The Killing of Lisa Steinberg
'A Child Not Breathing'
Officer Vincent Daluise made his way up the narrow, darkened hallway of 14 West 10th Street in New York's Greenwich Village. It was 6:40 a.m. on November 2, 1987. The building, a classical brownstone, was constructed in the 19th century and was Mark Twain's home. Although the West Village is just a short walk from fast-paced midtown Manhattan, it retains the cozy atmosphere of a small, tight-knit community with tree-lined streets and trendy, outdoor cafes. Tenth Street contains dozens of brownstones and 19th century buildings that are expensive, much sought after, and reminiscent of a bygone era.
The cops, along with emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, arrived at the quiet apartment on the second floor. They knocked several times and received no answer. They were dispatched to this address on a "job" of a child not breathing. Since there was no response, they banged again with the bottom of their fists on the wooden door.
"Police!" Officer Daluise yelled, "Open up!" There was another pause. The door opened very slowly and a woman's face peeked through the slim opening. It was dark inside. Daluise could barely make out details, but her face appeared bruised, mangled, swollen. He thought it was an older woman. She said nothing at first but when asked if she called the police, she said, "Yes." As the cops and EMS workers entered the apartment and before they could react to anything else, a man came out of another darkened room. He was carrying a naked child in his arms by the armpits. The child was a little girl, unconscious, bruised and blue. The man said that she had just eaten something and vomited. He told the police he didn't know what happened to her except that she passed out. Then he said that she had been vomiting since the night before. Cops saw additional bruising and welts on the little girl's back. She was filthy. Her feet were coal-black and it appeared she hadn't been bathed in a long, long time.
In the back of the room, cops saw the dim figure of a baby. When they investigated further, they saw that the infant was lying on the floor and tied to a playpen with a length of rope around his waist. His clothes were soaked with urine and his body was covered with dirt. The female that answered the door was wandering around the apartment, hiding behind doors and rubbing her hands together. Her face had cuts and bruises around her eyes and nose. Her lip was split. Later, when she was examined at Bellevue Hospital, doctors found she had several broken ribs, a fractured jaw, a broken nose and severely ulcerated legs. She claimed all her injuries were the result of a fall.
The medics worked feverishly on the girl who was barely breathing and not responding to their efforts. There were red marks on her chest, abdomen and arms. Her long, sandy colored hair was filthy, matted and tangled. The man, who said he was the father, rambled on, offering several different versions of how the girl wound up in such a state. He said that when he saw she wasn't breathing, he gave her CPR. What the medics could not have known at the time was that the girl was suffering from a severe brain injury. She was already in a fatal coma from which she would never emerge. Soon, she would be "brain dead," a condition in which the brain emits no discernible activity. It is New York's legal standard for death.
The girl's name was Elizabeth Steinberg, known to all as "Lisa." She was six years old. Lisa was allegedly adopted by the man and woman in the apartment and had lived with them almost since birth. The adoptive father's name was Joel Steinberg and the mother's name was Hedda Nussbaum. He was an attorney who worked the criminal courts in Manhattan; she was a former editor and writer of children's books for Random House, one of New York's most famous publishing houses. And together, over a period of six years, they oversaw the sad, anguished life of a little girl who never had a chance against the brutality, neglect and ultimate destruction by two people whose callousness and parental abdication became symbolic of child abuse in America.