"The world is a dangerous place to live."
- Albert Einstein
It was the 21st of May 2016. A Saturday. Thirty five year old Douglass Detrie went to the police station in Ledgeview, Brown County, Wisconsin, United States at 4.30pm in the afternoon and reported his girlfriend missing.
Douglass lived with his girlfriend, thirty one year old teacher Nicole VanderHeyden, and their six month old son Dylan. Nicole also had two other children from a previous relationship named Mikayla and Tyler. So it was concerning that Nicole didn't return after a night out.
According to Douglass, Nicole met up with some friends the night before. He told police that he was out too but they got separated during the night and when he realized Nicole wasn't home when he got home, he presumed she stayed at a friend's house. Police questioned why he waited until the afternoon to report her missing. Police opened a missing person case file but were aware that that same afternoon, before Douglass reported Nicole missing, the body of a woman was found in a farm field by a farmer named Richard Vandehey on Hoffman Road in Bellevue, just three miles from Nicole's house.
Police couldn't immediately identify the body and could not confirm that it was Nicole at first. Due to the severity of the injuries, she was unrecognizable. Dental records were required to confirm that it was Nicole.
Nicole's body was naked except for a pair of socks and a pink wristband. She had been savagely beaten and strangled. Police noted that there was obvious trauma to the side of her head and there was a lot of blood on her head. There were multiple scratches and abrasions on her back and body.
Nicole and Douglass
The cause of death was ligature strangulation and blunt-force trauma to the head.
Police questioned Douglass further. They also searched his house, car and spoke to friends and looked at cell phone records. A pattern began to emerge. And it didn't look good.
Police discovered that on the 20th of May, Nicole and Douglass met up with friends. They had arranged a babysitter for the night and planned to let loose and have fun. The night started well. They met friends at a bar in Green Bay. They had tickets for a concert at a bar called The Watering Hole. After the concert, they went to another bar, The Sardine Can, on South Broadway. But Douglass didn't go with them.
He stayed at The Watering Hole with his friend Greg Mathu. They had a few more drinks there. Nicole wasn't happy that Douglass didn't go with her. She sent him a number of text messages and referred to him as being abusive and controlling and that she believed he was cheating on her.
Nicole tried to have a good time regardless and surveillance video from The Sardine Can showed her having fun. She was dancing and talking with friends. But as time went on, she grew increasingly frustrated with Douglass. She sent him a number of angry text messages and he replied and told her he would be at The Sardine Can soon. A while later, at 11.30pm, Nicole called Douglass and he didn't answer but when one of their friends called him, he answered that call which infuriated and upset Nicole. So much so that she left the bar.
One of her friends followed her and asked her to return to the bar but she refused. They watched her walk up the street, she was talking on her cell phone at the time, and she turned left at the top of the street. That was the last time her friends saw Nicole.
Police looked at surveillance footage from the bar, The Sardine Can, after Nicole left and saw Douglass and Greg arrive. When they got there, they had a few drinks before leaving again. Police had to find out if Nicole made it home and if so, what happened to her?
When police searched Nicole's house, a number of items were of interest to them. They found a pair of Air Jordans which appeared to have marks, smudges and blood on them so they took them so they could be tested for DNA. They were of particular interest to them as the marks on Nicole's body indicated that she had been stamped on when she was lying on the ground and the pattern on the sole of the shoes looked similar to the marks on her body.
They also noted that there was what appeared to be blood on the floor of the garage and in Nicole's car which led them to believe that Nicole was killed when she got home and her body was transported to the farm field in her own car.
Two days after Nicole's body was found, her neighbor told police that they found items that may be of interest to them. According to the neighbor, they found a charging cord and clumps of blonde hair in the garden of their home. The hair had blood on it. There was also blood on the neighbor’s driveway. Police found hairs in the blood, and hair pins and two further pieces of wire in the yard.
Police also found Nicole's clothing. The outfit she wore on the night out on the 20th of May was found covered in dirt and blood along a highway ramp less than two miles from where her body was found. Her purse and cell phone had also been discarded in the same location.
Douglass was arrested and held in prison. Police expected that when the DNA results came back he would be charged with first degree murder. But the DNA found on items such as Nicole's socks belonged to an unidentified male, not Douglass. Furthermore, the evidence seized from the house did not implicate Douglass either. It emerged that Nicole's car had not left the garage during the relevant timeframe and the smudges on the car tested negative for blood. The blood on the garage floor was not human blood and while one spot on the pair of shoes tested positive for blood, it was not Nicole's blood.
Further evidence found by police seemed to also indicate that Douglass was not involved in Nicole’s murder. Tyler Behling, a forensic crime analyst, examined the Fitbit app on Douglass’s cell phone and it showed that his Fitbit had registered only 12 steps between 3.10am and 6.10am on the 21st of May which indicated that he wasn’t involved in the brutal and fatal assault on Nicole.
Douglass was released from prison. Police were perplexed and feared that Nicole's case would become a cold case as all the evidence initially made it look like Douglass was involved. They didn't have long to wait for a break in the case though. Three months after Nicole's body was found, the crime lab notified police that they managed to retrieve enough DNA from one of the socks Nicole was wearing to run it through the national database. And they found a match.
The DNA matched the profile of a man from Virginia named George Steven Burch. Police discovered that George had recently moved to Wisconsin. But what connection did he have to Nicole?
Further investigation revealed that the Green Bay Police Department were looking into George's possible involvement in an unrelated incident involving a vehicle, one that was connected to him. The vehicle had been the subject of a stolen vehicle report, a vehicle fire, and a hit-and-run.
George was questioned by police in relation to that case on the 8th of June 2016. He denied involvement. He told police that he was at a bar the night there was a hit and run and that he was texting a woman throughout the night. Due to that, police asked him for his consent to see the text messages. He agreed. The officer told him he would download information off the phone because "it's a lot easier to do that than try to take a bunch of pictures and then have to scan those in."
George signed a consent form allowing him to do so. And as such, that information and data that was downloaded was retained on his file. When the other officers, who were investigating Nicole's homicide, discovered that his data from his cell phone was on file, they took a look at it. They noticed that he had an email linked to a Google account. They were aware that Google Dashboard data could provide GPS data and they wanted to find out where George was the night Nicole was murdered.
Google Dashboard combines cellphone tower data, local Wi-Fi hot spots and GPS locators and when combined, it can pinpoint the location of a phone. The police asked Google for that information and Google provided that information to the police.
They discovered that the night of the 20th of May, George was at Richard Craniums bar which is just a half-mile from the Sardine Can. He left that bar at 2.30am and the data then places him at Nicole's house. He remained there for around an hour, from 3.01am until 3.52am. The data showed he then went to the farm field just after 4am where Nicole's body was later found and to the highway off ramp where Nicole's clothing and belongings were found. He returned home at 4.22am.
George was arrested and charged with first degree intentional homicide. He pleaded not guilty.
The Prosecution case centered around the data from George's cell phone and the Google Dashboard, the DNA evidence and the Fitbit data from Douglass's Fitbit.
The Jury heard that Nicole left the bar on the 20th of May angry and upset and had argued with Douglass. Her friends, who were at the bar with her that night, didn’t know where she went after that.
Douglass testified. He told the Court that he met Nicole in January 2015 and while initially things had been good, their relationship was far from perfect.
The Jurors were shown a text he sent to his mother ten days before Nicole's murder:
"I'm very seriously thinking about telling Nikki and the kids they have to move…"
Douglass told the Court that Nicole didn't drink that often but that they were both partying hard that night.
The Court heard that when Douglass and Greg left The Watering Hole, he spoke to Nicole on the phone but she wasn't making any sense. He asked Greg to speak to her and Greg asked her to tell them where she was so that they could pick her up but before she could do so, her phone went dead. Douglass called her a number of times after that but his calls went straight to voicemail.
The Court heard that Douglass and Greg drove around the area near The Sardine Can but didn't see her. When they went into The Sardine Can, Nicole wasn't there and the others had also left. Greg and Douglass stayed and had a few more drinks for around an hour. They left at 2.15am. Greg dropped Douglass home. It was after 2.30am when they got back. Douglass asked the babysitter if she could call Nicole. She did but her calls went straight to voicemail too. Greg and the babysitter left and Douglass went to bed.
The Court heard that Douglass woke after 6am as his son needed to be fed and at that time, Nicole still wasn't home and hadn't been in touch. He went back to bed and got up at 10.30am. His calls to Nicole continued to go straight to voicemail and he reached out to her friends but none of them knew where she was. He reported her missing later that afternoon.
The Court heard from the officer who first spoke to Douglass and he told the Jury that Douglass did not have scratches or marks on his arms or hands or any other visible injuries and was very cooperative at the time. He gave consent for his house to be searched. The Court heard that when police told him they believed the body that was found was Nicole, he:
“pretty much lost it, he was crying, sobbing, seemed to be hyperventilating.”
The Court heard about the evidence that led to George's arrest. The Jury heard about the DNA that was found and the data. They also heard that George's internet history included sixty four viewings of news stories about Nicole's death.
It was the Prosecution's case that George drove Nicole to her house and he did so because he expected her to have sex with him but when she rejected his advances, he raped her, beat her and strangled her to death with a charging cord. It was their case that Nicole tried to get away and make it to the safety of her house but as she ran towards her house, George caught up with her and beat her on the driveway. The Prosecution told the Jury that Nicole's injuries indicated that she was slammed on the ground repeatedly and stamped on and kicked multiple times.
The Court heard that George then drove her body to the farm field and left her body there before driving home. On his way home, he threw her belongings out his car window.
The Prosecutor showed the Jury photos of George hours after he killed Nicole. He went fishing with a friend and was smiling and laughing.
The Medical Examiner who carried out the Autopsy testified and told the Court that Nicole was strangled and beaten to death and that there were 241 injuries to her body.
The Defense claimed that Douglass was the real killer. It was their case that he saw Nicole and George outside his house having consensual sex in George's car. It was their case that Douglass flew into a rage and killed Nicole.
The Defense called the babysitter, Dallas Kennedy, to testify and she told the Court that she asked Douglass what happened to Nicole and he said:
"I don't know, she hit her head and she just wanted to walk home."
George testified. He told the Court that he was with Nicole the night she died but he didn't kill her.
According to George, he met her at the bar Richard Craniums and after a flirtatious night and at closing time, around 2.30am, he offered to drive her home. She agreed and he drove the eight miles to her house. When they pulled up across from her house, they continued talking and then began kissing which led to them becoming intimate.
According to George, they had sex in the back of his car. Nicole was lying on the back seat and he was standing with the rear passenger door open. George claimed that he was knocked out by someone and woke up on the ground to find Douglass standing over him with a gun.
According to George, Nicole was already dead at that point and that Douglass must have killed her. He claimed that Douglass threatened him at gunpoint and ordered him to put Nicole's body in his car and drive to the field and dump her body in a ditch.
George did as he was told and when they were at the field, he lunged at Douglass and knocked him over and managed to get away from him and he drove off. He saw Nicole's clothing and belongings in his car so he threw them out the window on his way home.
When both the Defense and Prosecution rested after giving their closing arguments, the Jury retired to consider their verdict. But just forty five minutes later, they had a question which deeply troubled the Prosecution. They wanted to see the cord used to strangle Nicole, as well as cords found in Douglass’s garage so that they could see if they were possibly a match. That led the Prosecution to believe that they may have believed George and that the real killer was in fact Douglass.
But that wasn't the case. The Jury found George guilty of first-degree intentional homicide after three hours of deliberations. In a State with no death penalty, the harshest sentence that could be given was life in prison without the possibility of parole and that is exactly what George got.
When sentencing George, Judge Zakowski said the death of Nicole Vanderheyden:
“is the most brutal murder that has ever been committed by one person in the history of Brown County.”
George appealed the conviction on the basis that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the Judge at his Trial allowed data from his cellphone to be used during Trial. He argued that the initial download of the data exceeded the scope of the consent he gave, that the data was unlawfully retained, and that the subsequent accessing of the data violated his reasonable expectation of privacy. He claimed that he only allowed his text messages to be accessed in relation to the other case and never intended for it to be used in relation to Nicole’s case.
He also argued that the evidence in relation to the data retrieved from the Fitbit that Douglass wore should have been accompanied by expert testimony so the Jury could understand it in full and as it wasn't, it was therefore insufficiently authenticated.
The Supreme Court rejected his Appeal and upheld the conviction.
Writing for the majority, Justice Brian Hagedorn said his rights were not violated:
“Burch argues that the initial download of the data exceeded the scope of his consent, the data was unlawfully retained, and the subsequent accessing of the data violated his reasonable expectation of privacy. We conclude that even if some constitutional defect attended either the initial download or subsequent accessing of the cell phone data, there was no law enforcement misconduct that would warrant exclusion of that data. Therefore, we conclude the circuit court correctly denied Burch's motion to suppress that data.”
The majority of justices also said the evidence from a Fitbit device was properly admitted, even without expert testimony about the fitness tracker:
“Given the widespread availability of Fitbits and other similar wireless step-counting devices in today's consumer marketplace, the circuit court reasonably concluded Detrie's Fitbit was not so 'unusually complex or esoteric' that the jury needed an expert to understand it.”
George’s sentence was upheld too.
The Jury didn’t hear about a previous case that George had been tried for. In 1997, a man named Joey White was murdered in Newport News, Virginia. George Burch was charged with his murder but the Jury in that case found him not guilty.
The Jury also didn’t hear that in February 2017, Nicole’s sister was staying in the house with Douglass so that she could help take care of Dylan. They went to a Birthday party one night at an Allouez tavern. The complaint in the case states that when they were in a car after that, Douglass touched her leg in a sexual manner and Nicole’s sister said “please don’t.” The complaint went on to say that that made Douglass angry and he drove at high speeds. She pleaded with him to stop and to let her out but he refused to do so. He ran a stop light but eventually stopped when she started kicking his windshield.
Douglass pleaded no contest to second-degree recklessly endangering safety and false imprisonment, both domestic violence felonies and he also pleaded no contest to misdemeanor negligent operation of a vehicle.
Brown County Judge William Atkinson accepted a joint recommendation from the Prosecutor and Defense to withhold judgment on the felonies until a later date and that they would be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for fifteen months.
In relation to the negligent driving charge, Douglass was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
"The effects of abuse are devastating and far reaching. Domestic violence speaks many languages, has many colors and lives in many different communities."
- Sandra Pupatello
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