Judge says mom accused of killing her 7-year-old son must remain in jail; denies motion for her release

Sarah Safranek is escorted into an Ogle County courtroom in Oregon by deputy Dan Daub on Wednesday, Nov.. 8, 2023.

OREGON – An Oregon mother accused of killing her 7-year-old son in 2021 will remain in jail on $2 millon bail as the case against her continues.

Sarah Safranek, 36, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery in the suffocation death of her 7-year-old son, Nathaniel Burton, in February 2021. An autopsy showed the boy also had a ruptured liver.

Safranek, held in the Ogle County Correctional Center since her arrest in April 2021, appeared in court Wednesday, Nov. 8, with her attorney, Ogle County Public Defender Michael O’Brien, for a hearing to determine if she should be released under the SAFE-T Act.

In October, O’Brien filed a motion for a pretrial release that said Safranek should be freed from jail as her case continues because of her “inability” to post the required 10%, or $200,000, of the $2 million bail.

The motion follows passage of the SAFE-T Act, which was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court and took effect Sept. 18. The Act eliminates cash bail and requires a defendant be released unless the judge rules the defendant is a highly likely flight risk or poses too much of a threat to one person or the community to allow release.

The SAFE-T Act was met with opposition from law enforcement and state’s attorneys across the state, including in Ogle County.

On Wednesday, Assistant Ogle County State’s Attorney Matthew Leisten said Safranek was a threat to the community as well as her other children and should not be released.

“She is a danger to the Ogle County community and she still has two daughters,” Lesiten said. “She has a history of substance abuse and psychiatric issues.”

He also cited “homicidal” and “suicidal” tendencies that he said were evident in police reports made during the investigation of Nathaniel’s death.

Leisten said Safranek had searched online for “16 ways to kill someone and not get caught” and “how to quickly kill someone” as well as “parents who kill”. He said she also searched for dangerous household chemicals.

He said Safranek solicited feedback by asking, online, if others had thought about killing their kids.

He also said the state would introduce testimony from Nathaniel’s sisters and other relatives that he was afraid of his mother and said she had tried to suffocate and drown him in two separate incidents.

Leisten also said Safranek has a history of substance and alcohol abuse.

O’Brien asked Judge John Redington to carefully review the intent behind the SAFE-T Act.

“I understand it is a controversial change,” O’Brien argued. “But the state must provide clear and convincing evidence. We respectfully ask that you carefully review the statute.”

O’Brien said that while the charges levied against his client were “certainly a terrible allegation” the court has the ability to monitor a defendant as they await trial rather than incarceration.

Other bond conditions such as electronic monitoring, home confinement and prohibitions from contacting “certain parties” were available if she were to be released, he said.

“There is not proof that there are threats to harm anyone else,” O’Brien said. “She has a suitable place to live. By pretrial procedures, a person is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.”

He also said Safranek could be free from jail now, if she had enough money to post the $200,000 bond.

The court found Safranek to be indigent after she filed affidavits in regard to her finances.

“Detention is not warranted here. She should be released,” argued O’Brien.

Redington said he had considered all factors in the case and denied the defense’s pre-trial release motion. “This is a first degree murder charge. A pre-trial release would be a real and present threat to the community,” he said.

He told Safranek that she could appeal his decision if she chose to, but had to file the appeal within 14-days of Wednesday’s hearing.

Redington set Safranek’s next court date for 1 p.m. Nov. 22.

O’Brien said he should have a second written medical review of his client’s mental health in time for the next hearing.

Court-appointed expert Jayne Braden, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Sycamore, recently reviewed Safranek’s history of “mental health issues” and is in the process of compiling a written report.

Safranek has also claimed that she has mental and physical issues that are not being treated properly at the jail, including daily headaches and frequent facial numbness; frequent muscle spasms in her arms and legs; excessive fatigue and weakness; frequent chest pains; frequent pain between her shoulder blades; worsening vision problems, including worsening blurred vision and floaters; worsening balance issues; and worsening numbness in one or more fingers.

“Defendant asserts that the above issues have continued to worsen and there is a valid concern the combined issues are related to serious heart or brain ailments as well as past diagnosis for ulnar nerve problems,” according to the defense’s motion. “As such, the defendant asserts the basic review of conditions by the jail nurse are inadequate and has led to significant worsening of her symptoms.”

Nathaniel, a first grade student at Oregon Elementary School, was found unresponsive and not breathing about 2:30 a.m. Feb. 17, 2021, in his bed at his home in the 400 block of South 10th Street. He was pronounced dead later that day at KSB Hospital in Dixon.

Safranek was arrested April 21, 2021, and indicted May 4, 2021. She pleaded not guilty May 6, 2021.

Earlier this year, Redington denied O’Brien’s request to hire additional medical experts for Safranek, despite his argument that she has “a long history as to past mental health care” and that those health issues are “directly connected to her defense.”

The defense filed a motion in March saying Safranek’s right to due process required the appointment of and/or use of one or more experts to review certain discovery materials and/or provide testimony.

Her attorneys asked the court to approve an additional expert to “review and evaluate mental health records” of Safranek, including her condition at the time of the alleged crime.

They argued extensive mental health records were provided by the state and revealed a “substantial history of mental health issues, mental illness and related services.”

On Nov. 3, 2022, Redington ruled Safranek fit to stand trial after reviewing a mental health evaluation requested by the defense.

According to records obtained by Shaw Local News Network in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of Children and Family Services visited the Safranek/Burton household about a dozen times over two years, following up on five reports of suspected abuse and neglect.

Each time, DCFS closed the case after finding no indications of parental wrongdoing.

Nathaniel was 4 when the allegations first surfaced.

Earleen Hinton

Earleen oversees production and content of 8 community weeklies and has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.