LINCOLN — The day Audrey Brown has dreaded for nearly four decades may soon come to pass.
Erwin Charles Simants, who in 1975 killed six members of her family in Sutherland, Neb., could soon walk out of the state's psychiatric hospital a free man.
At a court hearing this week in Lincoln, four psychological professionals agreed that one of the state's most notorious killers is not mentally ill. A judge is expected to rule on the petition for release within a month.
In 1979, a jury found Simants not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was committed to the Lincoln Regional Center.
Brown, 75, of North Platte said she has attended every annual mental health hearing for Simants, whose case was known not only for its depravity but also for setting a landmark legal precedent.
At past hearings, his release has been denied because at least one evaluator expressed doubt about his mental state.
Brown said Simants is now closer than he's ever been to getting out.
“I'm afraid,” she said. “He murdered six people. I believe he still needs to be locked up.”
When reached by phone Thursday afternoon at the Regional Center, Simants, 67, declined to answer all but one question: What would he tell those who say he should never see freedom again?
“I understand their feelings is all I can say,” Simants said.
North Platte attorney Robert Lindemeier, appointed to represent Simants, said state law requires a person to be both mentally ill and a danger to himself or others to remain under commitment.
Although a psychiatrist testified at the trial that Simants was schizophrenic, staff members at the Regional Center have never agreed with the diagnosis, Lindemeier said.
They said he is an alcoholic who may have experienced a psychotic break.
One of the professionals who evaluated Simants in advance of this week's hearing was hired by Lincoln County Attorney Rebecca Harling. That psychologist also found him to be mentally sound.
Simants also underwent tests that attempt to predict whether he would commit another criminal act. One test found him to be a low risk to reoffend and the other deemed him a low to moderate risk, Lindemeier said. Other evaluations determined that he is not a pedophile.
Lindemeier said hospital staff members testified that Simants has been a model patient over the past 35 years. He follows rules and holds down a food preparation job at the center.
Documents in his case file indicate that Simants understands the crime he committed and has expressed remorse for it, Lindemeier said.
“He's never acted out, never been threatening to anyone,” he said.
It's a description that's hard for Brown to reconcile.
On Oct. 18, 1975, Simants used a rifle to shoot six members of a family who lived on the north edge of Sutherland, a farm and ranch community of 1,000 people about 20 miles west of North Platte.
For Brown, who was living in Colorado at the time, the loss was staggering: her parents, Henry and Marie Kellie; her brother, David; her nieces Florence, 10, and Deanne, 7; and her nephew, Daniel, 5.
Simants also sexually assaulted Marie and Florence Kellie.
After the slayings, the 29-year-old unemployed farm worker drank at two local bars before spending the night hiding in brush near the Kellie home. He was arrested the next morning.
At his first trial, a jury convicted him of six counts of murder and he was sentenced to death row. But his convictions were overturned after it was learned that the sheriff had paid social visits to members of the jury, who were sequestered during the trial.
The second trial led to the mental health commitment.
Siding with defense attorneys who said press coverage would jeopardize Simants' right to a fair trial, judges restricted reporting on the case. That triggered a legal fight that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, the high court unanimously overturned the Nebraska rulings and struck a victory for a free press and open coverage of legal proceedings.
The horrific murders have long cast a pall over Sutherland. Although time has winnowed the number of residents with direct memory of the killings, it has done little to dull emotions for those who do remember.
Pat Thomas, 67, said Thursday that he can clearly recall the fear and shock upon learning the Kellies had been killed.
“I don't care whether he's sane or not,” Thomas said. “I know it's not a Christian thing to say, but I think he should live out his years not being a member of society.”
If Lincoln County District Judge Donald Rowlands decides to order Simants' release, there is no plan that would provide temporary supervision or a gradual transition to freedom, Lindemeier said. He called that a shortcoming of the system that both he and his client have asked to be addressed.
Simants has family members who have stayed in contact with him over the years, Lindemeier said.
“I think his intent would be to go somewhere and try to live quietly, probably as far away from Lincoln County, Nebraska, as possible,” he said.
Brown said she argues for Simants' continued detention not as a measure of revenge, but out of a sincere concern that if he did something so unspeakable once, he could do it again.
“And some other family would suffer,” she said, “again.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.