This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Dr. Cara Angelotta testified “complete pregnancy denial” happens 1 out of 2,500 times.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — After a morning of emotional testimony in the sentencing hearing of Theresa Bentaas — a Sioux Falls woman in the center of a 40-year-old cold case — a conclusion was handed down by Judge Bradley Zell Thursday afternoon at the Minnehaha County Courthouse.
Zell sentenced Bentaas to 10 years in the South Dakota women’s prison, with nine years suspended on a first-degree manslaughter charge after she admittedly gave birth to a baby boy in her apartment in 1981 and abandoned the baby in a ditch on the outskirts of the city.
At first, Bentaas pleaded not guilty, but later changed her plea in October 2021. In exchange, the state dropped first and second-degree murder charges. She pleaded guilty under what is called an Alford plea. It allows a defendant to maintain her innocence while authorizing the court to enter a guilty plea.
Even with the deal, Bentaas faced up to life in prison for first-degree manslaughter. Multiple times, Judge Zell said the final sentence of the case rested with him and him alone.
Judge Zell, with the South Dakota Second Judicial Circuit, emphasized how he struggled with the unique aspects of this case. He gave credit to law enforcement for their hard work in solving a cold case that happened 40 years ago. He called it “terribly sad, difficult human event that needs to be brought to conclusion.”
Judge Zell said it’s not clear Bentaas killed her baby boy.
He said his sentence is not what the family wanted, nor what the community may have wanted but he said it’s up to him to decide what is justice when considering all the circumstances of the entire case. He said he hopes the sentence brings closure and added it was not a simple decision.
Judge Zell said the autopsy revealed the baby had a small concentration of air in his lung and stomach. Judge Zell said there are no concrete facts for how long the baby lived.
Judge Zell said there’s been sensational coverage in the media and that’s not the facts. He said the CDC shows over 1,000 infants die in hospitals during the birthing process. He said no evidence supports Baby Andrew died due to cold.
During testimony, the judge heard from the man who found Baby Andrew in a rural ditch near 33rd Street and Sycamore Avenue. Lee Litz found the body of Baby Andrew in February of 1981. Litz called police who began their investigation.
That investigation stalled and became a cold case until almost 30 years later when Detective Michael Webb came across the Baby Andrew case while moving boxes of files to a new building. DNA evidence and 10 years of hard work would eventually lead Webb face-to-face with Theresa Bentaas.
Prosecutor Randy Sample asked about that first interview.
Sample: During your interview did you ever ask her why she did what she did?
Webb: Many times.
Sample: And how did she respond to that?
Webb: I don’t know if there really was a definite answer. It was more, ‘I was young; I was scared.’
Several of Bentaas’ family members also testified saying she is a loving, supportive and kind person and that the sentence she receives will affect the entire family.
Michelle Fischer called her older sister, Theresa, a second mom and asked the court to judge her by her life lived.
Bentaas held her composure but wiped away tears when her two children spoke.
“It is painful to sit in a courtroom with people representing my brother on the one side and my mother on the other. It’s like I’m being forced to choose between the two when in fact, my heart breaks for both of them,” daughter Melissa Feilmeier said.
Son Justin says he has observed an ever-present pain in his mom’s eyes.
“What transpired 40 years ago shattered my mom. It is a heartbreaking realization, but my mom has punished herself more than anyone will ever know and more than any institution can try,” Justin Bentaas said.
Listen to the full statements from Theresa Bentaas’ children in the video player below.
The defense asked for a sentence of time served, emphasizing the pain the family has gone through since Bentaas was arrested.
The defense noted no matter what the sentence is, nothing goes back to normal for the family. The defense highlighted Bentaas never admitted to “killing” her child and that she admits she lost a son.
Attorney Raleigh Hansman told the court that Baby Andrew died shortly after birth, saying the scenario of a crying baby dying in a ditch alone is false.
“Theresa Bentaas did not kill her child; Theresa Bentaas lost a son,” Hansman said.
The defense also had Dr. Cara Angelotta, a Forensic Psychiatry Specialist with Northwestern Medicine, speak via Zoom. Dr. Angelotta said Bentaas had a “textbook case of Complete Pregnancy Denial.” Dr. Angelotta said “Complete Pregnancy Denial” is a condition when a person doesn’t recognize a pregnancy. She said it happens 1 out of 2,500 times and it is a psychiatric condition.
The state said Bentaas remembers some details of the birth of Baby Andrew but doesn’t recall placing Baby Andrew in a ditch wrapped in a blanket. The state emphasized she remembers parts that match with the autopsy report. The state said the evidence also supports a “hidden pregnancy.”
The state had asked for 40 years. The state said there should be a consequence for what Bentaas did and Baby Andrew deserves justice.
“He deserved the chance to experience all that life offers. The chance that he was deprived, the chance to live a life. No one had the right to deprive him of that opportunity,” Sample said.
Bentaas will report to the Minnehaha County Jail in January before being taken to the Women’s Prison.