Dec 07, 2010
A Spring Lake woman pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder in the death of her 11-month-old daughter, whose skeletal remains were discovered stuffed in a diaper box in the attic of the family home, according to the Harnett County district attorney.
Johni Michelle Heuser, 28, was sentenced to between 11 and 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to murdering Harmony Jade Creech in 2007.
Though the cause of the child's death remains undetermined, prosecutors contended there was evidence of starvation.
Heuser had been charged with first-degree murder, but in entering the plea Monday, she removed the possibility of the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Heuser killed the girl between Aug. 31, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2007, but no one found out about it until Oct. 19, 2007, when a Harnett County Sheriff's Office deputy was called to the 1600 block of Ray Road in Spring Lake to a report of a missing child, District Attorney Susan Doyle said in a statement.
Heuser told the deputy that she had last seen the child the night before and that she discovered the child was missing from her crib about 11 a.m. A window had been opened and a screen removed, she told the officer.
Deputies, joined by the FBI, began searching for the child and eventually found the remains in a diaper box in the attic, Doyle said.
After being confronted by the remains, Heuser told investigators she had found the child looking white and not breathing in her crib one morning around the end of August or beginning of September, she said. Heuser claimed she had wanted to call police but was afraid she would be blamed for the child's death and that her other children would be taken, she said.
Heuser told investigators she wanted to bury the child but she couldn't bring herself to do it, Doyle said. Instead, Heuser wrapped the child's body in plastic and put it in a diaper box, which was shelved in the attic for at least two weeks.
Heuser told investigators that she opened the window the night before the child's father, Army Sgt. Ronald Earl Creech II, returned home from an Iraq deployment so it would appear the girl had been abducted, Doyle said.
Dr. Ann Ross, an anthropologist at N.C. State University, examined the remains and concluded that she could not determine the cause of death but that the probable cause was chronic starvation.
Dr. Deborah Radisch, the state's chief medical examiner, concluded in an examination report that "no trauma was identified and that the findings were inconsistent with regard to the presence of malnutrition/starvation."
Radisch concluded that there was no way to determine whether the child had died of a natural cause, such as sudden infant death syndrome, or whether the child had been smothered to death. The cause of death remained "undetermined," although Radisch noted that the child had a history of medical neglect.
Doyle said the state accepted Heuser's guilty plea to second-degree murder after consulting with Creech because the cause of death was undetermined and would have been "highly contested" in a jury trial.
Heuser was sentenced to a minimum of 141 months and a maximum of 179 months in prison.
"This plea to second-degree murder reinforces this office's record of continued resolve to punish those convicted of violent crimes," Doyle said.
Staff writer James Halpin can be contacted at email@example.com or 486-3509.