Cynthia Walter was asleep in her Schenectady, New York, apartment when her phone started ringing shoafter 1 AM on Dec. 20, 1985.
Her next-door neighbour, Marybeth Tinning, was calling.
“She sounded very panicky,” Walter later recalled, “and said, ‘Cynthia, get over here right away.’ ” Walter, a licenced nurse, rushed over to the Tinnings’ second-floor apartment where she found the couple’s 4-month-old daughter Tami Lynne lying on a changing table, “purple and not breathing.” By the time paramedics arrived, the infant was pronounced dead—despite Walter’s attempts to revive her with CPR.
But what at first appeared to be a heartbreaking tragedy turned out to be a cold-blooded killing. Two months after Tami Lynne’s death, Tinning allegedly confessed to New York state police that she’d smothered the baby with a pillow when she wouldn’t stop crying. Even more chilling was the fact that Tami Lynne was the ninth of the Tinning children to mysteriously die before their fifth birthday.
In 1987, Tinning was convicted of killing Tami Lynne and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Now, 31 years later, Tinning, 75—who prosecutors say killed her babies because she enjoyed the attention she received when a child died (known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy)—has been granted parole.
She is expected to be released as early as Aug. 21, and plans to return to her rural New York home to live with her husband, Joe, whom she allegedly confessed to poisoning with phenobarbital—she reportedly got pills from a friend with epilepsy and slipped them into his grape juice—in 1974.
The decision to set her free has left many familiar with her case outraged. “There are some crimes so heinous that it should be life imprisonment,” says New York State Senator Jim Tedisco. “It’s ridiculous to let somebody out that has done that to children.”
Tinning, who worked odd jobs as a waitress and school bus driver, admitted precious little to anyone about the 13-year period when her children began mysteriously dying, beginning seven years after her marriage in 1965.
Doctors initially attributed many of the deaths to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a diagnosis that forensic pathologist Dr Michael Baden says was often mistakenly made at the time. “Babies who are suffocated have similarities to SIDS in autopsy,” says Baden, who worked with prosecutors on the Tinning case.
“But SIDS babies do not turn blue.” Any chance the Tinning children died due to a rare hereditary disorder— something doctors considered after multiple infants’ deaths—was discounted by medical professionals when their adopted son, Michael, also died.
"Adopting a child doesn't transfer your genetic code to them,” says pathologist Dr Vincent DiMaio, who worked on the Tinning case.
“She’s a serial killer, plain and simple.”
When Tinning confessed to killing Tami Lynne, she said she had also killed weeks-old Timothy and 5-month-old Nathan, but later recanted those confessions.
Investigators decided not to charge Tinning for her other children’s deaths because “there wasn’t any new evidence to go on other than the fact that she was convicted of smothering her final child,” explains current Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney.
As the date nears for Tinning’s release, her former neighbours are struggling with the news of her return. Dorothy Posluszny, 74, still remembers an afternoon in March 1981, when Tinning ran out of her house screaming that Michael had cut his head after falling down some stairs.
Soon afterwards, he was dead, one year after her eighth child, 4-month-old Jonathan, died of what was diagnosed as cardiopulmonary arrest.
“When Michael passed away, I told myself, ‘Oh my God, something’s not right,” recalls Posluszny. “I wondered, ‘Did she push that poor little kid? Did he really fall?’
This article originally appeared on WHO.