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Aubrey Trail had 'cult' of women he said could become 'witches' by killing, witness testifies

WILBER, Neb. — “Witches” and a “vampire.” Group sex, stolen antiques and the notion that a woman could become one of Aubrey Trail’s “girls” by killing someone.

Testimony in Trail’s murder trial got even darker and more bizarre on Monday, as a former member of a group he called “my girls” testified that Trail told her that to join his “cult” of a dozen young women, she needed to torture and kill someone.

The 22-year-old woman said she met Trail’s girlfriend, Bailey Boswell, via the dating app Tinder during the summer of 2017. She said she was enticed to begin traveling with Trail and Boswell after he began buying her clothes and manicures, and giving her a $200-a-week allowance.

“I called him daddy,” she told a hushed courtroom, because that was what he wanted.

The woman's identity, which was revealed in open court Monday, was ordered not to be published by Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson on Tuesday. Before the trial, Johnson had ordered that photographs and video not be broadcast of the woman, and two others, to protect their privacy.

In that May 22 order, the judge also added: “This does not restrict the media from otherwise reporting on their testimony." An earlier version of this story identified two of the women. On Tuesday, however, the judge imposed the additional restrictions on naming them.

Being a member of Trail’s group, she said, meant engaging in group sex and helping him swindle others out of money in the antique trade.

But it also involved something much more sinister, she said: murder.

The woman said Trail, who referred to himself as the “vampire,” eventually told her that to become one of his “witches,” she needed to kill someone “and take their last breath.” Trail added that she would gain even more “powers” if the victim was tortured for two to three hours beforehand.

In the beginning, she said, “it all sounded like it was real, very convincing.”

The woman, who left the group before Loofe was killed, nervously wrung her fingers as she testified. Under court order, cameras and recording devices were shut off when she took the stand. The same order was filed for two other young women who became part of Trail’s group who are expected to testify Tuesday.

Trail, the woman said, told her that the killing should “turn you on sexually” and asked her to think about what would do that.

She said she had group sex with Trail and Boswell — the “queen witch” — more than once at their Wilber apartment as well as during a trip to Branson, Missouri.

In August 2017, the woman said, Trail led her and Boswell to a Walmart in Beatrice, Nebraska, where they met a short, blond-haired woman whom Trail and Boswell had met via Tinder.

“Aubrey asked me if I wanted her to be my first,” she said.

“Your first what?” asked Sandra Allen of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, one of three prosecutors handling the murder trial.

“Kill,” she responded.

The trio left the store without the woman, and Trail, days later, said that the purported victim had family problems to deal with in California and that the group would have to “save her for another time.”

After that, Trail told her that he wanted to kill another “witch” in their group. The woman said Trail told her that woman was “too nice.”

“She cared too much,” the woman said Trail told her. “She didn’t have the evil in her.”

Monday’s testimony came as the murder trial of Trail entered its third week. Testimony in the already gruesome trial is expected to wrap up next week.

Trail, a 52-year-old ex-convict, and Boswell, his 25-year-old girlfriend, are both charged with first-degree murder in the slaying and dismemberment of Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old Menards clerk from Lincoln.

The remains of Loofe, who was short with blond hair, were found Dec. 4 and 5, 2017, scattered along country roads near Edgar, Nebraska, and wrapped tightly in black plastic trash bags.

Loofe, according to prior court testimony, met Boswell via Tinder and was later introduced to Trail.

The woman's testimony was eerily similar. She said she witnessed more than one time when a woman had met Boswell via Tinder, then was introduced to Trail.

The woman said she was working at the Lincoln Regional Center during the summer of 2017 when she met Boswell online.

She said she was soon introduced to Trail, who asked her about her aspirations in life and eventually showed her 10 to 15 nude photos of his “girls.”

He gave her $200 for “her time” during their first meeting, which involved hanging out with Bailey and smoking pot. Eventually, though, she was asked to become “part of them.”

“He said there was 12 (other girls) and I could be the 13th,” the woman testified. “That’s when he explained that they were witches and everyone had their own roles to play in the cult.”

“He said I could leave any time I wanted,” she said. But, he added, to become a witch, you had to “take the first soul” to obtain your “powers.”

She said Boswell explained the “rules” for being in the group, including staying overnight with her and Trail at least once a week. That’s when the group would use sex toys in what Trail described to investigators as “weird sex.”

Trail, the woman said, would pay her extra to make phone calls to antique clients under assumed names, paid her car and apartment payments, and provided her with a $200 weekly allowance. He also helped her set up her own antique case to sell stolen antique dolls at a Lincoln antique mall, the woman said. Eventually, though, she said Trail told her that she would have to “steal her own” antiques to sell.

Trail, the woman testified, also told her that he had “powers” to fly and to read people’s minds. She said she never saw him fly but did recount one instance in which he seemed to have known her thoughts.

The woman said she left the group in September 2017 — about two months before Loofe disappeared — after traveling to a TJ Maxx store in Lincoln to purchase bags for Trail to “carry whatever he wanted to steal” during an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania.

As she stood in a dressing room, she said, “I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. I told Bailey I wanted out.”

The woman said that while she was in the group, she never saw Trail and Boswell carry out a ritualistic slaying, which she had been told were supposed to be held in a secluded, wooded area when the moon stage was right.

The woman said she then moved back home, but kept in touch with Trail, who continued to send her money when she asked for it.

The woman testified that Trail had once threatened to kill her family — and boasted that he had killed several people — if she revealed what the group was doing. But that didn’t happen, the young woman said, because they trusted her.

Trail did not attend the court proceedings Monday. He has refused to attend since slashing himself in the neck, in an apparent suicide attempt, on June 24.

It is unclear whether he will testify in his own defense.

On Friday, a three-hour videotape was shown to jurors of a June 2018 statement Trail made to law enforcement. In it, he claimed that Loofe had died accidentally, by strangulation, after agreeing to participate in a sexual fantasy involving choking to the point of unconsciousness.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, maintain that Trail conspired for weeks to lure a young woman via the Internet for the purpose of homicide. Trail and Boswell both face the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.

Earlier testimony on Monday focused on whether Trail’s statements in that videotape were credible or not.

FBI agent Mike Maseth told jurors that there were some claims made by Trail that could not be backed up by the evidence collected, including that he had videotaped Loofe agreeing to participate in the choking “sexual fantasy” that led to her death.

That tape, and others that Trail claimed depicted the fantasy, were never found, Maseth said.

The agent also said that once, Trail told his FBI interrogators that he had something to say but didn’t want to say it on videotape. So he led them into a restroom, where he whispered to them, “Witches kill, witches kill, a life for a life and they gain more power when they kill.”

Maseth said a list of 12 or 13 women was found in Boswell’s purse that detailed the “special powers” of each woman, including “healer” and “see danger.”

But, the agent testified, Trail also told the FBI that “50% of what I tell you is bulls---.”

Joe Murray, one of Trail’s court-appointed lawyers, introduced photographs from Loofe’s cellphone that depicted “erotic asphyxiation,” lesbian sex and marijuana use.

The images were shown to jurors.

But Maseth said the 10 to 15 photos were the only ones depicting such things out of 1,200 found on her phone. And, he said, the photos did not reflect any consent to a sexual fantasy with strangers.

Notable crime news of 2019

Why the wealth gap has grown despite record-long economic growth

WASHINGTON (AP) — As it enters its 11th year, America's economic expansion is now the longest on record — a streak that has shrunk unemployment, swelled household wealth, revived the housing market and helped fuel an explosive rise in the stock market.

Yet even after a full decade of uninterrupted economic growth, the richest Americans now hold a greater share of the nation's wealth than they did before the Great Recession began in 2007. And income growth has been sluggish by historical standards, leaving many Americans feeling stuck in place.

Those trends help explain something unique about this expansion: It's easily the least-celebrated economic recovery in decades.

As public discontent has grown, the issue has become one for political candidates to harness — beginning with Donald Trump in 2016. Now, some of the Democrats running to challenge Trump for the presidency have built their campaigns around proposals to tax wealth, raise minimum wages or ease the financial strain of medical care and higher education.

America's financial disparities have widened in large part because the means by which people build wealth have become more exclusive since the Great Recession.

Fewer middle-class Americans own homes. Fewer are invested in the stock market. And home prices have risen far more in wealthier metro areas on the coasts than in more modestly priced cities and rural areas. The result is that affluent homeowners now sit on vast sums of home equity and capital gains, while tens of millions of ordinary households have been left mainly on the sidelines.

"The recovery has been very disappointing from the standpoint of inequality," said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading expert on income and wealth distribution.

Household wealth — the value of homes, stock portfolios and bank accounts, minus mortgage and credit card debt and other loans — jumped 80% in the past decade. More than one-third of that gain — $16.2 trillion in riches— went to the wealthiest 1%, figures from the Federal Reserve show. Just 25% of it went to middle-to-upper-middle class households. The bottom half of the population gained less than 2%.

Nearly 8 million Americans lost homes in the recession and its aftermath, and the sharp price gains since then have put ownership out of reach for many would-be buyers. For America's middle class, the homeownership rate fell to about 60% in 2016 from roughly 70% in 2004, before the housing bubble, according to separate Fed data.

The other major engine of household wealth — the stock market — hasn't much benefited most people, either. The longest bull market in U.S. history, which surpassed its own 10-year mark in March, has shot equity prices up more than four-fold. Yet the proportion of middle-income households that own shares has actually declined.

The Fed calculates that about half of middle-income Americans owned shares in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, down from 56% in 2007. That includes people who hold stocks in retirement accounts.

The decline in stock market participation occurred mainly because more middle-income workers took contract work or other jobs that offered no retirement savings plans, the Fed concluded.

Hannah Moore, now 37, has struggled to save since graduating from college in December 2007, the same month the Great Recession officially began. She has worked nearly continuously since then despite a couple of layoffs.

"I had many jobs, all at the same time," she said. "It's just not been the easiest of decades if you're trying to jump-start a career."

She works for a design firm in Los Angeles that contracts with luxury apartment developers that build rental housing marketed to high-tech employees. She loves the work. But she struggles with Los Angeles' high costs.

Moore says she could afford a monthly mortgage payment. But she lacks the savings for a down payment. About half her income, she calculates, is eaten up by rent, health insurance and student loan payments of $850 a month.

As financial inequalities have widened over the past decade, racial disparities in wealth have worsened, too. The typical wealth for a white household is $171,000 — nearly 10 times that for African-Americans. That's up from seven times before the housing bubble, and it primarily reflects sharp losses in housing wealth for blacks. The African-American homeownership rate fell to a record low in the first three months of this year.

Most economists argue that higher income growth is needed to make it easier for more Americans to save and build wealth.

Zucman favors a higher minimum wage, cheaper access to college education and more family-friendly policies to enable more parents to work. He and his colleague Emmanuel Saez, also an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped formulate Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposed wealth tax on fortunes above $50 million to help pay for those proposals.

Income growth has lagged partly because for most of the expansion, employers have had a surfeit of workers to choose among when filling jobs, leaving them little pressure to raise pay.

Not until 2016 did the unemployment rate fall below 5%. Average hourly pay finally began to pick up, with the lowest-income workers receiving the fastest average gains.

"Overall, there's growing inequality," Elise Gould, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute said, "with signs of hope at the bottom. It's just taken a very long time."

Shroud over Mormon Bridge looks like work of art but has a practical purpose

Exotic and striking, a salmon-colored shroud covering the Mormon Bridge could pass for an outdoor art installation.

But this is the Interstate 680 bridge and instead, the tarps encasing the bridge serve a practical purpose — catching lead paint chips and dust while the bridge is being rehabbed.

Marvin Lech, construction engineer for the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said crews can’t allow paint chips or dust to drift away or fall in the water while the bridge is being sandblasted.

“It would go everywhere, that’s why the tarps are up there,” he said.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to young children because their brains are still developing. Airborne lead is an especially potent way for children to be sickened.

Lech said crews are stripping and painting the eastbound section of the bridge this year. Next year they will move to the westbound side. This is the second of three years of repairs to the bridge.

The cost is expected to total about $11.2 million and includes bridge deck repairs, asphalt overlay and the painting.

The new paint won’t have lead in it, he said. And when the painting is complete, the bridge no longer will be pale green.

“We don’t do green anymore,” he said. “It will be blue.”

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Health care workers and burnout: Creighton studying whether more time with patients means happier docs

At one point during his physician training, Dr. Prasanna Tadi came close to leaving medicine.

“You come, you work, you go, and no one cares about you,” he recalls feeling at the time.

Some of his fellow residents and trainees did, in fact, fall to the many pressures they faced and left the field.

Now Tadi, a neurologist with CHI Health and assistant professor in Creighton University’s School of Medicine, is working to do something about it. This month, he’ll launch a study to investigate a possible remedy for burnout.

Studies of physicians, in particular, indicate rising rates of stress and burnout at levels exceeding those in the general population, and concern has grown about depression and even suicide. Burnout also has been documented among other health professionals.

“My thing is, nobody should go through this,” Tadi said. “It’s almost my giving back to medicine.”

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He and a team of residents will look at whether increasing time spent with patients and cultivating deeper connections with them can boost the well-being of health care professionals. Creighton’s study is one of 33 selected this year from among 200 proposals through an initiative of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the group that sets educational standards for preparing physicians.

Tadi already is using the program with physicians at Immanuel Medical Center. Next month, it will launch with Creighton internal medicine residents, who are doctors in specialty training. Later, plans call for offering it to medical and dental students and eventually expanding it to Creighton faculty and additional CHI Health practitioners.

Burnout not only affects individual health care providers, Tadi said, but also the care they can provide patients. It can decrease the quality of care, increase risk of errors and reduce patient satisfaction.

It also can result in personnel losses that the health care system can ill afford, given shortages of physicians and other health care professionals, which are expected to grow in future years.

There are also economic costs. Replacing an existing physician, he said, can cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million.

A number of organizations nationally and locally have increased attention on physician well-being in recent years. The National Academy of Medicine has formed an “action collaborative” around the issue, making it a national priority.

Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and chairman of the ACGME’s board of directors, said he believes that the field as a whole is making progress on the issue because people are talking about it.

He speaks about it at every commencement at UNMC. The ACGME, in addition to the initiative that funded the Creighton study, also has added wellness and resiliency to the six focus areas for which it provides feedback to teaching hospitals.

“Progress is being made because we have tools to measure burnout and stress,” he said. “We have destigmatized the conversation broadly on the national scene, and we’ve created a large number of tools to deal with it on an individual and national level.”

Historically, the issue was not discussed, he said, even though it is a challenge the health professions have long faced. Taking care of sick people can be a stressful thing.

Early on, there was some thought that the current burnout rates reflected a flaw in the new generation of physicians in training. But those involved in the issue have learned that that’s not true. “These young men and women are just as strong as any generation we’ve had,” Gold said. “The difficulty is that the work requirements ... are just increasingly demanding.”

Those requirements include more time on clerical tasks such as electronic medical record-keeping, as well as the complexity of the illnesses and social needs they see in patients, and the moral injury providers face when they find out that insurance won’t cover a procedure or medication a patient needs, or learn the patient can’t afford car fare for a follow-up visit that’s clearly needed.

“That produces a sense of failure and a sense of questioning the core of what it means to be a physician,” Gold said.

The basis of the Creighton study is an intervention called CHEER, which stands for celebrate, hearing, expertise, engage and recharge. Each element will be used in three different settings.

The first is hospital rounds. Teams of residents will select a patient with a complex social and medical background. At the start of the workday, teams will meet with the patients and their families — the residents will be free of pagers and screens during that time — and talk with them about their backgrounds and hobbies, as well as their understanding of their medical conditions and challenges in accessing health care.

“This is all personal touch, back to basics,” Tadi said.

The second is an monthly hourlong meeting. During the celebrate portion, the team will invite a recently discharged patient back to thank them, talk about their hospitalization and celebrate the team’s good work.

“Usually we don’t see them again,” he said. “Now we’re keeping the patient at the center.”

The team also will ask patients how they can improve, Tadi said. Meetings will include talks on various topics by wellness experts.

The third element is emails that will, among other things, recognize residents’ personal and professional accomplishments. Another aim is to build community.

Participants will take surveys designed to score well-being before, during and after the program and for the following two years.

Tadi said the program isn’t the only potential solution to the problem. The medical community also needs to address it on other levels. He’s one of 15 neurologists from across the country selected to participate in a burnout initiative launched by the American Academy of Neurology.

The problem also has its own sort of continuum. Suicide, experts say, usually isn’t a result of burnout alone but of mental health problems that aren’t being adequately addressed. Mayo Clinic researchers have estimated that up to 400 physicians a year die as a result.

Burnout differs from mental illness in that it’s more about isolation and losing perspective. While mental illness is treatable in its own right, burnout can be addressed through tactics such as seeking support or contact outside work, doing yoga or taking time away.

Locally, other health systems have their own in-house initiatives or offer assistance through their employee assistance programs.

UNMC has taken a multipronged approach, which currently is featured in an American Medical Association magazine. Gold in February 2018 appointed Dr. Steven Wengel, UNMC’s former chairman of psychiatry, as vice chancellor for campus wellness at UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The university also has launched an app with a stress survey and tools to relieve stress, among other measures.

The Metro Omaha Medical Society began offering an anonymous online assessment for physicians, medical students and residents in February 2017. Since then, 130 professionals at all phases of training have completed it. Of those, 49% ranked in the most serious level of stress, said Carol Wang, the organization’s executive director. Those showing signs of distress are referred to telehealth experts or local professionals. Nationally, various sources estimate that about half of all physicians show some signs of burnout.

Wang said the local medical society also has added some peer support networks, including a closed Women in Medicine Facebook group for female practitioners and another for physicians who treat physicians. The organization also continues to host speakers on a variety of topics, including how to make medicine better.

The organization began the initiative to see whether a local intervention could help. The group, she said, also saw itself as a kind of neutral third party that could operate outside of health systems and offer another measure of anonymity.

“I think every organization nationally that deals with medicine and health care is trying to figure out what will move the needle and what will help,” she said. “There’s not going to be one pathway that is going to address this ... and get us to a healthy health care system.”

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