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Case would have put OPS abuse reporting policy on trial; instead, ex-principal takes plea deal

The attorney for the former Omaha elementary principal accused of child abuse for failing to report molestation had quite the battery of witnesses lined up for the principal’s trial, slated for next week.

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan. Three retired principals. Several former teachers. Even Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.

What would they have been questioned about?

The confusion in OPS in 2018 about the district’s child-abuse reporting policy.

State law requires anyone, especially educators and medical personnel, to immediately report suspected child abuse to police or Child Protective Services — the very law that former Fontenelle Elementary Principal Eric Nelson was accused of violating.

But at the time, OPS administrators had a confusing practice that called for employees to report first to a principal, then to human resources, then to CPS, as long as they did so within 24 hours.

Nelson’s attorney, Steve Lefler, also hoped to question witnesses on whether OPS officials had properly vetted Gregory Sedlacek, the now-convicted teacher who had a past checkered with inappropriate behavior around children.

That look behind OPS’s curtain won’t happen, at least not in a Douglas County courtroom.

In a plea bargain, Nelson pleaded no contest this week to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse. He faces up to three months in jail or one year of probation when he is sentenced in April. In return for his plea, prosecutors agreed to drop a felony charge of child abuse.

And Nelson, who now works as a skilled laborer, has agreed to not seek to renew his state education certification.

Lefler said he had looked forward to, in essence, putting OPS on trial for what he called the district’s “confusing” child-abuse reporting policy.

Interviews with several former principals and teachers showed that no one had much training on reporting child abuse — only a former policy that said administrators had 24 hours to investigate and report, Lefler said.

Among the witnesses, Lefler said, he would have called a longtime substitute teacher to testify that she called district officials to say she wanted to go through training on child-abuse reporting and was told that substitute teachers didn’t “need to worry about it.”

“It was going to be a marvelous trial,” Lefler said. “I had a number of retired principals who were going to testify that the district’s policy (then) was confusing as to what their responsibilities as reporters were.”

Sedlacek was arrested in November 2018 after teachers saw him with his hand up the dress of a first grader on the playground. Interviews eventually revealed that Sedlacek had molested six students, ages 6 and 7. He is now serving 40 to 65 years in prison.

'Why didn't I do that?': OPS principal cursed himself for not removing molester from classroom

Eric Nelson’s defense team asked a judge to not allow prosecutors to refer to Nelson's outburst in his felony child abuse trial, arguing that the comments were uttered while Nelson was alone and that it could cause jurors to have a bias against him. But in a late-December ruling, Judge Thomas Otepka refused, saying prosecutors have the right to present that evidence, should Nelson go to trial.

On Nov. 19, 2018, other teachers became concerned about Sedlacek’s behavior around the girls and reported what they saw to Nelson. One student teacher said she looked out a school window overlooking the playground and saw Sedlacek rubbing a girl’s legs and his hands disappearing under her skirt. That happened about 10:35 a.m.

The student teacher notified the classroom teacher, who took photos of Sedlacek on the playground. The first grade teacher then called Nelson to her classroom and showed him the photos she had taken and told him of the behavior she had witnessed.

Nelson has said he notified the district’s human resources department on Nov. 19, 2018, the same day that those teachers alerted him. But in an affidavit, Omaha police said they could find no phone records indicating that Nelson called the human resources department on Nov. 19, and human resources officials said they were not informed about the situation until the next day by Fontenelle’s assistant principal, Cheryl Prine.

Lefler said prosecutors were making an example out of Nelson, noting that no other OPS administrators or teachers have been charged with failing to report child abuse. Lefler said Nelson was a lifelong educator and a popular principal. More than 500 people signed a petition to restore him as principal, despite the allegations in this case, Lefler said.

“In my humble opinion, I think Mr. Nelson was made a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb,” Lefler said.

Kleine called that “nonsense.”

He said surveillance video of Sedlacek and the girl on the playground was “shocking.” He said Nelson had a duty to report that right away.

Instead, Nelson had gone home that evening. The next morning, he had gone to a medical appointment. Teachers were alarmed to find Sedlacek back in his classroom. An assistant principal called OPS officials to report the abuse, and Sedlacek was yanked from the classroom.

When Nelson returned, he reportedly yelled at the assistant principal that Sedlacek’s livelihood was on the line, Kleine said.

“Mr. Nelson has to be held accountable and responsible for what he neglected to do,” Kleine said. “It’s not anyone else’s fault that he didn’t report what he was supposed to report. He made a serious mistake, and he’s going to be held responsible.”

Lefler questioned why another OPS administrator also wasn’t held responsible. In a December article, The World-Herald reported on multiple signs that former Davis Middle School Principal Dan Bartels missed as former teacher Brian Robeson groomed and then sexually assaulted a student there.

Ethically, Kleine said, he cannot comment on not bringing charges against individuals. However, the veteran county attorney acknowledged that he has had frustrations with OPS in the past — including in the district’s handling of the 2010 sexual assault case involving former Nathan Hale Middle School teacher Shad Knutson. Five girls came forward alleging that Knutson had molested or attempted to molest them. He’s now in prison.

In 2012, in response to the Knutson case, OPS developed a mandatory reporting policy that many considered confusing. That 2012 policy said “employees shall report such incident or cause a report of child abuse or neglect to be made to the principal and shall also personally assure that the matter has been reported to Child Protective Services or law enforcement within 24 hours.”

Former principals told Lefler they were required to contact human resources, which would launch an investigation.

A new OPS policy passed in December mirrors state law by urging employees who have “reasonable cause” to believe a child has been abused to call police or CPS directly. It also no longer mentions a 24-hour grace period.

“It’s a positive move,” Kleine said. “I certainly hope this case and the attention to it has had an impact. The message is simple: Everybody has a duty to report.”

Notable crime news of 2020

Articles
Senate moves to limit Trump on use of force against Iran
WAR POWERS

WASHINGTON (AP)—The Senate approved a bipartisan measure Thursday aimed at limiting President Donald Trump's authority to launch military operations against Iran, with eight Republicans joining Democrats in a post-impeachment bid to constrain the White House.

The rebuke was the Senate's first major vote since acquitting Trump on impeachment charges last week. Trump is expected to veto the war powers resolution if it reaches his desk, warning that if his "hands were tied, Iran would have a field day."

The measure, authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., says Trump must win approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Kaine and other supporters said the resolution, which passed 55-45, was not about Trump or even the presidency, but instead was an important reassertion of congressional power to declare war.

While Trump and other presidents "must always have the ability to defend the United States from imminent attack, the executive power to initiate war stops there,'' Kaine said. "An offensive war requires a congressional debate and vote.''

The Senate vote continues a pattern in which Republican senators have shown a willingness to challenge Trump on foreign policy, a departure from their strong support during impeachment and on domestic matters.

Congress moved to impose restrictions on U.S. involvement with the Saudi-led war in Yemen last year after U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a gruesome murder at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Turkey. Trump vetoed the bipartisan resolution.

Two-thirds votes in the House and GOP-run Senate would be needed to override an expected Trump veto of the new war powers resolution on Iran.

Answering a claim by some of Trump's supporters and Trump himself that the measure would send a signal of weakness to Iran and other potential adversaries, Kaine said the opposite was true.

"When we stand up for the rule of law — in a world that hungers for more rule of law — and say, 'This decision is fundamental, and we have rules that we are going to follow so we can make a good decision,' that's a message of strength,'' Kaine said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed. Lee supports Trump's foreign policy, including toward Iran, but said Congress cannot escape its constitutional responsibility to act on matters of war and peace.

"There is abundant support for the United States taking tough positions with regard to Iran,'' Lee said Wednesday. "And as part of that we want to make sure that any military action that needs to be authorized is in fact properly authorized by Congress. That doesn't show weakness. That shows strength.''

The principle of congressional approval is established for an important reason, Kaine said. "If we're to order our young men and women … to risk their lives in war, it should be on the basis of careful deliberation by the people's elected legislature and not on the say-so of any one person.''

Trump disputed that, arguing on Twitter that a vote against Kaine's proposal was important to national security and mentioning the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani.

"We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness. Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani,'' Trump said. "If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal.''

Tehran responded to the U.S. attack on Soleimani by launching missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house American troops. The attack caused traumatic brain injuries in at least 109 U.S. service members, the Pentagon said this week.

Democrats and Republicans alike criticized a briefing by the Trump administration shortly after the drone strike, saying U.S. officials offered vague information about a possible attack being planned by Iran but no substantial details.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many other Republicans opposed the resolution, saying it would send the wrong message to U.S. allies.

The eight Republicans joining Democrats were Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana.


Crime
'I'm happy as hell,' Tyler Thomas' brother says after jury finds Joshua Keadle guilty in her death

BEATRICE, Neb. — Members of the family of Tyler Thomas, a 19-year-old Peru State College student who disappeared under suspicious circumstances nearly a decade ago, heard a word Thursday they thought they’d never hear.

“Guilty.”

After deliberating over parts of two days, a jury found a fellow student and longtime person of interest, Joshua Keadle, guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Thomas, an Omaha resident who was captain of the southeast Nebraska school’s dance team.

Her family, who had sat through the trial and had helped revive what had become a cold case, erupted in tears of joy.

“I’m happy as hell,” said Thomas’ 22-year-old brother, Dillon Thomas of Omaha. “I don’t have to be angry anymore.”

“We waited a long time for this,” said a grandmother, Violet Bennett, also of Omaha.

Thomas disappeared Dec. 3, 2010, after an early morning visit with Keadle to a boat launch on the Missouri River. Her body was never found, complicating the investigation.

THE LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR  

After deliberating for 8½ hours, jurors on Thursday found Joshua Keadle guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Tyler Thomas.

In 2016, Thomas’ mother, LaTanya, and grandmother Eva Thomas asked Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson to take another look at Tyler’s disappearance.

Peterson said Thursday that it was a “pretty emotional” meeting, and it convinced him the case deserved a renewed and in-depth look. In 2017, Keadle — who by then was serving a 15- to 20-year sentence for an unrelated sexual assault in Fremont — was charged with first-degree murder.

“This guy was a danger to the public,” Peterson said. “He didn’t think we could get him because we didn’t have a body.

“I was dancing on my desk when I heard the verdict.”

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated about 8½ hours over two days before rendering a verdict Thursday afternoon. The trial was moved to the Gage County Courthouse because it has a larger courtroom and because of pretrial publicity about the mysterious case.

Keadle, now 38, betrayed no emotion as the verdict was read. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 29 by Gage County District Judge Rick Schreiner. Keadle faces a possible sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

Dillon Thomas and Violet Bennet both said it didn’t really matter that the jury opted for the lesser charge of second-degree murder — a deliberate but not premeditated act — instead of the original charge he faced, first-degree murder, a premeditated act.

A national expert on prosecuting murders where the victim’s body was not found told The World-Herald last week that it’s rare to obtain a first-degree murder conviction without that key piece of evidence.

Keadle’s defense attorneys with the Nebraska Commission for Public Advocacy had maintained that there was a lack of evidence that a slaying had been committed or that their client was involved. They argued that it was more likely that Thomas fell off a steep bank into the river and died, or took her own life. Friends testified that she was intoxicated and upset that night, and a law enforcement officer called some social media posts of hers “suicidal.”

Rules of evidence barred prosecutors from revealing to jurors that Keadle was already in prison. But lead prosecutor Doug Warner bore into several “deceptions” spun by Keadle to authorities and Thomas’ friends after she went missing.

In addition, a jailhouse informant came forward after Keadle was charged, testifying that Keadle had told him he’d never go to prison because they’d never find the body.

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Keadle initially told authorities that he’d only seen Thomas walking on campus on the night she vanished. Then, four days later, he changed his story, acknowledging that he picked her up about 1:30 a.m. and drove to a remote boat ramp on the Missouri River, just outside Peru.

Thomas was desperate to get a ride home to Omaha and, according to Keadle, offered to perform a sex act in exchange. But Keadle said he changed his mind about the ride, angering Thomas, who threatened to report that she had been raped. Ultimately, he said he drove away, leaving Thomas behind along the icy river.

After prosecutors initially declined to charge Keadle, Thomas’ family filed a civil lawsuit, which requires a lower standard of proof than is required in a criminal trial. They won in state court, with a jury in Nemaha County awarding the family a record $2.6 billion judgment in 2016 against Keadle.

By then, Keadle was serving time in prison for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in Fremont in 2008. That victim came forward after Thomas’ disappearance hit the news.

Warner, the prosecutor, said it took so long to charge Keadle because some time had to pass to show there was no evidence that Thomas was still alive.

Notable crime news of 2020

State_and_regional
Proposed ban on closing curtain during lethal injection executions advances in Legislature

LINCOLN — A curtain could no longer be pulled to obscure parts of a lethal injection execution under a bill advanced Thursday by the Nebraska Legislature.

The measure addresses a controversy stirred up during Nebraska’s last execution, in 2018, when a curtain was pulled shut for 14 minutes, obscuring witnesses from seeing the final moments of the execution of Carey Dean Moore.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who sponsored the proposal, said that when a curtain obscures witnesses from seeing an entire execution, there’s no way to tell whether an execution was “botched” or carried out appropriately.

“To say, ‘We’re the government, trust us,’ is not transparency,” Pansing Brooks said.

Legislative Bill 238 was advanced from first-round debate on a 33-7 vote, but not before senators debated whether the legislation should require two state legislators to witness executions.

Right now, at least two media representatives and up to six people total, including officials from the State Corrections Department, are chosen to witness executions in Nebraska. Some family members and friends of the victim and condemned inmate are also permitted to attend.

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A handful of senators, led by Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers, questioned whether the language of LB 238 mandated that two lawmakers witness an execution, which they argued would be cruel.

“I don’t think this should be our job,” said Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen.

Pansing Brooks said her intent with the clause was to require the Corrections Department to allow two legislative witnesses. She said she’s willing to amend the bill’s language to make it optional for any state senator to attend, if they wished.

“I don’t intend to force people to watch something as hideous as this,” said the senator, who opposes capital punishment.

Another death penalty opponent, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, said LB 238 was about government transparency, not whether you support or oppose capital punishment.

“The state, if they’re going to take a life, needs to do it in a fashion that isn’t cruel and unusual, and we don’t know that unless the entire procedure is visible,” Lathrop said.

Meet the Nebraska state senators