NY Times: May 2, 1992 On a solid, tree-lined Queens block, Helena Piccininni, a schoolteacher, kept to herself and lived a life of desperately held secrets, neighbors and the police say.
And, the police say, she kept her biggest secret ‒ her small son, now nearly 3 years old ‒ from her husband and her sister, both of whom live elsewhere, for most of the child's life.
That secret was exposed publicly on Tuesday when someone called 911 anonymously to report a child left alone in Mrs. Piccininni's Middle Village house. The responding officers say they found a little boy alone with a dead cat ‒ a child unable to speak, malnourished and with only four nippled bottles of liquid baby formula within reach on a table.
Hours after the child was taken from the cluttered, neglected rooms of the two-story brick row house as neighbors watched aghast, Mrs. Piccininni was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child. She had gone to the police station in response to a notice left on her door.
The 40-year-old special-education teacher at a Brooklyn elementary school could not be reached for comment yesterday. She was released on her own recognizance after her arrest Tuesday night, and yesterday nobody was home at her house at 82-46 Penelope Avenue. When reached Thursday night she declined to comment, on her lawyer's advice.
School officials said that pending the outcome of her case she would be reassigned to clerical duties from her teaching job at Public School 299 in Bushwick.
Mrs. Piccininni told the police that she had secretly given birth to her son by herself at home in July 1989. A year ago, she had a second child, she said, whom she quickly gave up for adoption.
Yesterday, as detectives tried to piece together her story, neighbors spoke of a woman who they said kept to herself, a woman they did not know had been married for a year and a half to a man living outside New York City. It was not known why the couple lived apart.
"She never said hello to anybody," said a woman who lives down the block from Mrs. Piccininni and who declined to be identified. Neighbors said they still knew her by her maiden name of Helen Bronnenkant.
According to a detective, the husband, Vincent Piccininni, lives in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., in Dutchess County. Mrs. Piccininni told the police she visits him on weekends. The husband "didn't know about the baby till four months ago," said the detective, John Beisel of the 104th Precinct.
"She said she didn't know who the father was because she was going out with several men at the time" that she became pregnant, the detective said. He quoted her as saying that she began going out with Mr. Piccininni shortly before she gave birth, when she would see him occasionally. "She didn't want to lose him so she hid the fact from him," Detective Beisel said of her pregnancy. She told investigators the child has no birth certificate.
He said Mrs. Piccininni had insisted that Tuesday was the first time she had left the toddler, whom she called Richard, alone, and that she did so after a baby sitter failed to show up. "But she refused to give the name of the baby sitter," the detective said, adding that investigators believe she frequently left the baby alone for long periods.
Some neighbors said they had never seen anybody but Mrs. Piccininni enter or leave the house. Some were aware she was living with a toddler, some were not.
Detective Beisel described the boy, who has never eaten solid food, the mother said, as "chunky, not underweight but malnourished."
The child has been placed in foster care by city authorities.