By Thomas Fields-Meyer
November 10, 1997 12:00 PM

THE SEASONAL RITUALS OF HIGH school—the big game, spring break, commencement—come and go with such regularity that one year blends neatly into the next. At New Jersey’s Lacey Township High, talk has inevitably turned again to the prospects of the Lions football squad, perennially among the state’s best. “We’re into sports big-time,” says Jed Herb, 17, a senior. “We’re not into talking about Melissa Drexler.”

That would be the Melissa Drexler who turned one of the school’s last rites of passage—June’s senior prom—into fodder for tabloid headlines. That night the soft-spoken senior, now 19, gave birth to a baby boy in the secrecy of a lavatory stall, and, police charge, strangled the infant, dumped his body in a trash bin and returned to the dance floor.

Though she was arraigned Oct. 27 on murder charges, few of her schoolmates believe she will feel the full weight of the law. “The girls are worse than the boys,” says Jed Herb. “They’ll be screaming, ‘She killed a baby! She should die.’ ”

Prosecutors have, in fact, decided not to pursue the death penalty. “She undoubtedly was frightened and upset,” Monmouth County prosecutor John Kaye said in September. “It just doesn’t fit.” Of 25 similar investigations Kaye has handled, 12 of the babies were found to have been stillborn and all but one of the remaining cases resulted in modest jail terms.

As shocking as the story first seemed, it is hardly unique. “For centuries,” says Stephanie Coontz, a historian who has written about the role of changing families, “girls have been giving birth to babies and, terrified of what their parents or others might say or do, they’ve abandoned those babies to die or buried them alive or disposed of them in any way they could think of.” With contraception and abortion widely available, infanticide rates have plummeted, yet such crimes still are committed. Explains Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University who has studied the phenomenon: “[These women] may have denied their pregnancy, missed the opportunity for abortion and then passively feel that the situation will somehow take care of itself—that the infant will be stillborn.”

That may well be the crux of the defense for Drexler, who from the beginning claimed her baby was born dead, though an autopsy showed it had oxygen in its lungs. “The baby was born alive and died from manual strangulation and asphyxiation,” said prosecutor Kaye. But for two hours following the baby’s discovery—an estimated half hour after birth—bystanders and rescue workers desperately tried to revive him with CPR, which the defense is expected to argue could account for the air in his lungs.

Until the nightmarish events at the prom, no one could have anticipated such notoriety for Drexler, an average student with a small circle of friends who had made little impression at Lacey Township. “She’s a good kid,” says the mother of a friend. “She’s sweet.” Somehow she was able to maintain that demeanor through a full pregnancy that apparently went undetected by anyone, including John Lewis, 21, the Wal-Mart stockroom worker she had been dating on and off for two years, and her adoring parents.

On the fateful night, immediately after arriving at Garden Manor, an Aberdeen, N.J., banquet facility, Drexler had gone into the bathroom and stayed there alone for more than half an hour, eventually moving from one toilet stall to another. Lisa Brewer, a friend who had waited outside, checked on her, at one point noticing blood dripping to the floor and a plastic bag with something in it. Drexler assured her she was simply having a heavy period.

But soon after Drexler had dabbed on some makeup, zipped her dress and left the rest room, a maintenance worker found a blood-streaked mess in the stalls and a sanitary-napkin dispenser wrenched from the bathroom wall. (Melissa had apparently used its jagged edge to cut the umbilical cord.) Perplexed by a heavy trash bag that had been tied shut, the cleaner had a coworker carry it outside, where they opened it to discover the body of a 6-lb. 6-oz. baby boy. Confronted on the dance floor by two teachers, Melissa first denied giving birth, then admitted it and was sent by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where she delivered the placenta and the baby was declared dead.

By June 27, when the family buried the baby—whom Melissa had named Christopher—in a Bergen County, N.J., cemetery, shocked classmates and neighbors were left with two questions: How could she do it? And why didn’t she confide in someone—her parents, a friend?

Though she had participated in all her normal school activities, including gym classes, and had gone shopping for a prom dress just weeks earlier with friend Rebecca Ganelli, apparently no one noticed Melissa’s pregnancy. Unlike some classmates who were quick to condemn Drexler, her close friends have staunchly defended her. “Melissa is not a bad person even though she did a bad thing,” says Debbie Jacobson, speaking on behalf of her daughter Amanda, a friend of Melissa’s since fourth grade. “She’s not one of those kids that has no regard for life.”

According to experts, that would not make her unusual among girls who commit such crimes. “These are not bad kids,” says psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, “but kids who are so responsible and dependent emotionally on their parents that they simply refuse to face the horror of having to tell their folks.”

By all accounts, John Drexler, 47, who works with computers at an import company, and his wife, Maria, 45, who recently left her job at a bank, doted on their only child, indulging her with gifts, including a gray Nissan Sentra. “Her dad was always saying, ‘Melissa does this good, Melissa does that good.’ She was special to him,” says a friend, Jim Botsacos. “They were overprotective of her.” Debbie Jacobson concurs: “If you can say anything about the parents, they did too much for her…. She might be 18 chronologically, but emotionally she’s definitely not. She wouldn’t be prepared to handle this.”

Nor, apparently, did she find a way to reach out for help in her middle-class Forked River neighborhood, where, socially at least, the Drexlers seem to have kept to themselves. The family belonged to St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church but didn’t attend regularly, and they weren’t close to most of their neighbors. “Lacey is as tightly knit as a community can be with nearly 30,000 people, and very few people said they knew the family,” says Cori Anne Natoli, a reporter who covers the area for New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press.

As ever, John and Maria Drexler have stood by their daughter. They hired local defense attorneys Steven Secare and Donald Venezia, who have recruited an arsenal of high-powered witnesses, including criminal pathologist Michael Baden, who testified at both of O.J. Simpson’s trials, and forensic psychiatrist Robert Sadoff.

Even if found innocent, however, or let off with a minimal sentence, it is hard to imagine Melissa, who once dreamed of a future in fashion design, ever leading a life unmarked by the events of last June 6. Choosing to forgo her graduation ceremony, she took refuge for most of the summer in her parents’ modest cedar-shingled ranch house and has not enrolled, as planned, in a local community college. “She’s a young girl with dreams and plans,” says lawyer Venezia. “She wants to get her life on again.” That is a wish that may not soon be granted.