Crime /

Nebraska Teen Faces Felony Charges After Facebook Messages Reveal She Had Illegal Abortion and Buried Fetus

District Attorney: 'I don’t think I’ve ever had a case like this'

A teenager and her mother are facing multiple felonies after they allegedly burned, and buried the teen’s aborted fetus this spring.

Forty-one-year-old Jessica Burgess and 17-year-old Celeste Burgess were charged in June after police obtained their Facebook direct messages through a search warrant.

The Norfolk Police Department received a tip that Celeste had miscarried and with her mother’s help secretly buried the fetus’ body.

Detective Ben McBride obtained Celeste’s medical records and determined that she was more than 23 weeks pregnant. In Nebraska, abortions are illegal after 20 weeks.

Several days after obtaining the medical records, the detective interviewed the teen and her mother. They claimed Celeste had unexpectedly given birth to a stillborn baby in the shower. She stated that shortly after, she woke her mother who helped her put the baby’s body in a bag. They drove out of town and buried the body, along with the help of a 22-year-old man named Tanner Barnhill.

The trio buried the body on a property owned by Barnhill’s parents.

In April, they voluntarily showed McBride where the body was located. Barnhill said Jessica and Celeste attempted to burn the body before they buried it. After the body was exhumed, it did appear to have thermal injuries to its body, according to McBride.

Though the mother and daughter were charged in June with removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body, concealing the death of another person, and false reporting, the investigation into their story continued.

McBride filed an affidavit in support of a search warrant, telling the court there was probable cause that evidence related to additional crimes was being kept within the mother and daughter’s private Facebook direct messages.

In the affidavit, he also noted that the fetus’ body had actually been buried three times at different locations.

McBride said that when he interviewed Celeste and tried to figure out when the miscarriage had occurred, she scrolled through her messages on Facebook and showed him where she tried to message her mother to get her attention. He obtained the warrant to search the mother and daughter’s Facebook messages and found a conversation between them showing that Jessica had obtained abortion pills for her daughter and instructed her on how to take them.

According to McBride, Celeste wrote that she couldn’t “wait to get the ‘thing’ out her body” and the pair said in the conversation that they would burn the evidence afterwards.

Forbes reported that this is one of the first instances of a girl’s Facebook activity being used to incriminate her in a state where abortions are restricted, “a scenario that has remained largely hypothetical in the weeks following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

A Facebook/Meta spokesperson said:

“Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion. The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion.”

He added that the company was prohibited from sharing information about the search warrant by non-disclosure orders, but that they have since been lifted.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a case like this,” Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith said Friday, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. “Usually, abortions are performed in hospitals, and doctors are involved, and it’s not the type of stuff that occurred in this case.”

The district attorney has charged Jessica with performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks, and performing an abortion without being a licensed doctor.

Attorneys representing the mother and daughter have declined to comment.

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