WEST BRANCH — At first glance, the plastic bin looked like a box of clothes ready for the thrift store.
But the bin was out of place in the outdoor garbage and recycling area of an Interstate 80 gas station, said West Branch Police Chief Mike Horihan.
When he opened the lid, Horihan heard a sound he barely hoped to hear — an infant’s cry.
Horihan found Kayden Powell, a six-day-old missing Wisconsin boy, Friday morning outside a BP station in West Branch. The newborn was taken from his Beloit, Wis., house early Thursday while his parents were sleeping.
The child had been missing for more than 30 hours, and despite subzero outdoor temperatures seemed to be healthy, Horihan said.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” said Horihan, a former state trooper and career lawman.
Kristin Rose Smith, 31, of Denver, was charged with kidnapping Friday afternoon. (See related story on page 1A.) The child’s aunt, Smith had visited Kayden’s parents Wednesday evening, police said.
Smith was arrested on an unrelated warrant early Friday at the Kum and Go, on the same street from the BP station.
Smith has been in the Cedar County Jail since Thursday morning.
Smith’s emails showed she had claimed to be pregnant, but did not appear so in Wisconsin, and a test showed she wasn’t pregnant, the criminal complaint stated. Authorities found a prosthetic baby belly in her car.
The FBI, Cedar County Sheriff’s Office and West Branch Police have been working the case since Thursday but didn’t start combing the area until 8 a.m. Friday.
“We thought it was a long shot the baby was still in the area,” Horihan said.
Thirty-six years as a law enforcement officer didn’t give him much hope.
“The temperatures were 12 below zero last night, and the chances of finding a baby alive in that environment I didn’t expect to be very high,” Horihan said.
He rolled up to the BP around 10 a.m., Friday, and asked manager Jay Patel if he could search around the building. He walked around the north side of the store, where a large garbage bin and recycling containers are located.
He saw a container that didn’t match the others. There was frost on the outside.
When Horihan heard Kayden’s cry and saw his small face, Horihan was shocked. The child was wrapped in several blankets, sheets and clothing. He was clothed but didn’t have on a hat.
Horihan called Officer Alex Koch, who alerted the FBI and requested the Johnson County Ambulance Services to come to the scene. Within minutes, the small cement-block store was surrounded by law enforcement vehicles and Kayden was whisked away to the hospital.
Horihan had messages Friday from media outlets across the country. He’s quick to credit the team effort of many law enforcement agencies. But mostly he’s just grateful that he found the needle in the haystack before it was too late.
“I think that the baby was found alive is truly a miracle,” he said. “Whoever placed it there, obviously wanted to keep it warm.”
When West Branch hired Horihan as chief in 2011, he had served as a state trooper, firearms instructor, crisis negotiator and safety education instructor.He can add hero to the list.