crimesider

Questions surround case of Utah mom accused of killing babies

SALT LAKE CITY - As the investigation continues into the case of a Utah mother who allegedly strangled or suffocated six of the seven dead newborns found in a garage Saturday, questions remain about how she concealed the pregnancies, how the babies died, and why she allegedly killed the children rather than seeking help.

Police say Megan Huntsman, 39, admitted to them that she killed six of the babies after giving birth to them, put them in plastic bags and then packed them inside boxes in the garage of her home south of Salt Lake City over a decade from 1996 to 2006. She told police that one was stillborn.

Huntsman, who was arrested Sunday on six counts of murder, was ordered held on $6 million bail - $1 million for each baby. She is due in court Monday for an arraignment.

Investigators are trying to determine why she did it and who else, if anybody, knew about it or was involved. During the timeline she's given, she lived in the house with her now estranged husband and their three daughters.

Investigators are done with initial interviews of family, friends and neighbors and are digging into evidence, Pleasant Grove Police Capt. Mike Roberts said. They haven't ruled doing more interviews or making more arrests.

"It is a slow, meticulous process," Roberts said.

Utah investigators are examining DNA from the babies to determine who the parents are, studying the bones to find out how long ago the babies died and interrogating family members and talking to neighbors in pursuit of clues about how she did it.

Meanwhile, for newborn-safety advocates in Utah, another major question is why Huntsman allegedly killed the babies - especially when Utah's Safe Haven law allows for newborns to be dropped off at certain hospitals without questions from police.

"They don't ask you your name, police are not called, there is no follow-up," Julia Robertson, coordinator of Utah's Safe Haven program, told CBS News' Crimesider. "We know it's safe for people to drop off the newborns, and it's certainly safe for the newborn."

The law allows for people to anonymously drop off newborns at hospitals with 24-hour services, Robertson said. The infants are then taken into the custody of the state's division of child and family services, placed in foster care and put up for adoption.

All 50 states have some version of a Safe Haven law - since Utah's was enacted in 2001, 12 babies have been safely relinquished through the program, Robertson said.

It's not clear whether Huntsman knew about the Safe Haven law, or whether she tried to access any services. But that's a question Robertson says she hopes can be asked of her in an effort to learn what kinds of barriers she might have faced.

"She absolutely had options," Robertson said, describing the case as the "worst-case scenario."

Huntsman's estranged husband, Darren West, made the discovery Saturday at the home, which is owned by his parents. West and some family members had been cleaning out the garage when "they came across a suspicious package that had kind of a pungent odor," Roberts told CBS affiliate KUTV. "They began to open up the package and they found a deceased infant inside the package and called us to respond."

Police discovered the six other infants as they responded. Police said they are trying to determine West's knowledge or involvement, though they have said they don't believe he knew about the pregnancies.

Other answers hinge on what the Utah state medical examiner finds out in its examinations of the seven tiny bodies, which were found in various stages of decomposition in boxes that were on shelves and cabinets in the garage.

Greg Hess, Pima County chief medical examiner in southern Arizona, said forensic anthropologists should eventually be able to determine the sex of the babies based on the DNA results. They should also be able to determine if babies were full term by examining the bones.

But they probably won't be able to figure out if the babies were born alive unless one measures significantly bigger than a typical newborn or there are obvious signs of trauma that caused the death, Hess said. His office handles hundreds of bodies a year found in varying degrees of decomposition in the harsh Arizona desert.

The inability to scientifically determine if the babies were born alive could be key later if defense attorneys argue that the babies were stillborn. Huntsman told police that only one of the seven was stillborn, charging documents show.

Determining exactly how long ago the babies died will be challenging, Hess said. Unlike what is sometimes portrayed in movies and TV shows like CSI, forensic anthropologists cannot pinpoint the date and time precisely. Sometimes, the estimated time of death can span a 10- to 15-year window, Hess said.

"The older the remains, the larger the window is," Hess said. "The more recent the remains, the tighter you can make the window."

Her ex-husband, West, spent more than eight years in federal prison after pleading guilty to possessing chemicals intended to be used in manufacturing methamphetamine. West was released from a federal prison in California in January and transferred to a halfway house in Salt Lake City.

Neighbors have described Huntsman as a nice, quiet woman who was trusted to take care of children and generally seen as a good person.

"She's lived here for about 15 years and was a good neighbor, as far as we knew," next-door neighbor Kathie Hawker told CBS affiliate KUTV.

Police have been talking with many of them in search of clues. Next-door neighbor SanDee Wall said police asked her about whether Huntsman looked pregnant, if she was seen with other men and about a small trailer in the backyard. Wall told them she noticed weight fluctuations over the years, but didn't notice any men coming and going or anything odd happening in the trailer.

Robertson said Huntsman appears to be typical of a person who could have used the state's Safe Haven program. The women range in age, she said, and many are in denial about their pregnancy, have gotten no prenatal care and have sought to keep the pregnancies a secret.

Neighbors said they never suspected Huntsman was ever pregnant, though one neighbor told KUTV she sometimes wore baggy clothing.

Robertson said the case emphasizes the need for more support and funding for the state's Safe Haven program. Currently, the program receives about $25,000 a year - all of which is spent on marketing efforts to get the word out, she said.

"It's hard to know why," Robertson said of Huntsman's case. "I think as this unfolds, we're going to get more information about why this all happened. We just don't have the answers right now."



  • Crimesider Staff

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