READING, Pa. — A woman who said she secretly gave birth in her bathtub five times, killed one of the babies and hid all five bodies in a closet pleaded guilty to murder Thursday and was sentenced to the maximum 20 to 40 years in prison.
Michele Kalina, 46, of Reading, conceived the babies through a long affair with a co-worker and hid the pregnancies from him and her husband. She told a psychiatrist she had wrapped each baby with a towel and then stored the body in a tub or container in a locked closet.
She thought four were “essentially stillborn” and denied doing anything “malicious,” testified Dr. Jerome Gottlieb, a defense psychiatrist. But over the course of several visits with him, she recalled that the third baby, a boy, had moved. That death is the basis for the one count of murder.
“She [said she] might have wrapped the baby too tightly with a towel so that the baby couldn’t breathe,” Gottlieb said.
That boy’s body was then encased in cement and stored with the others — in a cooler, tub or cardboard box — in a closet. The five bodies decomposed for years until her teenage daughter found the skeletal remains last year. By then, authorities could not determine how the babies had died.
Kalina, a home-health aide, also pleaded guilty to five counts each of abuse of a corpse and concealing a child’s death.
Gottlieb described her as an alcoholic who was intoxicated during the births and does not fully recall what took place. She also suffers from severe depression and other mental-health issues, he said.
Public defender Holly Feeney sought leniency on grounds that Kalina had learned to deny reality as she endured severe physical and sexual abuse as a child. Gottlieb suggested she put memories of the babies in a “psychological closet,” much as she put their remains in a physical one.
Berks County Judge Linda K.M. Ludgate didn’t buy the argument. She said Kalina had left the newborns in tubs and containers “like garbage,” and rebuked her for not getting help, at least after the first delivery.
“After the first time she gave birth in the bathtub and wrapped the baby and put the baby in a container, she could have stopped … and asked for help, but she did not,” Ludgate said. Instead, “she got pregnant and gave birth again and again and again and again.”
Kalina sobbed as she told the judge she now has nightmares about her children.
“I cry for the babies, and nothing I can do can bring them back,” Kalina said in a monotone voice, reading from a statement. “I am very upset and ashamed about what happened.”
Kalina is on several anti-depressants, but Gottlieb said he fears she will attempt suicide as her memories surface over time.
Jeffrey Kalina, 54, a disabled stay-at-home father for much of their 25-year marriage, testified that he still loves his wife and would have raised the lover’s children had he known about them.
“Sure, of course. Day One. Moment One,” he said.
Throughout questioning, he said their marriage had not been sexual in 18 years, and said he had not seen his wife naked during that time, when she carried babies to full- or nearly full-term births.
“She was always slim,” he said.
Only once, in 2003, did he suspect his wife might be pregnant, but his daughter rejected the idea.
Kalina went on to deliver that baby at a Reading hospital. She told the staff she was separated and gave the girl up for adoption. DNA tests show the girl is also the lover’s child.
Kalina had gone to Albright College for three semesters before getting married in 1986, at age 19.
The couple’s first child, Andrew, was born the next year but suffered from cerebral palsy and serious developmental delays. Jeffrey Kalina blamed the problems on “a bad delivery.” Michele Kalina cared for the boy at home for seven years, before her husband was laid off and became the caregiver to Andrew and their daughter Elizabeth, who was born in 1991. Andrew died of natural causes in 2000.
Kalina sometimes worked 70 hours a week or more to support the family, Jeffrey Kalina said.
She started the affair with a co-worker in 1996 and became pregnant that year. He declined to testify or attend Thursday’s hearing, and has not returned calls for comment left at his Reading-area home. According to Gottlieb, he at one point refused Kalina’s request to use condoms during their affair.
Gottlieb believes Kalina kept the babies’ remains as a reminder of her shame over their deaths and the affair. She looked at the hidden remains of the first baby at least once and became distraught, the psychiatrist said.
“This woman’s very ill. If she were just trying to get rid of them as an inconvenience, she would not have left the remains in a closet,” Gottlieb said. “I think we can agree that’s bizarre.”
Had she disposed of them, she might never have gotten caught, he said.
But Assistant District Attorney M. Theresa Johnson argued the point another way. The bodies might have been discovered in time for authorities to learn how the babies died, she said.
She also disputed Gottlieb’s description of Kalina as a fearful, haunted abuse victim.
“She wasn’t fearful. She was brazen. She gave birth to these babies in a bathtub in her own home where there were other people present,” Johnson said.