Mom convicted of murder in daughter’s starvation death
DES MOINES — An Iowa mother who rescued animals but tortured three teens adopted from foster care was convicted Thursday of murder and kidnapping.
Nicole Finn, 43, of West Des Moines could spend the rest of her life in prison for confining the three teens in a bedroom without furniture or regular access to food or a restroom for months.
“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.
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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.”
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 brow 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 was 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 brother 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 three 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.
Nicole Finn’s ex-husband, Joseph Finn, 46, pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, neglect, abandonment and child endangerment. His trial has been continued until Jan. 8.
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.”