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Crime
State says it has new information about how Aubrey Trail got razor blade

WILBER, Neb. — State prosecutors said Wednesday they’ve learned new information about how convicted killer Aubrey Trail was able to obtain a razor blade and slash himself during his trial last summer.

During a brief court hearing, prosecutors asked Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson to consider the new evidence — submitted nearly five months after the trial concluded — as she considers whether to grant Trail a new trial.

Mike Guinan, an assistant Nebraska Attorney General, declined to detail the new evidence, saying it was sensitive information that could affect jail and courthouse security.

Trail’s defense attorney, Ben Murray of Hebron, said the new evidence could bolster Trail’s request for a new trial if it shows that Saline County jailers knew that Trail was planning a suicide attempt or that he had somehow obtained a razor blade “and maybe had a duty to tell somebody.”

Midway through his trial and during a brief break as a new witness was entering the courtroom, Trail produced a razor blade and began rapidly slashing the side of his neck, shocking onlookers.

He was rushed to the hospital, where he received several stitches to close the bloody wound. Trail subsequently missed several days of his trial.

It was not made clear during the trial how Trail, who has served two previous terms in prison, was able to obtain a razor blade while housed at the Saline County Jail.

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The outburst prompted Murray to file requests for a mistrial and a new trial, arguing that the purported suicide attempt had prejudiced the jury. Trail was ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder and improper disposal of human remains in the slaying of Lincoln store clerk Sydney Loofe.

Prosecutors have said the slashing was staged in an attempt to gain attention.

Past court decisions have found that a defendant cannot cause his own mistrial, so if the new evidence shows that Trail planned the event, that would be important.

Judge Johnson granted a prosecution motion to submit depositions from the county sheriff and jailers under seal, outside of the public’s view, for security reasons.

She said she’d consider the new information in ruling on the motion for a new trial.

Trail, 53, attended Wednesday’s hearing dressed in orange jail clothing and sitting in a wheelchair. He has suffered a couple of strokes and heart attacks while imprisoned, according to court records.

Trail faces the death penalty for first-degree murder and is awaiting a sentencing hearing to determine whether the crime warrants capital punishment.

He was convicted in the November 2017 disappearance of Loofe, whose dismembered body was found in plastic bags along a remote Clay County road.

Trail’s girlfriend and partner in scams involving antiques, Bailey Boswell, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges and is scheduled to stand trial in March. Her trial was moved to Dawson County, in central Nebraska, in hopes of seating an impartial jury there.

Notable crime news of 2019

Plus
Grace: This Nebraskan is not OK with Nebraska Furniture Mart going 50 shades of beige with 'NFM'

Maybe if Nebraska wasn’t so humble, so polite or so pragmatic, people would be more riled up about an iconic business downsizing to mere initials.

Maybe if our state ethos was more bombastic, like don’t-mess-with-us Texas, and less okily-dokily good-life Nebraska, we’d be up in arms about the Nebraska Furniture Mart shrinking the storied name on its logo to “NFM.” Why can’t something with the Nebraska brand that is a proven success story fly the state flag? It’s not like the Huskers are bringing that home.

But news on Tuesday that our beloved Nebraska Furniture Mart was going all 50 shades of beige with its logo name change seemed to bother hardly anyone but me. And Annie Reilly, a Nebraska native and millennial stay-at-home mom who lives in Dallas and shops there. Annie, 39, reacted as I tend to do to change. Noooooooo!

“I’m bummed,” she said by phone Tuesday, while driving her youngest child, 1-year-old Owen, around Dallas. Owen just got a new toy from NFM. “It has such a good story.”

ANNIE REILLY 

Owen O’Brien, 1, got a new toy from the Nebraska Furniture Mart in the Dallas area. His mother, Annie Reilly, is sad about the store’s rebranding to NFM.

But it seems like Annie and I are outliers. According to Facebook comments on the article my colleague Erin Duffy wrote in Tuesday’s paper and to my own super-scientific surveying on social media, Nebraskans yawned, then rolled over and went back to sleep. Whatevs, 7 out of 10 voters on my Twitter poll said.

Most people call it NFM anyway, I heard. The Mart is only falling in line behind other storied brands.

Put KFC in your column, said my brother, an NFM customer. A lot of businesses are branding for social media and opting for shorter names and logos, said my sister, another NFM customer who works in marketing and would know something about this. They’ve been doing this already, said a cousin who formerly delivered for NFM.

Others seemed to say that as long as NFM keeps its financing deals and customer service, NBD. Translation, boomer: No big deal.

The Mart has said this is a logo change, that “Nebraska” will remain in its official name. The Dallas Morning News reported that it’s a rebranding, with the store name coming off the Dallas store as early as next year. A Creighton University professor said Monday that he’d be surprised if “Nebraska” appears in anything Mart-related in five years.

Andy Shefsky

Andy Shefsky, a Mart spokesman, put some of my fears to rest. “NFM” is a logo change, not a name change, he said. The headquarters is staying put in Nebraska. The company practice of selling cheap and telling the truth isn’t changing. And that N in NFM remains “Nebraska.”

Plus, the iconic Nebraska family who started this inspiring, most American business — the Blumkins — are still very much a part of the store. Shefsky married a fourth-generation Blumkin and his 13-year-old (fifth-generation) spent Black Friday helping out.

In other words, he said, the company logo might be changing but the company is not.

Rebranding through name shrinkage is not uncommon. Swedish fast-fashion clothier Hennes & Mauritz became H&M, its name on the Stockholm Stock Exchange, in 1974.

In 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken went all monogrammed sweater with “KFC.” The change downplayed “fried” at a time when people started to really care about what went down their gullets.

Similar thinking was at work with Dunkin’ dropping the “donuts” from its name. The company wants to compete in the to-go coffee market.

Closer to home, First National Bank of Omaha is morphing into FNBO, though a spokesman Tuesday declined to comment.

Omaha Steaks, however, has no plans to change its name.

“ ‘Omaha’ is an integral part of our heritage,” said public relations director Kelsey Bugjo.

Which sounds tastier to you, a Table Supply Steak or an Omaha Steak?

That 102-year-old company went through its own brand and name changes. It started out as Table Supply Meat Co., and changed to Omaha Steaks International in 1966. (Omaha Steaks’ steaks were served on passenger trains and people wanted to get them at home). The “international” was later dropped but “Omaha” is here to stay.

Now, about NFM.

Disclaimer: I am indebted to the business. First, for carpet we’re paying off slowly, thank you 0% financing. Second, for customer service. The Mart movers once MacGuyvered a way to get our new fridge into our old house by taking it apart and removing a window.

Third, when I hesitated this summer on a burnt-orange mid-century-modern sofa, a Mart clerk reassured me it was definitely not Grandma’s old davenport and it definitely was like a set piece from “Mad Men.” Sold!

And fourth, for all the ad buys. The Mart is a faithful World-Herald advertiser. Don’t stop believin’, Blumkins!

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Annie has a disclaimer, too, and it’s this: The Omaha native left Nebraska for Texas in 1999. She went for college, stayed for law school and is still there because of her husband and kids and parents, who now live in Houston.

For Annie, a trip to NFM is a trip back home to Omaha. Yes, the monster store in a suburb called “The Colony” doesn’t resemble the store on 72nd Street. But Annie’s Texas store has a See’s Candies. It even has a Scooter’s Coffee. Tastes from home.

In Texas, Annie can walk through the shiny new Mart and still see her past childhood self holding a See’s lollipop and waiting for Rose “Mrs. B.” Blumkin to zoom around the corner in her motorized chair. Annie said that as a millennial, she wants to patronize a story and the Nebraska Furniture Mart is one heck of a story.

Agreed. Plucky Russian immigrant Rose Blumkin lands in Omaha. Starts furniture business. Turns it into an empire. Makes a place so valuable that there are probably few places in Omaha that are not carpeted, floored or furnished by it.

Whether you’re rich or poor in Omaha, chances are you’ve walked on, sat on, cooked from or watched a Mart product at some point in your life. Nebraska Furniture Mart has been a great equalizer.

The story continues: Blumkin sells business to one Berkshire Hathaway, owned by one Daddy Warbucks. Under Warren Buffett’s ownership, Nebraska Furniture Mart retains its name and spreads the Blumkin ethos and product outside Nebraska to Iowa (Des Moines area, 2001); Kansas (Kansas City, 2003); and that giant swagger of a state, Texas (Dallas area, 2015).

“It was nice to have Nebraska be known for something other than …” Annie began, as somewhere Tom Osborne wiped a tear.

Annie said that in Texas, Nebraska is neutral, like Switzerland. No one hates us. No one gags or recoils when she says she’s from Nebraska. It would be a different story, she said, if the business was called “Oklahoma Furniture Mart.”

Annie understands that the “Nebraska” part of (deep breath) NFM doesn’t mean much to people from The Colony or in greater Dallas who have no ties to the state.

She gets that smaller can be better for brands. She knows that even if NFM put “Nebraska” in Texas-sized blinking lights, she wouldn’t see Mrs. B., who died in 1998 at age 104. Nor would she bump into any of her old Dundee neighbors or Marian High School classmates shopping there.

And she knows brand names could be worse.

“At least,” she said, “it’s not Nebraska Furniture Barn.”


Made right here: 12 things you may not know came from Nebraska

Made right here: 12 things you may not know came from Nebraska

Articles
3 law profs make case for impeachment; 1 differs
House Dems unite in push for vote within weeks; Republicans call hearing unfair, gird for Senate trial

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three leading legal scholars testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump's attempts to have Ukraine investigate Democratic rivals are grounds for impeachment, bolstering the Democrats' case asHouse SpeakerNancy Pelosi made sure they're prepared for that momentous next step.

Meeting behind closed doors ahead of an initial Judiciary Committee hearing to consider potential articles of impeachment, Pelosi asked House Democrats a simple question: "Are you ready?"

The answer was a resounding yes.

Though no date has been set, the Democrats are charging toward a Christmastime vote on removing the 45th president. It's a starkly partisan undertaking, a situation Pelosi hoped to avoid but now seems inevitable.

Trump is alleged to have abused the power of his office by putting personal political gain over national security interests, engaging in bribery by withholding $400 million in military aid Congress had approved for Ukraine and then obstructing Congress by stonewalling the investigation.

Across the Capitol on Wednesday, the polarizing political divide over impeachment, only the fourth such inquiry in the nation's history, was on display.

At the Judiciary hearing, Democrats sided with the scholars who said Trump's actions reached the Constitution's threshold of "bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Republicans pointed to the lone professor they were allowed to invite, who said impeachment was not warranted.

Democrats in the House say the inquiry is a duty. Republican representatives say it's a sham. And quietly senators of both parties conferred on Wednesday, preparing for an eventual Trump trial.

"Never before, in the history of the republic, have we been forced to consider the conduct of a president who appears to have solicited personal political favors from a foreign government," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., as he gaveled open the landmark House hearing.

Nadler said Trump's phone call seeking a "favor" from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn't the first time he had sought foreign help to influence an American election, mentioning Russian interference in 2016. He warned against inaction with a new campaign underway.

"We cannot wait for the election," he said. "If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal political gain."

Trump, attending a NATO meeting in London, called the hearing a "joke" and doubted many people would watch because it's "boring."

Once an outsider to the GOP, Trump now has Republicans' unwavering support. They called the Judiciary proceedings a "disgrace" and unfair, accusing the Democrats of dredging up unfounded allegations as part of an effort to undo the 2016 election and remove Trump from office.

"You just don't like the guy," said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel. Trump rewarded some of his allies with politically valuable presidential tweets as the daylong hearing dragged into the evening.

Despite the intent of America's Founding Fathers to create a durable system of legal checks and balances, impeachment is an admittedly political exercise. Thus Pelosi asked her still-new majority if they were willing to press onward, aware of uncertain electoral risks.

At the Democrats' private morning meeting, described by people familiar with it, support for the impeachment effort was vigorous. But voting to remove Trump could be difficult for some lawmakers in regions where the president has substantial backing.

The Democratic lawmakers also delivered a standing ovation to Rep. Adam Schiff, whose 300-page Intelligence Committee report cataloged potential grounds for impeachment, overwhelmingly indicating they want to continue to press the inquiry rather than slow its advance or call a halt for fear of political costs in next year's congressional elections.

Meanwhile, Trump's team fanned out across the Capitol, with Vice President Mike Pence meeting with House Republicans and White House officials conferring with Senate Republicans to prepare for what could be the first presidential impeachment trial in a generation.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who has declined to participate in the House proceedings, relayed Trump's hope that the impeachment effort can be stopped in the House, removing the need for a Senate trial.

White House officials and others said Trump is eager to have his say. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, "He feels like he has had no opportunity to tell his side of the story."

Trump lambastes the impeachment probe daily and proclaims his innocence of any wrongdoing at length, but he has declined to testify before House hearings or answer questions in writing.

At the heart of the inquiry is his July 25 phone call asking Ukraine to investigate rival Democrats including Joe Biden. Trump at the time was withholding $400 million in military aid from the ally, which faced an aggressive Russia on its border.

At Wednesday's session, three legal experts called by Democrats said impeachment was merited.

Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor, said he considered it clear that the president's conduct met the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, "If what we're talking about is not impeachable ... then nothing is impeachable."

Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor and former Obama administration Justice Department official, drew criticism for mentioning Trump's teenage son, Barron, in a wordplay, violating an unwritten but firm Washington rule against dragging first family's children into politics. Later in the hearing, she apologized for doing so.

The only Republican witness, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, dissented from the other legal experts. He said the Democrats were bringing a "slipshod impeachment" case against the president, but he didn't excuse Trump's behavior.

"It is not wrong because President Trump is right," Turley said. "A case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record."

New telephone records released with the House report deepened Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's known involvement in what investigators call the "scheme."

Asked about that, Trump told reporters he doesn't know why Giuliani was calling the White House Office of Management and Budget, which was withholding the military aid to Ukraine.

"You have to ask him," Trump said. "Sounds like something that's not so complicated. ... No big deal."

Based on two months of investigation sparked by a still-anonymous government whistleblower's complaint, the House Intelligence Committee's Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report found that Trump "sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process and endangered U.S. national security." When Congress began investigating, it says, Trump obstructed the investigation like no other president in history.

The Republicans' 123-page rebuttal says Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for investigations of Biden and his son.

While liberal Democrats are pushing the party to incorporate the findings from former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and other actions by Trump, more centrist and moderate Democrats prefer to stick with the Ukraine matter as a simpler narrative that Americans understand.

Democrats could begin drafting articles of impeachment in a matter of days, with a Judiciary Committee vote next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter would move to the Senate for a trial in 2020.


State_and_regional
Grassley says window of opportunity is closing for new North American trade agreement this year

WASHINGTON — House Democrats say they are on the cusp of finalizing a new North American trade agreement.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday that they had better move quickly if they want to see that U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement ratified in 2019.

“The window of opportunity is running out on USMCA for this year,” Grassley said Wednesday during his weekly conference call with reporters. “The Iowa caucuses are in sight, which will kick off the presidential season.”

Grassley is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements such as USMCA.

Backers of the deal, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, worry that an anticipated Senate impeachment trial next year and the intensity of a presidential campaign season will limit 2020 legislative activity.

So they want it ratified before Congress heads home for Christmas — and Grassley said the number of days left on the calendar is misleading, given the many procedural steps that must yet happen for the deal’s ratification.

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Democrats have been negotiating for some time with the White House over the deal’s labor and enforcement provisions, saying they are looking out for American workers.

And they insisted this week that they are almost to the finish line — statements Grassley acknowledged.

“But I’m worried that if a deal can’t be reached by the end of the week, USMCA will not be ratified by this year,” Grassley said. “That means that we enter 2020 with a great deal of uncertainty for farmers.”

The new agreement represents a potential boost for various sectors of the economy, including agricultural producers who rely heavily on international markets to sell their crops.

They have been hammered this year by both inclement weather and ongoing trade disputes. President Donald Trump’s tariff battles with China, in particular, have taken a toll on Midwestern grain farmers.

Ratifying the USMCA would hardly wipe out all those losses, but it could represent some positive news.

Senate Republicans took to the Senate floor Wednesday to tout the agreement and called on House Democrats to hold a vote.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said that Canada and Mexico receive 44% of Nebraska’s total exports and that Nebraska and rural America overall were “dealt a tough hand” in 2019.

“However, every time that I meet with Nebraska’s farm families, ranchers, ag producers and manufacturers, they reassure me they can endure these challenges,” Fischer said. “They will sacrifice short-term anxiety for long-term certainty and predictability. But they need to know there’s going to be a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, noted that the deal has been pending for more than a year, representing an entire cycle of planting and harvesting for those in the fields, and she urged the House to vote.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said there are many Nebraska families on the edge of bankruptcy, looking for a desperately needed win.

Not approving the pact, he said, would send a message that the United States may or may not be open for business, depending on short-term political posturing.

“That’s the message they’re sending now, and that’s a message that might be cemented if this calendar year ends without passing USMCA,” Sasse said. “Try running a convenience store like that and you’d be out of business in a month.”

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska