Genealogy, DNA solve case of newborn left to freeze to death in ditch 38 years ago

Genealogy, DNA Leads to Mother’s Arrest for 1981 Death of Newborn Baby

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — His community named him Andrew John Doe.

The residents of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, took the newborn into their hearts, with about 50 strangers attending a burial that included a tiny white casket, flowers, stuffed animals and a pin on his pajamas that stated, “You are loved.”

Now, just over 38 years after the baby boy was found dead in a ditch, his umbilical cord and placenta still attached and tears frozen on his cheeks, police officials say they have identified his mother and charged her in his death.

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Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns on Friday announced the arrest of Theresa Josten Bentaas, 57, of Sioux Falls. Bentaas, who was identified as Andrew's mother through genetic genealogy, is charged with first-degree murder, along with the lesser included offenses of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Bentaas remained in the Minnehaha County Jail Monday in lieu of $250,000 bond.

Burns began a news conference Friday with a synopsis of Andrew's short life, which an autopsy showed lasted about two hours on Feb. 27, 1981, as he "slowly succumbed to exposure."

"He had been loosely wrapped in a blood-stained blanket and left all alone in the cold," Burns said.

 

 

Detective Michael Webb, who has worked on the cold case since 2009, said a passerby test-driving a vehicle with friends the next day made the gruesome discovery of the body, which was wrapped in the blanket, a sheet and a shirt and left in a ditch alongside a cornfield. A pair of women’s underwear was also found next to the body, according to an arrest affidavit in the case.

Lee Litz, the man who spotted the red wine-colored blanket and found the baby's body, told the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls in 2016 that the memory remains fresh in his mind. A soon-to-be father in 1981, he said he often wonders what would have become of the child if he'd found him sooner.

"I sure would have adopted him rather than see him die like that," Litz told the newspaper.

According to the Argus Leader's archives, the forensic pathologist who examined the baby's body believed he had been in the ditch for about 24 hours before he was found. Blood loss from the still-attached umbilical cord likely contributed to his death.

See 1981 coverage of Andrew John Doe’s wake and burial below, courtesy of KELO.

Litz attended Andrew’s funeral and still visits his grave. He is sometimes accompanied by his daughter, who thinks of Andrew as an older brother.

"To see a child thrown away like that. How could someone do that?" Litz said in 2016. "Someone got away with murder."

Upon learning of Bentaas’ arrest, Litz said he was “elated” to hear the news.

"I'm feeling very happy that she was found, (but) very sad that he's laying in the ground yet," Litz told KSFY in Sioux Falls. "He needed somebody, and she just left him like a piece of garbage."

‘We don’t forget about these cases’

The crime shocked the Sioux Falls community, where the baby’s death became, over the years, one of just a handful of unsolved cases. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, said Webb, who pointed out that aside from the items found in the ditch with the baby, all investigators had to go on was a blood type.

"The investigators worked very diligently during that time, however, they did not have anything that we have today as far as DNA technology and the advances that we have today," Webb said.

The detective said investigators received tips in the case early on, but whenever they would go to a home hoping to find the dead infant’s mother, they would either find a woman still pregnant or one holding her own newborn in her arms.

Leads in the case quickly dried up and years passed by. Andrew John Doe’s story remained a popular one in Sioux Falls, with plenty of media attention over the years, but the leads just weren’t there.

"The case never gets closed," Webb said. "These don't go closed, however, it does go cold."

 

Webb said cold cases are never far from homicide detectives’ minds.

"We don't forget about these cases. We never do," Webb said. "And about 10 years ago, we started taking a different look on this to see what we could do, given the advancements in technology and DNA, to solve this case."

The major turning point in the case came in the spring of 2009, when Webb decided to have the baby’s body exhumed. According to the arrest affidavit, the remains were sent to the University of North Texas’ Health Science Center, where lab workers were able to extract a DNA profile from the bones.

Andrew, who was exhumed that September, was returned to his grave in Sioux Falls’ St. Michael’s Cemetery the following June.

Investigators plugged the baby’s DNA profile into South Dakota’s criminal databases at least once a year over the subsequent decade, but never found a match, Webb said. When public genealogy databases became a popular new law enforcement tool last year, detectives had renewed hope.

Webb said at Friday's news conference that investigators spent the past several months working with Parabon Nanolabs Inc., a private company renowned for its work helping to solve cold cases. Parabon used DNA left over from Andrew's exhumation and found two potential family trees among the genetic profiles in its database.

"Of interest was that a lot of these family trees came back to Sioux Falls and the surrounding areas," Webb said. "This was the first tip in 38 years that got us anywhere close to the baby's identity."

Watch Friday’s news conference in its entirety below, courtesy of the Argus Leader.

Daily police briefing 3-8 with update on cold case

Posted by Argus Leader Media on Friday, March 8, 2019

From there, investigators used a combination of the internet and old birth and marriage announcements to narrow down their suspect pool. Webb said detectives had always believed the person who abandoned the child was a young person.

The woman who connected the family trees had children who were teenagers in 1981. Bentaas, whose maiden name was Josten, was 19 when Andrew was born.

Detectives got DNA samples from beer cans, water bottles and cigarette butts in the trash outside the home of Bentaas and her husband, Dirk Bentaas, and on Feb. 15, the South Dakota state crime lab matched the couple’s DNA to that of Andrew John Doe.

They were the mother and father of the child, Webb said. The DNA of the baby’s brother, one of the Bentaases’ two living adult children, was also found on a beer bottle, the affidavit said.

A search warrant was obtained for DNA from both parents to confirm the match.

'A bump and then no bump'

The couple, who married in August 1987, were interviewed by investigators Feb. 27 -- 38 years to the day that the baby was placed in the ditch. Webb said the interviews were set for that date on purpose.

Detectives waited to file charges against Theresa Bentaas after confirmation of the DNA match came from the state crime lab last week, Webb said.

No charges were filed against Dirk Bentaas because he never knew about his son’s birth or death, Webb said.

According to the arrest affidavit, Theresa Bentaas admitted to hiding her pregnancy in late 1980 and early 1981 and giving birth alone at her apartment. She told detectives she was “young and stupid.”

She then drove to the ditch, which was in proximity to her home, and left the baby there, the document said. A witness in 1981 reported seeing a light-colored Datsun type vehicle parked in that area, with a “woman’s legs hanging out and some blankets on the ground at the time,” the affidavit said.

“When asked what she was thinking when she drove away from that ditch, (Bentaas) stated she was sad, scared and she ran from it and it was not smart,” the affidavit said. “She was asked if she saw this on the news after the baby was discovered and she said she did and that she was in denial that she was the one responsible for that.”

Records from the infant’s burial showed that she was not among the mourners who attended, Webb said.

When asked if she ever thought about what she had done when driving in the now-residential area where she’d left her son, Bentaas responded, “Of course,” the affidavit said.

Read the entire arrest affidavit below.

Dirk Bentaas, who was also a teenager when Andrew was born, told investigators his then-girlfriend "had a bump and then no bump" around the time the abandoned newborn was discovered, the Argus Leader reported.

“(Dirk) Bentaas admitted to hearing about (Andrew John Doe) being found but did not believe the defendant was capable of doing such an act,” according to the newspaper.

Webb told reporters it felt good to solve the notorious crime after nearly four decades. He said what kept him and other investigators going over the past decade was the knowledge that new technology is always around the next corner.

“I know it sounds cliché, but we don’t quit on these,” Webb said. “And I’ll be the first to admit, you work pretty hard when it’s a child case.

“You go through a lot of frustrations and you get knocked down a lot, but you keep getting back up and you don’t quit. And that’s what we did.”