Many questions about mom accused in infant deaths

2014-04-16 13:26
This photo provided by the Utah County jail shows Megan Huntsman, who was booked into the Utah County jail on suspicion of killing six of her newborn children over the past decade. (AP Photo/Utah County Jail)

This photo provided by the Utah County jail shows Megan Huntsman, who was booked into the Utah County jail on suspicion of killing six of her newborn children over the past decade. (AP Photo/Utah County Jail)

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Salt Lake City — Investigators are reconstructing a mysterious decade from a Utah woman's life as they try to figure out how she concealed seven pregnancies before allegedly strangling or suffocating her newborns.

Utah investigators are examining DNA from Megan Huntsman's 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 neighbours in pursuit of clues about how she did it.

They 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.

Huntsman, aged 39, acknowledged to police that she killed six of the babies, 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 one of the babies was stillborn.

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

‘Slow, meticulous process’

Investigators are done with initial interviews of family, friends and neighbours 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.

Huntsman's estranged husband, Darren West, made the discovery on Saturday with fellow family members while cleaning out the garage of the house, which is owned by his parents.

 Police said they are trying to determine his knowledge or involvement.

Many of the 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.

Difficult forensic analysis

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 defence attorneys argue that the babies were stillborn.

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."

Drug involvement

The question of whether Huntsman was using drugs during the pregnancies remains unanswered. Roberts declined to discuss what investigators have found out in this regard.

Her 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.

It will likely be very difficult for the medical examiner to shed any light on whether the babies had something wrong with them, Hess said, unless there is was an odd skeletal abnormality. Studies to assess conditions such as Down syndrome are done on live tissue, he said.

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

Police have been talking with many of them in search of clues. Next-door neighbour 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.

- AP

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