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Mother charged in 2003 death of baby, linked to similar incident in 1999

With genetic genealogy and rapid DNA testing, law enforcement identified Jennifer Lynn Matter as the mother of both babies

Jeanne and Don Madtson visit in 2004 the graves of their daughter, who was stillborn, and a baby whose body was found in the Mississippi River in 1999. The Madtsons were at the cemetery for the burial of a second infant discovered in the river in 2003. (Nathan Berndt/St. Paul Pioneer Press/AP)
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In 2003, four teenage girls were driving along the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota when they spotted an infant on the water’s edge. The baby was dead — his umbilical cord still attached and wrapped around his body.

The condition of the baby was strikingly familiar to local law enforcement, officials said. Four years earlier, another infant death stunned the community in Goodhue County, Minn. About a dozen miles north, a man found a baby girl wrapped in a towel floating in the Mississippi River. She was dead, her umbilical cord also still attached.

Investigators with the county sheriff’s office confirmed in 2007 that the babies were related, but 15 years would pass before law enforcement found the person they said is responsible.

On Monday, Goodhue County Sheriff Marty Kelly announced that genetic genealogy and rapid DNA testing led them to the suspect — Jennifer Lynn Matter, who investigators said is the mother of the babies. The 50-year-old Red Wing, Minn., resident was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the death of the 2003 baby. She faces 40 years in prison per charge.

No charges have been filed for the death of the 1999 baby, though they may be “amended or added at a later time as more evidence comes to light,” Goodhue County Attorney Stephen O’Keefe said at a news conference on Monday.

It is unclear whether Matter has an attorney. In a statement to police last week, Matter said she was in a “bad mental state” in 1999, drinking heavily, and “in and out of jail,” according to the criminal complaint.

A young girl’s murder went unsolved for nearly 58 years. A 20-year-old college student helped crack the case.

For years, the babies’ deaths “haunted our community” and weighed on law enforcement officers working the case, Kelly said at the news conference.

“One of these babies, a girl, would have been living her adult life at 22 years of age,” Kelly said. “The other, a boy, would have likely just graduated high school, with his whole adult life ahead of him.”

The identification of Matter as a suspect is the latest example of how genetic genealogy can advance or help solve decades-old investigations. In February, investigators in Pennsylvania solved a nearly six-decades-old cold case, announcing they had identified the man who kidnapped, raped and killed 9-year-old Marise Ann Chiverella. He died in 1980. In March, law enforcement in Arizona used DNA analysis to identify the remains of a little girl found in the desert in 1960 as Sharon Lee Gallegos, a 4-year-old who was kidnapped by a couple near her home in New Mexico. Police have not identified the people responsible.

In the Minnesota case, a man was in his boat on the Mississippi River along the city of Red Wing on Nov. 4, 1999, when he spotted a white towel floating in the water near the boathouses. He figured it had fallen out of his boat and rode over to retrieve it, but when he grabbed the towel and hoisted it up, a baby girl fell out. An autopsy report from a few days after the incident found that the “infant was a well-developed term female with no congenital abnormalities or obvious injuries,” the arrest warrant says. “ … The coroner determined that the manner of death was homicide and that the cause of death was undetermined.”

The second baby was found near Lake Pepin on Dec. 7, 2003. The autopsy report said the baby was “probably born alive,” according to the warrant. It had “blunt force head injuries, possibly due to the birth process” and signs of hemorrhage in several parts of the brain. The coroner, who also did the 1999 autopsy, had the same conclusion — “that the manner of death was homicide and that the cause of death was undetermined.”

Since then, investigators pursued more than 70 possible genetic matches, who were each eventually found to have no relation to the babies.

In 2020, the sheriff’s office raised thousands of dollars from the community to fund a partnership with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology and genetic genealogy company. Parabon soon identified possible familial matches, which investigators said led them to Matter.

Members of the sheriff’s office and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension visited Matter on April 25, the warrant says. During the interview, Matter allegedly said she didn’t know anything about the 1999 baby and declined to give a sample of her DNA. The investigators returned on May 2 with a search warrant to collect the sample.

Her DNA was then sent to a lab in St. Paul, about 50 miles north of the county, where rapid DNA technology was used to identify Matter as the mother of both babies.

During a third visit on May 5, Matter told investigators that she was “doing a lot of stupid things” in 1999, had a drinking problem and a “chaotic life,” the warrant says. She allegedly added that she didn’t know she was pregnant and only realized something was off when she started bleeding as she drove her then-2- and 5-year-old children to day care and school. When she got home, she gave birth to the baby girl in her bathroom, according to the warrant.

“Matter stated that the baby was born blue, was not breathing, and was not crying so she freaked out,” court documents say. “Matter stated that she knows that she should have gotten help but that her mind was not there.”

An unidentified child found dead in 1960 was dubbed ‘Little Miss Nobody.’ Authorities now know her name.

Scared, Matter wrapped the baby in a towel and began “drinking heavily,” she allegedly told investigators. Matter took the baby to Bay Point Park in Red Wing in the middle of the night, the warrant says, and left the newborn in the water near the boathouses. The infant was found a few days later.

After initially denying knowing anything about the 2003 baby, Matter allegedly admitted she gave birth to the second baby on the beach in Frontenac.

“She explained that she was ‘almost positive’ that she was at the public beach by herself when she went into labor,” the warrant says. “Matter stated that she did not remember if she wrapped the second baby up in a towel or a blanket … [and] that she did not look to see the gender of the child.”

The baby was alive when she left it on the beach, Matter allegedly told investigators, adding that she never had a plan for what she would do when she had the baby. She said she expected that someone who lived nearby would find the baby, so she did not call 911.

Matter is being held in county jail and is due in court Tuesday, when bail will be set.