SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—A South Dakota judge on Thursday sentenced a woman to 10 years in the state prison system for her infant son’s 1981 death that went unsolved for decades.
Judge Bradley Zell called the sentencing of 60-year-old Theresa Bentaas a difficult decision that he belabored for weeks, in part because it was not clear whether her son died from complications during birth or abandonment in the South Dakota cold. Zell suspended nine years of the sentence, meaning Bentaas will likely spend two months in state prison and serve the rest of her time under community supervision.
“This is a terribly sad and difficult human event which now needs to be brought to conclusion,” Zell said, acknowledging that the sentence was likely a bitter pill for both Bentaas’ family that had begged for her to go free, and community members who had pressed for a strict punishment.
Bentaas had entered an “Alford plea” to a first-degree manslaughter charge, meaning that she maintained her innocence but agreed to be sentenced as convicted guilty. Prosecutors dropped first- and second-degree murder charges in the plea deal.
Lawyers defending her maintained that Bentaas had not killed her son, but rather her died soon after a birth that was not expected, even by his mother.
A psychologist who interviewed Bentaas as part of a forensic psychiatric evaluation diagnosed her with “complete pregnancy denial syndrome,” saying she did not recognize her pregnancy until she woke up in the middle of the night in the pains of childbirth.
The psychologist, Dr. Cara Angelotta of Northwestern University, told the court on a video call that Bentaas described her infant son as “lifeless” and “ghost-like” immediately after his birth, but did not remember other details of that night. She said the shock of the birth could have severely impaired Bentaas’ memory.
The infant’s death was uncovered by the curiosity of two men, witnesses said Thursday. First, Lee Litz told the court he was test driving a jeep with several friends on Feb. 28, 1981 when he spotted blankets in a ditch.
“My curiosity got the best of me and I went over to see what it was,” he told the court Thursday. “That’s when I found Andrew laying there with his back towards me.”
An autopsy determined that the infant likely died from failure to assist in maintaining an airway during his birth and exposure, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported. Recently, a doctor who consulted with Bentaas’ defense found that the infant did not die from hypothermia. Police were unable to find the infant’s parents and the case quickly went cold. The baby was buried with a headstone that named him Andrew John Doe.
But nearly three decades later, the curiosity of a Sioux Falls detective, Michael Webber, revived the case. He was moving boxes of case files when he spotted “an old, weathered box” scrawled with the word “murder.” It contained cold cases, including the infant’s file.
The case intrigued Webber and he started working on it in his spare time.
Webber said he did not initially have much to go on—an “extremely small” case file listing physical evidence that had been destroyed. But in 2009, the infant’s body was exhumed for DNA evidence.
Initial searches for a family tree came back void. However, in 2019—once DNA technology progressed and sampling had become more prevalent—a match was revealed. It soon led detectives to a family tree in the Sioux Falls area. Webber said after police suspected Bentaas as the mother and Dirk Bentaas as the father, they found DNA samples in their trash that confirmed them as the parents.
Bentaas was arrested in 2019. After several delays in her trial, she entered the “Alford plea” in October.
During Thursday’s hearing, Bentaas’ family begged the judge for a lenient sentence, saying she was a caring mother and grandmother who had carried the secret of her first child’s death for years.
Bentaas’ daughter, Melissa Pheilmeier, told the court, “Andrew and my mother are victims of their situation, victims of the culture, and the stigma of a young, unwed pregnant girl in 1981.”
By Stephen Groves