Today we’re diving into the true-crime angle of baby history with the story of the Van Der Sluys (or Vandersluis, I’ve seen it spelt both ways) family and how an unsubstantiated theory on SIDS from the 1970s started the trend for at-home infant breathing monitors and became a cover for serial murder.
This post will discuss SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) as well as true-crime this includes issues like child abuse, murder, and sexual assault.
We come to the early 1970s, in New York state in the little town of Mechanicville, a high school girl named Jane (but called Janie by her family and friends) has just started dating a guy four years her senior named Steve. It’s a long distance relationship as he lives three hours away in Syracuse. In September of 1974, Jane and Steve got married at the same Kingdom Hall they met in (they were both Jehovah Witnesses) and they immediately set about starting a family. Jane gave birth to Heath Jason Van Der Sluys on May 26, 1975.
But the family was very poor. On the whole Jehovah Witnesses are more likely to live in poverty due to the teachings of their religion higher education is strongly discouraged as a corrupting influence and regular employment is expected to take a back seat to Kingdom Hall meetings conventions which can last a week or more and, of course, proselytizing and volunteering for the church none of which is paid but even among Jehovah Witnesses, the Van Der Sluys’s were very poor. In 1976, they only made $1,100 at a time when the national average income was 1$13,000 – $15,000 and the poverty line for a family of four in New York state was $5,500.
So they moved in with Steve’s father, John, in Syracuse. Steve’s mother died of liver cancer just a few weeks after Heath was born and the following year when John received the life insurance settlement, it was a much-needed windfall. Inspired, Steve took out a life insurance policy for himself and Heath just before Heath’s first birthday. And the family was quickly growing, Jane was expecting her second baby in October of 1976.
On the day of October 8th, they put Heath, then 16 months old, down for a nap and Jane left her doctor’s appointment. Later that afternoon, the police got an emergency call: a baby was choking. When they arrived, Steve said the baby was choking on a coin from a pile of change he left near the crib. When he checked on him the baby wasn’t breathing and when he picked him up, a quarter fell out of his mouth. Heath was pronounced dead at the hospital and the police declared that the death was an accident. No autopsy was performed.
Less than two weeks later, on October 22, 1976 (on Steve’s 25th birthday) Heather Joy was born after a difficult labor. When Steve received the life insurance settlement of $10,000 for Heath’s death, he immediately bought his dream car: a black Pontiac Trans Am. After Steve’s father, John married Jane’s sister, Debbie (yes, you read that correctly) the newlyweds asked Steve and Jane to move out. With the life insurance settlement they were able to afford an apartment in a nicer part of Syracuse.
On the night of December 30th, Jane was awoken by Steve standing over the bed with Heather.
“Steve was standing near the side of the bed holding Heather, saying there was something wrong with her. She was very limp and her eyes were open but they weren’t focusing because they were just rolling, and she was very pale.”
Jane began mouth to mouth as the emergency services got there. Heather was rushed into the hospital where she recovered. She had been a perfectly healthy baby before this and once she recovered from the strange breathing episode, she was once again found to be healthy. But they kept her for four days to run extra tests, just in case, but they found nothing to be concerned of– and no reason to send Jane home with a breathing monitor as she wanted.
A few days after Heather was home from the hospital, on January 6, 1977, Jane came home from running errands and when she went to rouse Heather from a nap, Heather didn’t react until Jane yanked her up out of the bassinet. At a regularly scheduled appointment with the paediatrician that day, Dr. Chauvin found her to be totally healthy but Jane was convinced that Heather hadn’t been breathing before she picked her up. The following day, Jane had to work cleaning offices while Steve stayed home with the baby. When she got home, Steve asked her to go check on the baby. She found her not breathing. This time all hope was gone. Heather was dead. She was 11 weeks old. The autopsy declared that she had died of SIDS and Jane blamed the hospital for Heather’s death for not giving her a breathing monitor.
Steve collected another $10,000 life insurance policy and with the money the couple moved closer to Jane’s parents, using some of the money to start a janitorial business in Mechanicville. Jim Bowers, Jane’s father, had become suspicious of Steve having been home with Heath and Heather when they died. And so was a Syracuse PI, Frank Budlizek, who noticed that Heather’s death came right after the suspicious death of Heath. But there wasn’t enough to make any kind of case and then, of course, the couple moved out of the area.
Within a month or so of Heather’s death, Jane found out that she was once again pregnant, due again in October. The day she went into labour there was an ice storm and Jane and Steve slid into the ditch but made it to the hospital in time to give birth to Vicki Lynn. Jim and Anita took the advantage of Jane and Steve being so close by spending as much time with their granddaughter as they could. In other words, Steve was not left alone with Vicki if it could be avoided but in January of 1979, when Vicki was 14 months old, Jim and Jane were doing a cleaning job together one evening while Steve was at home with Vicki. When they got back to the apartment, Jane only had to look at Vicki in her crib to know that she was dead. Again there was an autopsy and again it was determined that she died of SIDS.
In the book Death of Innocents, they credit Bob Chase, the new owner of the local funeral home with sounding the alarm. Bob Chase was apparently working for the Butler Funeral Home back in Syracuse when Heath and Heather died. When he was called to pick up the third Van Der Sluys baby, all the red flags were flapping. It is traditional for the funeral home to not charge for their services in the case of an infant or young child’s death. Even though infants and toddlers are not normally embalmed because of the size of their veins (and the free services) Bob was determined to embalm Vicki because he was sure her body would be exhumed at some point. Then he brought up his concerns to the local police.
Police records showed that Steve had twice reported burglaries in order to collect insurance claims, only for the police to find the stolen items hidden in his garage, yet he wasn’t arrested. The family normally made ends meet with public assistance and disability insurance that Steve collected for the car accident before Vicki’s birth and for on-the-job injuries. Then there were the three dead children and Steve collected life insurance on all of them, including a$30,000 policy on Vicki, taken out a month before her death. The coroner couldn’t find the cause of death in Vicki’s or Heather’s cases and so use SIDS. Based on Dr Steinschneider’s paper at the time, it would say that SIDS ran in families. So all the police had to work on was circumstantial evidence and if they questioned him without enough to convince him to confess then that would be it, they wouldn’t get another chance. So the local authorities in Syracuse and Mechanicville were paying attention to the Van Der Sluys family even though their hands were tied.
With their apparent good fortune at losing and yet another child, Steve set about spending the life insurance settlement on a limited edition Trans Am: silver and grey with leather interior and a whole lot of other stanish bits I don’t understand. According to the Death of Innocents, the couple skipped town without telling their landlord or their families where they were going. After a brief stint in Oklahoma, where Steve was allegedly going to learn welding in order to start a new business back in New York.
By the time Jane gave birth to her son, Shane, in early 1981, they had returned to New York, this time settling in Farmington near Rochester (on the opposite side of the state from Jane’s parents). When the state police found out they were back, and with yet another baby, they contacted the local emergency services to tell them to report any baby in distress calls from the Van Der Sluys home to the state police immediately. This time around, Jane wasn’t going to take any chances, she got herself a breathing monitor for the baby and told Steve no more life insurance– not because she suspected him of anything– but because she felt that it was like gambling with their children’s lives.
Shane survived his infancy and was joined by a baby sister, Jennifer, in 1984. To their friends and neighbours, they seemed like the typical Jehovah Witness family. If Steve had been responsible for the deaths of his first three children, it seemed like he was going to get away with it; and if he wasn’t involved in their deaths, it seemed like the breathing monitor worked– not that it ever set an alarm resulting in a timely resuscitation, nor has any at-home SIDS monitor ever done so. But somehow, by some combination of factors, perhaps the grace of God, the family seemed to be out of the woods.
But you all know that’s not the end of the story. Buckle up.
From October 1984 to February 1985, Steve and Jane were foster parents for the teenage daughters of a fellow Jehovah Witnesses family. Steve said that “it was the Christian thing to do.” Then, in March of 1985, a doctor confirmed the eldest teenage daughter was pregnant with Steve’s baby. She was 16 years old.
I’m going to refer to this 16-year-old former foster daughter as “Doe” because she chose to be called “Jane Doe” on her court records but we already have a “Jane” in the story.
So Steve is arrested on April 3rd and charged with third-degree (statutory) rape and released without having to pay any bail– but with a court order to have no contact with Doe. Steve called up his “special friend” local PI Robert Beswick, and according to Beswick, “he told me he was in love with the teenage girl and asked if he should leave his wife and run off with the girl and marry her, or what he should do.” There’s no word on what Beswick advised, but Steve went to went into Doe’s school and left her a note in her locker.
Meanwhile, at the local Kingdom Hall, Steve is excommunicated for getting Doe pregnant. Now, does this punishment include raping a minor? or is it just for the failure to use contraception? By the strangest darn co-winky-dink, that Kingdom Hall had a pipe bomb thrown at it not long after. It wasn’t a huge deal, it was a pretty pathetic pipe bomb, but bombing a church is… you know, tacky at best. Once it’s discovered that Steve put a note in Doe’s locker, he’s arrested again on June 12th and held for a week. At this time, he tells his cellmate how he bombed the Kingdom Hall. (Quelle suprise!) and he’s charged with 30 counts of rape and six counts of sodomy with Doe, taking place both at his home and at the places he did janitorial work, all during a five-month period of time in which Doe was his foster daughter.
Of course, Steve denies his guilt saying,
“Allegations are being made but you’re innocent until proven guilty. My lawyer is handling all of this. I don’t mean to be a pain about not talking but I was told not to tell anybody anything. I have a wife and children that I’d like to protect.”
Then he admits that he’s the father but still denies being a rapist. Doe and Jane both agree with this. Jane said that the law made it all “so one-sided” and Doe claims that she consented to everything and “age doesn’t matter.” Regardless, in order to avoid prison, Steve pleads guilty and is sentenced to one year in county jail. When he tries to thank the judge for being so understanding and for allowing him to postpone the jail time to help his wife move (the landlord refused to renew their lease, and oh yeah, Jane’s pregnant! due within a week of Doe) the judge gives him a swift backhand:
“I have no sympathy for you whatsoever, sir. I’m not doing anything as a favor to you. This is for your wife’s sake, otherwise, I’d send you to Attica.”
In an interview with Jack Jones, a reporter from the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester), Steve excuses his repeated statutory rape by blaming it on the deaths of his first three children by SIDS.
Jack Jones reported, “both say they are troubled and plagued with nightmares from the bizarre deaths of their first three children. The children died in their infancy of sudden infant death syndrome between 1976 and 1979.”
Steve added, “We lost our first child and two weeks later our second child was born. Two months later, that child died and two years later we lost our third one. I still cry at night. I keep thinking there had to be something I overlooked, something I could have done to keep them from dying.”
Jack continued, “The couple said their two surviving children are alive because of special breathing monitors that sound an alarm to warn of potentially fatal breathing lapses. Both children suffer from sleep apnea, a breathing disorder associated with sudden infant death syndrome.”
Steve again: “When you’re under a lot of stress you act on impulse. You don’t take time to reason things out.”
Well, good old Frank Budzilek sees this article and calls the local police to tell them that Steve told police in 1976 that Heath died from choking on a coin, not SIDS. This inconsistency in Steve’s story about the deaths of his first three children was enough to get the police to reopen the investigations and to bring him in for questioning. At first, he pleads innocent and Jane believed that the police were persecuting Steve because he got off relatively lightly for the rape conviction, after all the judge did say he wanted to send Steve to Attica. She said she never ever expected Steve even though “he’s been deceptive most of their marriage.”
Steve finally confessed on September 6, 1985, well he confessed to the murders of Vicki and Heather (not Heath). Jack Jones reported, “Van Der Sluys told police investigators last September that he ‘felt like a man’ after he took the apparently lifeless body of Heather to his wife Jane, who revived the baby a week before she was found dead in her crib.”
“I shuddered, my greatest fear had come true of being alone to face the overriding pressures of the unknown. My depending on my wife was getting worse, not better. I killed my children because I wanted to get closer to my wife. Shortly after Jane left the apartment, Vicki started screaming and crying loudly. I went to see what was wrong and Vicki was standing in her crib screaming. I picked her up and put her on the dressing table and she was still screaming. I then took my hand and put it over Vicki’s mouth and kept it there about a minute trying to get her to calm down. I picked her up and she was still crying and I knew that Vicki was going to die. I put her head against my shoulder and I held her head against my shoulder, with her nose and mouth against my shoulder. I wanted her to stop crying and I held her like that for about five minutes until she stopped crying and then I felt her go limp. Then I took Vicki and laid her face down in her crib and put her face into the pillow, just like I had done to Heather.”Steve Van Der Sluys
“I would like to say that I did kill my daughters, Heather and Vicki. I would like to say that I did not plan to kill them, nor did I do it for the money. I think the reason is that i wanted someone, namely my wife, to love me more. I would like to add that I’m sorry for what I did and I’m glad that I confessed to this.”Steve Van Der Sluys
The bodies of the children were exhumed, and at the time, the papers reported that only Vicki’s body was in a condition to be re-examined. Dr Davies determined that Vicki had died of suffocation, explaining, “Medical experts today routinely rule out SIDS as a cause of death in babies older than one year and there’s no evidence the disease is genetic.”
It wasn’t long before Steve refuted his confession. First, he claimed it was a misunderstanding, “because my kids died, I’ve been riddled with guilt for 10 years but the cops totally misconstrued that. They thought that because I felt guilty, I killed them.”
Yeahhhhh, it’s all a big misunderstanding, Steve.
Then he claims that he was psychologically compelled to comply with authority figures (except in the case of judges, police officers, and authority figures in his church) and that weakness is the only reason he took out life insurance on his children. He only wanted a policy for himself but the scarwy salesman forced him to take out riders on Heath. And then Heather. And then Vicki. The funny thing about that, according to the life insurance agent, Mr Profitt from Monarch Life, Steve contacted him about life insurance policies and Heath’s was a separate policy. The policy for Steve was a technicality, as a law required that parents could only get life insurance on infants under one year of age if the policy was a quarter or less of the value of the parents policy. And then he contacted him again when Heather was a month old to get another policy on her and once he received the settlement for her death, Steve let his own policy expire. As for Vicki, Steve contacted Charles Mayberry at Massachusetts Mutual for a policy on her, one month before her death, calling for the settlement check the day after she died.
It gets worse: remember how Jane forbade him from getting more life insurance on their children? Well he didn’t listen. During the police investigation they discovered that Steve took out a $100,000 policy on Shane and another $150,000 policy on Jane. When Jane confronted Steve about this during an interview with Jack Jones while Steve was serving time in jail for the rape conviction, “Van Der Sluys denied his wife’s accusations, took her hands and while weeping, pleaded with her to remember remember how he always showed love for his children.”
And Doe told the police that, while they were together, Steve told her that they would run away to Canada together and get married once he collected on a large insurance settlement. In case that’s not quite sinking in, it looks very much like Steve had planned to kill Jane and Shane, and possibly Jennifer, in order to collect life insurance and start a new life in Canada with his former foster daughter. Jane still had a hard time imagining that Steve would ever hurt her (the whole affair with a teenager doesn’t seem to count?) and he told her that he was innocent of killing the children even after he confessed. Jane was unsure whether her husband was lying when he confessed or whether he was lying about being innocent. (One thing is for sure, Jane, he’s a liar.)
Jane gave birth to a son named Corey on October 9th, only five days earlier Doe had given birth to a daughter. When Jack Jones came to interview Jane in the week or so after the birth, he noted that Jane was still using the breathing monitor that she credited with preserving the lives of her two other living children.
In April of 1986, Steve was released from county jail for the rape conviction (note: he served less than nine months in jail) and was taken into custody to await the trials that would determine whether the evidence collected against him could be used in court. Steve was so obstinate during these trials that his own court appointed lawyer and the judge had to publicly scold him for not paying attention and to answer the questions directly. He openly sobbed– not about the deaths of his children or the pain this was causing his family– but about how stressful this was for him and how mean everyone had been to him. Clearly this guy was a real piece of work, but if the judge ruled that the evidence was obtained illegally, all of the jurisdictions would have to drop the charges and let him go. Fortunately they didn’t, Steve had been repeatedly read his Miranda Rights during his confession and repeatedly refused them; he had confessed both verbally and in a handwritten statement and then signed the typed statement.
He was formally charged with second-degree murder in the cases of Heather and Vicki, and with criminally negligent homicide in the case of Heath. As the trial for Vicki’s murder started in Saratoga county (where she had died), Steve was pleading innocent. Jane had, once again, chosen to believe him. He said that if he was found guilty, he would appeal but the case against him in Vicki’s murder was strong considering the second autopsy showed suffocation as a cause of death. At the prospect of 25 to life in state prison, as jury selection began Steve suddenly pleaded guilty for a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter which carried a sentence of between 8 ⅓ to 25 years. He not only pled guilty, he also reaffirmed his original confessions to both murders.
Once the Saratoga trial was over, and even before he was sentenced, he was taken to Onondaga county for the trial with regards to Heather’s death; this county also had an ongoing investigation into Heath’s death. Almost at the last moment, William Fitzpatrick was put on this case and he was concerned they didn’t have enough of a medical case against Steve, but he wasn’t going to accept any kind of plea deal. This is where Linda Norton comes in.
Dr Norton was a forensic pathologist specializing in child abuse cases and she’d performed over 10,000 autopsies during her career prior to the trial. Fitzpatrick asked her about what kind of defense he might face and she told him about Dr SteinSchneider’s 1972 paper, and that the study had taken place right there in Onondaga county. Norton explained that more than one SIDS death in a family should automatically be treated as a homicide case, and a “near-miss” episode prior to sudden infant death are more likely to be attempted murder.
During the trial Heather’s pediatrician testified that she was a healthy baby. Jane had to testify about the night Steve brought Heather’s limp body to her and then finding her dead in the bassinet. The judge also heard from the insurance agents and from Dr Linda Norton, who said that in her professional opinion after reviewing all the records, that Heather had been intentionally smothered to death. During nearly three hours of cross-examination, Menkin, Steve’s court appointed lawyer, couldn’t find any flaws in her reasoning. Outside of the courtroom, Menkin said that if Steve was convicted it would be due to Norton’s testimony.
“Onondaga county prosecutor William Fitzpatrick yesterday characterized Stephen Van Der Sluys as a greedy and immature psychopath who killed his children because he was jealous of them and because the $50,000 of insurance money he collected help solve his financial problems.”Jack Jones
“This is a trial about greed and about one man’s emotional inadequacy. This child, Heather, who should be looking forward to her 10th birthday was looked at instead by her father as an obstacle to his wife’s affection and a little girl with a dollar sign on her head. That helpless little girl was smothered to death.”William Fitzpatrick
Regarding Heath’s death, Norton explained that for a 16-month-old to choke on a coin, it would have to be lodged in the child’s throat. It wouldn’t simply fall out when they were picked up (and who leaves a pile of change by a baby’s bed?!). However, once Steve was sentenced, Fitzpatrick said the county dropped the investigation into Heath’s death.
Steve was found guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter in the case of Vicki’s murder and sentenced to 8 ⅓ to 25 years, and guilty of 2nd degree murder in the case of Heather, getting 25 years to life. On the recommendations of Onondaga county, Judge Burke ordered that Steve serve the sentences consecutively.
“Quite clearly, if there was ever a need for the death penalty, this is a case for it. That guy should be fried.”
Steve is currently at Attica state prison and was first up for parole in 2016 but it was denied and his next chance for parole is in 2022.
The press coverage of Steve’s trial led to the investigation of another New York state resident, Mary Beth Tinning, who was charged and convicted in the deaths of eight of her nine children, which had previously been determined to be SIDS based on the hereditary sleep apnea theory.
“Forensic experts say the Van Der Sluys case will make it more difficult for child abusers to get away with suffocating infant children.”
In 1992, William Fitzpatrick decided it was time to go for the source. He found out who Steinschneider’s “Mrs H” was, Waneta Hoyt. Nearly a quarter of a century after Steinschneder’s paper was published, she was brought to justice for the murder of all five of her children. When Dr. Steinschneider, then the president of the SIDS Institute in Atlanta, was asked about the case all he had to say was that, “It would be interesting if true.” He stood by the scientific merits of his paper even while the former editor of Pediatrics repudiated it.
But the at-home breathing monitor industry Steinschneider started has only grown. The fears of parents are exploited using outdated misinformation to sell monitors that aren’t medically approved which at best give a false sense of security, and at worst have led to infant deaths when the devices themselves pose a strangulation hazard. Even Jane, who was aware of her husband’s confession that he suffocated Heather and Vicki and even after the second autopsy on Vicki confirmed the suffocation, she still insisted on using the breathing monitor for her last baby believing that it saved her other children from death. Her instincts weren’t totally wrong: the Back to Sleep program began in the 1990s and though we don’t understand why it was effective in reducing SIDS deaths, it was. Prior to the Back to Sleep program, it was normal for parents to put infants down to sleep on their bellies and based on Jane’s own statements about Vicki and Heather it was normal for them to sleep on their stomachs, with pillows. When she started using the breathing monitor with Shane and Jennifer, they would have been put down to sleep on their backs. So the craze for home breathing monitors may have actually reduced the risk for SIDS but it had nothing to do with the machine itself, rather the position the babies were put to sleep in. In the Van Der Sluys case in particular, the monitor may have acted more as a criminal deterrent.
Doctors warn against the use of at home breathing monitors because they lack testing and often misinform parents about the benefits of the device and the risks of SIDS. Breathing monitors can encourage parents to rely on the monitor, or their phone, rather than checking on the baby itself. If an infant has a particular medical need for breathing or heart monitoring, then the equipment should be provided by their medical provider, and ideally covered by medical insurance.
It is important to note that only around 1% of deaths that are reported as SIDS are the result of intentional suffocation. Cases like Marie Noe, Van Der Sluys, Tinning, and Hoyt may have shed light on a heinous crime and the failures of the peer review process, but they are the exception. This is why when families are grieving the loss of a baby to SIDS there is an investigation, it may seem callous but it is necessary both to rule out a known cause of death and to learn as much as we can about this inexplicable tragedy. There are efforts around the world to establish SIDS registries so that researchers can track and learn more about it.
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Bonafide, Christopher, A. Russell Localio, Daria F. Ferro. 2018. “Accuracy of Pulse-Oximetry-Based Home Baby Monitors.” JAMA, 320(7), 717-719.
Democrat and Chronicle (archives accessed via newspaperarchive)
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