Jury finds George Burch guilty in murder of Nicole VanderHeyden

George Burch waits for his trial to resume in Brown County Court on March 1, 2018. (Photo: pool)

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WLUK) -- After more than three hours of deliberations, the jury came back with a guilty verdict in George Burch’s murder trial.

You can watch the verdict below:

The conviction of Burch is for the May 21, 2016 murder of 31-year-old Nicole VanderHeyden.

Prosecutors say the decision also officially exonerates the man Burch claimed was the real killer, VanderHeyden's live-in boyfriend, Douglass Detrie.

Burch kept his head down and the families of VanderHeyden and Detrie released their emotions when hearing the guilty verdict from Judge John Zakowski.

After nine days of hearing evidence, Brown County District Attorney David Lasee says the twelve jurors who decided Burch's fate came up with the right decision.

“They did exactly what we asked them to do which is use their reason, use their judgement, use logic and they arrived at the correct conclusion,” said Lasee.

In closing arguments, prosecutors asked jurors to consider that Burch's DNA was found in 16 spots on VanderHeyden's body, as well as on a cord believed to have strangled her to death.

"This is basically a simple case," said Kerrigan-Mares.

Kerrigan-Mares pointed out that Burch's cellphone put him at the case's key locations: the bar where VanderHeyden was last seen alive, outside her home where investigators believe the murder happened, the field where her body was discovered, and the Hwy 172 on-ramp where her bloody clothes were found.

The defense countered that Burch had no motive. They highlighted Burch's claims that Detrie killed VanderHeyden, and forced Burch at gunpoint to dispose of her body.

“He wishes he had gone to the police right away,” said Lee Schuchart, one of Burch’s defense attorneys. “He wouldn't be sitting in that chair.”

Schuchart asked the jury to not ignore that Detrie, was originally arrested.

"Doug Detrie had the motive, opportunity and the connection to commit this crime," said Schuchart.

Detrie was arrested two days after VanderHeyden’s body was found. However, he was never charged and was released from jail after 18 days.

“There is no doubt in our mind that George Burch is the person who did this to Nikki and obviously then by definition that exonerates Mr. Detrie from any wrong doing in this case as well,” said Lasee.

An emotional Detrie declined comment after leaving the court room with his family.

However, Detrie’s attorney issued a statement reading, in part, "the jury clearly rejected George Burch's lies and attempt to blame Doug for the heinous murder of his loving girlfriend and mother of his child."

The first degree intentional homicide conviction means Burch will spend the rest of his life in prison. The judge will decide during his sentencing hearing whether he will ever be eligible for parole. That will be held on May 4th.

Burch's attorneys did not speak with the media after the verdict was read.

Day 9 Witness Testimony

To begin day nine of the trial, the defense called criminal investigator April Reinerio. She works for the state public defender's office and has been sitting with the defense throughout the trial.

Reinerio testified to walking the East River Trail in January 2017 to try to find any surveillance cameras. Reinerio says the trail is about .4 miles from the field where VanderHeyden's body was discovered.

Reinerio also testified to testing out a Fitbit, similar to the one Detrie was wearing in the days surrounding his girlfriend's death. Reinerio says she observed the device had accurate and inaccurate days. She says one day the Fitbit registered four steps, a day that she says she took many more steps. On another day, Reinerio says the Fitbit registered thousands of steps when she had only been awake for 15 minutes.

Investigators contend Detrie's Fitbit clears him of Burch's version of what happened on the night of VanderHeyden's murder. Burch testified that Detrie knocked him out, killed VanderHeyden, and then ordered Burch at gunpoint to dispose of the body.

Before the trial, Judge John Zakowski ruled prosecutors could introduce some Fitbit evidence at trial. Investigators testified on Tuesday to how many steps Detrie took the night of the murder, however, they were not able to introduce sleep evidence from Fitbit. Zakowski made that stipulation, citing pending lawsuits that question the reliability of Fitbit’s sleep records.

Reinerio was the defense's final witness.

In rebuttal, the state called Daniel Frankel to testify. Frankel works for Progressive, which has a device called Snapshot.

Last week, Sgt. Brian Slinger testified that a Snapshot device was found in VanderHeyden's vehicle. Slinger told the court that information from Progressive showed VanderHeyden's vehicle did not move on the night of her murder. However, Judge Zakowski told jurors they must disregard Slinger's testimony on the Snapshot device, because an expert witness would be needed to testify to the device's reliability. Now that Frankel has testified, jurors should be able to consider Slinger's testimony.

Frankel testified to VanderHeyden's Snapshot registering her vehicle being driven a number of times between May 15, 2016 and May 20, 2016. Frankel says the vehicle was not driven after 12:51 pm on May 20.

Slinger had said investigators originally believed Detrie used VanderHeyden's vehicle to move her body three miles to the farm field where investigators found the body on May 21. Slinger says the data from VanderHeyden's Snapshot played a role in the release of Detrie, who had been arrested, but never charged in the case.

For its second rebuttal witness, the state called Sgt. Richard Loppnow of the Brown County Sheriff's Department. This was Loppnow's third time on the witness stand, the most of any witness throughout the trial.

Loppnow testified about VanderHeyden's clothing that was found on a Hwy 172 on-ramp in the days following the discovery of her body. Loppnow testified that the clothes were blood soaked. The state had Loppnow show jurors VanderHeyden's pants, which he said looked to have dried blood stains on them.

In Burch's version of what happened, VanderHeyden would have had her pants off when Detrie attacked Burch and murdered VanderHeyden.

The state's final rebuttal witness was Tyler Behling, a computer forensic crime analyst for the Brown County Sheriff's Department. Behling also testifed on Tuesday.

Behling testified that Detrie's cellphone contained more than 17,000 images. Behling says 1,857 of the images were aerial images from Detrie's Google Maps application. Behling says Google stores the images on someone's phone to allow the application to run more smoothly.

Earlier, Reinerio testified to finding an aerial photo on Detrie's phone that included the area where VanderHeyden's body was discovered. In cross examination, the state asked Reinerio if she realized the picture was among thousands of similar aerial photos. The state also asked if Reinerio was aware that Detrie's family business includes land development.

Judge John Zakowski is currently reading juror instructions to the jury. This story will be updated throughout the day.

Case Background

Burch was arrested almost four months after VanderHeyden’s beaten body was discovered in a Bellevue farm field, three miles from her home.

DNA analyst Kevin Scott has testified that Burch’s DNA was found in 16 spots on VanderHeyden’s body, on her sock, and a cord that investigators believe Burch used to strangle VanderHeyden to death.

Douglass Detrie, who was VanderHeyden's live-in boyfriend and is the father of the youngest of her three children, was originally arrested for the murder.

Detrie, 36, was never charged and was released from jail after 17 days.

Detrie testified to having no role in his girlfriend's death.

Investigators have said Detrie and VanderHeyden were out drinking with friends in the hours before her murder. The couple fought about infidelity issues, and became separated during the night, according to investigators.

Burch, who moved to the Green Bay area from Virginia four months before the murder, has claimed he met VanderHeyden for the first time on the night of her murder at a bar on Broadway in Green Bay.

On the witness stand, Burch said he drove VanderHeyden home, where they had sex in the backseat of his car. Burch says Detrie came outside, discovered the two together, and knocked Burch out. When Burch gathered himself, he says he discovered Detrie standing over VanderHeyden’s bloodied and unconscious body. Burch says Detrie forced him at gunpoint to help him dispose of the body in the Bellevue field.

Prosecutors say Detrie’s Fitbit clears him of Burch’s scenario of what happened. The Fitbit shows Detrie was sleeping and took very few steps during the time the murder allegedly took place, according to prosecutors.

Before the trial, Judge John Zakowski ruled prosecutors could introduce some Fitbit evidence at trial. Investigators testified to how many steps Detrie took the night of the murder, however, they were not able to introduce sleep evidence from Fitbit. Zakowski made that stipulation, citing pending lawsuits that question the reliability of Fitbit’s sleep records.

Zakowski also allowed evidence from Burch’s cellphone to be presented at trial, despite defense attempts to have it excluded.

Investigators say Burch provided Green Bay Police written consent to download information from his phone during a separate hit-and-run investigation, a few weeks after VanderHeyden’s murder. The Brown County Sheriff’s Department obtained that information from Green Bay Police three months later, after DNA on VanderHeyden’s sock came back as a match for Burch.

Burch’s attorneys argued the sheriff’s department should have obtained a warrant for those cell phone records, and that the sheriff department’s request went beyond the scope of the investigation the data was originally acquired for.

Prosecutors have said the information from Burch’s cellphone is key because geolocation data pings Burch’s cellphone to the Broadway bar where VanderHeyden was last seen alive, outside her home, and the Bellevue Field.

Judge Zakowski also ruled the defense could not bring up an open domestic abuse case involving Detrie and VanderHeyden’s younger sister.

Detrie is charged with second degree recklessly endangering safety, false imprisonment and disorderly conduct.

Prosecutors allege that Detrie and Heather Meyer were together in a car in Allouez in February. Meyer told police Detrie touched her leg in a sexual manner. When she objected, Detrie sped off and would not let her out of the car. She tried to get out of the moving vehicle, but could not, until he eventually stopped several miles down the road.

Detrie is due back in court on March 23.

As for Burch, he has faced a murder charge before in Virginia. In June 1998, a jury found a then-20-year-old Burch not guilty of a gang-related killing.

Burch’s trial in the death of VanderHeyden is scheduled to last two weeks.

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