March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

IT WAS, IN THE BEGINNING, A love story, though one skewed by a terrible crime. Even after their arrest 16 months ago on charges of murdering the baby they had delivered in a Delaware motel, New Jersey teenagers Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson Jr. stood by each other, catching moments alone when they could, talking constantly on the phone, vowing they would get through this together. Only this month did it become clear to the world they would not.

On March 9, in a stunning break with the girl he once loved, whose mother, he believed, had turned her against him, Peterson, now 19, cut a deal and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge: reckless manslaughter. Speaking for his client, who stood silently next to him in a hushed Wilmington courtroom, attorney Russell Gioiella explained Peterson’s plea as the youth’s mother, Barbara Zuchowski, 47, wept in the front row. “After the baby was born, the infant didn’t show any signs of life, and he believed the baby was dead,” said Gioiella. “He did not assist the baby or confirm it had died.” With Grossberg urging “Get rid of it! Get rid of it!” Peterson, he continued, put the baby in a plastic bag and took the infant to a trash bin outside.

There, in fact, is where, 24 hours later, on Nov. 13,1996, a trained dog brought in by police found the baby behind the Newark, Del., Comfort Inn. Inside a gray garbage bag lay a 6-lb. 2-oz. full-term infant boy. According to the Delaware state medical examiner, the infant had been killed by “shaking and blunt-force impact.” His skull bore multiple surface fractures and depressions; his brain was bruised and battered.

Within days of the grisly discovery, Grossberg and Peterson, both then 18, two fresh-faced college students from affluent homes in suburban Wyckoff, N.J., were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, which carries a possible death sentence. They pleaded not guilty and, after two months in jail, were released on $300,000 bail each and hunkered down to await trial. Both remained publicly silent, with one exception. Grossberg, appearing with her parents on ABC’s 20/20 last June, declared, “I would never hurt anything or anybody, especially something that could come from me.”

Those words were called into question last week. Grossberg was not present in court to witness her co-defendant’s about-face, but her attorneys were, and they looked grim. Recently they had said that Grossberg thought she was only five or six months pregnant and had no role in disposing of the infant. Now she is left to face a murder rap alone.

As for Peterson, if he holds up his end of the bargain by testifying at Grossberg’s trial, he will face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, though according to sources close to the case, he will likely serve no more than 2½. But his plea did nothing in itself to unravel the central mystery of the case: How did the baby die?

Peterson continues to deny any active involvement in the infant’s death. Immediately following the hearing at which Peterson pleaded, one of his attorneys, Joseph A. Hurley, insisted, “Never, never, never did Brian intend to harm that newborn.” Attorneys for Grossberg have indicated they will argue that the baby was stillborn—despite the coroner’s finding that he had been breathing—and that his skull could have been fractured when police searched the trash bin.

What actually happened that night in November? During a seven-month investigation, PEOPLE has sought answers to this and other questions, including perhaps the most baffling: What went wrong in the promising lives of these two teenagers?

It was in the early morning hours of Nov. 12 that Amy Grossberg, a freshman at the University of Delaware in Newark, began suffering labor pains. The daughter of a furniture salesman and an aspiring decorator, she had kept the pregnancy a secret from friends and her parents, who had visited her at school just two weeks earlier. At 12:45 a.m., she phoned her boyfriend of three years, Peterson, then a first-year student at Gettysburg (Pa.) College, and left a message on his dorm-room answering machine. According to a source close to the investigation, the message said, in part, “I hope my biggest fear isn’t coming true.”

By 3 a.m., Peterson had arrived at Grossberg’s Thompson Hall dorm, and at 3:10 the pair checked into room 220 at the nearby Comfort Inn, where the baby was born. Peterson admitted to police that he took the infant from the motel in his 1994 Toyota Celica to the garbage bin just yards away. There it might never have been found had Grossberg, back in her dorm room later that day, not gone into convulsions, collapsed and been rushed to Newark’s Christiana hospital, where it was discovered that she had just given birth.

At this point, Peterson, who had left Grossberg at her dorm about noon, was back in Gettysburg, some 90 miles away. Handsome and athletic, a onetime child model, he was visibly distraught when he returned to his dorm. “He was just lying in his bed, kind of freaking out,” one dormmate recalls. Asked what was wrong, Peterson said he was upset about a sick grandmother.

Amy’s parents, Sonye Grossberg, 48, and her husband, Alan, 49, learned their daughter was ill when they were contacted by Christiana hospital. As they hurried to Newark, they telephoned Brian and insisted he tell them what was going on. Then Peterson began talking to a counselor at his college and to police. Though he said he couldn’t remember the name of the motel, he provided information that led to the discovery by police of the child’s body in a plastic bag that, they say, matched one found in Grossberg’s dorm room during a search several hours later. The search also yielded a letter to God, in which, says a source close to the investigation, Grossberg refers to her pregnancy as her “problem.”

A crucial issue expected to be raised at trial is at what point Grossberg became aware she was pregnant. In her 20/20 interview, Grossberg denied having felt sick or unusually tired, or having gained weight, during the previous summer. But a close friend says Amy began hiding her changing figure in the summer of 1996 while working as a camp counselor at the Wyckoff YMCA. “Normally, Amy wore cute, fitted clothes,” says the friend. “That summer she wore big clothes, two shirts and jeans. She didn’t wear a bathing suit.” College friends of Peterson’s, who met Grossberg during a fall visit to Gettysburg, noticed her weight. “She was looking a little plump,” says Adam Outerbridge, 20, “and, joking, we said to Brian: ‘Hey, did you knock her up or something?’ ” Outerbridge says Peterson laughed.

Why Peterson and Grossberg, two wealthy, well-educated teens who would seem to have had so many options, chose the one they did in dealing with Grossberg’s pregnancy mystifies those who know them. Certainly nothing in their background suggested that either would ever stand accused of a serious crime.

Peterson was raised in the middle-class Long Island community of Dix Hills, N.Y., the only child of Brian Peterson Sr., 46, a computer programmer, and Barbara, a former junior-high schoolteacher who now runs a wholesale video business. His mother was often absent, apparently because of her job, and Brian Sr. also worked long hours. “Brian was a latchkey kid,” says childhood friend John Daley, while Sharon Cohen, who was one of Peterson’s regular babysitters, recalls that “Brian had lots of toys. I don’t think there was anything he wanted for.” But in three years of working for the family, she says, she saw his mother only twice.

After eighth grade, following his parents’ divorce, Peterson moved to Wyckoff with his mother, and in 1992 they moved into a $750,000 home with Barbara’s second husband, John Zuchowski, 52, who runs the video business with her. At Ramapo High School, Peterson captained both the soccer and golf teams. “He was a real friendly guy,” says classmate Jeff Jamieson, 19. “He was like the class clown.” Grossberg and Peterson started dating as sophomores. “Out of all the couples in high school, I remember them as having the best relationship,” says Marc Veli, 20, one of Brian’s soccer teammates. When they enrolled at different colleges, Amy told friends they would stay together regardless. “She said it would be different not being together every day, but she was going to keep the relationship going,” says one YMCA coworker. At Delaware she kept to herself, though Brian is said to have occasionally dated other young women at Gettysburg.

Popular herself at Ramapo High, where fellow students remember her talent for art and an enviable wardrobe, Amy was raised in a ranch-style house in Wyckoff, but thanks to Alan Grossberg’s business success, the family—Amy has an older brother, Jason, now 22—had moved into an $800,000 Tudor in adjacent Franklin Lakes by the time she started high school.

Relatives and friends say that while Amy was growing up, she and her mother were inseparable. Says Barry Grossberg, Amy’s uncle: “Sonye and her daughter are close. Whatever troubles one troubles the other.” If any stresses were felt in the household, they were not apparent to outsiders—nor were they meant to be. “Mrs. Grossberg always wanted it to look like ‘We don’t have any problems,’ ” says one of Amy’s friends. “Image was very important to her. Amy’s image was perfect.” Ultimately, protecting that image may have been what led Amy to conceal her pregnancy.

“It wasn’t ‘I can’t tell my parents,’ but ‘I can’t tell my mom,’ ” says a source close the case. And it was Sonye Grossberg’s adamant refusal to admit that her daughter might have done something wrong that led a succession of attorneys employed by the Grossbergs early in the case to quit. “If you believe that your angel daughter is an innocent bystander, then you’re going to have problems,” says one. Close observers say the likelihood of the prosecution’s reaching a plea agreement with Grossberg is slim, because Sonye will not entertain the possibility of her daughter serving any additional time behind bars.

Wyckoff friends say that in the months following their release from prison, Grossberg and Peterson at first remained close. Ray Maniaci, one of Peterson’s best friends, recalls seeing the couple cuddling and watching Romeo & Juliet on video in Peterson’s basement. The split that culminated in Peterson’s plea began last summer. The Grossberg legal team began to distance itself from Brian Peterson. “Mrs. Grossberg started listening to phone calls between Brian and Amy and said Amy couldn’t tell him anything,” says a friend of Brian’s. “Brian attributes the breakup of the relationship to Sonye.” Says another source: “She was like a jackhammer between them.”

Until the trial the two will continue with their lives in bucolic Wyckoff. Grossberg works part-time at a gourmet grocery store where she had previously been employed. Peterson helps out at his family’s video business. In their hometown, at least, neither is treated as a pariah, and practically the only outward signs of their uncertain futures are the electronic monitoring anklets they wear. “They’re the victims here,” says a former neighbor of the Grossbergs. Remarks Giovanna Arrajj, mother of a high school classmate: “They’re good kids. They don’t deserve this.” Acknowledging such comments, Brian Peterson Sr. nodded sadly just two days before his son’s plea of guilty. “He just got caught up in a bad thing,” said the father.

It has been a year now since Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson’s infant son was buried on March 14, 1997, at Temple B’nai Abraham Memorial Park in Union, N.J., 25 miles from Wyckoff. Amy, her parents and the undertaker were the only people in attendance at the simple ceremony under a maple tree. Recently, the faded index card reading “Grossberg” that identified the grave was replaced with a brass plate reading only, “Always in our hearts.” There are no dates inscribed, and the infant remains nameless, almost as if he had never been born.

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