NEW YORK – Marcus Wallace has never met his birth mother. At age 31, the Brooklyn resident did, however meet the men who saved his life on a cold January morning.
As a newborn, he was pulled from a dumpster behind a gas station where his Greek-American mother had dumped him shortly after giving birth. While growing up in Trinidad, he had called his aunt “mom” and only saw his birth certificate at age 20.
The woman listed as mother was Dorothea Ballas, then a 21-year-old student at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) in Teaneck, NJ. A newspaper story from 1985 revealed the shocking details of how Wallace started out in the world. Born in Ballas’ dorm room on Jan. 19, 1985, Wallace was then placed in a garbage bag. Ballas knotted the top and threw out her newborn son in a dumpster behind a gas station on a freezing night with temperatures hovering in the 20-degree range.
Upon finding out, Wallace said, as reported in the New York Post, “I broke down. I got on the subway and cried all the way from 42nd Street to Flatbush Avenue. I had a lot of whys. What was wrong with me? Why me?”
Wallace struggled with the news, his self-worth, and with health issues including two strokes in a year, but he continued to search for the truth. He said, “My mother threw me in a dumpster. It took me a very long time to deal with that, but I’ve gotten past it.”
Wallace continued to research his story, finding a reporter who had worked for The Record of Hackensack and covered the remarkable survival of the baby thrown in the trash.
Wallace told the Post, “Nobody told me anything until I found your story.”
After three decades, the Post arranged a reunion for Wallace and his three rescuers.
They met on a cold December day by a now-empty lot next to the FDU dorms where the dumpster stood, exchanging hugs and weeping with joy.
“You’re my hero,” Wallace told Michael Randelman, a musician and painting contractor who came from Florida for the occasion, the Post reported.
On that frigid morning in 1985, Randelman, then 25, was driving home from a girlfriend’s house at about 3 AM and stopped to inflate his tires at a gas station near his Hackensack home. The air pump, however, was broken and he then headed to a Teaneck Shell station. Randelman said, as reported in the Post, “I heard a crying noise. I kept hearing it. I lifted the lid, but all I saw was garbage.”
He alerted the station attendant Lo Kuo-Raya and they agreed a baby was inside, but couldn’t find it. Randelman then called the Teaneck police.
Officers Phillip Lavigne and Sheridan Ogden arrived a minute later. Ogden noted, “we figured it was a cat.”
Lavigne climbed in, careful not to step on a black garbage bag different from the other trash. Ripping the bag open, he found the naked newborn with the umbilical cord and placenta.
“I was in a state of disbelief — to have someone just discard a living being like that,” said Lavigne, whose wife was pregnant at the time with their first child.
Lavigne held the baby, while Ogden sped at 80 mph with lights and sirens to Holy Name Hospital.
“I think I had wings on the car,” Ogden said, as the Post reported.
Doctors took over from there, one of them telling the cops, “you got here just in time.”
The baby was called “Johnny Doe” and would certainly have died of exposure had he not been found so quickly, they said.
During their reunion, Lavigne presented Wallace with a Teaneck police cap and his shield, No. 187, as mementos.
Lavigne said that making a difference is “the best Christmas gift you could ever give a cop.”
Randelman, who has no children, is thrilled he helped save Wallace’s life. They plan to meet again so Randelman can teach him to play the drums.
“I love you, Marcus,” Randelman told him, as the Post reported. “You are special, and you were meant to be here. Don’t let that incident tell you otherwise.”
With the reporter’s and the two ex-cops help, Wallace learned more about the past.
Ballas was quickly identified at the time when investigators found other papers and trash with her name on it in the garbage bag. A handwritten note or poem in Greek was also in the bag with the message, “I love you. I don’t want to do this,” the cops remembered. A Greek woman who had translated the note for the police back then described it last week as “enigmatic” and “confused” as the Post reported.
Wallace had no knowledge of the message.
“I’ve never seen my mother,” he said. A yellowing newspaper clipping with a photo taken in court showed a brunette in a high-necked white blouse. Wallace resembles his mother.
As the Post reported, “At the time, Ballas told police she hid her pregnancy from family, friends and her former boyfriend, the baby’s father. Alone when she went into labor, she delivered the baby herself. She then discarded the boy in ‘sheer panic,’ authorities said.
Ballas and the father, Ruthven Prithwie, then a 22-year-old student from Trinidad, had recently split up, he told the reporter in an interview two months after the birth. He had asked if Ballas was pregnant, but she said, ‘I’m just gaining weight.’
He believed Ballas feared the disapproval of her strict Greek Orthodox parents.”
“I am the bad guy,” Prithwie said as reported in the Post. “Number one, I am foreign. Number two, I am black.”
But he felt no ill will. “I don’t hold it against her for doing what she did,” he said. “Somehow or other, I understand.”
Ballas pleaded guilty to attempted murder. “I gave birth to a child. I placed the child in a bag,” she told the court in a near-whisper. She said the baby lay in the bin about 90 minutes before he was found. She was sentenced to probation and did no jail time.
While Ballas’ parents wanted to put the baby up for adoption, Prithwie fought to keep him. “I want to make a good home for my son,” he said, naming him Marcus. Finally, the child was placed in his custody and sent to live with Prithwie’s family in Trinidad while he finished his studies.
In an interview in 1985, his father said he would keep the abandonment a secret. “I don’t want my son to know,” he noted. “If he ever does find out, I guess I’ll have to explain it to him, but I don’t know how.”
Growing up in Trinidad with his father’s sister and a grandmother, Wallace said of his aunt, “I called her Mommy. I still love her as a mother. She took care of me as if I were her own.”
The sister’s own son, his cousin, was “my brother,” he said. Wallace’s dad visited him in Trinidad several times a year.
Through the years, Wallace tried to reach Ballas, now 53 years old. He called her parents’ florist business and asked politely if they would, “please tell her that Marcus called.” When he called again, he was told, “Don’t call back.”
He also tried contacting Ballas’ two brothers on Facebook, but they never replied. Ballas’ parents have since passed away. Wallace also learned that Ballas married a fellow Greek, had two other children, and moved to Rhode Island.
The Post contacted Ballas via her cellphone and began explaining the reason for their call. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and hung up. A letter was also sent to Ballas, who did not respond.
Wallace said, “I honestly believe she doesn’t want anything to do with me. She doesn’t want any part of her past.”
After attending Kingsborough Community College, Wallace left to follow a girlfriend to Atlanta. They married. He managed a Walmart and a Roadrunner trucking company.
Wallace was in the delivery room when his daughter, Addison, now age 3, was born.
“I watched her come out,” he said. At that moment, he couldn’t help wondering what Ballas went through when he was born. Though after reading the newspaper articles, Wallace feels less resentment than concern, the Post reported.
“She’s still my mother. She carried me full term,” he said. “I have nothing but love for the woman. I’m very grateful that I’m able to be a loving father to my own little girl. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be alive.”
Wallace said he still hopes to meet his birth mom one day to say “I forgive you.”