21 years after ‘Baby Michael’ found dead in trash bag, DNA leads to woman’s arrest

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.C. — Almost 21 years after a newborn baby was found dead inside a trash bag along a rural road outside of Fayetteville, forensic genealogy has helped investigators trace the mother and arrest her.

Detectives at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office have been investigating the case since March 3, 1999, when a plastic trash bag was tossed from a moving vehicle onto the side of a road in a rural area south of the town of Hope Mills. Some hours later, a soldier driving down the same road spotted the bag and what he thought was a doll inside.

Authorities were called to the scene and discovered there was no doll in the bag, but rather a baby boy with his umbilical cord still attached. Investigators determined the infant, who was not even 24-hours-old, died of blunt force trauma, according to the sheriff’s office.

Moose Butler, the Cumberland County sheriff at the time, issued a public plea for the parents to come forward. When no one did, Butler arranged a funeral service for the infant, whom he named “Baby Michael” after the patron saint of law enforcement officers.

A funeral service was held March 30, 1999, at Hair’s Chapel Free Will Holiness Church on Duck Pond Road. Baby Michael was buried in the church cemetery.

Posted by Sheriff Ennis W. Wright: Cumberland County NC on Friday, February 21, 2020

“Detectives have never given up working on this homicide, and finally got a break in the case,” Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright announced in a press release Thursday. “Baby Michael’s DNA was sent to Bode Technology, who specializes in forensic genealogy services, for comparison. The results gave a family line, and it was up to the detectives to narrow the suspect field.”

Using the DNA results, detectives identified 54-year-old Deborah Riddle O’Conner as the likely mother of the baby.

“You know, this person had an option,” Wright said. “She had a choice but in this situation, the right choice wasn’t made.”

They drove more than 200 miles west to Morganton in Burke County to speak with her. During the interview, O’Conner told detectives she was, in fact, the baby’s mother.

“With only 12 days until the 21st anniversary of the Baby Michael, sheriff’s office detectives have finally closed the case,” Wright said.

Reporter Dave Faherty spoke with Deborah O’Conner’s husband on Friday morning.

Charles O’Conner told Channel 9 that investigators showed up at their home on Thursday, separated them, and questioned his wife in the yard for about 30 minutes before making the arrest.

Charles O’Conner, who married Deborah O’Conner 10 years ago, said he had no idea about the case until deputies showed up.

“I’ve had spells,” he said. “I’ve had spells crying. I haven’t slept all night.”

Both Charles O’Conner and his mother, Jean Dills, said Deborah O’Conner suffers from mental health issues.

“It’s just floored us,” Dills told Channel 9. “We don’t know what to think.”

O’Conner was taken into custody after the interview and taken to Cumberland County, where she was charged with first-degree murder and booked in the local detention center.

“I believe she’s completely innocent,” Charles O’Conner said. “She is not that type.”

She is currently being held without bond.

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