by SARAH SQUIRES
She was named for the tiny porcelain angels found tucked into the bag in which she was found. The newborn Baby Angel was discovered floating in the Mississippi River six miles south of Winona on Labor Day in 2011, and the tragedy of her death has lingered among all those whose hearts she touched.
Though it has been eight years since a family of boaters plucked that bag from the water, believing they were cleaning up litter, Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said the mystery of her death is still under investigation and his office receives occasional tips. He took over the investigation after former Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand retired in 2015; Brand said her death is the one thing he wishes could be resolved after his 44 years on the force.
Baby Angel made national headlines at the time, but for law enforcement officials who handled her death, to local residents who contributed to and attended her funeral and prayed for her, Angel was more than a headline, or mystery, or case to be solved. “I can’t give up on it even though I’m retired,” Brand told the Post in 2016. “My heart just said, ‘How could this be? How could somebody just drop this little child in the river and not be responsible for it?’”
Joshua Forst, a teen that day on the boat with his family when he urged them to turn back to pluck what he thought was a bag of litter from the water, delivered a powerful eulogy during Angel’s funeral. “Everything has a reason; nothing is just coincidence,” he said. “God put that baby into our care that fateful day for a reason. When Baby Angel opened my eyes she helped me truly see I couldn’t do this without God. [She was] sent to remind us how precious life is.”
September 5, 2011
That sunny day on September 5, 2011, the Forst family was boating near Pla-Mor Campground. They were kind of in a hurry, and almost didn’t stop, but then 14-year-old Joshua Forst said they ought to do the right thing, turn the boat around, and pick up the trash he’d spotted floating there.
Joshua’s mother, Sharon Forst, spoke to the Post in 2011. It was difficult to describe those surreal moments. The first porcelain angel was handed to her, and she said she initially thought that it was a present that had fallen into the water. Then, the second angel. A look came over Joshua’s face as he peered closer into the canvas bag’s contents. For just a moment, everything was still. Then, quietly, “Mom, I think there’s a baby in here.”
The family frantically tried to provide aid to the newborn girl and scrambled to call police. Sharon said she could tell the seven-pound girl was a full-term baby — tiny sets of eyelashes, tiny fingernails, an umbilical cord not cropped with a hospital cap. Her body was wrapped in a T-shirt and plastic bag, and she was not bloated, a sign she hadn’t been in the water for long. The Forsts had just boated by that very spot a few minutes earlier and hadn’t seen the bag.
Sharon held Angel’s hand and said a prayer. It was an extremely difficult moment, but Sharon recalled feeling that God had a hand in helping Baby Angel be found that day. “For some reason, that baby was meant to be found. We were just the family God chose,” she said.
Sharon prayed for Angel’s mother and her family, hoping that the newborn’s family could be identified in order to help them. “Listen to your heart, and let your heart lead you to do the right thing, which is to help the mother get the help and resources that she needs to carry on,” Sharon offered as a message to anyone with information at the time. “I think she needs that closure. If you know someone who was pregnant, now isn’t, and doesn’t have a baby, that might be the mom who is in crisis. Maybe not physically anymore, but emotionally, she is in crisis. If you love that person, help them.”
Piecing together the tragedy
Baby Angel was found in a tan canvas bag with the Mexican city “Manzanillo” written in gold script across the front. The baby was wrapped in a men’s large green T-shirt stamped with the image of a slice of bread. In the bag with Angel, there was an eye bracelet and four porcelain angel dolls.
Law enforcement officials believe that Angel was delivered full-term and that she was born without medical assistance due to the fact that her umbilical cord was still attached. Angel was a white female, and while an autopsy was unable to determine an official cause of death, she had a fractured skull.
The Winona County Sheriff’s Department partnered with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and DNA evidence was gathered in an attempt to find out more about Baby Angel’s family. Winona County Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller said the county is still working on the DNA in an effort to find any relatives of the child.
Over the years, hundreds of tips have come in, and many DNA samples have been taken. Witnesses at the time reported seeing a 30- to 40-year-old woman anchored nearby in a boat resembling a white Sea Ray with a cabin.
“We still feel that somebody knows something about this out there,” Mueller told the Post on Friday. “So it’s just a matter of tracking down the right person or the right call coming in.”
For eight years, officials have implored members of the public who might know something to call the Winona County Sheriff’s Office, and Mueller said he wanted to remind the public that information can be relayed anonymously. Just call 507-457-6530 or visit winonaareacrimestoppers.com.
When Baby Angel was put to rest in April 2012, she was fitted with a tiny, white one-piece outfit with pink accents, along with a soft baby blanket bearing the words “Thank heaven for little girls.”
More than 150 people gathered to mourn the child they had never met, but whose short life touched theirs, filling Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Though the day was profoundly sad, many shared the way Baby Angel had made an impact on their lives. Sharon Forst delivered a eulogy and recounted her prayers that day on the boat. “But mostly, I prayed for children everywhere,” she said — that God would protect them. Comparing Angel to a delicate rosebud that never had the chance to bloom, she rejoiced in the child’s union with her heavenly family. “In that heavenly garden, that flower is now in full bloom.”