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Sitka's 'Baby Doe' grows up

Posted: July 5, 2012 - 12:01am
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo Karissa Amrhein stands next to the public restroom sink where she was found shortly after being born 18 years ago,in Sitka, Alaska. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)  JAMES POULSON
JAMES POULSON
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo Karissa Amrhein stands next to the public restroom sink where she was found shortly after being born 18 years ago,in Sitka, Alaska. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)

SITKA — Remember when a newborn baby girl was found in the sink in the women’s restroom at Thomsen Harbor?

That was Jan. 23, 1994, and over the years Sitkans have wondered what happened to her.

Now they know.

The baby was adopted by a Juneau couple, Karen and John Amrhein, who named her Karissa. When she was two, the family moved to St. Augustine, Fla.

This week they came back to Sitka. The trip was a high school graduation present to Karissa from her parents, to let her see the place she was found and maybe meet some of the people who cared for her in the first hours of her life.

One was Kelly Warren, a Harbor Department employee, who was making his nightly rounds on Jan. 23. He had checked the restrooms at about 11:15 p.m. and found nothing unusual. When he passed by again, around midnight, he thought he heard a baby cry.

“There was the little newborn, in the sink, wrapped in a T-shirt, that you could hardly see, it was so small,” Warren told a Sentinel reporter at the time.

Greg Raschick, an emergency medical services lieutenant with the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department, was on the scene with an ambulance within three minutes of receiving Warren’s radio call from the harbor.

He bundled up the baby, and within 30 seconds she was on the way to the hospital, where she was found to be healthy, and with good vital signs.

She weighed just 4 pounds, 12 ounces, and at first it was thought she was premature. But doctors later decided the baby simply had a low birth weight.

Talking to a Sentinel reporter later on that day, Warren said, “I feel really good. I felt like a proud daddy.”

She was called Baby Doe at first and then Mary Elizabeth Doe, and was placed in the custody of the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services while authorities searched for her mother.

Within three weeks, the baby was placed in the custody of the Amrheins. The couple previously had served as foster parents of a couple of other children. By October that year they had formally adopted Karissa.

The mystery of her mother was never solved, but Karissa said today that she is OK with that. She has wondered about it but realizes “we’ll never know.”

In Juneau the mystery baby created the same stir she had in Sitka. “Everyone was so nice,” Karen Amrhein said. “She was the child who never got put down.”

The family moved to Florida when John Amrhein resigned from the Coast Guard. Karissa, an only child, said she has had a happy life.

In high school she played flag football, making varsity on a team that posted a 9-2 record this year.

She was the prom queen — she has a picture on her phone showing her and her date in evening wear — and graduated with a 3.91 grade point average.

She sings in the adult choir at church, has been in gymnastics, and has been a member of 4-H since she was 5.

Last summer she was on a team that won a horticulture competition at state then went on to take sixth in the nationals in Ohio.

The two boys on her team studied for a long time for the competition, while she studied just two months.

“But I beat them out,” she said with a laugh. “My little bragging moment.”

Karissa’s other interests are art — another photo showed her painting of a cat’s face — and animals, including alligators and snakes.

She’ll be combining those two interests at Flagler College in St. Augustine, where she plans to major in fine art and zoology.

The Amrheins arrived in Sitka Thursday afternoon. They went first to the fire hall, where EMT Roberta White immediately began to help them with their visit, they said. “She knows everybody!” Karen said.

Before they leave Sunday for Juneau, they hope to contact others who were there when Karissa was born, such as Patsy Young, who took care of the baby for the first three weeks and kept a daily journal on her.

They will visit with Kelly Warren, the “father” who found her; he’s due back to town on his boat. They also contacted Raschick, and people from the hospital.

One of their first stops, of course, was to the Thomsen Harbor restroom where Karissa was found.

“I laughed when I saw how little that sink is,” she said.

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