A Nebraska teenager and her mother are facing criminal charges for repeatedly burying and then burning a fetus, the product of an investigation in which authorities obtained Facebook messages between the two discussing medication abortion.
Celeste Burgess, 17, faces charges in Madison District Court, including concealing the death of another person, after allegedly having an abortion and getting help from her mother in burning and burying the result of a stillborn pregnancy. Her 41-year-old mother, Jessica Burgess, is also charged with a slew of offenses, including performing or attempting abortion at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor.
A third person police say helped them bury the body, 22-year-old Tanner Barnhill, is charged with attempted concealing the death of another person.
Both Celeste and Jessica Burgess have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial, while Barnhill has pleaded no contest.
The statutes being used to charge all three people pre-date the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and the case did not initially hinge on data provided by a tech company. But the grisly case stands out for the use of social-media records to prosecute a teenager seeking to end a pregnancy, a development feared by advocates for reproductive rights as some states crack down ever more harshly on abortion access.
Now it seems that despite Meta’s previous indication that the company would protect those who were seeking abortions, private user data from the parent company of Facebook has been used to aid cops going after a teen who allegedly wished to end a pregnancy.
In a statement, a Meta spokesperson stressed that “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,” the spokesperson added. “Both of these warrants were originally accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing any information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”
The Madison County Chief Deputy Public Defender’s office, which is representing both Celeste and Jessica, told The Daily Beast that “due to the fact that this is a pending case, we have no comment at this time.”
According to a criminal complaint first reported by the Lincoln Journal Star, the Norfolk Police Department received a tip on April 26 that Celeste had “given birth prematurely supposedly to a stillborn child” and then secretly buried the body. Police say the tip indicated the teenager would have been 23 weeks pregnant at the time, and thus at risk of violating the state’s pre-Roe ban on pregnancy after 20 weeks.
Police say that when they approached the 17-year-old on April 29, she claimed she unexpectedly gave birth to a stillborn baby in the shower. The teenager allegedly told police she then woke up her mother and “ended up placing the body of the fetus into a bag, and then they placed the bag into a box in the back of a cargo van on their property,” according to the criminal complaint obtained by The Daily Beast.
The complaint states that days later, the mother and daughter buried the fetus on Barnhill’s parents’ property, and that Jessica Burgess took authorities to the site in question, where police exhumed a body they said had sustained “thermal wounds.” Authorities claim they later learned after interviews that the fetus was actually buried three times at different locations.
After conducting an autopsy confirming the fetus was stillborn, cops weren’t done. Instead, authorities served Facebook with a search warrant to obtain the teenager and her mother’s user data.
“When I conducted the interview with C. Burgess I wanted to try and figure out when the miscarriage occurred,” the complaint states, adding that “C. Burgess scrolled through her messages on her Facebook Messenger account” to show detectives she tried to message her mother before waking her up the night of the incident.
In one of the messages cited by police, Jessica allegedly reminded her daughter, “we burn the evidence.” Two minutes later, her daughter allegedly added: “I will finally be able to wear jeans... fuck yes.”
According to the affidavit for a search warrant, one of Celeste's friends contacted the Madison County Attorney’s Office in June and said she was with the teenager when she took “the first of the 2 pills meant to cause a miscarriage.”
The complaint states that Facebook provided the data and that investigators found April 20 messages between Celeste and her mother discussing how the mother got abortion pills for her daughter and directions on how to use them.
“In the messages, they discuss how C. Burgess needs to take one pill which is supposed to stop the hormones, and then wait 24 hours to take the 2nd pill,” the detective wrote in a search warrant. “C. Burgess talks about how she can’t wait to get the ‘thing’ out of her body and reaffirms with J. Burgess that they will burn the evidence afterward.” (The direction seems roughly consistent with the two medications used in a medication abortion—mifepristone and misoprostol—that are recommended for up to 11 weeks of pregnancy)
The messages are at the crux of the abortion charges against Jessica Burgess.
The prosecutor in the Burgess case, Madison District Attorney Joseph Smith, has been in the role since 1990. A 2004 profile of Smith in the Lincoln Journal Star described him as a hard-working and devoted prosecutor who is known for being hard on child abusers. In 1994, he helped craft new legislation that increased penalties for those who kill children through abuse.
But Smith’s long career has not been without controversy. In 2005, he came under FBI scrutiny when the feds tapped his phone as part of an investigation into Smith’s alleged friendship with a drug dealer.
Smith testified twice before a grand jury during the investigation, which ended in no criminal charges being filed, and his lawyer claiming he had been exonerated.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a case like this,” Smith told the Lincoln Journal Star of the abortion charges on Friday. “Usually, abortions are performed in hospitals, and doctors are involved, and it’s not the type of stuff that occurred in this case.”
Smith did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Although abortion is currently still legal in Nebraska for up to 20 weeks, after the fall of Roe v. Wade, Gov. Pete Ricketts attempted to convene a special session for the legislature to discuss stricter abortion laws. On Monday, Republican lawmakers found they were three votes short of being able to pass a ban on abortion after 12 weeks.
"It is deeply saddening that only 30 Nebraska state senators are willing to come back to Lincoln this fall in order to protect innocent life," Ricketts said in a Monday statement. “As Governor, I will continue doing whatever I can in my power to affirm the rights of preborn babies and to support pregnant women, children, and families in need.”
Ricketts previously said he supports a near-total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
In 2010, Nebraska became the first state to ban abortions after 20 weeks. There are currently only two clinics in the state that perform the procedure.
According to CyberScoop, Mark Zuckerberg told employees in June that Facebook would protect the privacy of users and that they were pushing to further encrypt their services. But since the pledge, Meta has come under fire for silently removing abortion content on Facebook and Instagram.
“Protecting people’s privacy is always important, I get that this is extra salient right now [with] the Supreme Court decision and that specifically bearing on privacy,” Zuckerberg told staffers, according to the outlet. “But it just has always been a thing that we care about.”