MADISON — A judge has taken the case of a Norfolk woman under advisement after a preliminary hearing Monday in connection with the April death of an unborn baby.
District Judge Mark Johnson will determine whether enough evidence exists for the case against 41-year-old Jessica Burgess to proceed. Burgess is charged with three felonies — prohibited acts with human skeletal remains, abortion and abortion by an unlicensed physician — as it is alleged that Burgess purchased pills designed to terminate a then-17-year-old girl’s pregnancy.
Burgess had initially been charged with prohibited acts with human skeletal remains, false reporting and concealing the death of another person. But on June 22, Madison County Attorney Joe Smith filed the two additional abortion charges after search warrants revealed alleged conversations between Burgess and the girl that show the unborn baby's death was planned and that the plan was conducted without a medical professional.
If Johnson finds that probable cause does exist that Burgess committed any or all of the felonies for which she is charged, she will be arraigned on each count, including the misdemeanors, in district court.
Smith called Norfolk police detective Ben McBride to the witness stand on Monday.
McBride said he began investigating the unborn baby's death and subsequent disposal of the body on April 26. One of the girl’s co-workers notified a trooper with the Nebraska State Patrol that the girl, now 18, had discussed having experienced a miscarriage and needing to “dig the body up and burn the baby’s body” on April 25.
The trooper notified McBride, who started investigating the incident.
When contacted by McBride, Burgess initially denied knowing anything about the girl being pregnant or the unborn baby dying, the detective said.
“(Burgess) stated that she never burned a body, never would, and never could hurt anyone,” McBride said.
But through additional interviews, McBride said he learned that Burgess and the girl had gone to a Winnebago hospital on March 8 for medical care relevant to the pregnancy, debunking Burgess’ story that she knew nothing about the 17-year-old being pregnant. The infant was 23 weeks and 2 days old at the time of the appointment, and medical records indicated that the child had been experiencing “normal” growth, McBride said.
On April 29, Burgess was brought in for another interview. McBride said Burgess was initially “trying to walk around things” but eventually was forthcoming about what had happened.
Burgess admitted that she, the girl and a man, now 22, buried the body on property north of Norfolk, McBride testified.
The property owner, a relative of the 22-year-old man who has not yet been formally charged, told McBride that the 22-year-old said Burgess and the girl had tried to burn the body before the three of them buried it. The man agreed to an interview the next day, when he also allegedly revealed that the body had been buried three times — twice at the property north of Norfolk and once near a cemetery in Stanton County.
The man said that, after the second burial, Burgess made the decision to burn the body and obtained the necessary supplies to do so. The burning was not as successful as Burgess wanted, McBride said, so she decided that the body again needed to be buried.
The alleged burials and burning all took place from April 22 to April 25, according to the detective.
Further testimony from McBride revealed that Burgess ordered “Pregnot” pills on eBay in March — pills that would allow the girl to purposely induce the unborn baby's death.
Social media messages between Burgess and the girl obtained by McBride through a search warrant purportedly show that the two-pill order arrived on April 20. Burgess then instructed the girl through messages to take one pill designed to stop hormone functions, wait 24 hours, then take the other pill that would complete the termination of the pregnancy.
“(The girl) then made a comment along the lines of, ‘We burn the evidence when it comes out,’ and (Burgess) said, ‘Yes,’ ” McBride said.
The girl reportedly said she had a miscarriage in the shower on April 22. McBride said further investigation into the girl’s messages show that the girl told friends in a group chat that “they were going to bury the baby’s body.”
A review of Burgess’ phone indicates that Burgess allegedly purchased the pills on March 14 from a manufacturer in India.
McBride testified that the facilitation of the drugs was not ordered by a doctor and that a doctor was not present when Burgess gave the girl the drugs.
Nebraska law prohibits anyone, even a licensed physician, from administering an abortion once the unborn child reaches 20 weeks. McBride said the girl was 28 to 32 weeks’ pregnant when the pregnancy was allegedly terminated.
Smith filed both of the abortion charges against Burgess because the girl was believed to be more than 20 weeks pregnant and because Burgess is not a licensed physician.
“(Burgess) and (the girl) had some plans to bury the baby north of Norfolk, got nervous, dug up the baby, tried to burn up the baby in a backyard barbecue in Madison County,” Smith said. “That didn’t work well enough to satisfy them, so they took the body and buried it again.
“That shows probable cause.”
Brad Ewalt, Burgess’ attorney, told Johnson that probable cause especially does not exist on the fourth count — abortion. Statutory language creates issues with both of the abortion charges, he said.
Ewalt said with regard to the first count — prohibited acts with human skeletal remains — he’s not sure that an unborn fetus qualifies when factoring in the disposal of the body.
Johnson will submit a written ruling at a later time.
As Burgess’ charges stand, she would face up to 8 years’ imprisonment if she’s convicted.
The girl, who is charged with prohibited acts with human skeletal remains, concealing the death of another person and false reporting, has a hearing on Monday, July 11, regarding a motion by prosecutors to transfer her case from juvenile court to adult court.
Smith said the 22-year-old man, who was cited by police in April, could still face charges.