It was bitterly cold, with fresh snow and ice on the ground, when Pennsylvania State troopers arrived at Amy and Drew Hoenigke’s red-roofed home.
After making their way through a “very congested” space—the front door was blocked off by items on the porch, with large stacks of firewood lying nearby as the rural Sullivan County home’s only apparent heat source—officers were greeted by the couple in the living room.
It was Jan. 20, 2022, and Drew Hoenigke was sitting on the couch drinking a beer with Amy by his side, while their two-year-old daughter was on a laptop on a small table, police say. The corpse upstairs pointed to a far less mundane state of affairs: Amy had called the police to inform them that their newborn son, Mahko, was dead, according to a probable cause affidavit.
In fact, Mahko had died three days prior.
The parents told cops that the child’s body was upstairs in a wooden bassinet in their bedroom, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a knit hat. Next to Mahko, who was born on Jan. 14 and who police say was already showing signs of decomposition, they found “an infuser and a container with remnants of burned herbs.”
Back downstairs, investigators would also find a “wooden box” that 31-year-old Drew Hoenigke said he built as “a coffin for his son.” He told police he had been unable to actually bury the child because of the frozen ground.
According to police, Mahko was dressed “for burial,” with his 34-year-old mother telling investigators she had rubbed “his back with essential oils” and put “kosher salt on his umbilical cord.” The Hoenigkes would also later tell investigators, the affidavit for probable cause states, that this was the second time they were going through the process of trying to bury a baby at home.
The startling discovery launched an even more harrowing investigation into what exactly happened after Amy Hoenigke gave birth to Mahko on the sheet-lined couch in their living room alongside her husband and a friend. According to police, while Drew went several towns away for work, his wife and the friend struggled to keep the newborn alive after an initially successful home birth. They allegedly tried herbs, teas, and even fashioning a breathing tube with a water bottle straw—rather than calling for professional, science-based medical help.
Ultimately, Mahko died in the early morning of Jan. 17 after repeatedly struggling to breathe and frequently turning limp “and blue,” by his mother’s own account.
Drew Hoenigke told The Daily Beast that the decision not to immediately call the police when their son started looking sick—and wait three days after he died—was rooted in a distrust of medicine and fear for their two-year-old daughter Hettis’ safety. He said that the elder child, who was also born at home, has never been vaccinated for anything, and did not have a birth certificate at the time of her newborn brother’s death.
“This whole ordeal is so traumatizing. I would rather go through a hospital birth just to save us from our doom.”
— Drew Hoenigke
“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” Hoenigke told The Daily Beast, breaking down into tears as he described the family’s decision to finally call the police. “We got to the point where we knew we had to do something about this. We didn’t want to try to hide what happened and we knew we had to go through the process. But we were worried about our daughter and what would happen to her.”
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has charged Hoenigke and his wife with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, and endangering the welfare of children in connection with the death of their son. Prosecutors also charged Brigitte Meckes, the 47-year-old family friend who had gone to nursing school and had been present at the birth and its grim aftermath, with the same offenses.
In this case, prosecutors are insisting that while it is not illegal to veer away from mainstream medicine during childbirth, or even afterward, the Hoenigkes had a duty to set aside their beliefs to save their son’s life. But the case, according to legal experts canvassed by The Daily Beast, is no slam dunk—and raises difficult questions about when, exactly, bad parenting becomes a crime.
“Obviously, the parents miscalculated in a horrible way. They did not make the right choices here,” Lawrence Gostin, a director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law Center, said in an interview. “But to bring the strong arm of the law—I don’t know if it helps the situation.”
The Hoenigkes have since been released and will face a preliminary hearing in the new year. Court documents show that Meckes was being held at the Columbia County Prison on a $150,000 bond. During the reporting of this story, citing the advice of an attorney, Hoenigke stopped responding to The Daily Beast’s questions, and attempts to reach his wife and Meckes—or their attorneys—for comment were not successful.
“These individuals neglected their responsibilities to care for an innocent child,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who will soon be the state’s governor, said in a statement about the charges. “By failing to get him appropriate medical care, this baby needlessly suffered and died. Terrible tragedies like these can be prevented, and my office will hold individuals accountable who knowingly put the lives of others, especially vulnerable children, at risk.”
To prove their point, prosecutors lay out a series of disturbing allegations against the Hoenigkes and their family friend in the affidavit for probable cause.
Among them: That Amy Hoenigke initially lied and suggested to police that she woke up to find her son dead without any prior indication the child was unwell, and was misleading about the length of time during which the newborn was suffering prior to his death. That the mother admitted that she didn’t want to call the police because she didn’t want authorities to take away her daughter. And that Amy Hoenigke and Meckes used a peppermint oil infuser to try to improve Mahko’s breathing, attempted to create a breathing tube from a water bottle, and even Googled infant care techniques—instead of calling for help.
“It’s going to be hard to show criminal intent. Since there was no licensed doctor or nurse there, it’s going to be hard to prosecute this charge.”
— Lawrence Gostin
“[Amy] Hoenigke and Meckes both consciously made the decision to deny a struggling newborn baby the proper medical help needed to save its life so that [Hettis] would not be discovered,” the affidavit states. “In addition to the training and experience of Meckes, it was disclosed to investigators they not only had access to a smartphone which could have been used to summon help, but also a laptop with internet.”
Prosecutors also allege that Drew Hoenigke was aware of his baby’s decline from afar, while traveling for work, but took no steps to try to intervene to save his life. He is even accused of trying to suggest to authorities that he “did not want his son to receive medical help due to their beliefs in modern medicine and cited their Jewish faith as their guiding principle.”
The affidavit says that Amy Hoenigke’s own mother texted her daughter the day after Mahko died, “Amy your [sic] not Jewish.” (Attempts to reach Amy’s mother for comment for this story were unsuccessful.)
This is not the first time the Hoenigkes have lost a child.
The affidavit notes that the couple disclosed “a prior birth of a fetus which they buried” behind Amy Hoenigke’s parents’ home a few towns over. Investigators ultimately discovered the remains using a hand-drawn map that Drew Hoenigke provided.
Despite the evidence, Gostin—who is also a Daily Beast contributor—said prosecutors will face something of an uphill battle before a jury.
“It’s going to be hard to show criminal intent. Since there was no licensed doctor or nurse there, it’s going to be hard to prosecute this charge,” he said, noting that the couple’s stated opposition to vaccination could possibly help them argue pre-existing beliefs factored into their decisions.
“Vaccinating children is the best thing parents can do to protect their children’s health,” Gostin added. “Children are at risk for a whole host of infectious diseases if they’re unvaccinated.” That said, he noted, “even though it’s dangerous, not vaccinating children is not illegal. Parents face no penalties for failing to vaccinate their children.”
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office stressed to The Daily Beast that the case “is not a matter of the individuals being prosecuted for a lifestyle choice or a decision about their bodies.”
“Pennsylvania law clearly specifies that there is a duty of care that exists when a child is born,” the spokesperson added.
The Hoenigkes have long strived to “live a more natural” lifestyle, according to the family patriarch.
That lifestyle, Drew Hoenigke said, meant not vaccinating their daughter and generally shying away from the mainstream “medical industry.” It also meant home births, a personal choice for every pregnant person that allows them to deliver without most medical interventions.
“I personally am a very strong advocate for home births,” Hoenigke said. “My daughter was born with a home birth and it went smoothly.”
The affidavit of probable cause goes further, however, indicating that Hoenigke’s wife told investigators that the family “do not live a conventional lifestyle and choose not to pay attention to things like time frames or even keep track of the days.”
“They made the decision to live a primitive lifestyle and raise their children in the same manner,” the affidavit states.
Hoenigke told The Daily Beast that he was “pretty pissed” when he saw that authorities described their lifestyle as primitive—arguing that they are completely in touch with modern life, but that they just prefer to be “more holistic.” He also said that Mahko’s birth “only took about 40 to 45 minutes and it was very calm” even though it was inside his house.
In a police interview, Amy Hoenigke said that Meckes had also been present at the time of her son’s delivery—like she had been at her daughter’s birth years prior. The affidavit states that Meckes was described as a “good friend” who “worked in the medical field” and had passed nursing school, but was not a licensed professional.
“Cops say that despite what she told her own mother, Amy Hoenigke admitted to police that it was her lack of faith in the medical system that prompted her to stay at home.”
Later, Amy allegedly admitted to cops that she had initially lied—that she and Meckes had “made a pact to tell police” Mahko “was discovered dead Monday morning [on Jan. 17] in the basement.” In reality, the affidavit notes that she eventually admitted “the death was a prolonged event and in no way a sudden incident.”
The mother went into detail about the decline of her child’s health, ultimately indicating that it began shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, when she realized that something was wrong and that Mahko looked “kind of blue,” according to the affidavit.
“Meckes, having worked as a surgical technician and going through nursing school, was trained to know the signs and symptoms of difficulty breathing and when to summon a higher level of care, but failed to do so,” the affidavit says.
The document notes that Drew Hoenigke had left the house by the time the newborn began to show signs of distress.
The father told The Daily Beast that while he was receiving distressing messages from his wife, he didn’t “have a full awareness of what was going on.”
“She was texting me saying stuff and I was worried, but I was all the way down in Bucks County, delivering some wood pieces I had made for a client,” he claimed.
But the affidavit details several text messages Hoenigke received from his wife on Jan. 16, starting around 6:03 p.m., where she explains that their newborn “needs the stuff out of his chest… he’s not getting enough oxygen. Please keep praying.”
In another message four hours later, Amy Hoenigke says that Mahko has “dipped verrry [sic] low and we got in the shower. And cut the flexible tube out of Hettis water bottle. He came back after that and shit. There had been pee on his diaper as well. But he’s starting to want to dip back out.”
By the next morning, the affidavit says, Amy texted a friend indicating that the newborn kept fighting to breathe and turned “gray and limp” almost every hour before his heart eventually went out around 4 a.m. on Jan. 17. She noted to her friend that Mahok “wasn’t blue when he passed.”
In an interview with investigators, Meckes said that she and Amy Hoenigke tried “different approaches to revive” the newborn “and relieve what they thought was congestion.” The newborn’s mother also explained that they also made a lot of “steam teas” with mullen and peppermint.
“We were in a snow storm with a two-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to take or leave in an ambulance or drive ourselves the 40 minutes to a hospital,” Amy Hoenigke messaged her parents just before 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, according to the affidavit. “I was hopeful, but I knew he was going to pass. And i [sic] wanted it to be more comfortable for everyone. He passed exactly where he was born exactly three days later.”
But cops say that despite what she told her own mother, Amy Hoenigke admitted to police that it was her lack of faith in the medical system that prompted her to stay at home.
Investigators state in the affidavit that the new mother also said in a police interview multiple times that “she did not want any authority figures to come into their home and discover their undocumented daughter… in fear she would be taken from her.” (Authorities use the word “undocumented” in this case to describe the two-year-old not having a birth certificate or other governmental documentation.)
Despite the family’s alleged missteps, reproductive rights lawyer Hermine Hayes-Klein told The Daily Beast that she found it alarming that the couple was hit with so many criminal charges for a situation that was “already probably extremely traumatizing.”
She also noted that she found it fascinating that prosecutors decided to charge Meckes with exactly the same crimes—noting that the charges are essentially “announcing to everyone in Pennsylvania that if you are pregnant and you make decisions that step outside the medical community, you and everyone around you should be afraid.”
“Charging the friend with the same crimes suggests that there should be a random duty to police pregnant women,” Hayes-Klein added.
For now, it seems like at least one Hoenigke parent is ready to—at least slightly—conform to mainstream society after the disaster.
Hoenigke noted that after his son’s death, he and his wife spent months dealing with child protective services over their two-year-old daughter. Now, he said, his daughter is still unvaccinated and staying with her grandparents while he “sorts out this ordeal.”
But when asked whether he would have done something different “to help his son in this situation or if they were to have another child,” the affidavit states that Hoenigke said he would have probably taken a different approach.
Hoenigke offered The Daily Beast a similar concession.
“I would say to others who wish to pursue natural childbirth: as much as I highly advocate for it, and think it’s much better than hospital births—be warned that in our current society, one thing going wrong can possibly cost you your family, your freedom, and your future,” he said. “And if anything should go wrong with the child or the mother, please seek medical care anyway.”
“This whole ordeal is so traumatizing. I would rather go through a hospital birth just to save us from our doom,” he added.