Authorities announce arrest in 1999 case of newborn baby found dead in trash bag

Kusum Tewari

“Detectives have never given up working on this homicide.”

Almost 21 years after a newborn baby was found dead inside a trash bag along a rural road in North Carolina, forensic genealogy has helped investigators trace the mother and arrest her.

Detectives at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office have been investigating the case since March 3, 1999, when a plastic trash bag was tossed from a moving vehicle onto the side of a road in a rural area south of the town of Hope Mills. Some hours later, a soldier driving down the same road spotted the bag and what he thought was a doll inside.

Authorities were called to the scene and discovered there was no doll inside the bag, but rather a baby boy with his umbilical cord still attached. Investigators determined the infant, who was not even 24-hours-old, died of blunt force trauma, according to the sheriff’s office.

Moose Butler, the Cumberland County sheriff at the time, issued a public plea for the parents to come forward. When no one did, Butler arranged a funeral service for the infant, whom he named “Baby Michael” after the patron saint of law enforcement officers. The child was buried in the cemetery of a local church on March 30, 1999, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Detectives have never given up working on this homicide, and finally got a break in the case,” Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright announced in a press release Thursday. “Baby Michael’s DNA was sent to Bode Technology, who specializes in forensic genealogy services, for comparison. The results gave a family line, and it was up to the detectives to narrow the suspect field.”

Using the DNA results, detectives identified 54-year-old Deborah Riddle O’Conner as the likely mother of the baby. They drove more than 200 miles west to Burke County to speak with her. During the interview, O’Conner told detectives she was in fact the baby’s mother.

“With only 12 days until the 21st anniversary of the Baby Michael, sheriff’s office detectives have finally closed the case,” Wright said.

O’Conner was taken into custody after the interview and transported to Cumberland County, where she was charged with first-degree murder and booked in the local detention center. She is currently being held without bond and is scheduled to have her first court appearance on Friday afternoon, according to the sheriff’s office.

It’s unknown whether O’Conner has obtained a lawyer at this time.

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