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Courts
After defendant carries on, Army dad lays bare his angst over the death of his youngest son

Before he was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the death of an Omaha Army sergeant, Jason Devers told a prosecutor she was going to hell, told the judge he forgave him and told the courtroom he would become a millionaire.

Not much of it made any more sense than his actions on Jan. 6, 2018, when, a jury found, he told his cousin to rob Kyle LeFlore at gunpoint and take his jewelry.

The 27-year-old LeFlore, home during a break from the Army, was shot and killed.

“I forgive the court for the apprehension and conviction of the wrong man,” Devers said Tuesday. “We’re honoring Mr. LeFlore’s sacrifice to this country by sending the wrong man to prison. ... It’s all right. May God forgive you. And I do, too.”

Against that backdrop — after the defendant had said his piece, at various points cursing and, oddly, applauding his life sentence — Kay LeFlore, 66, slowly strode to the front of the courtroom.

Wearing one of the suits that he sells from his fine clothing store, Kay LeFlore took courtroom observers on a brief journey through the life of Kyle LeFlore. It was a tale that went beyond what many Omahans already know about the younger LeFlore — that he served tours in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, only to be gunned down on the streets of his hometown.

Kay LeFlore had those gathered in tears, then giggles, then tears.

And so instead of the usual back and forth of a sentencing hearing — the pleas from attorneys, the admonitions from the judge and the occasional nonsense that attaches to a high-profile case — let’s let a father speak. About his son.

Kyle LeFlore

Kay LeFlore told the court that Kyle was an oops baby. He and his wife, Monica, were in their 30s, and they weren’t planning to add to their already-bustling home. “It was a surprise,” he said.

A pleasant one. Kyle became the typical youngest child, relentless in his pursuit of his older brothers and sisters.

“He could harass you to the point that you would just have to laugh,” Kay said. “I would watch him torture his brother. He would fire off so many cracks, I would finally be like, ‘Stop it, Kyle. Stop it.’ ”

From the back of the courtroom, family members chuckled.

“I used to call him my funny-looking kid because he had these raccoon eyes. It was so funny. As he grew up, he grew up to be an outstanding son. And I always used to say he grew into his looks.”

More laughter. Kay LeFlore said he used to spot Kyle’s high school textbooks at home. None of them appeared to have been cracked.

“His books were just like brand new,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Kyle, did you do your homework?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ He hadn’t done it.”

Instead, the father said, Kyle relied on his quick wit and sharp mind.

“He had a great memory. He heard a song on the radio a couple times, he could do the lyrics,” Kay LeFlore said. “I was like, ‘Wow, you know the lyrics to that? I can’t even hear them.’ ”

In time, Kyle LeFlore became more and more athletic. He loved martial arts and training for matches — “Never lost a fight,” Dad said.

Post high school, LeFlore joined the Army. He served in Iraq a few times, Afghanistan, Kuwait. Married his wife, LaTasha. Two years later, they had a son, Kyle Jr.

Eighteen months ago, LeFlore came to Omaha on a two-week leave from his base in South Korea. He was getting ready to relocate his family to Arizona for his next stint in the Army.

Soldier killed in Omaha remembered by comrades in Korea as a born champion

That Friday night, he had dressed to the nines, wearing a small-brimmed fedora to the Reign Lounge off 30th Street, just south of Interstate 680. Surveillance video showed him talking to friends, buying them drinks, occasionally swaying to the music. Mostly keeping to himself.

About 1:30 a.m., he was found shot to death in the parking lot, next to his SUV. His hat was in the front seat, indicating that he probably had opened his door when he was confronted by a gunman.

“My son would never let anybody rob him,” Kay LeFlore said. “That’s just the way I built him. Somebody hit you at school? Tell the teacher — after you taught him a lesson with those hands.”

Kay LeFlore was home with his grandson that night. Kay and Kyle Jr. spent the evening watching movies. Kyle Jr. wanted his dad.

“My grandson would come into the room,” Kay said. “He’d call his (dad’s) number on the phone. Call it and call it. ‘Dad’s not picking up. Dad’s not picking up.’ ”

When the worst news hit, Kay LeFlore said, he couldn’t bear to break it to his grandson. The LeFlores waited a week or so.

“It was devastating the day that we told him that his father — the greatest man that he ever knew — was dead,” Kay LeFlore said. “And why he was dead.”

From the back of the courtroom, family members began weeping. LeFlore’s voice rose.

“He was dead because somebody who didn’t think about what they were doing targeted him and gave a murderer a gun and said, ‘Go get him, go get his money and his jewelry.’ ”

“Don’t blame it on drugs,” LeFlore said, directing his comments at Devers. “That hatred was in you. That hatred for another human being was in you. And it didn’t have to be.”

LeFlore turned his attention to Larry Goynes, the once-accused gunman in the case. The Douglas County Attorney’s Office dismissed a murder charge against him earlier this year, but Kay LeFlore is holding out hope that prosecutors will refile. Surveillance video and several witnesses put Goynes in the lounge that night.

“Before it’s over, I’d like somebody to get the needle and stop breathing,” LeFlore said. “I don’t want anyone who killed my son breathing air. Air is too good for them.”

With that, Devers was sent to prison — muttering something about becoming a millionaire.

LeFlore’s family members walked out, stopped and embraced near the door. Kyle’s older brother, Gabe LeFlore, rushed past them, bent over a rotunda railing and sobbed.

Kay LeFlore gazed at Gabe, wiped away a tear and let out a deep breath.

“Has it changed me?’ ” Kay LeFlore asked. “Has it changed his son, his wife? My children, my wife? Has it changed my brothers and sisters, my nieces, my nephews. It’s changed us all. This one act changed us all.”

Notable crime news of 2019

Articles
Poachers raid public lands in California for succulents
ASIAN BLACK MARKET

The men traveled Highway 101 in budget rental cars, stopping at remote state parks with stunning vistas as they snaked their way along the Northern California coast. To a casual observer, Byungsu Kim, 44, Youngin Back, 45, and Bong Jun Kim, 44, might have seemed like yet another group of road-tripping tourists on the scenic highway, marveling at the towering redwoods and the waves crashing against dizzying bluffs.

But wildlife detectives who had been tracking the three South Korean nationals since they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2018 noticed that their rented minivan was full of boxes and rubber totes. Watching from a distance, wardens saw what they were stuffing inside: Dudleya succulents, which have spiky bluegreen leaves immediately recognizable to anyone on Pinterest and Instagram.

On Friday, the three men were charged with stealing more than $600,000 worth of wild succulents from public lands and attempting to smuggle them into Asia, where a lucrative black market for the trendy houseplants is flourishing.

The bust, which led to the seizure of more than 3,700 plants, was part of a larger crackdown on succulent poachers who are believed to be part of international smuggling rings. Overseas, the plants retail for as much as $50 each, according to wildlife officials, and are a highly prized consumer good among the growing middle class.

"These plants are a boom in Korea, China and Japan," Patrick Freeling, a game warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Guardian. "It's huge among housewives. It's a status thing."

Frequently found in artisanal coffee shops or in millennial-chic apartments, succulents are ubiquitous enough to be a design cliché. But the succulent craze has gone global, with potentially disastrous effects.

According to the Guardian, the plants have become so popular in Korea and China that they are sold in stores the size of multiple basketball courts.

Dudleya, a genus encompassing dozens of species native to the West Coast, plays a crucial role in the delicate ecosystems of California's wind-battered cliffs, where they help to fight erosion. Some of those species are considered threatened or endangered, and the population has recently been devastated by wildfires.

Now, experts worry that the rarest types of Dudleya could be driven to extinction if poachers keep ripping out thousands at a time. Though Dudleya can be grown in nurseries, they take years or even decades to mature, and commercial growers have struggled to keep up as succulent mania spreads from South Korea to China. Kang Suk-Jung, who owns a nursery in Hojawon, South Korea, told NPR last year that once Chinese customers started buying succulents, "even tens of thousands of plants would not meet the demand." Besides, he said, it was tough to replicate the look of the most sought-after species.

"Those plants had survived in their natural habitats for decades through rain and wind," he said. "That's what makes them beautiful."

Until December 2017, authorities had no idea that thousands of succulents were being stolen from state parks. Then, a frustrated postal customer called California Fish and Wildlife with a tip. The woman had grown exasperated while waiting to mail a Christmas package at the tiny post office in Mendocino. A man ahead of her was shipping 60 packages to China. Curious, she asked what was in the boxes.

"Shhhh, something very valuable," the man said, putting one finger to his lips.

Freeling, the game warden who received the tip, asked U.S. customs to X-ray the packages. The tipster had suspected that the boxes held abalone, an edible sea snail often illegally harvested by divers. They turned out to contain dozens of succulents, he told NPR.


Courts
Speakers line up to make case for, against controversial juvenile justice center proposal

Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren joined a long line of people urging the Omaha City Council to green-light a proposed juvenile justice center Tuesday, while State Sen. Ernie Chambers joined Omaha Police union leaders and an equally long line of people speaking against it.

More than 40 people weighed in on the issue at a council meeting Tuesday. The occasion was a public hearing on a proposal to issue $114 million in bonds to build a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha.

It’s a Douglas County project. The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission would issue the bonds. Douglas County property taxpayers would repay them. The County Board and building commission have voted for the project. But they need City Council approval before they can borrow the money.

The council could vote on June 18. That brought a big-game feel to Tuesday’s council meeting.

Speakers mainly battled over the juvenile detention center part of the project, which would cost $22 million after a $5 million donation from the Sherwood Foundation that comes with conditions and a pledge of $5 million more for programming if they are met.

The detention center would have a capacity for 64 youths, about half as many as the current Douglas County detention center can hold. Seventy-five to 80 young people currently are detained in the Douglas County Youth Center.

Generally, proponents contended Tuesday that building a new, smaller, less jail-like detention center next to an expanded juvenile court and adjacent to services for youths and families would streamline juvenile justice and spark further reforms. They said programming already is increasing.

Opponents contended the opposite. Generally, they said a downtown detention center would be too small and actually more jail-like than the current one, which they contend could be renovated to modern standards and include green space for recreation. They said more programming should come before buildings. Also, they want a public vote on the bonds.

Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said that as a retired Omaha police chief he is well aware that Omaha has violent juvenile offenders. That’s who the detention center is for, he said.

But there are also nonviolent youths who are locked up in detention because they lost their placements in programs or were arrested for minor offenses, and there aren’t enough services or placements for them, Warren said. Those young people should not be in a detention center, he said.

Warren said that detention numbers have declined and that a coming change in state law and the county’s commitment to juvenile justice reforms will drive them down further.

Mark Foxall, the former director of the Douglas County Jail, also supported the project. Foxall, who teaches in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the discussion “needs to be about more than brick and mortar.”

The proposal brings people together from many parts of the juvenile justice system to solve problems that lead to youth detention. That’s a good thing, Foxall said.

Several proponents talked about the negative effects of detention on youths.

Deborah Neary, executive director of the nonprofit organization MENTOR Nebraska, said she had a personal experience with that. A foster child of hers was detained in the Douglas County Youth Center.

“It changed her, and not for the better,” Neary said.

But some youths need to be detained, said Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association. The union opposes the detention center because 64 beds are not enough, he said. Building a detention center that small would be dangerous for police officers and the community, Conner said.

He said union leaders believe that dangerous juveniles are being released or diverted from detention to make it appear like less space is needed.

Dan Martin, chairman of the police union’s executive board and a gang unit sergeant, said he agrees that rehabilitative efforts should be in the forefront of juvenile justice but that they should be done responsibly. He cited recent cases, including the carjacking of a mother by three teenagers, in which he said some of the suspects were juveniles who had been arrested or were on probation.

Martin urged the council not to support a proposal that includes a “drastic reduction” in juvenile detention space.

Chambers said he didn’t expect to change any council members’ minds about the proposal. He said he was there to show his opposition to the juvenile detention center and to the process. A nonprofit development corporation — which includes businesses that will profit from the project — will manage its construction. Also, the bonds would be approved without a vote of the people.

“When private, powerful, wealthy men make the decisions, they’re accountable to no one,” Chambers said.

He said he will endeavor to change state law to require a public vote on large bond issues.

Greg Sechser, owner of a downtown coffee shop, said putting the Douglas County Jail downtown had gutted the surrounding neighborhood. Building the proposed detention center would gut the Flatiron neighborhood, Sechser said.

Notable crime news of 2019

Politics
'A promise has been kept': Trump is cheered in Council Bluffs after lifting ethanol ban

President Donald Trump did a victory lap with Iowa and Nebraska farmers on Tuesday, touting his administration’s move to lift a ban on selling gasoline mixed with 15% ethanol during summer months.

And he certainly received accolades from elected officials, industry groups and farmers for the move.

“A promise has been made. That promise was made by President Trump. And folks, a promise has been kept,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “And today I say to you, Mr. President, thank you.”

But at the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy facility, he also heard about his administration’s liberal granting of waivers on ethanol use by oil companies — even by speakers who shared the stage with him.

“Mr. President, you delivered on E15 but we have more work to do,” said farmer Kevin Ross of Minden, Iowa.

At the event, Trump also signed an executive order that he said would promote agricultural biotechnology. The White House said the order will direct federal agencies to streamline regulations to speed innovation.

Officials from Growth Energy, a biofuels trade group, said they expect the new E15 rule to spur development in places like Nebraska and Iowa.

“It’s a huge boost for rural communities at a time when they so desperately need it,” said Emily Skor, Growth Energy’s CEO.

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Skor, who got a mention in Trump’s speech, said in an interview that the previous rules around E15 caused logistical problems for sellers and that she expected to see more gas stations offering the product.

And on stage, Randy Gard of Bosselman truck stops — Nebraska’s top E15 retailer — urged others to sell the product.

“Don’t be afraid of it,” he said. “Customers love it; our customers love it.”

Iowa and Nebraska are the No. 1 and No. 2 ethanol producers. Sales of ethanol drive business for corn farmers and ethanol refining plants.

“More American ethanol production means less dependence on foreign supplies,” Trump told the crowd. “Quite simply, it means more energy. And what can be wrong with that? And it’s very good energy.”

The president received a standing ovation when he said: “We will never stop fighting for our farmers, for our country and for our great American flag. Never stop.

“We know that farm country is God’s country.”

Critics used the event as an opportunity to push the administration to issue fewer waivers of ethanol mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“The E15 announcement gives with one hand, the waiver process takes with the other hand,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, in a call with reporters before Trump arrived. “The result is that we are selling less than we would.”

Enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, that RFS mandate requires refineries to blend certain amounts of ethanol into the fuel supply every year.

The EPA has the power to issue waivers to small refineries that are struggling with undue economic hardships from the blending requirements.

But Vilsack said the Trump administration has been granting the waivers so liberally that they are going to facilities owned and operated by large, profitable companies such as Exxon and Chevron.

He urged the administration to return to the approach of the Obama administration, which issued far fewer ethanol blending waivers.

Vilsack served as U.S. agriculture secretary throughout President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.

Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat who represents the area the facility is in, had said she planned to bring up the issue with Trump at the event. But she didn’t attend after White House officials said she wasn’t invited to the tour, just to sit with the audience.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

President Donald Trump at Offutt Air Force Base after arriving on Air Force One. While at Offutt, Trump spent about 20 minutes with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and the 55th Wing commander, Col. Michael Manion, hearing about flood-recovery efforts.

Among those joining Trump were fellow Republicans: Sen. Deb Fischer and Gov. Pete Ricketts from Nebraska, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, as well as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

When Air Force One landed at Offutt Air Force Base, Trump spent about 20 minutes with Ricketts, Reynolds and the 55th Wing commander, Col. Michael Manion, hearing about flood-recovery efforts.

In his Bluffs speech, Trump got cheers when he talked about efforts to rebuild Offutt.

The president also urged attendees at the invitation-only event to press Democrats to pass his trade deal with Mexico and Canada, known as the USMCA.

Earlier in the day, Trump got in a dig at former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination, who also visited Iowa on Tuesday.

“The best thing that ever happened to farmers is me,” Trump said in Washington before he boarded Air Force One bound for Offutt. “We gave them ethanol at 15, which nobody was ever going to do, which Biden didn’t do in eight years as vice president.”

For his part, Biden said in Ottumwa that Iowa farmers have been crushed by Trump’s tariff war with China. He said Trump is a “threat to our core values” and “our standing in the world.”

After the Council Bluffs event, Trump headed to Des Moines for a fundraiser.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: President Trump speaks in Council Bluffs