infant daughter. She has never told her family what happened and wants to protect them.

Adriana reached out to her on Facebook. “Please don’t post on my Facebook page,” was the response. The page was taken down.

Her birth mother eventually wrote her a letter saying she thought she would take “this secret” to the grave. In the letter, she described the events of April 14, 1986.

“Yes I am your birth mother and I am truly sorry for how your life started. I think I was in such denial about everything that I truly believed I wasn’t pregnant until I went into labour that morning. It was the scariest thing to go through not knowing what was going on and being by yourself. I remember the pain I was in, I remember having you and cleaning you up and dressing you and wrapping you up so you would be warm, I went and cleaned myself up and the mess and came back and lied on my bed with you crying, shaking and not knowing what to do. My intention was to take you to the little church down the street where I knew you would be safe and sound.

“I remember my mom calling me and telling me I had to go pick up my little sister from school and I panicked, I wrapped you up and put you in a little bag I had. I ran out to my car and after that I don’t remember much of anything else. I remember driving and then the next thing I remember is waking up and being at home in my bed.”

At dinner that night, she heard her parents talk about a baby found in a ditch who was going to be OK and that there was a lineup of people ready to adopt her.

“I don’t know if I was in shock about this traumatic event that just happened to me or if I just blacked out. I really, really don’t remember anything after getting into my car. I had no intention of hurting you at all. I am so truly sorry. I am not a horrible person!”

Adriana’s birth mother begged her not to make her story public. The thought of her family, especially her children, learning about it would be too much for her to bear, she wrote.

Adriana, however, is unhappy with the secrecy — she feels she’s losing more time with her birth family on her mother’s side.

“Everybody wants to know where they come from, what their family is. With Rick, there are certain things we both like, we’re similar,” she said.

“And I don’t want to be a secret anymore. I’ve been a secret for 34 years. I’m done. She wants me to keep it a secret and I’m not a very secret person and it’s not making me a very happy person. Rick and Rhonda are telling everybody.”

Although she has forgiven her birth mother for placing her in the ditch, she’s hurt and angry about the lack of acknowledgement, believing her birth mother is more concerned about protecting her family than welcoming the daughter she abandoned.

“I just have a bunch of questions that need to be answered so I can close this chapter in my life. She admitted to it, but couldn’t answer why she put me in a ditch and not at the church. Maybe she thought it was the fastest way to get rid of me. I don’t know. It’s never been answered and it’s hard,” said Adriana.

Rick has his own questions.

He lies awake at night wondering what would have happened if his infant daughter had stopped crying and the boys didn’t hear her.

He is furious that he never knew his ex-girlfriend was pregnant.

He’s furious that his child was left, near death, in a watery ditch.

And he’s angry that he has lost 34 years with Adriana.

“I don’t know how anybody does this. Whether or not I was ready to have a child at that time, one thing I can guarantee, she wouldn’t have ended up in a ditch,” he says.

West Shore RCMP plans to submit a report to Crown counsel recommending a charge of abandonment under the 1986 Criminal Code, but it will up to the Crown to decide whether prosecution is in the public interest.

For his part, Barrow says it was a serious case that police had to see through to the end.

Like her birth father, Adriana wonders about what might have been if her birth mother had made a different decision 34 years ago. She still holds out hope that she will eventually meet her birth mother’s family. But in the meantime, she has forgiveness in her heart for the 17-year-old who abandoned her in a ditch.

“I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn’t sorry, and accept an apology I never received.”