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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Retired cop meets abandoned baby he helped 23 years ago: ‘What are the odds?’

By Cathy Free Washington Post

More than two decades have passed since a crying newborn baby boy was found abandoned in a cardboard box at an apartment complex in South Bend, Indiana.

For retired South Bend Police Lt. Gene Eyster, the memories of that day are still vivid and emotional. He was a sergeant in the major crimes unit when he responded to the midnight call on Dec. 22, 2000. Other apartment residents had found the boy.

“It tore me up to see this baby left in a box, three days before Christmas,” said Eyster, now 70. After the infant was taken to the hospital by first responders, he said he went out to buy a teddy bear for the boy.

“I took the teddy bear to the hospital and put it in his crib, so anyone who walked past him would know somebody cared,” Eyster said. “I called him ‘Baby Jesus’ because he’d been found wrapped in blankets in his own little manger, even if it was a cardboard box.”

The infant was adopted soon after, and Eyster said he always wondered how his life turned out, especially whenever he drove past the apartment building.

The baby’s mother turned herself in three days later and was charged with child neglect, he said. She told police she was overwhelmed and didn’t feel she could care for the baby, so she’d left him in a warm place where she knew he’d be found.

“I hoped he’d grown up to be safe and happy,” Eyster said. “I wondered where he lived and what he was doing.”

Recently, he was stunned to receive an update.

South Bend police officer Josh Morgan called Eyster out of the blue in March and asked if he remembered the baby left in the box.

“I told him, ‘Of course, I remember. I have a memory like an elephant,’ ” Eyster said.

Morgan told him, “ ‘You’re not going to believe it – he’s sitting next to me. ‘Baby Jesus’ is my rookie,’ ” he recalled.

Eyster said he did in fact have trouble believing it.

“It was like something that was scripted for a movie,” he said. “What are the odds?”

Three months earlier, Matthew Hegedus-Stewart, 23, had been sworn in as an officer for the South Bend Police Department. He had previously worked as a jail officer and patrol officer in South Bend for St. Joseph County, he told Eyster.

He and Eyster arranged to meet at the police station on March 22 to catch up on all that happened since Hegedus-Stewart was found wrapped in blankets and a flannel shirt when he was 2 days old.

Ashley O’Chap, a media liaison for the police department, captured the reunion on film and posted a story about the two officers on Facebook.

“March 22, 2024. The day Gene Eyster finally got to meet ‘Baby Jesus’ all grown up, wearing the same uniform he wore for nearly five decades,” she wrote. “Add that to the list of dates he’ll never forget.”

“Thank you for everything you did for me,” Hegedus-Stewart recalled telling Eyster at their first meeting, after shaking his hand.

“I told him he looked a little bit bigger than the last time I saw him,” Eyster said. “That night had always stayed with me. To see Matthew sitting next to me while we talked was surreal.”

Hegedus-Stewart said he’d been adopted by a couple in South Bend one week after he was found. When he was about 5, his parents told him he’d been found in a cardboard box, and they later showed him the apartment complex, he told Eyster.

While he was training with Morgan, they’d responded to a call about an abandoned infant, and Hegedus-Stewart then shared his own story, he said. Afterward, Morgan looked up the police report Eyster had written, then called Eyster at home.

“On the call I went on, the baby had been left in a garage in the car seat,” Hegedus-Stewart said. “It made me sad and angry, and I opened up about the same thing happening to me.”

He said he was thankful to grow up with loving adoptive parents, and he worked to not let his sad beginning darken his outlook on life.

“I became a police officer because I’ve always liked helping people,” he said. “I really love what I’m doing, and it was a big plus to meet Gene.”

For Eyster, meeting the new rookie was good timing in his life. In January, his only child had unexpectedly passed away at age 36 after accidentally overdosing on pain medication, he said.

“We were extremely close, so hearing from Matthew was a pleasant distraction during a difficult time,” Eyster said. “To hear he’s wearing the same uniform I was and working on the same beat that I had was an enjoyable moment.”

As the pair looked through police photos of Hegedus-Stewart from the day he was found, they both agreed they wouldn’t wait another 23 years to be back in touch, they said.

“I’m really happy to have Gene in my life,” said Hegedus-Stewart. “I always wondered who had found me, and Gene’s a really good guy. I feel like the way everything happened was just meant to be.”

The men now joke that a movie should be made about their lives.

“I told Matthew that Tom Cruise should play him,” said Eyster. “But he’s holding out for Channing Tatum.”