Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
December 4, 1983
No happy ending - a story of a mother, her kids

Three weeks ago, about 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, Jeanne Anne Wright bundled her four children in winter clothes, told her mother that she was taking them to a party, and walked them out the door of the apartment.

The steady rain had matted the litter on the parking lot outside the brick, four-story building, part of a cluster of roach-infested rectangles in East Camden, a public housing project known as Westfield Acres.

Several weeks before, the neighbors had complained about Wright's having moved in with her mother, crowding the two-bedroom apartment. The Camden Housing Authority notified the Wrights that their daughter's family had to move on.

Her parents thought it peculiar that Wright would take her children out in the rain at that hour, but she insisted, and the Wrights had long before stopped questioning their daughter's occasional inexplicable behavior and outbursts.

But Jeanne Anne Wright did not go to a party that night.

Instead, police say, she walked 16 blocks - about 1 1/4 miles - to an isolated industrial section by the Cooper River. And there, in the still of the night and the rain, police say, she dropped her offspring into the water. The two youngest children drowned. The other two have not been found.

Wright was arraigned on Tuesday and charged with the murders of her sons, Juan Jose, 11 months, and Jonathan, 34 months. Police said that Wright, who is pregnant with her fifth child, admitted Monday night that she had thrown all four of her children into the muddy water and watched them drift away.

On Sunday a week ago, the Rev. Joseph Scott delivered his weekly sermon to his congregation at Asbury United Methodist Church, about three blocks from the Westfield Acres housing project.

He knew that Jeanne Anne Wright had reported to police that the father of three of her children had abducted the children and that she had been dejected during the last two weeks. While addressing himself to the congregation's children - he preached about the need to prepare oneself in this life for life after death - he included a prayer for the return of Wright's children.

He learned later from her family that Wright sat weeping throughout the service.

Several hours after the church service concluded, a gas station attendant on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, wandering along the rocks at the river's edge on a brilliant, warm day, found the body of a young child.

The child remained unidentified for nearly a day - until Monday, when Irene Wright recognized the description of the clothing on the body as the garments she had tugged on her grandson, Jonathan, two weeks before.

Until that Monday, Jeanne Anne Wright represented nothing more to the Camden Police Department than a welfare mother who had reported a routine domestic kidnapping.

But on Monday, Wright was detained at the morgue, where she arrived wearing clothing smeared with mud. During her interrogation, she told detectives about the alleged abduction. When detectives disputed the contradictions in her story and told her they could prove that the mud on her clothes was from the Cooper River - although they actually had no idea why she was soiled - she broke down and told them, they say, that she had thrown her children into the river.

Jeanne Anne Wright, 25, is the daughter of parents whose fortunes have declined during the years. Her mother was a nurse's aide, her father was a shipyard worker. They raised their family in a one-story ranch house in the middle-class neighborhood of East Pennsauken, two blocks from a public country club, miles from poverty.

Still, their neighbors recognized the Wrights as poor by comparison to themselves. The children wore hand-me-downs and spoke a rougher language, the neighbors say.

Jeanne Anne is remembered in the neighborhood as a scrapper who was prone to engaging in shouting matches with students in the halls of George B. Fine Elementary School and, later, Pennsauken Junior High School.

It was in this neighborhood, Mrs. Wright said, that her daughter, then 9 years old, received a high-voltage shock when she grabbed an exposed wire leading to a telephone booth. Mrs. Wright, 58, said her daughter had been diagnosed as an epileptic because of the shock. She offered the story to reporters as one of the reasons her daughter might have disposed of her children.

In 1974, the Wrights moved to Camden, to an apartment above a self-service laundry at 27th Street and Mickle Boulevard, which they had been hired to operate. Jeanne Anne attended Woodrow Wilson High School, but she dropped out eight years ago when she became pregnant with her daughter, Janah.

The father was Emilio Jaime Andujar, now 38, whom Mrs. Wright said her daughter had met in a bar. Police described him as a drifter, but he is more of a regional nomad, working little, living most recently in Philadelphia, and wanted in Camden County in connection with a February auto theft in Barrington, records show.

In a relationship the family described as turbulent - marked by frequent fights and reconciliations - Andujar fathered Wright's three oldest children, Janah, 7, Emilio, 5, and Jonathan. There were two other pregnancies, one a miscarriage and another aborted - events Mrs. Wright said also troubled her daughter.

Philadelphia police interviewed Andujar and concluded that he had had no reason to abduct the children, much less the means to support them.

Another man, Juan Roldan, an officer on the Camden police, fathered the youngest child, Juan Jose Roldan. Wright, who is expecting another child in March, told police and relatives that the infant had had a heart condition that required surgery.

Several years ago, Wright moved her family in with her youngest sister in a peeling rowhouse on Sycamore Street in South Camden, where they survived on their public-assistance checks. She later lived with neighbors in a house up the street.

In the neighborhood of primarily black people, Wright, who is white, got along amiably with her neighbors.

"She used to borrow money over at the junkyard where I work," said a man who identified himself as T. Williams, an employee at Star Junk Dealer on nearby Chestnut Street. He said he last saw her on Nov. 16.

"She owed a couple of dollars to another guy. So when I saw her (on Nov. 16) going into the welfare office downtown, I went over to her and said, 'Billy was looking for you. He wants to know when you are going to pay him.'

"We talked about that, and then she started telling me something about how her ex-boyfriend had supposedly kidnapped her kids."

Williams and Larry Howard, who lived next door to the Wrights on Sycamore Street, said they had seen no evidence that she had abused the children. Howard said he thought Wright had been too lenient with them.

"They used to get away with a lot of things," Howard said of the children. "I used to hear her yelling at them, but I never saw her really abuse them. I've seen her whop them every once in a while, but every kid needs that sometime."

They said that Wright had liked to drink beer, but that she had used no drugs, although they were easy to acquire in the neighborhood.

About two months ago, Wright moved to Westfield Acres with her parents, whose lives by now had become dependent on public assistance. Mrs. Wright said that her daughter had enrolled in a computer-literacy course at Camden County College's urban campus in Camden, and that she believed she was about to turn around her life.

But since her grandchildren disappeared, Mrs. Wright said she had begun to worry that her daughter's erratic behavior was more pronounced. Neighbors on Sycamore Street and in Westfield Acres echoed the characterization: Wright was volatile one moment, withdrawn the next.

But nobody described the woman that Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Dennis Wixted described in court on Tuesday.

Wixted gave this account of what happened to the children: On the night of Nov. 10, Wright walked her four children to a railroad trestle, where two sets of Conrail railroad tracks cross the Cooper River, and sat on a greasy pier below the bridge. She told investigators she had been hiding from Andujar, the father.

She sat there for at least an hour, Wixted said, until 1 a.m. The rain and the river made the air seem colder than the 55 degrees it was.

"She never said why" she dropped the children into the river, a detective who interviewed her said. She only described the process, and the order, of holding each child over the pier and dropping him or her a few feet into the water.

Wixted said she had seen Juan Jose drowning, and had pulled him out by the leg but put him back in the water when she realized that he was not breathing. Then she walked back to Westfield Acres.

Mrs. Wright said that perhaps her child had "snapped."

Her minister, Mr. Scott, theorizes that Wright's problems with the childrens' fathers, an ailing child, lack of a job and parents without finances to fall back on could have overwhelmed the woman. "The kinds of economic pressures for people living in the city, poor people, can drive people to the point where they become very strong - or they break."

Mike Barth, spokesman for the Progressive Epilepsy Network in Philadelphia, said the published descriptions of Wright's behavior matched an epileptic's untreated grand mal seizures. "I can really see where the pressures in her life forced this thing to happen," he said.

"To me, that's unimportant," said Wixted, the prosecutor. "Her mother says she's an epileptic. We don't know that. We can substantiate that she had a cold-blooded, well-thought-out plan to kill her children."

Jeanne Anne Wright pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to four concurrent life terms. She becomes eligible for parole in 2014.

Eric Harrison contributed to reporting this story. home page   
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