GREEN BAY, Wisconsin—A Virginia man charged with the gruesome murder of a young mother took the stand on Wednesday to blame her boyfriend for the slaying, and to offer an explanation for his Google locations on the night she died.
Brown County prosecutors say George Steven Burch—a 40-year-old divorced dad who was acquitted of murder in the 1990s—killed Nicole VanderHeyden about three months after he moved to Wisconsin for a fresh start.
As The Daily Beast reported, Burch’s Google Dashboard data, as well as DNA evidence, allegedly links him to the crime. Authorities say Burch’s Google account shows that the night VanderHeyden died, he was outside her home; and in the farm field where her body was dumped; and on a highway on-ramp where her clothing was found.
VanderHeyden’s boyfriend, Doug Detrie, was initially arrested for her murder but released because of a high-tech alibi: his Fitbit. He was never charged.
But on Wednesday, Burch offered his own explanation for the Google locations.
VanderHeyden, a mother of three and substitute teacher, vanished after a night out with friends on May 20, 2016. She’d fought with Detrie that night, then stormed out of a bar, never to be seen or heard from again. The next day, VanderHeyden’s body was discovered in a farm field 3 miles from her house.
Burch was arrested in September 2016, after investigators determined his DNA was on VanderHeyden’s body and a cord used to strangle her.
For his part, Burch claims he met VanderHeyden at a bar, then drove her to the Ledgeview home she shared with Detrie. They parked across from the house, Burch claims, because a light was on and VanderHeyden said her babysitter was home.
They started hooking up in Burch’s car, he testified. Burch told jurors he was having sex with VanderHeyden while standing outside the vehicle. Suddenly something knocked him out and when he woke, he was lying on a neighbor’s lawn with his pants around his ankles. Detrie was pointing a handgun at him, he claims. He said he saw VanderHeyden’s mutilated body lying behind the wheels of his vehicle.
According to Burch, Detrie forced him to load VanderHeyden’s corpse into the backseat of his car, before ordering him at gunpoint to drive her to the field.
Burch claims his adrenaline was pumping. He said he didn’t know what to do or what happened while he was allegedly knocked out. “We were in the car having sex, and then next thing I know she’s literally lying on the concrete right in front me,” Burch testified.
“Look what the fuck you made me do,” the killer with the gun claimed, according to Burch’s testimony.
Burch claims his mind was reeling when Detrie commanded him to turn down a dirt road. “I’m in the middle of somewhere. I don’t know where I am,” Burch testified, adding that he was “trying to figure out the best way to remove myself from this situation.”
After Burch carried VanderHeyden’s body into the brush, he claims he shoved Detrie down a ravine and “hauled ass to my truck,” he testified.
On his way home, Burch lit a cigarette and tried to collect himself. Unfamiliar with the area, Burch says he grabbed his Android phone and used the “Okay Google” function to get directions back to his friend’s house, where he was staying.
He testified that he got home, covered in VanderHeyden’s blood, and took a shower. Once in his bedroom, he stared at the ceiling. “I remember sitting there trying to replay things that had happened over the night and wondering what in the hell has just happened,” Burch testified. “What just went on? Just trying to piece it all together. Was it a nightmare?”
Burch says he then passed out in his bed. Hours later, as VanderHeyden’s family woke to news that she was missing, Burch went on a fishing trip with a buddy.
On Monday, Burch’s friends testified about the May 21 fishing trip in Racine. Burch texted his girlfriend, as well as the wife of a friend, a photo of himself beaming with a Coho salmon. The friends testified that they never suspected anything was amiss.
Burch’s attorney, Scott Stebbins, asked why he didn’t tell someone what happened. “One, I didn’t even know who to talk to. How do you have a conversation with someone like that? What do you say?” Burch said.
“I grew up an only child, and I’ve experienced a lot of things, and sometimes you just keep them inside. And just, now I see that it’s completely wrong and I should have said something or should have done something,” he added.
“But at the time, I kind of imploded and kept everything inside.”
Burch then stated one reason he never went to police: He was on probation for a grand larceny conviction in Virginia. If a Hampton court discovered he violated probation by moving to Wisconsin, he’d face a minimum of five years in prison.
Under questioning by Stebbins, Burch said he read online that Detrie was arrested and figured that he didn’t need to come forward. Cops already “had the person that had done it,” Burch testified. He claimed he never knew Detrie was released.
“George, did you murder Nicole VanderHeyden?” Stebbins asked, to which Burch replied, “No, sir. Definitely not.”
Stebbins then asked Burch, “Do you know who did?”
“Doug Detrie,” Burch said.
This story was nearly identical to Burch’s claims in court papers filed last year. At the time, prosecutors called Burch’s narrative a “fantastic tale.”
Burch took the stand exactly two years after he boarded a train from Newport News, Virginia, and headed to the Midwest to start a new life.
The first half of Burch’s testimony focused on his life story: his Southern upbringing, jobs in construction and restaurants, and his marriage that fell apart.
The 6-foot-7, 250-pound felon, nicknamed “Big Country” and “Steve” since childhood, wore a blue plaid shirt with a navy-blue tie and a graying ponytail. He appeared calm and attentive, while answering questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”
Those Southern niceties became louder and defensive under aggressive cross-examination from District Attorney Dave Lasee.
On Wednesday, prosecutors presented evidence that Burch used his phone to repeatedly check news stories on VanderHeyden’s death. He visited local news stories on the case 64 times in the days after VanderHeyden’s body was discovered.
Lasee tried to poke holes in Burch’s claims that he followed the news on VanderHeyden only for two weeks. On Wednesday, he questioned Burch’s claim that he had no idea Detrie was released from jail and ruled out as a suspect in the murder.
“This isn’t Hampton, Virginia. This isn’t Newport News. People don’t get killed around here all the time,” Lasee said.
Lasee challenged Burch’s excuse for not alerting cops about VanderHeyden’s brutal death by strangulation and blunt force trauma. The medical examiner testified last week that VanderHeyden had injuries consistent with sexual assault. She also had defensive injuries on her fingernails, hands, and feet.
“You’ll have the jury believe that’s because you were on probation?” Lasee said. “You had a grand larceny charge which you described as simple theft, and you didn’t want to do a little time for simple theft, so you thought you would let the murderer of Nicole VanderHeyden potentially go free?
“If you didn’t do anything wrong in this crime, why would you have anything to fear from your probation agent?” Lasee asked.
Burch replied, “Because I was not supposed to be in Wisconsin.”
Wednesday’s testimony brought Burch’s past into view.
The only child of George Stephen Burch Sr., an insurance firm supervisor, and Dianne, a beautician, Burch was adopted at one week old. He grew up playing sports and fishing with his grandfather and father, whom he described as his best friend.
Burch said Newport News and Green Bay were similarly tightly knit. But his hometown, he testified, became plagued with violence and drugs. Burch said he has five convictions on his rap sheet.
Sometime around April 2000, Burch met his future wife, Mary Elizabeth, who was visiting from Newburgh, New York. The couple moved to the Empire State to be closer to Mary Elizabeth’s parents and to start their lives somewhere new.
The couple married a year after moving to Newburgh, which is about 60 miles north of New York City, and had two boys. The children are now 13 and 16 years old.
It was in New York that Burch says he met mechanic Edward Jackson, who became his longtime friend, father figure, and fishing buddy. Jackson would later encourage Burch to move to Green Bay, as The Daily Beast reported.
When his father’s heart problems worsened, Burch and his wife returned to Virginia. “I didn’t want to be far away if something happened to him,” he testified, adding that his dad died in September 2014. Burch and his wife divorced about a year later.
Burch said Jackson encouraged him to move north to Wisconsin. He was not asked about his grand larceny conviction and release from jail in January 2016—one month prior to his relocation to Green Bay.
Jackson and his wife, Lynda, gave Burch a room in their house, a vehicle to drive to work, and new cellphone. In return, Burch said, he helped Jackson with his auto repair business and cared for Jackson’s father, who lived at the residence.
Burch was hired as a night manager at Blackstone restaurant, where he met a then-20-year-old woman who would become his girlfriend. Eighty-hour weeks for little pay became too much, and Burch quit and found a new job at a landscaping firm.
The Virginian became a regular at a bar called Richard Craniums, where he claims he met VanderHeyden in the early hours of May 21, 2016.
The night of May 20, Burch joined Ed and Lynda Jackson for a Friday fish fry at their favorite restaurant. After dinner, they took Burch to a mall to get a new cellphone, as Burch’s ex-wife was canceling their family plan, he testified.
That cellphone, which was put on the Jacksons’ family plan, would end up tracking Burch’s movements in the hours before and after he is accused of murdering VanderHeyden and become part of key evidence in prosecutors’ case.
Burch said he headed to Richard Craniums alone around 11 p.m. He told jurors that a bartender had his usual drink, a Jack and Coke, ready for him when he arrived. And that he charged his new Samsung Galaxy S5 at the counter.
Not long after, he spotted VanderHeyden standing at the bar by herself.
“I was in the bar area. I went out before and had a cigarette, came back and was standing there,” Burch testified. “And I don’t remember if I was watching TV or what it was or talking amongst friends around me, but I noticed there was a fairly attractive blond woman standing next to me.
“I started talking to her, just making conversation,” the alleged killer added. Burch said they talked about their kids and their former marriages. The discussions about life turned into flirting, and they stayed at the bar until closing time, he said.
Lasee accused Burch of driving VanderHeyden home with the intention of having sex with her. Lasee suggested VanderHeyden, who was nursing and had a baby six months before, wasn’t interested once they arrived.
“What really happened was you drove Nicole home, 20 miles away from where you lived, fully expecting that you were going to have sex, right?” Lasee told Burch. “That was your expectation. That’s why you’re driving her home, right?”
“Um, I was hoping that we would,” Burch replied, adding, “It seemed like that’s what was gonna happen.”
Lasee suggested Burch’s mood shifted when VanderHeyden backed out, attempted to leave his vehicle and escape to her house. That’s when VanderHeyen was slammed to the ground, strangled, and beaten, Lasee added. Burch denied Lasee’s narrative.
“How do you know? You were out cold when Nikki was assaulted,” Lasee said.
“’Cause you said I did it,” Burch replied firmly.
Lasee questioned why Detrie would enlist “a total stranger” to help him dispose of the body of his girlfriend. “I don’t know what his plans were,” Burch responded.
Burch testified that he didn’t see Detrie emerge from the house. He also claimed he did not witness what he guessed was a fatal struggle between Detrie and VanderHeyden. If he’d seen the altercation, he said, he would have intervened.
“In your version of the events, you’re assaulted,” Lasee told Burch. “You’re held at gunpoint. You carried the mangled body of a woman to her final resting place, and the next day, you’re going fishing with your buddy, with a smile on your face and not a care in the world.”
Burch denied being unphased by VanderHeyden’s murder and claimed he was “stressed out” and couldn’t sleep during his fishing trip.
“It was a preplanned event, sir,” Burch replied of the weekend getaway. “And I wouldn’t say ‘not a care in the world.’ That would definitely not be something I would say.”
Lasee had no further questions.
The Burch trial is expected to wrap up with closing statements Thursday.