Day 1 of George Burch murder trial: opening statements and testimony

Published: Feb. 19, 2018 at 8:46 AM CST
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Concerns about icy weather made for a short day one at the George Burch murder trial in Green Bay.

Judge John Zakowski sent the jury home at 2 p.m. with the goal of starting up Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. Jurors had concerns about driving home in bad weather.

Day one started with the prosecution and defense delivering opening statements. The court continued with testimony from the people who discovered the body of victim Nicole VanderHeyden, and the first officers who responded.

Burch is standing trial for 1st Degree Intentional Homicide.

Nicole VanderHeyden's body was found on Hoffman Road in Bellevue, about three miles from her Ledgeview home, on May 21, 2016.

Brown County District Attorney David Lasee delivered opening statement for the prosecution. Lasee called VanderHeyden's murder a "senseless, vicious random act of violence."

Lasee says a medical examiner's report found 241 injuries on VanderHeyden's body. "Nikki was unrecognizable. Dental records had to be used to determine the person they had found."

Nicole VanderHeyden had been out drinking in downtown Green Bay prior to her murder, She was with friends of her boyfriend, Douglass Detrie.

Lasee says she had too much to drink that night, and after a dispute with one of Detrie's friends, she walked off. Her phone died at 12:30 a.m., so no information on her whereabouts was recorded past that time.

On May 21, a man who farms near Hoffman Road says he was picking stones with his grandson and the boy's friend when they came across what they believed to be a dead deer. Richard VandeHey testified that the boys told him it was a body and he called 911.

Lasee says unknown male DNA was found on "key points of Nicole's body." A national database came back with a hit for George Burch's DNA.

The prosecutor told the jury that dashboard data from Google pings Burch's phone to the murder scene among other locations tied to the investigation.

Burch had been at the Sardine Can bar, Nicole's last known whereabouts. The pings also show Burch was at the field where VanderHeyden was killed, the area where her body was found, and the place where her clothes were dumped. Investigators found her bloody clothing on the on-ramp to Highway 172 in Green Bay.

A bloody cord found in a nearby lawn is consistent with marks on VanderHeyden's neck.

Burch's defense is pointing the finger at Detrie.

Detrie was arrested after the murder but released a little more than two weeks later because of a lack of evidence against him and DNA evidence pointing to Burch. Prosecutors say Detrie was not a suspect in the murder. Burch was arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with VanderHeyden's murder.

Burch's attorney Scott Stebbins says the murder was not a "random act" and that "all signs" point to Detrie. Stebbins says Burch did not have motive, but Detrie did. He described their relationship as "toxic" and "engulfed by arguments."

Stebbins claims that Detrie was angry when he arrived at the Sardine Can and VanderHeyden was not there. Stebbins says Detrie had been using amphetamines.

Stebbins says Detrie didn't bother looking for VanderHeyden and that it wasn't after the body was found that he called in a missing person complaint.

Testimony began with Richard VandeHey and the two boys who discovered VanderHeyden's body. They initially thought they had found a dead deer, but they soon realized it was a human body. VandeHey called 911.

That testimony was followed by Sgt. Karl Lau of the Brown County Sheriff's Office who was the first officer to arrive on scene. He told the court about finding a woman who had a bloody face and hair covered in blood.

After a recess, Brown County Deputy Charles Tassoul took the stand. Tassoul is a crash reconstruction specialist who also gets called to crime scenes.

Tassoul created a scaled map of the crime scene, which was entered into evidence.

Tassoul testified that he was also called to VanderHeyden's home in Ledgeview where he found blood, hair, and a wire outside the home.

After Tassoul's testimony, court wrapped for the day.


Judge John Zakowski has agreed to allow evidence collected from Burch's cell phone while he was being investigated for a possible hit-and-run in Green Bay. Burch was cleared in the hit-and-run investigation, but the defense argued his constitutional rights were violated because that cell phone data ended up with the Brown County Sheriff's Office during the investigation into VanderHeyden's murder.

The judge's decision states Burch signed a consent form giving the Green Bay Police officer or any "assisting personnel" permission to search his phone.

"The BCSO did not do a subsequent search of Burch's phone without Burch's consent, despite his repeated assertions otherwise. The BCSO searched data that had previously been retrieved from Burch's phone with his consent," reads the judge's order.

The judge also denied Burch's request to bring up details of Detrie's past relationships. Burch's defense also wanted to bring up an open domestic violence case involving Detrie. That case has not been resolved. Burch claims Detrie's case is being delayed as to not impact his reliability as a witness in the Burch case.

The judge was not convinced that there would be a "significant impact on Detrie's credibility as a witness" if he were to admit that he had been convicted in a criminal case. The judge ruled that the facts of Detrie's domestic violence case will remain inadmissible in court.

The subject that's drawn national news crews to the trial regards evidence obtained from fitness tracking technology.

Judge Zakowski granted one of Burch's motions to toss out sleep-monitoring data from Detrie's Fitbit Flex.

"Given that this current pending lawsuit calls into question the reliability of the sleep-monitoring data of the Fitbit Flex, the Court finds the prejudicial nature of this evidence, coupled with its, at best, questionable reliability, is outweighed by its probative nature and thus is inadmissible," reads the decision from Judge Zakowski.

The judge, however, denied Burch's motion to toss out Fitbit data related to step-counting.

The court announced Friday that Burch will be wearing a stun belt under his clothing as a security precaution. A stun belt allows a remote control signal to give an electric shock.

The trial is expected to go for two weeks. Eight men and six women were chosen to hear the case. The jury will not be able to discuss the case outside of trial, they will not be allowed to use cell phones, and they will be allowed no media consumption.

Initial witness lists were lengthy. The defense intended to call 130 witnesses. The prosecution intended to call 79 witnesses. The judge asked both sides to whittle down those lists.

Action 2 News will livestream the trial here:

WARNING: streaming is not allowed when the jury is not seated. We will also cut out of the stream at the judge's request. We cannot control audio. Video may sporadically freeze or go out. Some images and testimony will be graphic. Viewer discretion is advised. When court wraps for the day, the stream will switch back to our StormCenter 2 24/7 weather channel



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