Left to Die: How DNA is helping solve decades-old cases of baby’s abandoned after birth

babies
Source: Minnehaha County Jail; Horry County police; Moline Police Department

Apr. 13 2021, Updated 1:32 p.m. ET

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Most crime investigations are difficult, but cold cases present unique challenges. Time has passed, witnesses forget, investigators move on, and sometimes vital forensic evidence disappears. Puzzling out cold trails for the most vulnerable victims—newborn babies—is one of the toughest and most heartbreaking challenges a criminal investigator faces. 

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In 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that 12,000 babies are left abandoned in US hospitals each year, with 75% showing exposure to drugs. Babies who are left on roadsides, on front doorsteps, and in dumpsters number far fewer--about 150 a year. 

Many do not live more than a day.

Abandoned infants have no history, but more importantly, they have no distinguishing marks, no personal belongings and no identity. The one fact that makes solving their murders possible: The killer was almost always genetically related, and 99.9% of the time it’s the baby’s mother.

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Thanks to improvements in DNA technology, police are making more arrests in cold cases and are tracking down the identities of the abandoned newborns. 

By April 2020, at least 100 cases have been solved by using the full power of DNA profiles to match killers to victims via genetic family members. The total now stands at upwards of 150 solved cases, several of which are baby Jane and John Does.

These are three stories of Baby Doe cold cases that now have names — and arrests. 

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BABY APRIL: FOUND ON THE BANKS OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER

siebke_ moline police department
Source: Moline Police Department

Angela Siebke

In Greenville, Illinois, a man walking next to the Mississippi River spotted a plastic bag bobbing near a bank in 1992. He was walking his dog but stopped to investigate. When he opened the bag, he found a healthy, full-term infant girl inside. She was named April after the month she was found. 

Because it was 1992, police tried to figure out who she was by blood typing but quickly ran out of leads.

Baby April’s remains indicated she’d been suffocated and had died from exposure to the cold. In December 2014, the State’s Attorney brought official murder charges against a woman who only existed on paper, as a DNA profile, according to media reports

Even the woman to be arrested was a “Jane Doe.”

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The science of genetic genealogy compares DNA profiles by measuring amounts of shared DNA between individuals. When used together with known genealogical links such as family trees, it is a powerful way scientists and investigators can connect the dots between killer and victim.

When the DNA lab sent back a set of possible ancestors and a final list of lead, investigators used traditional police work to track down baby April’s birth mother.

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Angela Renee Siebke, 47, was arrested six years after the murder charges were announced, according to reports. She was 18 at the time of her alleged crime amassed no criminal record in the years after. On December 29, 2020, Siebke pleaded not guilty during a preliminary hearing.

Parabon Labs, Inc. returned a Snapshot DNA report in 2019 that gave investigators new leads that led to Siebke’s arrest. 

CeCe Moore, Chief Genetic Genealogist at Parabon, has been a key player behind solving cases using familiar DNA and genealogy methods. When interviewed by local news station KWQC, she noted that “the community really embraces these types of baby homicide cases….The people who discovered the baby and the community as a whole band together and put on a funeral for these babies and give them a name.”

April was buried near the place she was abandoned, at Riverside Cemetery in sight of the Mississippi River.

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ANDREW JOHN DOE: THE FIRST SOUTH DAKOTA HOMICIDE SOLVED WITH GENEALOGY

theresa bentass_ minnehaha county jail
Source: Minnehaha County Jail

Thereasa Bentaas

The case of Baby “Andrew” John Doe was heartbreaking. He was found just a day old, left in a ditch near downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in February 1981. He died of exposure to the cold, according to media reports. 

A week later, the community held a funeral. One woman donated money and time to arrange for burial and offered a name to the baby boy “Andrew.”

Over the next year, investigators followed every possible lead, asking for help from the community. They were unable to make headway despite the media coverage and strong support for solving the case in Sioux Falls.

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Nearly 30 years passed, but investigators never forgot about Andrew. In 2019, the case was re-opened. His body was exhumed, and the remains were shipped to North Texas University for DNA extraction, according to the reports. 

From 2010 to 2018, no matches came up. But each year, more people voluntarily add their genetic profiles to help solve these kinds of cases. On Jan. 24, 2019, Parabon completed a Genetic Genealogy Report and forwarded it to Sioux Falls authorities. The information identified a Sioux Falls couple, Theresa Rose (Josten) Bentaas and Dirk Bentaas, as probable links. 

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In February 2019, police gathered items from the Bentaas’ garbage to find DNA for comparison and interviewed Theresa by early March. Her statements, along with DNA evidence, resulted in charges being brought, according to the Argus-Leader. 

Theresa Bentaas, 57, was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection to the death of her baby boy. She admitted at the time she was “young and stupid,” according to reports. 

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She allegedly hid her pregnancy from everyone—including her boyfriend at the time, Dirk—gave birth alone in her apartment, and drove out one cold night to leave him by the side of the road, according to reports. 

BABY BOY HORRY: FOUND IN THE WOODS NEAR MYRTLE BEACH

sahr
Source: Horry County police

Jennifer Sahr

In South Carolina, DNA helped match a baby left in the woods in 2008 to his birth mother, who is now awaiting trial on charges related to the baby’s death. 

“Baby Boy Horry” was discovered on Dec 4, 2008, by utility workers in the woods in Horry County. He was a newborn and found about 15 minutes north of Myrtle Beach. 

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Police tried to find the baby’s identity and any family. The local coroner, Robert Edge, made it a project to make sure “Baby Boy Horry” was remembered. Police never gave up, but the case went cold. That was until, randomly, police held a press conference in 2020 to announce they determined the Baby’s ID and were searching for his mother, who they say killed the newborn.

“We are hoping that she sees this and turns herself in [here] or any law enforcement agency that’s nearby,” Horry County police Chief Joe Hill said at a news conference announcing the case’s development. “We will find her, we won’t stop looking for her and we will bring her to justice.”

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A day later, U.S. Marshalls found 32-year-old Jennifer Sahr in nearby North Myrtle Beach. She had come to the area from Florida when she learned she was a suspect and was set to turn herself in. 

In Florida, Shar was raising two children. The kids and her current husband had no idea of her past life in Horry County and she had given birth before. In 2008, Sahr was a college student when she allegedly left her baby on the side of the road. She was a student at Coastal Carolina University and graduated two years later.  

Today, Sahr is free on bond as she awaits trial on a charge of homicide by child abuse in connection to “Baby Boy Horry’s” death.  

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HOW YOU CAN HELP

Donate your DNA profile to GEDMatch or Family Tree DNA. If you already had your DNA done through 23andMe or Ancestry.com, you can easily add yourself either database. 

Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry do not allow for law enforcement to use DNA from customers, so it’s necessary to take one more step, and get in touch with either GEDMatch or Family Tree DNA. This way, law enforcement can crossmatch your DNA.

Roughly 30 million people have participated in direct consumer testing, but only about 1.5 million have also uploaded their data for genetic genealogists to use to solve crimes.

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