Nicole Finn convicted of murder in starvation death
A West Des Moines mother who rescued animals but tortured three teens adopted from foster care was convicted Thursday of murder and kidnapping.
Nicole Finn, a 43-year-old mother of five, will be sentenced at 9 a.m. Jan. 26 for confining the three teens in a bedroom without furniture or regular access to food or a restroom for months. A conviction for first-degree murder or kidnapping in Iowa carries a mandatory life sentence.
“In 18 years of being a prosecutor, this is the worst case I’ve ever seen,” prosecutor Bret Lucas said after the verdict was delivered.
The jury took about a day to ponder horrific testimony and gruesome images in a case where children were treated worse than the animals surrounding them: Mikayla Finn testified she drank from a toilet because she was so thirsty. The youngest daughter gave her emaciated sister Natalie a sponge bath from a kitty litter tray the day before the 16-year-old Natalie died. Nicole Finn's last attempt at feeding Natalie was a peanut butter smoothie from a used catsup bottle.
“I’m glad we got justice for Natalie, and can give Jaden and Mikayla some closure,” Lucas said.
Lucas said Nathan Finn, 16, also was exploited by his mother. But the three surviving kids are all doing great: “That’s the one bright spot in all this.”
The 12 jurors — eight men, four women — were escorted out of the courthouse by sheriff's deputies.
Nicole Finn showed no emotion while Judge Karen Romano read the verdict.
During closing arguments the day before, she shook her head, looked hurt and furrowed her brows at times.
But she didn't cry — not even when a prosecutor pointed straight at her, saying she carried out a plan to kill and torment three children she adopted.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt?” prosecutor Nan Horvat said in her final stern rebuttal before the jury began deliberations. “We’ve proved this beyond all doubt.”
Natalie Finn died Oct. 24, 2016, weighing 81 pounds, when the average weight for a teen her age and height is 125.
Siblings Mikayla and Jaden, who medical experts said were at risk of starving to death as well, spent months recovering after their sister suffered cardiac arrest. The two teens, now 16 and 15, live in foster care, while Nathan, adopted separately, lives with a grandfather.
The bizarre child-abuse case made national news, and prompted outraged Iowans to question how a mother could get away with torturing three kids for so long. It also caused investigations by lawmakers, Iowa's Child Death Review Team and the Iowa Office of Ombudsman that are ongoing.
Testimony in the case underscored what a state legislator said he learned in January in a private briefing with human service officials — that school officials and neighbors raised numerous red flags before Mikayla and Natalie were removed from public school last spring.
Several child abuse reports flowed to Iowa's Department of Human Services in 2016 alleging Natalie and her siblings were dirty, smelled and seemed hungry.
But some of those early reports weren't treated as serious and, later, in the summer of 2016, Nicole Finn thwarted efforts by a social worker and West Des Moines police to check on the children.
When a social worker and police obtained a court order and finally entered the home in August 2016, Nicole was prepared and instructed the teens to shower and clean up.
Beth Avery, the supervisor who oversaw the handling of the child abuse case for the Department of Human Services, resisted testifying. But Amy Sacco, the child-protective worker also fired, told jurors she offered Finn voluntary post-adoptive services on that August visit.
Medical experts testified in the case that all the Finn children had diagnoses ranging from oppositional defiant disorder to attachment disorder to attention deficit disorder.
The teens who survived testified that Nicole began requiring Natalie, Jaden and Mikayla to ask permission to leave their room, which she equipped with an alarm.
But the mother, who said she had lupus and fibromyalgia, often ignored them to sleep, work on her pet rescue in her garage or smoke, they said.
Used to being denied, "the skinnies," as Nicole called them, stopped asking.
A five-month decline
Walnut Creek Campus Principal Kimberly Lee Davis said school officials had concerns about Natalie, then a 10th-grader at the alternative high school, being neglected when she ran away from home in April 2016.
Natalie said her mother had slapped her in the face and that she had spent the night at a friend's house.
It was then, Davis said, that she began to sense a change in Natalie's relationship with her mother.
A psychiatric nurse testified that Natalie expressed thoughts of suicide — including asking her adopted mom not to give her food until she starved to death — in May of that year.
Anne Marie Enderlin said Natalie was sad, “sleeping a ton” and not eating much at that time, but her weight was not yet a problem.
Nicole Finn removed Natalie from Walnut Creek Campus in May 2016 after the teen was accused of stealing from a teacher to buy food. She said she bought food and hid it in classrooms to last her through the end of the school year.
Nicole took Natalie’s younger sister out of public school after seventh grade. But Mikayla, now 15, testified that her mother stopped homeschooling her after she opened the pet rescue in their home.
Over the summer of 2016, Nicole Finn required Natalie, Jaden and Mikayla to stay mostly confined in their shared bedroom.
Nicole claimed her children resisted bathing and eating to spite her, but the two siblings who survived testified that they had no choice. Mikayla testified she even drank toilet water when she was 13 because she was so thirsty.
Finn’s defense lawyers painted her as depressed, and mentally and physically ill. They said she became progressively foggy as the stress around her family grew.
What happened with the kids was “tragic and sad and terrible and all these emotions, but it’s not criminal," public defender Jennifer Larson said in her closing arguments.
A forensic psychologist testified that Nicole Finn wasn’t delusional or psychotic, but she did suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and major depression. He said he believed she dissociated from reality, making it difficult for her to perceive her actions. But a rebuttal witness, a psychiatrist, disagreed.
Nicole treated Nathan Finn differently from her other children, who were adopted as a sibling group when she was still married, the children testified.
Nicknamed J.J., Horvat said, Nathan was coerced into supervising his siblings and making sure they stayed in their sparse room, which became soiled with urine and feces.
Testimony from a mix of witnesses showed Nicole deeply resented her children for not bathing and going to the bathroom in that room.
In texts to her ex-husband, Joseph Finn — who also faces several felony charges — Nicole Finn called the three “worthless” and said she refused to feed them unless they showered.
Natalie Finn stopped walking several days before she died, the siblings testified.
On Oct. 23, Nicole Finn instructed Mikayla, then 14, to give her sister a sponge bath.
On Oct. 24, Natalie's last day alive, Nicole sent Nathan, then 15, to school.
She moved a space heater into the teens' bedroom and tried to feed Natalie a peanut butter smoothie in a dirty catsup bottle, a detective testified. Then she told the teens to take a nap.
Natalie vomited, choked and finally died on that bedroom floor in an adult diaper. Her body was covered in bed sores and she had little fat or muscle remaining on her body. Nathan estimated about 15 minutes passed as Nicole did CPR before he called 911.
On Oct. 25, Nicole texted Joe to say her children had “f----d her” and said she would blame child protective workers and police.
Joseph Finn II's trial has been continued until Jan. 8. The 46-year-old pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, neglect, abandonment and child endangerment.
His attorney, Jim Cook, has said the father didn't live in Nicole Finn’s home after the two divorced and “wasn’t around the kids that often."
Also in January: the trials of Marc and Misty Ray, whose daughter Sabrina starved to death May 12.
The parents face first-degree murder and kidnapping charges and other felonies. Marc Ray also was charged with two counts of third-degree sexual abuse.
The couple took in Sabrina as a foster child in 2011 and adopted her in 2013.
MORE TRIAL COVERAGE:
- DAY 9: Attorneys dispute Nicole Finn's attitude toward her children in closing arguments
- DAY 8:Psychiatrist: Nicole Finn was not dissociated when she killed Natalie Finn, confined siblings
- DAY 7: Nicole Finn was dissociated from reality, psychologist testifies
- DAY 6:Nicole Finn text to ex: 'Natalie needs to go' after daughter got money from neighbors for food
- DAY 5: Detective: Nicole Finn loved animals but sent texts calling her adopted kids 'worthless.'
- DAY 4: Nicole Finn's daughter: 'My mom knew I was hungry because I passed out'
- DAY 3: 'I'm not going to feed you,' Nicole Finn told daughter too weak to stand
- DAY 2: Nicole Finn ignored officer, caseworker trying to see her, jurors told
- DAY 1: Natalie Finn's family waited 15 minutes before 911 call, dispatcher testifies
- PRETRIAL: Nicole Finn's attorney moves to block evidence from trial
DHS' Foxhoven remains silent
Natalie Finn’s starvation, first exposed in a Reader's Watchdog column after a neighbor of the Finns raised concerns, shined light on flaws in Iowa’s child protective system, including that reports of abuse perceived as low level were not being investigated.
Many questions remain, including: Is the state doing enough to track those receiving subsidies for adopting troubled children? Are the procedural changes taken so far by child welfare officials in the wake of the case enough?
Were policies adopted before Natalie died as much or more to blame as the social worker and supervisor involved?
In 2014, Iowa's Department of Human Services began funneling thousands more cases perceived to be a lower-risk level to private providers for voluntary services, like counseling.
That was supposed to free the most experienced social workers to investigate reports of physical and sexual abuse, as well as the most serious cases of neglect. Formal findings of child abuse plummeted almost 40 percent the year after the change.
But it also resulted in fewer at-risk families having oversight by experienced social workers, juvenile judges and court-appointed lawyers acting on the behalf of children. And in the Finn case, school officials testified that some of their complaints weren't accepted for investigation.
Jerry Foxhoven, the head of Iowa’s Department of Human Services, declined to answer any questions about the case until the trial of Joe Finn, Natalie's adoptive father, concludes in January.
“Once the case is concluded and the county attorney has advised the Department that information may be released, we will provide the relevant information. At that time we could arrange an interview,” spokesman Matt Highland said.