A Body in the Field
One afternoon last spring, two boys were clearing rocks from a Wisconsin farm field when they made a gruesome discovery: the brutally beaten body of a Green Bay substitute teacher and mother of three.
The 14-year-old was picking stones with a Bobcat machine and stopped for a water break around 1 p.m. As he headed to his grandfather’s truck, an 11-year-old friend motioned him over to a spot in the brush, police say.
There they found the body of Nicole VanderHeyden, a 31-year-old who was strangled following a night out with friends. She was wearing only a pink wristband and one sock when she was found on May 21, prosecutors say.
Days later, cops arrested her live-in boyfriend and father of her infant son. Doug Detrie had reported VanderHeyden missing nearly three hours after the Brown County medical examiner arrived at the field in the village of Bellevue.
Detrie was held on a $1 million bond, but he was soon released after the district attorney said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him. In recent court filings, prosecutors say Detrie’s DNA was “almost entirely absent” from swabs taken at the crime scene.
He reported VanderHeyden missing half a day after he’d last seen her, and he was cooperative when questioned by the sheriff’s department, the district attorney said. He also provided a detailed list of his whereabouts and activities the night before she died, and let cops search his home and his electronic devices.
And the 35-year-old’s Fitbit device supposedly proves he was asleep at home when his girlfriend was killed, prosecutors contend.
“Significantly, Doug Detrie had been wearing a Fitbit device on the night of Nicole’s death, and investigators were able to analyze Detrie’s Fitbit application from his mobile phone,” prosecutors said in court papers last month.
“This application confirmed the timeline of Detrie’s activities, as provided to officers on May 21, 2016. Most importantly, the application did not show any movement during the time that Nicole was killed… Rather, it showed that Detrie was asleep,” District Attorney David Lasee wrote in the May 12 brief.
Lasee, who declined to comment for this article, did not go into detail on how the activity-tracking wristband corroborated Detrie’s whereabouts that night.
Still, in September, cops nabbed their key suspect: a divorced father of two who was acquitted of murder in the late 1990s. He is wanted for heroin possession in Hampton County, Virginia, court records show.
George Steven Burch Jr. was arrested after DNA found on VanderHeyden’s sock matched a sample in the FBI’s national database. A Brown County sheriff’s sergeant then searched police records and discovered Burch was a suspect in a suspicious accident on June 8—about two weeks after VanderHeyden was killed.
Burch, who is being held on a $2 million bond, provided cops with his cellphone number that day last June. He also gave them consent to search his mobile phone, a complaint states. When a Green Bay police investigator perused the device, he discovered a news story on VanderHeyden’s death had been viewed multiple times. There were allegedly no other internet searches found, other than for pornographic material, police said.
Since Burch’s arrest, news surrounding VanderHeyden’s murder has taken some bizarre turns.
In February, Detrie was accused of a domestic abuse incident involving VanderHeyden’s sister, Heather Meyer, while they drove to a bar after a family birthday party. Detrie allegedly touched her leg in a sexual manner, and when she spurned his advances, began speeding and refused to let her out of the vehicle.
That night, Meyer told a sheriff’s deputy that she lives with Detrie to care for VanderHeyden’s child, so that the baby can remain part of her family. According to a criminal complaint, Detrie’s driving made Meyer fear for her life. She told the responding officer that Detrie was “controlling” and “physically abusive” toward her in the past, and that this aggression was only worsening since July of 2016.
Meyer’s father, Steven, told police that his daughter and Detrie were part of a dozen or so people celebrating a birthday at a Green Bay supper club. He said that as they headed to a tavern afterward in separate cars, Detrie nearly collided with his vehicle.
Steven Meyer said that Detrie’s front passenger door was open and it looked like Heather was trying to jump from the moving vehicle. The dad began trailing Detrie, watching him run a red light before eventually stopping. Heather Meyer then escaped to her father’s car.
Detrie allegedly called Steven Meyer five minutes later and asked “why Heather did this” and if she was “OK.” He also sent the dad a text message stating, “I drove the way I drove because I was scared for Heather’s life,” court papers allege.
While Steven Meyer spoke to a responding officer, Detrie sent another text message: “My fingers are crossed that this was just booze getting in the way of happiness. I care too much maybe. See you soon and wish for the best.”
Detrie was charged with second-degree recklessly endangering safety, domestic abuse; false imprisonment, domestic abuse; and disorderly conduct. He is scheduled to appear in court today over the charges. (Detrie’s attorney said he will plead not guilty. He declined to comment on the pending case.)
Meanwhile, Burch’s defense team wants to admit evidence that they claim will show Detrie was the one who murdered VanderHeyden.
In an April court filing, public defenders claimed that Detrie found Burch and VanderHeyden together in the backseat of his vehicle and killed VanderHeyden in the throes of anger. Detrie then struck Burch’s head and knocked him out, they say. When Burch came to, he saw a “bloodied and unconscious” VanderHeyden lying on the ground next to him, court papers allege.
Burch claims Detrie held him at gunpoint, demanding he load VanderHeyden’s body into his vehicle. Then Detrie allegedly ordered Burch to drive to the field where VanderHeyden was found and to dump her body. Burch claims he then shoved Detrie into a ravine and ran for his life, before hopping in his car and racing home.
“In a panic, he discarded VanderHeyden’s clothes off Highway 172,” defense attorneys state in court papers. “Burch did not know what to do, but the news quickly documented Detrie’s arrest. Although it haunted him, Burch did not discuss the matter because he knew the police arrested the correct person.”
In response, prosecutors called Burch’s allegations a “fantastic tale” that he concocted to explain away his role in VanderHeyden’s death. They say Burch has failed to show Detrie had a motive, opportunity, or direct connection to her murder.
It’s unlikely Detrie would be able to overpower the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Burch without bringing any visible injuries to himself, prosecutors added.
The DA does not refute that Detrie and VanderHeyden had a drunken fight in the hours before she died, and that Detrie was upset that she walked away from the bar where they were supposed to meet that night.
“It is tremendous leap to suggest that because they had an argument that evening, Detrie was motivated to kill his girlfriend and the mother of his child,” Lasee wrote in court papers requesting a judge deny Burch’s motion to admit evidence.
Lasee added that Burch’s alleged evidence “is little more than a bald assertion that Detrie was involved in VanderHeyden’s murder, designed only to distract the jury from [his] conduct and to pass the blame on to someone else.”
On Monday, Detrie’s attorney Jason Luczak said the state’s response shows there’s clear scientific evidence—including DNA swabs collected from VanderHeyden’s body—that Detrie was not involved in her death.
“There’s strong scientific evidence of what we’ve been saying all along: He has nothing to do with Nikki’s murder,” Luczak told The Daily Beast.
“This is a horrible and senseless tragedy,” Luczak added. “The murder of Nikki VanderHeyden, the mother of Doug’s baby son, has had a significant impact on him personally and on Nikki’s and Doug’s families. Everyone close to her has had difficulty in dealing with Nikki’s loss.”
The Last Argument
Nicole VanderHeyden went to see a glam-rock parody band at a sports bar in Howard, Wisconsin, the night before she vanished.
On May 20, 2016, around 8 p.m., she joined Detrie and their friends at the Watering Hole to see a Steel Panther concert.
According to court papers, VanderHeyden and her beau drank heavily throughout the night and fought “largely over infidelity issues.” The couple separated around midnight, when VanderHeyden left with pals for a Green Bay bar called the Sardine Can.
VanderHeyden sent Detrie a text message at some point asking, “What bitch ya with.” Detrie told police he confronted her about the missive, knowing VanderHeyden was angry and upset. VanderHeyden also told Detrie to “go talk to your whores,” in another message, according to a babysitter interviewed by police.
Sometime later, VanderHeyden phoned Detrie but he refused to answer. Her friend decided to call him and he answered, making VanderHeyden upset. When she walked out of the bar, a male friend in their group tried to stop her. She resisted, and he let her go.
Detrie and a buddy were still at the Watering Hole when he learned his girlfriend took off. He called her and they argued some more. But after multiple calls, VanderHeyden’s phone died. Detrie and a friend drove around the Sardine Can looking for her. Eventually they went inside, and Detrie ordered a shot, court papers allege.
“Nikki is being stupid, what the fuck,” Detrie allegedly told his friend, according to the pal’s interview with police. The friend also told police they had been snorting amphetamines that night, court documents say. (Detrie’s attorney said he could not confirm, deny, or comment on such allegations based on his ethical and legal obligations.)
Detrie told police he last spoke to VanderHeyden at about 12:36 a.m. that night.
The babysitter told police Detrie arrived home around 2:46 a.m., and they tried calling VanderHeyden several times. At one point, Detrie allegedly asked the babysitter if he could smoke some of her marijuana, so she gave him a little. She left at about 3 a.m., and said she was actively looking for VanderHeyden when she left, according to the defense’s motion to admit evidence that Detrie was the alleged killer.
VanderHeyden had walked to Richard Craniums bar, which is a little over a half-mile from the Sardine Can, and struck up a conversation with Burch.
Burch says he never met VanderHeyden before, but that they hit it off after discussing their own divorces. The teacher, described in court papers as friendly and outgoing, vented about fighting with her “ex-boyfriend” that night.
VanderHeyden, according to Burch’s motion, invited him back to her house. He agreed, but picked up a condom from his nearby residence first. They drove to her house and arrived a little after 3 a.m. but a light was on, so they stayed in the car, court filings say.
That’s when Detrie found them and killed her, Burch claims.
Yet prosecutors contend that Detrie stopped calling VanderHeyden around 3 a.m. not because he was committing murder—but because he was sleeping.
“Any reason why Detrie would have stopped calling VanderHeyden at 3 o’clock in the morning would be pure speculation,” the DA wrote in his response to the defense. “Perhaps he stopped calling her at 3 a.m. because as Detrie stated to investigators, that is the time he fell asleep after being out all night drinking.”
After VanderHeyden’s body was found, the medical examiner determined she had a skull fracture and blunt force trauma to the left side of her face. VanderHeyden also had a broken and dislocated jaw, and significant injuries to her esophagus, trachea, and neck consistent with strangulation.
The medical examiner’s disturbing report noted injuries to her upper back as well, indicating a herringbone-type pattern consistent with a shoe, according to the criminal complaint against Burch, who is charged with first-degree intentional homicide.
VanderHeyden was likely killed prior to being transported to the farmer’s field, the medical examiner said.
Two days after VanderHeyden died, a neighbor across the street from Detrie called cops to report a bloody wire on his lawn, the complaint states. A sheriff’s sergeant noted dried blood, clumps of blonde hair, hair pins, and a green scuff mark on the pavement several yards from the driveway. The officer also found two pieces of black cord on the lawn.
Detrie was arrested soon after this discovery, but released after DNA evidence did not link him to the scene.
A state crime lab later revealed that the blood in the roadway and on the black cord belonged to VanderHeyden. DNA from a male contributor—which allegedly matches Burch—was also found on the black cord, police say.
Police also allege that Burch’s cellphone records tie him to the murder.
Investigators discovered Burch’s cellphone records pinged at Richard Craniums, where he was a regular, and in the area of his residence at 2:33 a.m.
At 2:36 a.m., the phone’s GPS coordinates revealed Burch left his home. Four minutes later, the phone began traveling to the Green Bay suburb of De Pere. At 3:01 a.m., the phone is located in the immediate area of VanderHeyden’s house, on Berkley Road in the town of Ledgeview police say.
The phone remained in the area until 3:52 a.m., investigators claim. At 3:53 a.m., Burch’s cellphone began traveling away. Five minutes later, cell records show his phone arrived on Hoffman Road, near the farm field where the victim was found. The final coordinate recorded in the field is at 4:02 a.m. According to these phone records, Burch returned to his Green Bay residence at 4:25 a.m.
Burch had also been communicating that night with a then-21-year-old woman believed to be his girlfriend. They texted each other until 2:26 a.m., indicating that “Burch did have his phone on his person that night,” police said.
Despite the phone records and DNA evidence linking Burch to the crime, his defense lawyers maintain his innocence.
In court papers filed May 26, they accused prosecutors of employing “creative writing” in their response to their push to admit evidence against Detrie. They also broached Detrie’s recent arrest for false imprisonment and recklessly endangering safety, contending that he abuses drugs and alcohol, WBAY reported.
Burch’s lawyers have also called the DA’s Fitbit evidence into question, suggesting there are issues with the fitness tracker’s accuracy.
“Already angry and mad at VanderHeyden, Detrie then caught VanderHeyden cheating on him with Burch. The facts provided establish that Detrie had the required motive to murder VanderHeyden,” assistant state defenders Jeffrey Cano, Lee Schuchart, and Scott Stebbins argued in court papers.
A Troubled Past?
George Burch was acquitted of murder when he was 20 years old.
In June 1998, a Virginia jury found Burch not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Joey White, a 24-year-old leader of the Hoods Mob gang. Burch was also acquitted of using a firearm during a felony, attempted maiming, and shooting into an occupied car.
But Burch would remain behind bars after receiving a one-year sentence for an unrelated burglary conviction, the Daily Press in Newport News reported.
“I don’t know if it would be prudent for him to be released right now,” Burch’s attorney, Thomas W. Carpenter, said at the time, referring to concerns over his client’s safety following the jury verdict.
White despised Burch and, with the help of some friends, allegedly beat him up twice before the shooting. Burch testified that White’s gang associates had threatened him several times before, the Daily Press reported.
At one point during the trial, a detective testified that White and Burch may have been feuding over a woman. The Newport News cop said that after his arrest, Burch indicated that “Joey had taken his girlfriend from him,” the Daily Press reported.
The gang leader was shot in the head one night in October 1997 following a phone argument with Burch and one of Burch’s friends, according to a Daily Press report. That phone fight led to a skirmish outside an apartment building.
Witnesses testified that at least five shots were fired from at least two guns during the incident. Yet the bullet that killed White was never found. Jurors were skeptical of the prosecution’s case, especially after one of White’s associates testified that he lied to cops about how he disposed of his gun, the Daily Press reported.
Carpenter said his client was only trying to defend himself when he fired shots, and that “it was difficult to prove who killed Joey White.”
“It’s a sad case, in a whole lot of ways,” the attorney added. “It’s sad to see kids blindly following people.”
After the verdict, Burch’s parents, who are now deceased, applauded the defense attorney’s work on their son’s case. “A lot of people were praying. Our prayers were answered,” Burch’s mother, Dianne, told the Daily Press.
This dodged murder charge, however, was not Burch’s last brush with the law. Burch has a criminal record that also includes convictions for drunken driving and marijuana possession in 2011, and grand larceny in 2016.
Indeed, Burch’s ex-wife told The Daily Beast that he was allegedly fleeing the law when he moved to Wisconsin. He was staying with a friend, who was the owner of the car involved in the June accident, she said.
Attorneys for Burch did not return messages seeking comment on allegations against their client.
The woman said she had little contact with Burch after leaving him in July 2015. Their marriage was at times tumultuous, with the former spouse accusing Burch of abuse. She claims he broke her nose during one fight. It’s unclear if he was ever charged for domestic abuse.
“I hope and pray every day that he spends his life behind bars,” she said. “That’s where he belongs.”