Tara McDonald, a slender 35-year-old with long brown hair, was a frequent visitor to Brooklyn Heights in the summer of 2002. She picked up double cheeseburgers at the McDonald’s on Court Street. She dipped in and out of the stores on Montague. She wandered the brownstone-lined side streets, stopping by the Pierrepont Playground. While other people reveled in the warm weather, Tara could not relax. She was distressed by what she thought she saw all around her.
On June 16, Tara approached a mother pushing her seven-month-old daughter in a stroller down Montague Street. Tara tried to touch the baby, then followed the mother into Waldenbooks, tailed her to the second floor, and reached over to touch the child again. On June 20, Tara strode down Clinton Street alongside a nanny with a stroller. “Give me the baby!” she said. “Give me the baby!” She accosted this same nanny later that day and grabbed the child’s legs.
Brooklyn Heights buzzed with rumors about a strange woman stalking people with strollers. Local schools sent home letters warning parents. Fears about a potential kidnapper—every parent’s worst nightmare—spread through the neighborhood. On July 16, Tara approached another mother on Montague. Tara followed her into a restaurant, knelt in front of her stroller, and grasped the hands of her eight-month-old. “Don’t touch my baby!” the mother said, then fled to the back of the restaurant.
On the streets of Brooklyn Heights, Tara saw women with strollers everywhere, triggering a sense of panic inside her. She believed these women were not the children’s mothers, but were actually nannies who planned to hurt the babies or sell them, perhaps with the help of the KKK or the mob. She was convinced it was her duty to intervene. “I thought that the kids were my very own friends,” she explained later. “What were they doing with these people? They didn’t even know these kids—and I did. I recognized their faces from long ago, somewhere deep in my soul.”
Tara’s concern was not new, just a variation on thoughts that had been tumbling around her mind for years. For more than a decade, she’d been obsessed with plastic rain covers—the ones that parents place over a stroller to keep their baby dry. Whenever Tara saw a baby under a plastic cover, she was convinced that the baby could not breathe, that it desperately needed fresh air. She would approach people she saw pushing baby carriages and ask them to lift the cover. If they refused, Tara would try to do it herself.
On the evening of July 16, a few hours after Tara had accosted a woman and her baby inside a restaurant, she was wandering around Brooklyn Heights, still upset about all the abusive nannies she believed she’d seen. Two police officers approached and informed her that she matched the description of someone they’d been looking for. They brought her back to the 84th Precinct; she spent the night in a holding cell.
Tara’s arrest made the papers. “Woman Busted as Serial Baby Grabber,” declared the Daily News. The New York Post dubbed her a “Kidnap-Rap Wacko.” By now Tara already had an arrest record dating back to the 1980s. This time she was charged with a felony—attempted kidnapping—and faced a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison. She had no idea when, or how, she would ever get out.
Tara was born in 1967 and grew up in Levittown, Long Island. As a child, she was quiet and extremely shy. Her parents gave her a bedroom of her own, decorating it with white furniture and painting the walls light blue. Tara didn’t like to be alone in her room, though; she preferred to be elsewhere in the house, hanging out with her three older brothers.
Life in the McDonald home did not come close to matching the idyllic suburban image of Levittown. Tara’s father, a heavy drinker, died of a heart attack at 41, when she was nine. Four years later, she took her first sip of alcohol. She eventually began smoking pot, and at 17 she tried cocaine. She dropped out of high school and followed friends to Florida, where she worked in an upholstery shop.
Tara moved back to Long Island a year and a half later. Shortly after, her mother, Jean, who has a nursing degree, got her first clue that something was very wrong. One day her 19-year-old daughter walked into the kitchen, tears streaking her face.
“What’s the matter?” Jean asked.
“Mommy, something is happening to me,” Tara said.
Jean pressed her for details, but Tara did not offer any. Today Tara has no recollection of this conversation; Jean cannot forget it. “That was the start of losing Tara,” Jean says.
A few weeks later, Tara took off in Jean’s car without asking permission, even though Jean needed it to get to work. Tara called from the road and announced she was on her way to Tennessee to find a boy she had a crush on. She drove for an entire day, stopping only when she crashed the car in a ditch in North Carolina. “That’s when I started saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” Jean says. “Absolutely, bloody bizarre.”
Not long afterward, Tara came into Jean’s bedroom one night at around 3 a.m. and woke her. “There are babies in Brooklyn that are being hurt,” Tara said. “We need to get in the car and go there immediately and rescue them.”
Jean didn’t know why Tara was acting so oddly; she figured it must be the drugs talking. By now, Tara was snorting both cocaine and heroin. At 23, she started smoking crack. Jean did everything she could to help. She forbade Tara from using drugs in the house. She demanded Tara go into treatment. When Tara acted crazy, Jean called a crisis team and checked her into Nassau County Medical Center. Tara’s trips to the hospital unearthed an explanation for her bizarre actions: She was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Tara didn’t like Long Island, so she spent most of her time hanging out in Tompkins Square Park and on 8th Street. She worried about children starving in North Korea and asked her mother to contact Yoko Ono about the matter. She saved apple seeds, which she put in an envelope and mailed to Africa. The most stressful days were the rainy ones, when the sidewalks were full of strollers with plastic covers. Tara approached parents and nannies all the time, urging them to remove the plastic cover, doing it herself if they refused. Sometimes they hurried away; other times they called the police.
When Tara was in her twenties, the police arrested her at least five times for incidents involving plastic rain covers. Each of these criminal cases followed a similar trajectory: Psychiatrists determined she was too mentally ill to be prosecuted, so she was referred to the Department of Mental Health. Her criminal case was then dismissed because she’d been charged with only a misdemeanor or low-level felony. Usually she ended up spending a few months on Rikers Island.
Jean thought Tara did not belong in jail at all; she believed Tara should be sent to a private psychiatric hospital for a year or two. This way, Tara could receive consistent treatment: She could build a relationship with one psychiatrist, her medication could be monitored, and she could learn how to manage her illness. But an extended stay at a private hospital was impossible; Jean could never afford it.
Tara was back on Rikers Island in the fall of 1997, after an encounter on Greenwich Avenue with a man and his 15-month-old daughter. According to the father, Tara had shouted, “This is my child! This is my child!”—and tried to walk away with his stroller. Tara had already called 911 earlier that day to report someone had kidnapped her baby; she called back after this incident too. This time, she was charged with a serious felony: attempted kidnapping.
Eight months later, Tara pleaded guilty. Not because she actually thought she was guilty (she insisted she had never intended to kidnap the baby), but because, as she told the judge, “I’m scared to go to trial.” A guilty plea in which a defendant does not actually admit guilt is known as an “Alford plea.” It’s extremely rare, but the judge accepted it and sentenced Tara to two-and-a-quarter to four-and-a-half years in prison.
Tara was moved to Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County. She spent the next two years bouncing between Bedford Hills and Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, the hospital for the state’s most mentally ill prisoners. In 2000, Tara was sent to Pilgrim state hospital in Suffolk County. She was first confined to the hospital, then moved to a residential program on the hospital grounds. Sometimes she was stable; other times she was delusional. She ran away twice.
The first time, her mother and brother Peter went looking for her, determined to find her before she got arrested again. They went to the West Village, and within a few hours spotted Tara on Bleecker Street. She sprinted away when she saw them, but Peter caught her and tackled her to the ground. Tara escaped again in May 2002. She was free for seven weeks before the police in Brooklyn Heights arrested her.
This time, she would be charged in four incidents involving babies. By now it had been 15 years since the delusions started, 15 years of cycling in and out of jails and hospitals. Since she had already been convicted of one violent crime, the criminal justice system considered her a serious criminal—a “violent predicate felon.” This time, her punishment would likely be much more severe.