MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin woman accused of killing three infants in the 1980s will stand trial.
Nancy Moronez waived her preliminary hearing Friday and pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree murder. The 60-year-old bent over and looked down from her wheelchair for most of the hearing.
Moronez is accused of killing her newborn son and two children she was babysitting over a five-year span. The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office and Milwaukee Children’s Hospital at the time found the deaths resulted from sudden infant death syndrome.
Moronez’s son, 18-day-old Justin Brunka, died in 1980 in Franklin. Six-month-old Brad Steege (STEE’-gee) died in 1984 and 3-month-old Katie Kozeniecki (kahz-nee-ES’-kee) died in 1985, both in Milwaukee. The complaint says Moronez admitted to drowning her son and to suffocating the others with blankets.
The cases had been closed until 2015, when Moronez’s adult daughter, Ami Brunka, told police that her mother had confessed to killing Justin. That tip led police in Franklin to open a new investigation.
The case raises sharp questions about how investigators failed to detect foul play in any of the deaths.
Franklin Police Capt. Kevin Magno, who supervised the investigation, told The Associated Press by phone on Thursday that the autopsy results were the key. Without a determination of foul play, police would have had no reason to look any deeper into the deaths. Milwaukee Children’s Hospital performed the autopsy on Justin; the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office performed the autopsies on the other two babies.
“It’s pretty much closed when you make the determination someone died of a natural cause,” Magno said.
He noted that in the 1980s SIDS was often the default cause of death if infants showed no sign of abuse or trauma. Asked how drowning could be mistaken for SIDS, Magno said that his investigators learned that drowning infants don’t always suck water into their lungs like adults.
The National Association of Medical Examiners didn’t immediately reply to an email asking how SIDS could be mistaken for drowning. Attempts to reach child abuse experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the American Academy of Pediatrics also were unsuccessful.
According to the American Osteopathic Association’s website, inhaling water through the nose or mouth can sometimes cause the airway to spasm and close, preventing air from entering the lungs. Such circumstances are rare, however.
Asked for Justin Brunka’s autopsy report, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin spokesman Evan Solochek said the hospital doesn’t keep records that old. The Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is the modern-day version of Milwaukee Children’s Hospital.
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office has repeatedly declined to comment or release any reports because the case is now in court.
Another complicating factor was that the deaths occurred in two different jurisdictions, Magno said. In the 1980s, police departments kept most of their records on paper, making it difficult to trade information. Milwaukee police may not have known about the death in Franklin, he said.
“You have to step back 40 years,” Magno said. “Everything was done manually.”
He said the call on Justin Brunka came in as an infant in distress, making it a rescue call rather than a police call. He added he wasn’t sure if any Franklin officers even responded; the department doesn’t keep records back that far, he said.
“Three babies spread out over several years. Two different entities doing autopsies. Two different jurisdictions and communication wasn’t as fast as it was now,” Magno said.
A Milwaukee police spokeswoman didn’t immediately reply to an email.
Richmond reported from Madison.