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Victims say 2 to 3 year sentence is 'ridiculous' for masseur who sexually assaulted them

The case was #MeToo meets masseur.

Monday, the case met injustice.

So said the women who were sexually assaulted by former Omaha massage therapist Christopher Sampson. Monday, five Omaha-area women sat in court, a row behind Sampson, and listened to his sentence: the equivalent of two to three years in prison for three counts of sexual assault.

Sampson, 44, had faced up to 35½ years in prison, real time. Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon sentenced Sampson after a plea bargain in which he pleaded to one count of first-degree sexual assault, one count of attempted first-degree sexual assault and one misdemeanor. After he serves the prison time, the judge ruled, Sampson must serve a year of probation.

Bataillon gave no reason for his sentence; he simply said he considered all factors.

“Well, that was disappointing,” said Anne, a 35-year-old domestic violence advocate whom Sampson inappropriately touched in 2017.

“Ridiculous,” said Rae, a teacher who says she was wrongly touched by Sampson during a 2010 massage.

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Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine agreed. He said Monday that his office most likely will appeal Bataillon’s sentence by arguing that it was excessively lenient. Kleine noted that Sampson had been placed on probation for assaulting a client in 2016, only to offend again.

“These crimes certainly deserved more than a minimal sentence,” Kleine said.

Asked if anything good came out of Monday’s sentencing, Anne, who was seven months pregnant when she was sexually assaulted by Sampson, shrugged.

“I guess it’s better than no time?” she said, incredulously.

No time was what Sampson received the first time he was charged after a client went to authorities accusing him of touching her vagina. In 2016, a 20-year-old went to an Omaha police station the day that Sampson touched her vagina over her underwear. Sampson was charged with third-degree sexual assault.

Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse’s office reduced the charge to disturbing the peace — and Sampson was sentenced to six months probation. State regulators allowed him to keep his massage license.

A few months after his probation concluded, a Council Bluffs woman came forward, alleging that Sampson digitally penetrated her during a massage in May 2017. In April 2019, The World-Herald wrote about how that case was dragging through court.

Following that publication, three more women came forward. A 35-year-old woman saw the report on her phone and told prosecutors that Sampson had touched her vagina over her underwear. He did so while explaining that he had been charged with sexual assault in the 2016 case. “This is all I did,” he said, as he held his hand on her vagina over her underwear.

This past summer, a woman was helping her friend when she saw Sampson’s face on a newspaper spread across the floor to catch paint spatter. She went to police and told them about how she, too, was sexually assaulted during a couples massage given by Sampson in 2017. And then another woman, a schoolteacher, came forward to say that she was sexually assaulted — during a massage in 2010.

That left Sampson with five women accusing him of sexual assault between 2010 and 2017. “You just wonder how many more there are,” an Omaha police detective said earlier this month.

Sampson was the second masseur to be sentenced in the past six months. In May, Judge J Russell Derr sentenced Melvin Buffington to 10 to 12 years in prison after 19 former clients came forward to say that he sexually assaulted them while he worked as a massage therapist at Oasis Massage.

Sampson’s attorney, Carlos Monzon of Lincoln, had urged the judge to place Sampson on five years of probation. Monzon said Sampson “is remorseful and repentant.”

“He does not take lightly what he has done,” Monzon said.

Asked whether he had anything to say, Sampson said: “No, Your Honor. (Monzon) gave a very eloquent apology, and I wholeheartedly agree with it.”

Prosecutor Amy Schuchman blasted Sampson for having the gall to suggest that the women, not him, were the ones who made lewd comments during the massages. The women all gave similar accounts. How Sampson massaged their feet, then their legs, then penetrated them or touched them over their underwear. How he made lewd comments throughout. How they froze.

How they still think about the violation. Several of the women wept throughout the hearing.

Rae, 41, said she knew Sampson wouldn’t get 35½ years in prison. But she expected him to serve “closer to 10 than two.” Rae said she still struggles with guilt for not coming forward in 2010.

“I just wonder if it would have helped stop him,” she said. “And the other women are like, ‘You can’t put that on yourself. You know, you think about it, the justice system hasn’t done much to stop him either.’ ”

Notable crime news of 2019

Crime
City, Stothert appeal ruling reinstating fire union president, want it vacated

The City of Omaha on Monday appealed an arbitrator’s ruling that reinstates Firefighter Steve LeClair to his city job after he assaulted a woman at a local bar.

An arbitrator ruled this month that LeClair, who is also president of the firefighters union, should have been disciplined but not fired, based on the city’s handling of similar cases. The ruling awarded him back pay for missed work, minus five days, as if he had been suspended.

The city asked the Douglas County District Court to vacate the arbitrator’s ruling on several grounds, including that the arbitrator overstepped her authority and that she disregarded legal precedent.

Among the city’s assertions in its appeal: that the arbitrator ruled on whether the city afforded LeClair due process, something the city argues was beyond the scope of her powers. It also says she was biased in favor of LeClair.

LeClair’s lawyer, Mike Dowd, and the fire union’s lawyer, John Corrigan, have said the decision was the result of a binding arbitration and should be seen as an impartial decision on the facts of the case, which fell their way.

But even binding arbitration rulings can be appealed.

The arbitrator ruled that it was “obvious” that the city wanted the woman at the bar to file a complaint, a step that started its process to remove LeClair. It identified six cases of similarly situated fire union employees who were not fired.

Mayor Jean Stothert said in a statement Monday that the arbitrator’s decision to reinstate LeClair was “an injustice to Mr. LeClair’s victim and the city’s taxpayers.” She said the public shouldn’t have to pay him.

“The arbitrator’s decision misstated the evidence and the issues and most importantly, ignored Nebraska law,” she said.

The city’s aim, she said, is to make clear that Nebraska cities can fire public employees who need to be held accountable for their actions. The city has spent more than $120,000 on legal fees fighting to keep LeClair fired.

Local 385, the union that represents Omaha firefighters, has been footing his pay and legal bills. Other union leaders say he was unfairly targeted by the mayor and city officials.

The union’s lawyer, Corrigan, said Monday that the city’s appeal would fail. He also said the city shouldn’t blame LeClair for its own costly decision to use outside lawyers instead of in-house counsel on human resources cases like this one.

“They’re wrong about the law,” Corrigan said. “They’re wrong about the standard that will be reviewed. This is a political appeal for public consumption.”

Omaha Fire Chief Dan Olsen recommended firing LeClair in February after an internal investigation into LeClair’s 2018 assault of a black woman at Tiger Tom’s Pub in north-central Omaha.

The woman told police that LeClair struck her in the back after she had rejected his advances, then whispered, “White power.” LeClair testified that he said: “What white power?” His lawyer argued that his words were an awkward but positive comment about the diverse crowd at the bar getting along.

LeClair pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of assault and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced in June to six months of probation.

The city stressed in its appeal that LeClair admitted to breaching two articles of the fire union contract with his conduct and words. They also said LeClair admitted disobeying orders not to interfere with the investigation of him.

LeClair did not offer an immediate comment Monday.

Stothert said people should remember the woman who came forward after she realized who it was who had struck her.

“Challenging the arbitrator’s decision is the right thing to do,” she said.

Photos: OWH front pages through the years​

Local
Omaha street-clearing crews could get $3 more an hour during tough winter months

Omaha wants to provide pay hikes this winter to the city snowplow drivers and shop workers who keep the plows running.

The aim: to keep more city street maintenance jobs filled and to recruit new workers to address a staffing shortage.

Public Works proposes paying street maintenance workers about $3 an hour more for shifts during the winter months, city officials say.

Every street maintenance employee who touches a plow or other equipment would get the pay increase. The additional seasonal pay requires City Council approval.

Austin Rowser, the city’s street maintenance engineer, said the irregular hours and demanding work contribute to people leaving street maintenance. He suggested the pay bump and secured buy-in from the mayor and the workers’ union.

The increase would represent a 12% to 18% pay bump for people earning $18 to $25 an hour, city and union leaders say.

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Winter shifts have long been a sticking point for city street maintenance workers seeking better pay and working conditions.

Those shifts run from 3:30 a.m. to noon or noon to 8:30 p.m. all winter long, from Thanksgiving weekend through mid-March.

When a lot of snow falls, as it did in 2018-19, street maintenance employees work mandatory overtime, often 12-hour shifts, with one shift on and one shift off, said Tony Burkhalter, president of Local 251, the largest city union.

Part of the reason people are working such long hours is that Public Works has had a hard time hiring and retaining staff in street maintenance, Burkhalter said. This has been the case for several years, council member Vinny Palermo has said.

The city had 133 union employees in street maintenance last pay period. It has hired eight new employees since then, reaching 141, Public Works officials said, and the city interviewed more candidates on Monday. Union leaders say that’s still short of the 159 people the City Council approved.

Those workers operate the city’s fleet of more than 100 trucks and plows.

The seasonal pay proposal might help Public Works to retain workers. One of the city’s challenges is competing with other governments and private firms that pay more for people with commercial driver’s licenses, said Rowser.

City leaders are waiting to learn the findings of a study of how much Omaha pays all categories of city employees and how that compares to other cities.

That study is expected to be complete in early 2020, said Carrie Murphy, spokeswoman for Mayor Jean Stothert.

Burkhalter said he expects the study to recommend raises for city employees in street maintenance, as well as other areas.


Photos: The 10 biggest single-day snowfalls in Omaha history

The 10 biggest single-day snowfalls in Omaha history

Money
Experts: Saving some operations is the best hope for Omaha’s TD Ameritrade jobs​

With the gut-punch announcement that TD Ameritrade is being sold, focus turned Monday to how many of the online brokerage’s 2,300 Omaha jobs can be saved.

Ironically, among those scrambling and pushing for Charles Schwab to preserve operations in the city was Gov. Pete Ricketts, the son of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and the firm’s former chief operating officer.

“In the coming days, I will work to personally make the case to Schwab to stay committed to Omaha,” said Ricketts, whose family long ago ceded controlling interest of the company.

The announcement means Omaha will lose a major corporate headquarters and the hundreds of associated jobs. San Francisco-based Schwab announced Monday the combined headquarters will be in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, which came out as the biggest geographic winner in the $26 billion deal.

Omaha’s best hope to keep jobs appears be in preserving some of TD Ameritrade’s operational and customer service functions. A site selection expert and local economists think there’s a good chance some of those roles can be preserved.

“That would be a best-case scenario,” said John Boyd, principal of a New Jersey site selection firm. “I know the governor and his team will be working around the clock to make the case to keep as many jobs as possible. But make no mistake. Jobs are at risk and likely to be moved to suburban Dallas.”

Early Monday, Schwab made official its rumored acquisition of rival TD Ameritrade, creating a new brokerage industry behemoth that will hold more than $5 trillion in client assets and be based in Westlake, Texas.

Schwab celebrated the “synergies” and “attractive returns” to shareholders when the firms are combined. The deal would not gain needed regulatory approvals until sometime in the second half of 2020. Integration of the two companies would follow over the next 18 months to three years.

In announcing the move, Schwab was quite specific about the effect — or, rather, lack thereof — on its San Francisco employees. It said the vast majority of jobs there would not be affected, with any moves to Texas occurring largely through attrition and relocation over time.

“Schwab was founded in San Francisco and has maintained a longstanding commitment to the Bay Area, which will continue,” the company’s statement said. “Schwab expects to continue hiring in San Francisco and retain a sizable corporate footprint in the city.”

But Schwab had little to say about Omaha.

“We have not provided that level of specificity yet,” Schwab spokeswoman Mayura Hooper said.

TD Ameritrade officials didn’t speak publicly Monday but acknowledged that the merger will significantly affect its nationwide workforce of more than 9,000.

“We believe that a large number of TD Ameritrade associates will continue on with Schwab post-integration, but there will likely also be many that do not,” the company said.

Employees in TD Ameritrade’s green-tinted tower at Interstate 680 and West Dodge Road met with company officials late in the day but received few answers during the 90-minute session, which one employee called somber.

“The bottom line is people are going to lose their jobs,” said the 20-year employee, who declined to be named. “Some people are going to keep their jobs, but they don’t know yet.”

After watching TD Ameritrade absorb numerous competitors over the years, the employee said it was strange to watch the other shoe drop.

“It is part of the American corporate culture,” he said. “We basically eat our young.”

Indeed, TD Ameritrade had survived numerous rounds of industry mergers and disruption. But in the end, it appears it couldn’t survive a recent trading commissions war. Joe Ricketts actually has much in common with Charles “Chuck” Schwab. Both men in the 1970s founded discount brokerages that challenged the Wall Street establishment. While Schwab’s became a more traditional brokerage, Ricketts’ Omaha firm made its mark as a technological innovator, in time becoming the nation’s highest volume online trader.

Then Schwab announced last month it was eliminating sales commissions on U.S. stocks and exchange-traded funds. Responding to Schwab’s strategic play, within hours TD Ameritrade announced that it was likewise doing away with its $7-per-trade commission. The “race to zero” on commissions had been brewing for years. But TD Ameritrade was far more reliant on such commissions than Schwab, losing $1 billion in annual revenues from the move. Wall Street took notice. TD Ameritrade stock plummeted by almost 30%, no doubt helping fuel merger talks.

Schwab officials said the boards of both companies voted unanimously for the merger. That apparently included Todd Ricketts, son of Joe, brother of Pete and the lone Ricketts on TD Ameritrade’s 12-member board. The move was also approved by an independent outside board that TD Ameritrade established to oversee all negotiations on the transaction.

So why did the new firm land in the northern Dallas-Fort Worth metro area?

Both TD Ameritrade and Schwab have significant operations there, Schwab in Westlake and TD Ameritrade just a few miles away in neighboring Southlake.

TD Ameritrade already has some 2,000 employees there, almost as many as in Omaha. Just a year ago, the company consolidated its Dallas-area workforce in a new Southlake operations center.

Boyd, the site selection expert, called Westlake one of the most desirable suburbs in the United States, with attractive housing, excellent schools, great air service and, since it’s in Texas, no state income tax. Schwab has invested heavily in its Westlake campus and will obviously do so more now.

Ameritrade would represent Omaha’s second recent loss of a Fortune 1000 corporate headquarters, coming four years after ConAgra announced it that was moving to Chicago. The still-fresh ConAgra departure also might offer a good primer on what could be ahead for TD Ameritrade.

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While the headquarters is gone, ConAgra continues to have about 1,300 employees in Omaha, down about 1,000. A number of operations remain here, including research, product development, supply-chain management and oversight of production and distribution.

Similarly, Schwab could choose to preserve some TD Ameritrade jobs or functions in Omaha, such as the hundreds of registered brokers who handle telephone trades.

Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University, said he thinks a “sizable” number of jobs will remain. Any thought that all 2,300 jobs will relocate to Dallas or San Francisco “is just not credible,” Goss said.

“It’s not good,” Goss said of Monday’s announcement. “But it could be a lot worse. In the end, I think Omaha will come out just fine.”

There’s other consolation for those who lose their jobs, Goss said. Given the struggles of many Omaha employers to fill job openings, prospects are good that workers can find another job here.

Eric Thompson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist, agreed, citing the region’s relatively strong economy. “It should be a reasonably favorable environment to find new work,” he said.

State and local officials wasted little time making their pitches to preserve TD Ameritrade jobs.

Mayor Jean Stothert said Monday that she’s hoping to have a conversation with TD Ameritrade’s CEO and has already reached out. The mayor said the city is also prepared to work with the Greater Omaha Chamber to help affected workers find new jobs.

“Our concern is for the employees,” she said.

David Brown, CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, noted that much of the past success of TD Ameritrade “has been fueled by an experienced, hard-working talent pool.” He said those workers would continue to strongly support the new merged company or “any other organization here in Omaha that will be lucky enough to put their services to work.”

Ricketts said he would work in coming days to personally make the case to Schwab to stay committed to Omaha. He cited Nebraska’s “incredibly competitive” cost of doing business and its productive workforce.

Ricketts knows a little about how hard TD Ameritrade’s employees work. When Ricketts was a young executive in the company in the 1990s, his office was in the company’s Bellevue operations center with the rank-and-file employees. The governor said Schwab’s announcement creates significant uncertainty for the thousands of Nebraskans who loyally worked for the company through the years.

“I am anxious to see what their decision means for the people of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

World-Herald staff writers Bob Glissmann and Erin Grace contributed to this report.


The Omaha area’s largest employers

List: The Omaha area's largest employers