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By Derek Jensen
SALT LAKE CITY, April 14 (Reuters) - A Utah mother was ordered held on $6 million bail on Monday, accused of killing six of her own newborn children over a 10-year period and stuffing their bodies into cardboard boxes that were later unearthed at the house where she once lived.
Police said Megan Huntsman, 39, has admitted during questioning that she strangled or suffocated her infant children immediately after she gave birth to them, following pregnancies that she apparently kept secret.
Huntsman was arrested on Sunday and booked into the Utah County jail in Provo on six counts of murder in connection with the deaths of six babies born to her between about 1996 to 2006 at her former home in the town of Pleasant Grove, 35 miles (56 km) south of Salt Lake City.
The body of a seventh infant also was found at that address, but authorities believe that child was stillborn, Pleasant Grove Police Captain Michael Roberts said.
At a detention hearing on Monday, District Judge Steven Hansen set bail for the mother at $1 million for each count of murder, court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said.
Huntsman, who had no attorney present and has not asked for legal representation, appeared for the brief proceedings via video-conference from the jail, according to Volmer.
Huntsman, who police described as the only "person of interest" in the case, had not been formally charged as of Monday, and will enter a plea when she is formally arraigned, Volmer said.
Pleasant Grove Police Lieutenant Britt Smith said Huntsman had been cooperating with detectives, with whom she has shared her rationale for the killings, but Smith said he was not at liberty to disclose the motive the mother has given police.
"It's just an absolutely heinous crime that's going to leave everybody asking, 'why,' even when they hear the motive," Smith told Reuters.
For now, authorities remain baffled at how Huntsman could have carried several pregnancies to term during the course of a decade without drawing anyone's notice.
"That's the million-dollar question, but it appears to be the fact," Smith said. "She concealed the pregnancies."
WRAPPED IN TOWELS AND PLASTIC
Smith said police have no record of Huntsman having been treated for mental illness or having ever been committed to a psychiatric institution, adding, "We don't believe that mental health is an issue."
The bizarre case came to light after Huntsman's estranged husband, Darren Brad West, discovered the remains of one infant wrapped inside a plastic bag while he was cleaning out the garage of the Pleasant Grove home on Saturday.
Investigators called to the residence then found the remains of six other newborns, each wrapped in a towel or shirt and placed inside a plastic bag contained within a separate cardboard box at the house, Roberts said.
Huntsman lived at the house from 1996 until 2011, along with three older children of hers - two of them now adults and one a teenager - who currently reside with other relatives in Utah, Smith said.
Smith said Huntsman was never reported to child welfare authorities, and none of her three older children was ever removed from the home while living with her. It was not clear what the older children might have known about their mother's concealed pregnancies or the deaths of their infant siblings.
West, who was released from federal prison in California earlier this year after serving time for a drug conviction, had been estranged from Huntsman since 1996, the year she began living at the Pleasant Grove address, police said.
Police plan to conduct DNA tests in an attempt to determine the paternity of the slain infants, who they believe may have been fathered by West, 41.
In addition to his federal prison term in Colorado, West served time in a Utah state prison from August 2006 until February 2008 for driving under the influence of drugs. He also served 45 days in county jail in the early 1990s for a sodomy-rape conviction, according to the state Corrections Department.
Aaron Hawker, 73, a neighbor of the house where the bodies were discovered, said in a phone interview that Huntsman babysat his grandchildren about 10 years ago and was "shy, very nice always." He said he never noticed her looking pregnant.
"We've been in a state of shock," Hawker said. "Finding out about all these children. Short of the shock value, we've never seen anything weird or strange or out of sorts with that family."
He said he spoke with West, who "was in tears and saying he does not know how this could happen." (Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Curtis Skinner in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Ken Wills)