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Omaha police make arrest in sexual assault case from late 1990s

Roughly 20 years ago, a girl, then age 7 or 8, begged her mother to take her to Hitchcock Pool to go swimming. A family friend known as the “bicycle guy” offered to take her.

That day, she alleges, the man raped her in the basement of the South Omaha home where he lived.

The girl apparently suppressed the memory until 2005, when she recalled the attack in counseling. She reported it to Omaha police, who put out a notice to local law enforcement in order to find the man and speak with him.

That didn’t happen until December 2018, when the man came in contact with Bellevue authorities, who notified Omaha police.

Omaha detectives Ryan Kilawee and Marissa Boyce dug into the case — watching an old VHS tape of the girl’s interview with police and speaking to the now-28-year-old woman and corroborating details of the home with current and former residents. They later secured an arrest.

Joseph L. Pierce, 54, has been charged with first-degree sexual assault of a minor and is being held in Douglas County Jail on $150,000 bail. He was arrested in Indiana after a warrant was issued for him April 11.

Pierce has faced previous charges of sexual assault of a juvenile — one in 1981 in Minnesota and another in 1983 in Omaha, said Omaha Police Capt. Anna Colon.

That history and the fact that Pierce has lived in four other states since 2005 leads Colon to suspect that other children may have been targeted.

Pierce was known in the South Omaha neighborhood as “Joe the bicycle guy,” Colon said. Everyone took their bike to Pierce, who then had long red hair, to get it repaired, she said.

Pierce lived in various homes and apartments, but in 1997 or 1998, he lived in the basement of his foster family’s home near 22nd and O Streets, police said.

Pierce was a patient at the Bellevue Medical Center on Dec. 5, 2018, when Bellevue officers realized there still was a pending bulletin from 2005 to locate Pierce. They spoke to Kilawee, who saw that the bulletin was connected to a juvenile sexual assault case.

Kilawee spoke to Pierce and asked him about the girl. Pierce said he didn’t remember.

Kilawee watched the 2005 interview with the young woman, then tracked her down to interview her again. Her interview was detailed and matched her previous story, Colon said.

To find the house where the alleged assault occurred, Kilawee took the woman in December 2018 to five different properties where Pierce had lived in the late 1990s. The woman said the home at 22nd and O Streets was “a possibility” and ruled out the others. She had reported in 2005 that it could have happened near 40th and W Streets but in 2018 said the memories were “coming back to her,” according to a court affidavit.

The woman told police that on the day Pierce took her to the pool, she stayed there for only a short time before Pierce took her to the basement. She said she wanted to go home and was trying to get out of the situation, so she told him that she had to use the bathroom, according to the affidavit. She said he watched her while she used the toilet, and she remembered there wasn’t a door to the bathroom, the affidavit said.

Pierce then put her on his bed, put his hand over her mouth and said it wasn’t going to hurt, according to the affidavit. The woman told police that he touched her chest and “bottom area” with his fingers and raped her vaginally.

Afterward, according to the affidavit, he told her not to tell anyone because she would get in trouble.

Kilawee spoke to the current owner of the home, who described what the layout of the basement looked like before it was remodeled. He also found the family who lived in the home when Pierce lived in the basement.

All remembered that there weren’t doors on the hinges in the basement where Pierce lived, and they drew floor plans that matched the woman’s description.

Colon said the woman is glad to have some closure as Pierce awaits trial. If convicted, he would face up to 50 years in prison.

“She didn’t think that anything was going to come out of it. She didn’t think anyone would believe her,” Colon said. “When (kids) do tell someone, we’re going to do anything we can to protect them and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Notable crime news of 2019

In hopes of keeping autistic kids from feeling isolated, new Millard program teaches social skills

Alex Diamond could be called a diamond in the rough.

As a high-functioning autistic young man, he’s gifted with a brain that is both remarkable and a challenge.

His brain is wired to recall facts. The 18-year-old Millard South High student can rattle off specifications of Rainbird sprinkler heads and details of the New York City subway system, his parents say.

But some of his behaviors might be perceived as quirky or even impolite. He doesn’t want to drive yet. Rarely cooks, concerned about burning himself. He avoids mirrors. They make him uncomfortable. Painted faces, like kids get at the county fair, bother him.

He’s uneasy in crowded rooms.

“I feel like I’m shaking inside,” he said.

In social situations, his blunt comments can make others uncomfortable, his parents say.

Diamond said he may want to pursue a career writing code for video games or as a graphic designer, but for young people like him, eccentricities and a lack of social skills can stand in the way of adult independence and self-sufficiency.

Next school year, the Millard Public Schools will try to change that.

The district will offer new programs to enhance the social skills of autistic kids and students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The programs will use recreation technicians and volunteer peers to teach basic skills, everything from how to start a conversation to how to call for an Uber ride.

The district will partner with the Munroe-Meyer Institute to provide the programs.

One program will focus on middle school and high school students, the other on students in the district’s young adult program.

Munroe-Meyer director Karoly Mirnics said schools often offer vocational training programs to help students live productive, professional lives.

But career education is not enough.

“We are forgetting, in a way, that social component and that social isolation,” Mirnics said.

If a student’s life skills, the so-called soft skills, don’t improve, they are far less likely to keep a job, even if they are properly trained for a career, he said.

Asked why these children lack social skills, Mirnics said: “They are different. Differences create barriers.”

People don’t necessarily accept them, and there’s still a stigma in society toward them, he said.

The students get isolated, and, in turn, isolate themselves, he said. As a result, they don’t learn at the same pace as the typical kid, who absorbs and adopts social skills by interacting with friends, he said.

“Society is created for neurotypical individuals, and the neurotypical individuals are setting the rules of behavior,” Mirnics said. “So what you are ending up with is you have someone who is not neurotypical playing with the rules, and in the playing field, that was defined by neurotypical individuals. So they have to be helped to really understand and integrate with it.”

The programs grew out of a five-year institute study in the Westside Community Schools.

That study showed that enhancing social skills can reduce isolation and increase interaction, Mirnics said.

Initially, the programs will serve about 30 students, he said.

In middle school and high school, each student will receive about 30 to 45 minutes of one-on-one therapy a week during school. Plus they’ll spend about three hours a month at recreation and leisure activities in the community, at locations such as Werner Park, Spielbound Board Game Cafe or Panera Bread.

Despite successes documented in the Westside study, recreation therapy hasn’t been embraced in Nebraska as much as other special education services, said Michael Crawford, director of the institute’s department of recreational therapy.

He hopes to change that.

The department will staff the initiative and gather data on its impact.

The Hattie B. Munroe Foundation will fund the programs at more than $70,000 annually for the first year, and it plans to continue funding for another two years following a review of first-year progress.

During weekly therapy, students will use role playing to practice conversation and skills such as how to make a social invitation, maintain and end a conversation, and give and receive compliments.

If needed, they will work on such things as vocal inflections and how close is too close or too far to stand during social interactions, he said.

The therapists will give homework, which could be as basic as sending an email to a peer asking to hang out.

On the outings, the student will be joined by a recreation technician and a neurotypical kid recruited as a volunteer. The special education student will put to use the lessons learned in class.

The technician will monitor and assist, keeping the conversation topics appropriate and encouraging the special education students and their peers to converse in proper ways and play cooperatively.

For the transition students, age 18 to 21, the program will emphasize learning about the community and how to navigate it.

Leaving school for the working world can be difficult for anyone, but especially for these kids.

“All of a sudden that rich social milieu disappears at 21, and a lot of these kids end up being social isolates after that because they don’t have friendship circles, they haven’t developed friends, and they don’t have the social skills to navigate the community,” Crawford said.

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A lot of the kids don’t have driver’s licenses, he said. Many have to ride the bus, the routes and transfers of which can confuse anyone, he said.

Not only will kids learn how to call for an Uber ride, but they will even get tips on how to communicate with the driver, who may have his or her own idiosyncrasies, he said.

Millard officials say they have offered programs in the past that addressed some of the same issues.

However, they say the new program has a much more defined curriculum that involves the development of more skills.

It will also be more consistent regarding what is taught and how it is taught, they say. There will be a better adult-to-student ratio with the new program, so students will receive more individual attention.

Alex’s mom, Denise Diamond, said the programs look promising.

She said people sometimes don’t know how to react to an autistic person.

“They look normal,” she said. “It’s not like other disabilities where you physically see that somebody might need some help in some way, and your attitude shifts a little bit.”

Asked what he would say to other autistic kids, Alex answered.

“You are a unique person,” he said.

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2018 ACT scores

House OKs defense bill with funds for Offutt without any GOP support

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday approved its annual defense policy bill with money to help military installations, such as Offutt Air Force Base, hit by natural disasters.

The legislation passed 220 to 197 on a largely party-line vote — not a single Republican member supported the measure.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., was one of only two Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee to support the measure when the panel approved it, declaring it imperfect but good enough to advance.

But that was before hundreds of amendments to the legislation were offered on the floor aimed at shoring up support from the more left-leaning Democrats.

Those included, for example, a prohibition on attacking Iran without congressional approval.

Republicans said such amendments were out of line and unduly restricted the commander in chief.

“It took a hard left turn with those 400 amendments,” Bacon told The World-Herald. “The majority are trying to tie the president’s hands on the border, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE and also nuclear deterrence.”

Photos: Signs of flood damage still everywhere at Offutt Air Force Base

Bacon voted against the bill, as did Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith, both Nebraska Republicans, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, supported the measure.

Democrats said they tried to work with Republicans on the bill and characterized Republicans as abandoning what is typically a highly bipartisan process simply because they didn’t get their way on every issue.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., described the measure as “the most progressive” defense authorization bill in a decade.

“Not only does this NDAA and its provisions keep our nation safe, but it honors the values of our country, strengthens our security and advances America’s leadership in the world,” he said.

The bill still must be reconciled with the version approved overwhelmingly by the Senate, which does not include many of the restrictions opposed by House Republicans.

Truck is canvas, commuters are audience for rolling masterpieces

LOS ANGELES — One day in 2016, as Arnulfo Gonzalez waited at a warehouse to pick up cargo, he stared at the filth caked on the back door of his box truck. He ran his finger on it.

The Mexican immigrant once had ambitions of becoming an artist. He had earned a degree in the subject from East Los Angeles College and taught ceramics workshops. He took his wife on date nights to drawing classes, where they used each other as subjects.

Gonzalez set aside those dreams and became a trucker in 2000, "because there was more money there," the father of two said. Besides an occasional notebook doodle, work and his family were his focus.

Until the day he realized that his canvas and paint had been there all along.

"It clicked," Gonzalez said. By the time his load was ready, he had outlined a woman's face in the muck.

Dockworkers immediately offered praise. And so, every other week since, the short-haul driver has offered a new "painting" to commuters across Southern Gonzalez set aside those dreams and became a trucker in 2000, "because there was more money there," the father of two said. Be-

Thanksgiving spread. A horse with a flowing mane, a soulful eye and richly detailed reins.

Often, the 48-year-old Gonzalez answers his muse as he waits for cargo to be loaded. He likes to use classical music as a soundtrack — Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata is a favorite.

"It relaxes you and brings out creativity," Gonzalez said.

Truckers long have personalized their rigs.

In Pakistan and India, "jingle" trucks feature calligraphy, beads, extravagantly colored arabesque designs or Hindu motifs. Japan's dekotora subculture celebrates trucks with ironworks and lights seemingly pulled from an anime. In Spain, artists persuaded truckers to let them paint contemporary works on containers as a way to protest the strictures of museums.

American truck art, on the other hand, historically has been staid: mud flap silhouettes, the trucker's name stenciled on the side doors or — in recent years — toys tied to grilles or hung on the back bumper or axle.

Lavishly adorned commercial trucks "are not part of our culture," said Max Heine, editorial director for Overdrive. Every year, the magazine hosts Pride & Polish, which it describes as the "premier truck beauty championship series in North America."

Heine said American trucker aesthetics tend to focus more on chrome parts, paint jobs meant to evoke classic Peterbilts and Kenworths, or a beat-up rusted look known as "rat rod."

By those standards, Gonzalez's truck is humble.

Driving up and down L.A.'s eternally traffic-choked freeways, he has an audience to dwarf any arthouse installation.

Truckers inspire many stereotypes. Artistic soul is not one of them.

Cruz Palomares, 50, a fellow truck driver, likes to show other drivers a photo of his favorite Gonzalez piece: Santa Claus on a reindeer-drawn sleigh flying over a forest.

"The cabron has a gift!" Palomares said, referring to Gonzalez using a word common in Mexico that literally means "male goat" but can serve as both an insult and term of respect.

"The guys I show stay there with their mouths open. And then they say, 'Hey, your friend made a mistake to be a trucker.' " Gonzalez tends to agree. But a man's got to make money. "I don't see myself in this job forever," he said. His voice trails off as he stands in a parking lot ready to start his next "painting." He slips on plastic gloves and opens a toolbox filled with paint brushes.

"Who knows what can happen? At least, I want to graduate to a wall."

But for now, grime is like an ink that never runs dry.

"It just gathers and gathers and gathers and never ends," Gonzalez said.

Laura Fernandez, who works in the shipping department at one of the loading docks Gonzalez frequents, said she told the trucker "to do stuff that people can relate to."

"He's driving all over L.A., and people are stuck behind him," Fernandez said. A Grinch that Gonzalez did this past Christmas, she said, was particularly impressive.

"Imagine — with grease? Have you tried to clean grease?" Fernandez said. "The more you try, the dirtier the surface gets."

As Gonzalez pulled into a car wash, pedestrians and customers of nearby businesses stared. Some took photos. Someone shouted that the horse painting was good enough to use as an ad at the Santa Anita racetrack.

"Man, there's so much talent hidden out there," said Jonathan Aguilar, who owns a barbershop in the strip mall. "And you don't even know about it until you're behind it."