N.D. woman charged, killing baby released to mother's custody 5-22-07

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A woman accused of killing her baby boy nearly eight years ago and putting his body in a suitcase on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation has been released into her mother's custody.

U.S. Magistrate Charles Miller acknowledged Tuesday that his order to release Dana Deegan while she awaits her trial was unusual, but said he was persuaded by the testimony of her mother and her supervisor at the reservation child program where she works.

Deegan, 34, was charged with murder last week. Authorities said the suitcase containing the body of her infant son was found in 1999 by a rancher along state Highway 22, north of Mandaree.

Deegan told FBI agents she gave birth to the boy, her fourth child, at home but was unable to care for him, court documents say. The agents said she told them she found the infant dead after she left him alone without food or water for two weeks.

At a detention hearing Tuesday, FBI agent Ryan O'Neil testified that Deegan told investigators she knew when she left the baby alone “that he wouldn't make it, that he would die.”

Miller found probable cause for a trial and set conditions for releasing Deegan into the custody of her mother, Donna, of rural White Shield, pending future court hearings. Dana Deegan will not be allowed to travel outside the reservation without permission, the magistrate said.

“It's not very often that this court would release someone on conditions or bond charged with the serious crime this person was charged with,” Miller said. “There's always cases that seem to present exceptions.

“There is a risk (of releasing Deegan), but I believe that risk can be reasonably mitigated with certain conditions,” the magistrate said. “I am struck by the people closest to her are willing to allow her to remain in her home, to remain in her work place.”

Among the conditions of Deegan's release are that there be no weapons in her mother's home. Prosecutors said Donna Deegan's son Wayne was shot and killed in White Shield by his brother-in-law in 2005. She told the magistrate that her home is not the home where the shooting took place.

Miller also ordered that an adult be nearby when Dana Deegan is in contact with children.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter asked that Deegan continue in custody, saying she had confessed to the killing and that she had twice sought mental health treatment, most recently this past February.

Defense attorney Bill Schmidt recommended Deegan's release, saying she has lived on the reservation almost her entire life and has no criminal history. He called Deegan's history of counseling “a red herring,” saying that it was “not because she victimized someone else.”

Dana Deegan did not respond to questions as she left the federal courthouse, and her mother declined comment. Her next court hearing was not immediately set.

In court, Donna Deegan called her daughter “a very attentive, good mother.”

Bernadine Young Bird, who heads the Three Affiliated Tribes' early childhood program and has been Dana Deegan's direct supervisor there for more than four years, testified that Deegan would be allowed to come back to work while she is released.

Young Bird said Dana Deegan has worked with hundreds of families on the reservation, handling such duties as development screenings of young children. She described Dana Deegan as a model employee and a good mother.

“I have everything positive to say about her,” Young Bird said.

O'Neil said he believed Deegan would be at risk of being harmed by someone if she was released because of the “emotion” on the reservation surrounding her arrest. Miller said he thought tribal police could monitor the situation and handle any attempts to harm Deegan.

Dana Deegan has three other children who are being cared for by her mother and Dana Deegan's common law husband, Shannon Hale of New Town. Authorities had no exact ages but estimated the children range from ages 8 to 14.

A telephone listing for Hale could not immediately be found. O'Neil said Hale and Deegan were separated. Hochhalter said he did not know if Hale was the father of the baby who died. Schmidt and O'Neil declined comment outside the courtroom.

Court documents say Deegan voluntarily submitted a DNA sample to the FBI in March 2004 after authorities connected “the Deegan family” to the crime, and that further analysis this past February confirmed she was the mother of the dead baby.

O'Neil testified Tuesday that the family connection was first suspected by a tribal investigator, based on where the baby's body was discovered. He did not elaborate.