GREEN BAY, Wisconsin—A Virginia man whose Google data implicated him in the grisly murder of a substitute teacher was found guilty Thursday.
After a nearly two-week trial, jurors convicted George Steven Burch Jr. of killing 31-year-old Nicole VanderHeyden. Six men and six women deliberated for about three hours before delivering the unanimous verdict.
It was Burch’s second murder case. In 1998, he was acquitted in the fatal shooting of a Newport News gang leader when he was 20 years old.
Burch wasn’t so lucky in Brown County, Wisconsin.
Indeed, Burch moved north in early 2016 to start a new life. But within months, he strangled and beat VanderHeyden to death, then dumped her body in a farm field. Detectives caught up with Burch later, after his DNA was detected on VanderHeyden’s sock.
But Burch wasn’t the only one facing scrutiny. His defense team argued VanderHeyden’s live-in boyfriend, Doug Detrie, was the real killer.
The first week of the trial centered on why cops initially arrested Detrie and what evidence, including his Fitbit activity, set him free.
Detrie, who testified he was asleep when VanderHeyden died, was present when Judge John Zakowski read the verdict. Detrie hugged his mother, who broke down in the gallery when Burch was found guilty. VanderHeyden’s family cried in relief.
Outside the courthouse, District Attorney Dave Lasee told reporters that the jury convicted the right man in VanderHeyden’s murder.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that George Burch is the person who did this to Nikki,” Lasee said when asked about suspicions regarding Detrie. “Obviously then, by definition, that exonerates Mr. Detrie from any wrongdoing in this case as well.”
Lasee told The Daily Beast he worried what might happen if Burch was acquitted.
“Honestly, that was the number one thing that I was worried about, looking over at him and going, ‘This guy’s a really violent, dangerous person and I have to make sure that he can’t do this to anyone else.’”
Burch’s defense team left the courthouse without commenting.
Much of the testimony focused on tech: cellphone data, shady text messages, Fitbit activity trackers, and vehicle monitors used by insurance companies.
Burch’s Google Dashboard locations helped to prove he was at various crime scenes on the night in question, prosecutors said. The killer also viewed news stories on VanderHeyden 64 times in the days following her death.
Another device, VanderHeyden’s Progressive insurance Snapshot, was presented as evidence, too. The electronic monitor connects to a user’s car, tracks speed and breaking habits, and provides a discount in exchange for safe driving.
The DA argued the Snapshot revealed VanderHeyden’s SUV didn’t leave her garage after she was killed. Burch’s attorneys, however, suggested Detrie moved the vehicle and pointed to testimony from a neighbor who saw an empty garage.
On Thursday, even 1,857 cached pictures on Detrie’s cellphone were examined.
Burch’s lawyers raised questions about aerial images from Google Maps found during a police extraction of Detrie’s mobile. Some of those were aerial pictures that showed the farm field where VanderHeyden’s body was discovered.
In response, the prosecution said Google saves those images automatically to make its Maps application run more efficiently.
As The Daily Beast reported, VanderHeyden was a young mother of three who’d had a baby with Detrie six months before her slaying.
On May 20, 2016, she was ready to go out and have fun. She and Detrie got a babysitter and joined his friends at a rock concert at the Watering Hole.
When VanderHeyden and Detrie’s pals moved to the next bar, the Sardine Can, Detrie stayed behind and chatted with high school buddies.
Detrie testified that he lost track of time, then received a barrage of seething text messages from VanderHeyden. “What bitch ya with?” she wrote. Other texts fumed: “You’re an abusive asshole” and “Why do you always hurt me?”
“LOL stop,” Detrie replied.
VanderHeyden stormed out of the Sardine Can, despite an attempt from one of Detrie’s friends to stop her. She walked off into the darkness, never to be seen again.
Detrie testified that he was riding with his buddy, Greg Mathu, and on his way to find VanderHeyden when she called him. She was yelling and incoherent, Detrie testified. Mathu and Detrie said they asked VanderHeyden where she was so they could pick her up.
VanderHeyden’s phone died before she could provide her location.
The mom, who had been drinking that night, apparently walked 13 minutes away to a dive bar called Richard Craniums. The tavern, which neighbors a sex shop and is nicknamed Dick Heads by some patrons, counted Burch as a regular.
On Wednesday, Burch testified that he approached VanderHeyden at the bar and they started flirting with each other. At the time, Burch didn’t have a place of his own but stayed in a room at his friend Edward Jackson’s house.
Burch said he moved to Wisconsin for a fresh start. He depended on the kindness of the Jacksons, who provided him with lodging, a vehicle and cellphone. The evening before VanderHeyden’s murder, Burch got a brand-new Samsung Galaxy S5.
Police say that phone’s Google Dashboard data would link Burch to VanderHeyden’s residence in the early hours of May 21, the field where she was left to die, and a highway where he tossed her bloody clothes.
Burch claimed he and VanderHeyden departed Richard Craniums around 2:30 a.m. and headed to Jackson’s home for a hookup. But when they arrived, Jackson’s father was awake and in a bathrobe in the living room—which allegedly prompted them to go to VanderHeyden’s house she shared with Detrie instead. (Prosecutors balked at this excuse for leaving Jackson’s residence, saying Burch’s friends testified he often brought girls home.)
VanderHeyden’s home was about 20 minutes away on Berkley Road in Ledgeview, and Burch testified that VanderHeyden had to give him directions.
Around 3 a.m., Burch’s phone coordinates placed him outside VanderHeyden’s house, where her baby, Dylan, was sleeping.
Burch claimed he and VanderHeyden began having consensual sex in his Chevy Blazer across the street, but that Detrie discovered them.
According to Burch, Detrie whacked him on the head and mutilated VanderHeyden while he was knocked out. When Burch came to, he said, Detrie ordered him at gunpoint to drive to a field three miles away and abandon the corpse.
Burch claims he escaped by shoving Detrie into a ditch and speeding off in his Blazer. Panicked, he chucked VanderHeyden’s clothes onto a highway on-ramp, where sheriff’s deputies discovered them days later.
The felon, who worked at a restaurant and landscaping firm, said he never told police about the murder because he was on probation in Virginia for grand larceny. He faced five years behind bars and wasn’t supposed to be in Wisconsin.
But the jury didn’t buy the 6-foot-7, 250-pounder’s story.
On May 21 around 1:55 p.m., two teenage boys working in a farm field discovered VanderHeyden’s body, which was naked except for one sock and a pink concert wristband. Three hours later, Detrie would report her missing.
Detrie was arrested May 23 after his neighbor, who lives across the street, called police about a pool of blood, clumps of hair, and bloody wire he found in his front lawn. Cops said this patch of grass is where VanderHeyden was killed. Detrie was released 18 days later due to a lack of evidence and police continued their probe.
The medical examiner testified that VanderHeyden had 241 injuries to her body, including brutal contusions to her private areas suggesting sexual assault. She died of blunt force trauma and ligature strangulation. Her face was so brutally beaten, it was unrecognizable. She had to be identified through medical records.
While cops swarmed the field for clues, Burch went on a fishing trip 2.5 hours away in Racine. He never told his friends what happened.
During closing arguments, Deputy DA Mary Kerrigan-Mares projected a photo of Burch smiling with a salmon he caught during this excursion. Burch texted the proud picture to Jackson’s wife, Lynda, and to his then-20-year-old girlfriend.
The image was in stark contrast to a crime scene photograph of VanderHeyden lying naked, beaten, and facedown in the brush.
Kerrigan-Mares accused Burch of fabricating a story to explain away the physical and scientific evidence that incriminates him. “Their explanation is ridiculous. It’s insulting to your intelligence,” Kerrigan-Mares told the jury. “They offer distractions. But worse, they offer testimony of the defendant. Such arrogance.”
The prosecutor then mocked Burch’s testimony.
“What’s he tell you? She’s flirting with him. What’s he say? You can tell when someone’s into you. Clearly this 6-foot-7-inch hunk of man could not be resisted. You saw his picture. What was a girl to do? What were Nikki’s choices?” Kerrigan-Mares said.
“Burch saw VanderHeyden by herself and saw her as prey,” the DA added. “He had one thing in mind, and it was not giving her a ride home.”
Worst of all, Kerrigan-Mares said, VanderHeyden trusted her murderer.
“Clearly there’s one person whose voice you have not heard. You haven’t heard from Nicole VanderHeyden. George Burch sought to silence Nicole VanderHeyden, but she does speak to you. In her struggles, she tells you the truth,” the DA said.
“In her fight for life, she can be heard,” Kerrigan-Mares continued, “With her blood on the grass, with her blood on the curb, on the street, with her hair strewn about.”
She later added, “Don’t let her struggles have been in vain.”
Defense attorney Lee Schuchart argued that Detrie, not Burch, had the motive, opportunity, and connection to the crime.
And in his closing statements, Schuchart tried dishing red herrings and poking holes in the Brown County Sheriff’s Office’s police work.
Schuchart asked jurors to remember VanderHeyden’s voice on May 20 and May 21, when her texts with Detrie indicated a troubled relationship.
For much of the trial, the defense played up the couple’s fraying union. The month VanderHeyden died, Detrie told his mother he wanted her and her two children from a previous marriage to move out of his house. (On the stand, Detrie testified he didn’t mean it and was “having a downer day.”)
Schuchart also asked the jury to remember the photos of the Detrie-VanderHeyden residence, which appeared lived-in and cluttered on May 23. Despite the mess, the home smelled suspiciously like cleaning agents, one detective testified.
The defense attorney pointed to a bundle of cables found on top of a refrigerator inside Detrie’s garage—wires he said resembled those used to kill VanderHeyden.
Some neighbors reported suspicious activity near the Detrie residence in the hours after VanderHeyden died, Schuchart added.
Donald Chic, a retired cop who lived near Detrie and was married to his aunt, testified that he drove past the Berkley Road house on May 21. That morning, the garage door was open and no vehicles were inside, Chic told jurors on Wednesday.
“We know that vehicle moved. Don Chic told you that vehicle moved. It was not there,” Schuchart told the jury.
“Eyewitness testimony can be more important than technology itself,” Schuchart added. “You can’t ignore Don Chic’s testimony.”
Another defense witness, neighbor Lisa Skaletski, testified she saw a man standing in VanderHeyden and Detrie’s driveway talking on his cellphone before noon. She later identified the man as Detrie, Schuchart said.
Meanwhile, Detrie seemed to confess to hurting VanderHeyden, Schuchart claimed.
VanderHeyden’s friend and babysitter, Dallas Kennedy, testified that she spoke to Detrie at the sheriff’s office after VanderHeyden died. Kennedy asked Detrie what happened, and he allegedly replied, “I don’t know. She hit her head and walked home.”
This statement, which was never explained in detail, allegedly came at a time when detectives kept VanderHeyden’s injuries under wraps.
Schuchart claimed Detrie had a concealed carry permit. He said a murder weapon—the gun allegedly used to knock Burch out—was never recovered. (Detrie testified that he only owned shotguns, not handguns.)
“George says he doesn’t know what hit him in the back of the head but he eventually saw Mr. Detrie with a handgun,” Schuchart told jurors.
“No handgun was ever recovered,” Schuchart added. “This missing murder weapon was never recovered. Are they in the ponds behind the Detrie house?”
“It’s not our job to tell you,” he continued. “It’s the state’s.”
Finally, Schuchart challenged Detrie’s Fitbit data, which apparently showed he took few steps around the time his girlfriend was slain. (Prosecutors argued in court papers last year that Detrie was sleeping during the murder. A judge ruled this evidence inadmissible because of lawsuits claiming Fitbit’s sleep data is inaccurate.)
Photos of Detrie’s office, taken by police, showed he had two more Fitbits. “Remember, Doug’s in jail. They allegedly have custody of his Fitbit. Which Fitbit are we talking about? Does that change the data? Does that help explain why Doug’s DNA is not on the Fitbit? How does a Fitbit work? What’s the error rate?”
“The state didn’t provide anybody who can help understand these questions,” Schuchart added. “There’s nobody who can help explain why multiple Fitbits could make a difference or would make a difference. Is that harmless error by the state? I don’t know.”
The state’s witnesses included a phalanx of experts, including one to testify on Progressive’s Snapshot device, Schuchart said.
“We have every piece of damn technology in the world with an expert here, except for the Fitbit,” he told jurors. “Where is the Fitbit expert that can explain any of this and any of this data? Not here, not in this case.”
Schuchart said the jury was “surrounded by reasonable doubt.”
About 45 minutes after jurors began deliberating, they returned with their only question. They asked to see the Fitbit data, GPS data, and evidence bags with the various cords and wires taken from Detrie’s house and the murder scene.
For the first two items, the judge told the jury he couldn’t send out the evidence for legal reasons and requested they rely on their memories.
In a rebuttal, Lasee called Burch’s story “an utter absurdity of a tale.”
“He filled in the holes with gibberish,” Lasee said. “With an utter absurdity of a tale. And all of the information about Doug Detrie. All of it that they want to throw at you is utterly irrelevant unless you believe his story.
“Because his story is the only thing that connects Doug to the crime,” Lasee added. “The only thing.”
Following the verdict, Detrie’s Milwaukee-based lawyers released a statement to the media saying he appreciates the justice for VanderHeyden.
“The jury clearly rejected George Burch’s lies,” his lawyers said, “and attempt to blame Doug for the heinous murder of his loving girlfriend and mother of his child.”