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It was a lovely spring Saturday in Green Bay, Wisconsin when a farmer stumbled across a horrifying sight on his land.
“Oh, god, we just found a human body,” he told the 911 dispatcher on May 21, 2016, in audio obtained by “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
The body was off in a wooded area, not visible from the road. It was a blonde woman laying face down who appeared to be in her 30s. There were no identifying marks on the body or obvious cause of death from that position, though police noted she was still wearing a pink club wristband, socks, and had what appeared to be a shoe mark on her back.
Then they rolled her over.
“The extent of injuries that she suffered were pretty horrific,” said Brown County Sheriff Sgt. Richard Loppnow. “There was trauma to her neck that would indicate possible strangulation, in addition to lacerations and bruising throughout her body. Her fingernails were damaged, indicative of defensive wounds. That tells us she was fighting for her life.”
Police were still at the scene when the sheriff's office got another call on the non-emergency line around 4:30 p.m..
“How do I go about a, I guess, a missing person?” asked the caller, Doug Dietrie, in audio obtained by "An Unexpected Killer."
He was calling to report that he hadn't seen his girlfriend, Nicole VanderHeyden, a 31-year-old mother of three, since the night before.
Police went straight over to the couple's home, where Doug looked "hungover," Brown County Sheriff Sgt. Tracy Holschbach said.
He told them he and Nicole, known to loved ones as Nikki, had gone out with friends to a local bar to watch live music.
"As the night progressed, they had been consuming alcohol and Doug had ran into some friends from high school that he had not seen in a while,” said Holschbach. “He confirmed that Nikki was mad because she saw Doug talking to another female at [a bar called] The Watering Hole. And this basically set her off.”
Doug stayed at The Watering Hole with his friend Gregg while Nikki went with a group to The Sardine Can.
“Nikki was definitely angry texting Doug,” said Holschbach. “She made mention of ‘What bitch are you talking to?’ she was accusing him of cheating, telling him that he was abusive.”
Doug said that he and Gregg left The Watering Hole around 12:30 a.m. to look for Nikki, but she wasn’t at The Sardine Can. So, he headed home, assuming she'd be there. When he got there, he found just the babysitter with their infant son; Nikki’s two other kids, whom she'd had when she was married, were at their dad’s for the weekend. He figured Nikki would eventually show up, but when she wasn't there the next morning, he made the call.
The body in the field was identified as Nikki, devastating Doug.
Soon, an officer noticed bloody clothing along the side of the road about a mile from where the body was found: It was Nikki’s. After searching the area, police also found her purse — with her cell phone and ID — and shoes near the same spot. They submitted the items for analysis — but, due to backups at the lab, they were limited to 10 submissions at a time. Then, they received Nikki's autopsy report, which confirmed she had been strangled and hit in the head. There were also signs she had potentially been sexually assaulted.
Police were also able to obtain surveillance footage from The Sardine Can and saw Nikki and her friends on the footage from around 11:15 p.m. until around 11:45 p.m. on May 20, 2016. Nikki looked visibly upset while on her phone, Brown County Sheriff Lt. Brian Slinger claimed. She eventually got up and stormed off, with her friend Aaron Glinsky following her.
Glinsky told authorities Nikki was having fun until Doug stopped responding to her. She became upset, he said, and left on foot. Glinsky claimed he tried to convince her to come back or get a taxi home, but an argument ensued. Eventually, after Nikki got physical with him, he walked away.
People who confirmed the argument, and surveillance video shows Aaron returning to the bar alone around 11:43 — less than than three minutes after Nikki and he had left the bar. Aaron and the friends all took an Uber home shortly thereafter.
Doug and Gregg then arrived at The Sardine Can around 12:18 a.m., according to the cameras, but began just hanging out, not looking for Nikki.
“It is definitely inconsistent with the sense of the concern he was initially talking about,” said Loppnow.
The surveillance camera showed the two stayed at the bar until 2:15 a.m.
The cops' suspicions about Doug were intensified by how he didn't seem to have been searching too hard for the girlfriend who had been berating him by phone the night of her disappearance, and by Nikki's family, who claimed he'd been abusive. A background check turned up an ex-girlfriend, Rebecca, who'd filed a domestic violence claim against him that hadn't resulted in charges.
Investigators obtained a warrant to search the couple’s home.
“There were several things of concern that were located,” said Loppnow. “There was blood on the floor in the garage, there was blood and dirt found in Nikki’s vehicle.”
When the search was happening, neighbors approached and said they’d discovered blood on their curb and said they had also hit a cord with their lawnmower — providing police with two pieces of an Android phone charger. Investigators then discovered “clumps of blonde hair.”
“It was pretty apparent to us that that’s where the altercation took place, that’s where she was likely killed,” said Loppnow.
Police arrested Doug.
But the evidence against Doug stopped adding up: He'd left his car at The Watering Hole, which was confirmed by video, and records obtained from Nikki's vehicle showed it hadn't been used the night of her death.
Authorities questioned Gregg as a potential accessory to Nikki's murder, surmising that he might have helped Doug move the body. Gregg's timeline, however, added up with Doug's. Location data from Doug and Gregg’s phones eventually corroborated their statements.
And, despite the cops' suspicions, the crime lab couldn’t find any evidence of Doug’s DNA on Nikki’s body, and it didn’t match the unknown male DNA that was found on her. It also turned out that the blood on the garage floor wasn’t human — it was likely from a turkey Doug had hunted and butchered in the garage — while the blood and dirt in Nikki’s car came from one of her kids.
In addition, according to court records, Nikki had bought Doug a Fitbit, which he'd been wearing on the night of her disappearance. It showed that he'd only walked 12 steps and was sleeping between about 2:45 a.m., when he arrived home, and 6:30 a.m., when he got up to feed their baby.
Cops had to finally admit it wasn't Doug and start looking for other suspects — as well as continue to submit 10 samples at a time from the crime scene and her recovered clothes to the lab.
Finally, in August 2016, they got one hit from the socks she was still wearing when her body was discovered. It belonged to a man named George Steven Burch.
While investigating Burch they found he had been interviewed by that department on June 8 about a hit-and-run accident, a stolen vehicle report, and a car fire, according to court records. In the course of that investigation, to prove that he couldn't be involved, Burch claimed to have been texting a woman from a bar on the night in question and offered to let the Green Bay Police review his phone records to prove it.
They cloned his phone, per departmental policy, and returned it to him. So when the Brown County Sheriff's Department came calling in August, the Green Bay Police had a record of everything on Burch's phone less than three weeks after Nikki's murder.
Those records, combined with records then obtained directly from Google, placed Burch at a bar called Richard Craniums — close to The Sardine Can — until the wee hours of Saturday morning. Then, his phone data put him outside of Nikki and Doug's house from around 3:00 a.m. until 3:15 a.m., at the farm where Nikki's body was found just before 4:00 a.m., at the spot where her clothes were found around 4:05 a.m., and finally at his own house.
On Sept. 7, 2016, Burch was brought in for questioning and refused to answer, so he was arrested. He went to trial on Feb. 19, 2018 — and eventually took the stand in his own defense. He claimed he had met Nikki at the bar, they had started flirting, and he brought her back to her house.
He claimed they had sex in his car there, but then someone came over, hit him in the head with a gun, and knocked him out.
“The next thing I remember was literally waking up on the ground outside the truck,” Burch testified.
He claimed he saw Nikki was dead. Doug, he alleged, was holding him at gunpoint and forced him to drive him and help dispose of the body.
But between the Fitbit evidence that Doug only took 12 steps at that time — court records indicate that the Fitbit evidence that Doug was sleeping was excluded at trial — and a lack of Burch's blood at the scene where he was supposedly hit on the head, the jury didn't buy his story.
Prosecutors argued that, after her arguments with Doug and then Aaron, Nikki walked on foot to the nearby Richard Craniums bar, where Burch had been a regular. At some point, the two started talking and he offered her a ride home.
“They end up in front of her house and I believe at that point, George thought he was going to get some action for taking a girl home and didn’t expect her to start fighting," said Loppnow
After sexually assaulting her, he strangled her with the phone cord, prosecutors said.
“She fell out of the vehicle, he continued to stomp on her back and her head, eventually killing her” said Slinger.
Burch was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide on March 1, 2018, according to jail records, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the cell phone data should've been excluded because it was gathered in a prior investigation and that prosecutors didn't properly authenticate the methodology behind the Fitbit step data.
The Supreme Court rejected his appeal on June 29, 2021.
He is currently incarcerated at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, which "safely and humanely houses, manages, and controls inmates who have been classified maximum custody" and "provides inmates the opportunity to acquire skills needed for potential integration into less secure correctional environments," according to the facility's website.
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