Mother Arrested for Murder After Abandoning Newborn — Almost 40 Years Ago

True crime dramas have been sweeping the nation recently. From podcasts to Netflix series, it seems like Americans can’t get enough of unsolved mysteries and long lost cold cases. But should every old case be prosecuted — and is it always justice when the perpetrator is found and charged?

That’s the issue surrounding the arrest of Theresa Bentaas, who has been accused of murder for a nearly 40-year-old crime that may now be solved.

At first glance, Bentaas could be any middle-aged white Midwestern woman. She graduated community college in 1984 and spent decades as a local paralegal in South Dakota. She married her high school sweetheart, and they raised two children together.

But the now 57-year-old woman has been charged this month with murder in the first and second degree, as well as manslaughter in the second degree, after police determined that she abandoned her newborn baby in a ditch at the side of the road in 1981. That infant died soon after due to exposure, and the body was discovered by police, who were never able to solve the case — until recently, when the body was exhumed and DNA was extracted and run through a database.

Using DNA to find suspects, even long lost ones, is a new technology and a double-edged sword. On the one hand, DNA can be a boon to long unsolved cases, like that of the Golden State serial killer, or it can provide evidence in sexual assault cases when victims need backup to press charges. DNA testing has been used a number of times to prove the innocence of prisoners — usually marginalized communities and people of color — who have been wrongly accused of murder and faced with life in prison, or even the death penalty, for crimes they never committed.

But just like in every aspect of law enforcement, police and district attorneys have ample leeway on what cases they want to pursue and whether or not to file charges. DNA testing can exacerbate this — especially when used under the guise of finding “parents” of fetal or newborn bodies.

Last May a sheriff decided to use an FBI database to try to pull DNA and determine a parent for the fetal remains found in the sewer. He claimed he simply wanted to “reunite” them and be sure the person who gave birth wasn’t in danger physically — but many suspected he was hoping to charge her with a crime.

Bentaas’ situation shows exactly what that could look like, and why there’s no such thing as a statute of limitations when police are intent on finding “justice” for a “baby.”

Once confronted, Bentaas admitted that she became pregnant in 1980-81, when she was still a teenager just out of high school. She hid it from her family, her friends and even the boyfriend she would eventually marry.

When Bentaas gave birth, she was understandably scared. With nowhere to go and no idea what to do, she abandoned the newborn baby boy on the side of the road. Once the incident made the news, Bentaas said she “went into denial” that she was the one responsible, but she thought about it every time she crossed that stretch of road.

Being a pregnant young woman in 1980 was a vastly different scenario than today, especially in the Midwest. There wasn’t an internet to consult for information, like local adoption agencies. There were no safe haven laws that allowed babies to be dropped off in safe spaces with no questions asked so those infants could be given to new families.

In fact, the frequency of abandoned newborn deaths was so high at the time that it sparked the implementation of safe haven laws in the first place. And in smaller, rural communities, the idea of being able to relinquish or put an infant up for adoption without any amount of anonymity was nearly impossible.

Obviously, none of that justifies leaving a newborn to die. But those issues all had bearing on Bentaas’ state of mind at the time, something that will be almost impossible to understand in a trial almost 40 years later. There will be no ability to bring character witnesses who would remember the time around the birth to support her defense, and the only real evidence that can be admitted is that long-lost and newly discovered DNA.

It will be virtually impossible to convict Bentaas of either murder charges, but she also couldn’t be charged with anything lesser — like child neglect or endangerment — because only murder charges are severe enough to not have a statute of limitations on them.

In the end, there’s a very strong likelihood that the trial itself is just a showboat for a community desperate to punish a person by any means possible for her act. Since there will be no judicial penalty, it’s little more than a community’s way of bringing to light the unfortunate circumstances of a scared teenager.

If Bentaas’ case scares you for any one reason, it should be the unveiling of exactly how eager the right is to punish a person who ends the life of a baby — and yes, the right is already comparing this case to abortion. Conservatives are signaling how determined they will be to put people seeking illegal abortions in prison once Roe is overturned, and that they will seek out the most severe penalties possible when they can.

And, as Bentaas is learning, they will wait as long as it takes to make sure that “justice” is served.

Photo credit: Robin Marty

52 comments

Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini19 days ago

Nicky Heindryckx
Thank you for your compassionate response to this sad story. You have elaborated eloquently on what I said sort of in shorthand. I wonder why some people have such trouble imagining what it was like for the poor young girl, and having to live with it for the rest of her life. That the police and district attorney should arrest her after all these years is entirely punitive. She has suffered enough.

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Tania N
Tania N20 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Tania N
Tania N20 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Tania N
Tania N20 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Nicky H
Nicky Heindryckx20 days ago

I have read all the comments on this article and was surprised that so many women condemned her. Have they really a good memory of how the world was in the 1980's? I remember that when I was 18, I never had heard or seen anything about sexual intercourse. If I would have had sex with a boy friend, I would never have thought I could be pregnant. And surely I would have hidden my pregnancy for my parents and the boyfriend, or I would have run away when I could no longer hide it. And then 9 months pass, and you deliver your first baby, on your own, without help, and I'm sure I would have been in an enormous panic as well. May be I also just would have left my baby behind, not knowing what to do or where to go. I am 67 now, never killed an animal, not even a spider. I have 1 son and adopted 2 children from South America. So you can hardly consider me as a bad woman. But when in panic, one does very strange things. I bet this woman must have had nightmares and sorrow for her lost child. But I am not of the opinion that she must be blamed and punished for an act she did 40 years ago and ruin the rest of her life. She has to live with her guilt and sorrow, but not officially, loosing her job, husband, children, HER LIFE...

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Nicky Heindryckx
Nicky Heindryckx21 days ago

Of course this is a very tragic story. But I remember the year 1980 very well, as I then had a baby boy of 3/4 years old, and being married, and I could not find a decent job because in those days, the boss was afraid that mothers of young children would be staying at home too much for each time their baby or toddler was sick. That was the mentality at that time. I can imagine that when she was not married, and could not count on her parents or neighbours to take care of her child in times of need, she never would find a job. And then : homeless, no food for the child and yourself, because there were no facilities where you could go to. Abortion was out of the question, and risking your life in a basement in getting an abortion with a cloth hanger of knitting pens?? No, thanks very much. And what is the aim now ? To blame that woman and ruin the rest of her life ? She certainly had NOT the intention to kill her baby. She was in total panic and did not know what to do. As said in the article, there were no baby safe places, where you could leave your baby behind, and where it was found the morning after, hungry and somewhat cold, but ALIVE. In the 1980's that was non existing.

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Annabel B
Annabel Bedini26 days ago

Have all you people so quick to judge this woman harshly tried to imagine what it was like for her? She was in a panic. It's so easy to say she should have left the baby at the hospital entrance or on the church steps but that would have meant the possibility of being seen by people who knew her. And if the article is to be believed, she did not leave the baby in a ditch or the middle of a field but by 'the side of the road'. That looks to me like hoping it would be found. There is no proof she intended the baby to die, on the contrary. Of course this is a tragic story but where's you compassion, folks?

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Leo C
Leo C27 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Mary B
Mary B27 days ago

What that young girl, barely a woman, did is wrong. The deed was done 40 years ago, the infant is long dead and the mother has suffered guilt ever since. But to those who want to punish her now, along with her husband and 2 more kids, the focus should be turned back on YOU . What is YOUR agenda. Infants have been abandoned thru out all of history, as have elderly people and pregnant young girls, and small children. You don't have to have compassion for her, but common sense and a larger view of human life would be useful.

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Joemar K
Joemar Karvelis28 days ago

Thanks

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