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Digging Deeper: the Winona Baby Angel

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Angel's gravesite at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Winona.
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One of the few real photos of Angel on display at her funeral with more than 100 attendees in April 2012.
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One of the three angel figurines found wrapped up with Angel when she was found floating on the Mississippi River in Sept. 2011.

WINONA, Minn. (KTTC) -- It's a mystery yet to be solved: a newborn baby girl, found dead and alone, floating on the Mississippi River. After the discovery, the little girl was dubbed the Winona Baby Angel.

Sharon Forst's life was forever changed on Sept. 5, 2011.

"I don't know how people get through situations like this without their faith," Sharon said.

It was that Labor Day weekend, the Forst family was boating on the Mississippi River, like they often do, when they pulled over to pick up some trash.

"He said mom, there's a baby here. And I said, Joshua, that's not funny, don't even joke," Sharon said. "And I looked at his face and I could tell by his face that he wasn't joking."

Josh Forst was just 14 at the time.

"Hands up, lying there as if someone had set her there," Josh told KTTC at Angel's funeral in 2012. "It didn't just happen. She didn't just die."

She was a fully formed newborn baby girl with an unclamped umbilical cord.

"All I remember, it's kind of a blur, I just remember telling my husband to drop anchor and call 911," Sharon said. "We stopped and I tried to give CPR, but the baby was already gone."

Already gone. Without a family.

"She was pink when we had her," Sharon said. "By the time dive and rescue came, she was grey."

Or a name.

"We believe that the mother gave unassisted and unattended birth in this case," a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension representative said shortly after the case broke in 2011.

Found with the baby, one bracelet, two bags and three angel figurines. She was wrapped in a green t-shirt with a faded image of a slice of bread.

"They were wrapped up with the baby," Winona County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller said. "The little angel, the three and a half inch one was where she developed the name baby Angel."

Baby Angel.

"I believe that the baby should have a name that we can refer to," then Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said at BCA press conference in 2011. "And hoping with the help from you folks, finding a last name that we can put with it."

It's the mementos left with Angel that continue to baffle investigators.

"There's been a lot of different speculation to the what some of the different angels mean and the different figurines up until this point," Chief Deputy Mueller said.

Chief Deputy Mueller has been with the Sheriff's Office since 1998.

"It would be really nice to have that one lead to bring some closure to the case," Chief Deputy Mueller said.

"I am hoping that who ever are the parents, the mother of the baby Angel will come forward some day and fill in that story," Sharon said. "Whoever put the baby in the water took a lot of care to wrap the child with these ornaments and she had a medallion on her."

It impacted Sharon in her family in more ways than one.

"It was kind o ironic because we always wanted a little girl and it wasn't meant to be," Sharon said. "My two sons refer to her as 'my little Angel' and it was hard. You know, it was hard."

It wasn't just the Forst family feeling the impact of Angel's discovery.

"People are associating her with their children, grandchildren. The amount of support has been unbelievable. There are even people from out of state that came today," a priest told KTTC at Angel's funeral in 2012.

The Winona community adopted her as their own.

"I have never been to a funeral like it," Sharon said. "There was a whole line following the procession there was a good 150, 200 people who never knew this baby that came to the service."

Angel was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery, but even nearly nine years later, who she is and where she came from, remains a mystery.

"I guess it's the fact that there is no closure," Sharon said. "And that's kind of looming out there a bit."

"The Mississippi is a big, powerful, fast river, where specifically the baby floated from is to be determined."

"Possibly dropped from the bridge, it could be near the edge of the river, we were near the campground area," Sharon hypothesized.

But as time passes, new hope emerges.

"One of the things that's progressed since the original case had happened anyway with some of the technology with DNA," Chief Deputy Mueller said.

Chief Deputy Mueller says that's happened in just the past few months.

"The neat part of the genealogy part is that it can be a pretty distant relative and with some investigation, you can work back even if its a 4th, 5th, 6th cousin," he explained.

But no matches yet.

"Every year when we have that first day of school, I always think she would be in first grade now, or second grade now," Sharon said.

Waiting to be solved.

"The Winona community has not forgotten," Sharon said.

Chief Deputy Mueller told KTTC that over the years they've had DNA testing from willing participants, but no matches yet.

As a reminder, you can tip law enforcement anonymously. Just call 507-457-6530 or visit winonaareacrimestoppers.com.

Beret Leone

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