A Merced woman arrested after allegedly trying to enter the maternity ward of Mercy Medical Center while dressed as a nurse and carrying at least one fake baby spoke out for the first time Friday.
Tonya Whitney was arrested on suspicion of trespassing, a misdemeanor. Whitney, 41, was not booked into jail, but was cited and released, the Merced Police Department said.
In an interview with the Merced Sun-Star, Whitney said some people have accused her of trying to kidnap a newborn baby but adamantly denied trying to impersonate a nurse and that there was “no way” she would abduct an infant. “I, in no way, tried impersonating a nurse. I, in no way, tried or ever even thought of stealing babies,” Whitney said.
Whitney characterized the incident as a misunderstanding, saying she was trying to meet with hospital staff to see if they would purchase some of her dolls as training tools for expectant mothers.
Whitney explained that she has made “reborn” dolls as a hobby for about eight years and sells them periodically.
Merced police, however, said Whitney appeared to lie to investigators when questioned. Capt. Tom Trindad said Whitney initially claimed she had an appointment with hospital staff, but staff members said that was not true. Hospital staff also told police they would not have scheduled meetings near the maternity ward.
“If it was a misunderstanding, then why would you need to misrepresent yourself and your reasons for being there?” Trindad said in a Sun-Star interview.
A Merced County judge on Friday signed an arrest warrant for Whitney, who was taken to the Police Department about 12:30 p.m. She was released a short time later after she was interviewed by detectives, police said.
Trindad said the case would be sent to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether Whitney will be charged in connection with the incident.
According to Sgt. Jacob Struble, Whitney was at Mercy Medical Center on Saturday with her husband, who sought medical treatment. Hospital security noted that Whitney carried a realistic-looking infant doll. On Monday, Whitney returned to the medical center and somehow gained access to the hospital’s second floor, just outside the maternity ward, by “unknown means.”
Whitney claims she was escorted to the second floor by a hospital volunteer, who told her to wait outside the maternity ward doors.
Police said Whitney carried with her one of the dolls in a baby carrier, along with a diaper bag. She was wearing what appeared to be a nurse’s uniform and had a log-in sticker from Saturday’s emergency room visit.
Whitney told the Sun-Star she wore the nurse uniform because she’s gained weight recently and the clothes fit her comfortably.
Whitney’s Facebook page shows photos of lifelike baby dolls, similar to the one she carried at Mercy Medical Center. Whitney explained that the “reborn” dolls are also used for therapeutic purposes by the elderly, parents who have lost children and by parents who cannot have children. She said she has occasionally used the dolls as therapy herself.
Whitney said the criticism she’s endured since the incident made headlines has forced her to stay inside her apartment.
Bob McLaughlin, spokesman for Mercy Medical Center, said on Thursday that all of the hospital’s security measures worked and that Whitney was denied access to the Family Birth Center.
The hospital did not return repeated phone calls Friday seeking comment.
After Monday’s incident, hospitals across the Central Valley were put on high alert. According to Jennifer Holt, clinical director of the Maternal Child Department at Madera Community Hospital, security starts with the education of the staff in the maternity ward. “We do a lot of education, we review our policies, and we know to be hypervigilant about infant security,” Holt said.
The hospital has an electronic system that monitors newborns in the obstetrics unit, Holt said. Newborns wear plastic bracelets that are equipped with sensors. These sensors set off alarms and shut down elevators when a baby is taken out of designated premises, Holt explained. Nurses also check the babies’ identification badges after every shift, she added.
Officers acknowledged there was no evidence that Whitney had any dark intentions when she visited the hospital, but that concern for the safety of children prompted both hospital security and police to take the unusual incident seriously.
“It wouldn’t have been the first time such an incident occurred, unfortunately,” Trindad said. “About 20 years ago, a baby was abducted from the old hospital. Protecting our children in the community is paramount. I’m proud of our response and, also, hospital security did an outstanding job in this case.”
Whitney said she understood hospital and police concerns for safety. She said she firmly believes she will be cleared of any alleged wrongdoing and urged people to wait for all the facts to come out. She did say she regrets the situation.
“I’m just sorry that it got blown up this much,” Whitney said. “It was not my intention for it to go this far.”
Police ask anyone with any information regarding this incident to contact Detective Joseph Henderson at (209) 385-6847, or the Merced Police Department Tipster Line at (209) 385-4725.
Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or email@example.com.