One mother, 7 dead newborns and a stunned community in Utah

Posted on Apr 27 2014 - 8:19pm by IBC News
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Pleasant Grove, Utah:  For Megan Huntsman, life was a miserable struggle. Her marriage decayed into substance abuse and violence, she told people close to her. Her ailing father’s suicide pitched her into despair and heavy drinking. Illness ravaged her family. She lost her job at a supermarket bakery and spent recent days alone at her boyfriend’s trailer home.

But all the while, the police say, Huntsman, 39, concealed a secret grimmer and darker than any hardship she had suffered: In the garage of her home, tucked away among old shoes and an artificial Christmas tree, were the bodies of seven infants.

One was stillborn, she told the police, but she admitted to strangling or suffocating the other six just minutes after they were born from 1996 to 2006. (Utah garage cleaning turns up boxes of suffocated infants)

Like the cases of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, the tale of a profoundly troubled mother and her dead children here in central Utah has again cast a national glare on the most intimate and inexplicable kind of crime. It has left this stunned community agonizing over how a slight, shy woman had concealed so many pregnancies and births, and whether officials had missed a chance to intervene before the grim mausoleum was discovered April 12 as others in the family cleaned out the garage.

Federal drug enforcement officers did not find the bodies when they visited the home in 2005 to investigate Huntsman’s husband, Darren Brad West, on charges of mail-ordering methamphetamine ingredients. Court records show that Huntsman allowed investigators to “look through the residence” and that they had found drug evidence in the garbage. Pleasant Grove police officials said federal agents had not gotten a search warrant for the home.

Two weeks after West was indicted – he would plead guilty to federal drug charges and be sentenced to nine years in prison – Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services received an anonymous tip that Huntsman was using methamphetamine, according to two law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation into Huntsman was continuing.

It is unclear how the agency responded. Elizabeth Sollis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services, said federal and state laws prevented her from discussing whether Child and Family Services had received such information.

Relatives, neighbors and friends said they had never even realized Huntsman had been pregnant. In the early 1990s, when she gave birth to her two oldest daughters, she concealed those pregnancies from her family until she was close to going into labor, according to the police. Over the years, people who knew Huntsman said, they simply chalked up the fluctuations in her 5-foot-4, 105-pound frame to weight gain.

“We are still in the dark about most of this stuff,” said her uncle, Larry Huntsman, speaking publicly for the first time. “We have no idea why she did this. How do you go through that many pregnancies without anyone knowing it?”

Even now, investigators say some details of what happened are shrouded in mystery, and may remain so. Medical examiners have completed preliminary physical examinations of the seven children and have sent DNA samples to the FBI to confirm that Huntsman and West, her now-estranged husband, are the parents. But they say the amount of time passed and physical decay may make it impossible to know with certainty the order in which the babies were born, or precisely when they died. (Police seek answers after seven dead babies found in Utah)

So now, Huntsman sits on suicide watch in a Utah County jail, awaiting a court appearance Monday, when she is expected to face six charges of murder. And friends and neighbors in this conservative community of 35,000 at the foot of the Wasatch Range keep trying to understand how they missed so much for so many years.

Codi Sorensen, a friend from high school, recalled bumping into her at a local Wal-Mart during the period that the police say Huntsman was killing her infants. She had seemed like the same old Megan, just a little older, Sorensen recalled.

Pleasant Grove’s mayor, Mike Daniels, said in an interview: “It shocks the system to think that something this horrific can happen next door and that you are completely unaware of it and that it went on for so long. It is a rude awakening that strange things and heinous crimes can happen anywhere.”

Pleasant Grove is a town with one downtown tavern and more than a dozen churches, a place Daniels called “suburban America, if not smaller.”

Huntsman grew up here, the oldest child of an industrial painter and a mother who worked in a grocery store, among other jobs. She was raised in the Mormon Church, but had not been active recently, her uncle said.

The family is not directly related to Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, but appears to share at least one ancestor from 18th-century Pennsylvania, before the Huntsman clan decamped for the unsettled West.

In an interview and in Facebook messages, classmates from Pleasant Grove High School recalled sleepovers with Huntsman and hiking trips into a nearby canyon. Her yearbook from 1993, her senior year, shows a young woman with strawberry-blond bangs, smiling softly.

She married West, whom she had met in high school, soon after she turned 18, and settled down close to her family in a home owned by her in-laws. West worked in construction, neighbors said. Huntsman occasionally babysat and cleaned houses to earn extra money.

After their first two daughters, the couple had a third who was born during the time that Huntsman has admitted to killing the other babies.

Huntsman later described a violent turn in the marriage, according to her uncle, and her most recent boyfriend, Jimmy Brady, with whom she was living when she was arrested.

“She had black eyes and was embarrassed to tell anyone about it, to tell people what had happened,” Larry Huntsman said. “It was pretty severe. She would not come around for long periods of time.”

The police said they had never received any complaints of domestic abuse from the home. West and members of his family either declined to be interviewed or did not return calls seeking comment. Richard Mauro, a lawyer who represented West in his federal drug case, said the allegations of spousal abuse were untrue.

West has not been charged with any crime related to the infants’ deaths. Neighbors described him as a caring father who had been hoping to rebuild his life after his recent release from prison. When the bodies were discovered, he had been cleaning the home in hopes of moving back in with their daughters, and denied knowing anything about the babies or his wife’s hidden pregnancies.

Michael Esplin, a lawyer, represented West in a 1991 case in which he pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old acquaintance when he was 18. More recently, Esplin said, West was addicted to methamphetamine, but was treated in prison. Esplin said West was “not a violent person.”

After West went to prison, his family asked Huntsman to leave the house. Her own family urged her to get a divorce, her uncle said, but – despite her apprehensions about West – she refused.

“She had no self-esteem,” Larry Huntsman said.

Meanwhile, Huntsman’s own family struggled with illness and death. Her mother has fought cancer, and her sister has endured life-threatening complications from diabetes. In March 2012, her father committed suicide after having chronic, painful leg and hip problems, Larry Huntsman said. Huntsman’s drinking became so bad that her mother intervened and got her to enter a treatment program.

Brady said she moved in with him last year, and for a time their lives were stable. She could be loving and mothering. Brady’s father, Mike, recalled one evening at a restaurant when his wife fell and Huntsman was the first to swoop in to pick her up.

She helped care for Brady’s 5-year-old son, and spent hours playing with the young children of her next-door neighbor Joshua Flowers, 34, taking them to a playground and chasing them around on bicycles, he said. “She’d come out and smile and say hi and talk about her kids,” Flowers said.

Two years ago, Brady said, she learned that she was pregnant. The two of them discussed the pregnancy and how it could affect their lives. She miscarried that August and seemed upset at the loss, Brady said.

On the day West’s family uncovered the seven tiny bodies wrapped in plastic and boxed away on the garage shelves, Huntsman and Brady had their last conversation. West had called her to relay the grim discovery, and she told Brady that years ago, she had miscarried a child, panicked and hid it away. She did not mention the other six, he said. Knowing the police were coming, he said, she begged him for a gun.

His voice trembling as he spoke on his front steps, Brady said he was still shaken.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he said. “I knew a totally different person than what’s on the news. I just don’t see how somebody could hide this many demons in the closet for so long.”