LINCOLN — Five years before Tyler J. Thornburg was charged in connection with two beating deaths, he was left at a Lincoln hospital under Nebraska's former safe haven law.
Thornburg was then a troubled 17-year-old. At the time, Nebraska law allowed parents to leave children of any age without prosecution.
His mother and stepfather told hospital officials that he would not obey their rules and that they could not afford the treatment programs he needed.
Thornburg already had a minor criminal record when he was left at the hospital. At 15, he admitted in juvenile court to misdemeanor theft and disturbing the peace.
He was placed in a group home, then at the Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Kearney.
After he was dropped off under the safe haven law, child welfare officials placed him in foster care with a relative, then moved him to an emergency children's shelter and another group home. He received therapy during that time.
Thornburg has accumulated other criminal convictions since then, including one in 2011 for felony theft of an automobile.
On Tuesday, he was charged with second-degree murder, use of a weapon to commit a felony and accessory to murder in connection with the deaths of two men in Lincoln.
His mother, Sue Quakenbush of Lincoln, declined to comment Tuesday evening.
But State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, who has worked on children's issues brought to light by the former safe haven law, said she was “heartbroken” to hear of Thornburg's arrest.
She said Quakenbush and her husband, Avery Quakenbush, Thornburg's stepfather, struggled for years to get Thornburg effective treatment and only used the safe haven law as a last resort.
“Sadly, it seems he never got the kind of care he needed to turn his life around,” McGill said, adding that she believes state officials had blamed safe haven families rather than making their children's mental health a top priority.
Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said she could not comment specifically on Thornburg's case.
However, she said the department provides services as ordered by the court, which considers recommendations from HHS as well as from the parents, guardian ad litem, county attorney and others.
The department's recommendations for medical services, including mental health treatment, are based on recommendations from medical experts, she said.
Lincoln police said both victims were chosen at random and were beaten with a baseball bat linked to Thornburg.
A second man, Richard E. McLaughlin III, 20, of Lincoln has been charged with two counts of accessory to murder and two counts of use of a weapon to commit a felony in connection with the deaths.
Lincoln police said both Thornburg and McLaughlin are members of the True Blue Soldiers, a local gang. Police said they believe the beatings were triggered by a challenge from another Lincoln gang.
The Quakenbushes had clashed with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in 2008 over how much they could say publicly about their difficulties getting help for Thornburg.
The Nebraska Court of Appeals sided with the Quakenbushes, saying a gag order imposed by the Lancaster County Juvenile Court, at the request of HHS, violated their constitutional rights.
Nebraska lawmakers added an age limit to the state's safe haven law during a special session in late 2008. Under current law, a parent can leave a newborn up to 30 days old at a hospital without fear of prosecution.
Before the law was changed, 36 children from eight states had been dropped off.
Like Thornburg, most children left under the former safe haven law were teenagers or preteens with mental, emotional or behavioral problems. Many parents and guardians who left children said they had tried to get help for the children without success.
State lawmakers responded by making more children eligible for Kids Connection, government-funded health coverage for children; increasing funding for children's behavioral health; and by setting up a hotline for parents of troubled children, a program to help guide such parents through the system and state case management for families who adopted or have guardianship of former state wards.
But McGill said she fears the state has not done enough to make children's mental health services available.