11:48 AM PDT, May 10, 2022
It was a mystery that weighed on investigators for two decades. Who left a newborn girl to die in the Mississippi River in 1999?
And who abandoned a newborn boy four years later, on the banks of the same body of water, in rural Minnesota?
During an emotional Monday press conference, authorities said they had finally found a suspect, thanks to DNA and genealogy records. A woman believed to be the mother of both babies has been arrested and charged with murder, officials said.
Jennifer Matter, 50, is being held without bail in the Goodhue County Jail on two counts of second-degree murder, according to online records.
The charges stem from the 2003 death of a naked newborn found on the banks of the river’s Lake Pepin. The boy’s umbilical cord was attached and wrapped around his body, investigators said.
Authorities did not say Monday why Matter had not been charged in the first case in which the body of a newborn girl wrapped in a towel was found floating in the river in 1999.
Investigators said DNA evidence showed Matter was the mother of both infants.
“Charges may be amended or added at a later time as more evidence comes to light,” said Goodhue County Attorney Stephen O’Keefe at the press conference.
DNA testing in 2004 and 2007 determined the babies were related, but the deaths weren’t connected to Matter until recent analyses of genetic records, authorities said.
“For over 20 years the deaths of these innocent babies have haunted our community,” Goodhue County Sheriff Marty Kelly said Monday.
“The tenacity of several investigators in our office to obtain justice for these babies and the perseverance by our community who assisted us in finding answers have led us here today. We pray today’s arrest and charges provide some closure,” he said.
The cold cases were reopened in 2020, and investigators used genetic genealogy to identify the biological father of the baby found in 1999, the sheriff said. That identification led to Matter being named as a person of interest, authorities said.
Under questioning by local and state authorities last week, Matter acknowledged giving birth to both infants, according to the criminal complaint filed by prosecutors.
Matter told investigators she was drinking too much, in and out of jail and doing “a lot of stupid things,” the complaint said.
The woman said she gave birth in her bathroom in 1999, the complaint said.
“Matter stated that the baby was born blue, was not breathing and was not crying, so she freaked out,” the complaint said.
“Matter stated that she knows she should have gotten help, but that her mind was not there,” the document said.
Matter said she wrapped the baby in a towel, and a day may have gone by before she took the body to a boathouse on the river and left it there, the complaint said. Matter told investigators she had been drinking heavily during that period, authorities said.
She also told investigators that in 2003, she was alone at a public beach when she went into labor, the complaint said.
“Matter stated that it was dark outside, it was cold, that she did not look to see the gender of the child, and that she remembered leaving the baby on the beach before driving away,” according to the complaint. Matter later told investigators that the baby “was breathing fine and it may have been crying but she didn’t remember it.”
The 1999 case helped create Minnesota’s “safe haven” law, under which unharmed newborns up to 7 days old may be left at a hospital or health care provider without penalty.