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Omaha police asked him about stolen car; he asked why they didn't care about 'someone's life'

Jeremiah Connelly couldn’t wait to cough it up.

After eating at Village Inn near 90th Street and Maplewood Boulevard, he walked across the street to the Jensen Tire store.

There, he found a car with keys still in it.

He stole the car and peeled out across two lanes of 90th Street.

Traveling south on 90th, just behind Connelly, Omaha Police Officer Kirk Weidner and his partner watched Connelly run a red light and pulled him over.

Connelly ditched the car and ran. After a short chase, Omaha police apprehended him. As they waited in the Central Police Headquarters lobby for an interview room to open up, Weidner said, Connelly was jumpy and mouthy.

“You guys are worried about this petty-ass auto theft when you should be worried about someone’s life,” he blurted, according to Weidner.

Weidner had no idea what he was talking about. The woman Connelly mentioned hadn’t been reported missing. Jeanna Wilcoxen was a 22-year-old single mom who was struggling and was known to leave home and return days later, prosecutor Cody Miltenberger told a jury Thursday.

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Authorities have said Wilcoxen struggled with drug addiction.

Officers thought Connelly was delusional — something Connelly’s defense attorneys seized on in the opening statements of Connelly’s first-degree murder trial. One officer described Connelly’s tale as a “fantasy — not real,” said Leslie Cavanaugh, an assistant Douglas County public defender.

Cavanaugh told jurors that they can’t rely on the “fantasy” of a sleep-deprived, stressed-out defendant. Prosecutors must bolster any story with evidence.

Miltenberger said the state will do just that. After their initial disbelief, Miltenberger said, Omaha police would find that Connelly’s statement wasn’t far-fetched at all.

Connelly led them to a grassy area near Ridge Road and County Road T in Fremont. There, police made a sobering discovery: the decomposing body of Wilcoxen, her head and face wrapped with duct tape.

Connelly told police in “his own words ... that he made the executive decision to kill her,” Miltenberger told jurors. “Not only will witness testimony, the police investigation, the physical evidence tell you that he’s guilty, but Mr. Connelly’s own words will tell you.”

Miltenberger and fellow prosecutor Molly Keane will share those words throughout the course of the trial, which is expected to spill into next week. Jurors will be asked whether Connelly, 40, is guilty of first-degree murder and evidence tampering.

What the jury won’t consider: why the Nebraska Parole Board paroled Connelly in June 2018, six months before his mandatory release date. Connelly had served 12 years after being convicted of attempted kidnapping and second-degree assault in connection with a crime spree that included an attempt to lure a female jogger into his car.

The Parole Board voted 3-1 to let him out of prison, even though he had not completed a violence-reduction program the Parole Board had wanted him to take. The chairwoman of the board, who did not attend the hearing, had put a note in his file saying Connelly would not be a good candidate for parole.

Three months into his parole — about this time last year — Connelly had dropped out of mechanics courses and was roaming the streets, often sleeping under bridges.

He first saw Wilcoxen at a laundromat near Christie Heights Park, near 36th and Q Streets. Miltenberger said she would do a load of laundry and, while she waited, would swing on the playground.

Driving his van, Connelly called out to Wilcoxen but didn’t get a response. So he parked his van, went up to her and started talking about the weather. They hung out at the laundromat and talked from late Sept. 15, 2018, into early Sept. 16, 2018.

Wilcoxen disclosed that she lived with an older man in apartments near the park. Connelly then made it his “crusade” to get her away from the older man, Miltenberger said.

Wilcoxen apparently agreed that she would move in with Connelly, then quickly changed her mind.

Rebuffed, Connelly told police that he told Wilcoxen “that’s fine” and went to his nearby home on the evening of Sept. 16.

He didn’t stay long. While there, Miltenberger said, he changed from his white T-shirt into a black one. He grabbed what he called his “kidnapper’s kit” — black duct tape, a breaker bar, energy drinks.

He parked his van around the block and sneaked through the park to find Wilcoxen on the swings.

“He comes out of the shadows with the breaker bar in hand,” Miltenberger said.

Wilcoxen fought her attacker in the sand of the playground. But she was overpowered. Connelly told police that he bound her ankles and wrists with duct tape.

Surveillance video from a nearby business showed a man hoist a woman over his shoulder and carry her to a van. He drove to an area near 53rd and U Streets.

There, in the back of the van, Miltenberger said, Connelly raped her.

Connelly said he slapped duct tape across her nose and mouth and around her head. As she struggled to breathe, he told police, he choked her until she stopped moving. He then held a lighter to her skin to make sure she was dead.

He said he dumped her body in Fremont and scattered her belongings in an Omaha alley.

Four days later, officers spotted him in the stolen car. After he spilled the details of the crime, he led Omaha police to her body.

“Mr. Connelly’s continued desire to ... seek recognition for his crime kicked in,” Miltenberger said. “He (told) law enforcement that the last thing he saw her wearing was a duct tape mask.”

Notable crime news of 2019

Unprecedented Nebraska Penitentiary lockdown meant to quash escalating problems, director says

LINCOLN — An unprecedented lockdown and prison search ordered at the Nebraska State Penitentiary was a necessary “proactive” step to root out lingering problems with assaults and contraband like synthetic marijuana, the state prison director said Thursday.

“We want to get the point across that things have got to change,” Corrections Director Scott Frakes said. “We’re not just sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen. We’re being proactive.”

In an hourlong interview, Frakes said he ordered the lockdown of the state’s largest prison after an escalation of problems in recent weeks, and after assaults on staff and more incidents involving K2, a form of synthetic marijuana, over Labor Day weekend. He said he was not pressured by his boss, Gov. Pete Ricketts, or others to order the lockdown, which confines all inmates to their cells while the entire prison is searched.

The move has drawn support from prison staff, who have been working record amounts of overtime in a severely overcrowded facility that has been the site of 19 “incidents” of assault on corrections workers since April.

“It’s reinforcing to my staff,” he said. “It says we’re serious about this ... and, as we say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ ”

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The action marked the first time an entire state prison in Nebraska has been locked down to allow for a comprehensive search for contraband, such as weapons, drugs, prison-made alcohol and cellphones. Similar searches are conducted after major disturbances, Frakes said, but they are not this extensive.

Up to 50 extra personnel have been called in this week to the State Penitentiery, a minimum-maximum-security facility that held 1,375 inmates on Wednesday, almost double its design capacity. The lockdown and searches are expected to continue at least through Friday.

The penitentiary, according to a recent memo from a state legislative watchdog, has become the state’s most troubled prison, with staff shortages requiring security workers to log increased overtime hours — often two 8-hour shifts a day — and requiring prison visits and some prison programs to be suspended.

Frakes said the shortage of staff likely does contribute to fatigue and less intense searches for contraband. Contraband is a bigger problem at the penitentiary, he said, because of its location within Lincoln and because its solid walls are harder to monitor and easier to toss contraband over. Plus, some staffers have been caught smuggling goods, he said.

K2, a synthetic form of marijuana easily purchased at local shops or online, has been a particular problem, he said. It’s cheap and hard to detect — a drug dog, for instance, doesn’t always “hit” on it — and it doesn’t require a large volume to get someone high, Frakes said. Plus, smugglers are using new techniques, like spraying K2 on writing paper, to sneak it in.

More contraband contributes to more problems with assaults, Frakes said. It can spawn assaults over nonpayment for smuggled items, or assaults of guards to settle debts owed to other inmates, he said, along with assaults by intoxicated inmates.

Nebraska, the prison director said, isn’t the only prison system struggling with staffing problems and contraband. That, he said, has fed a national perception that prisons are “out of control and in crisis,” but he maintained that that’s not the case in Nebraska.

“A lot of bad things happen in prisons, due to their nature,” Frakes said. “We have to pay attention, and we have to address these issues.”

Inmates, he said, have so far been compliant with the searches, and staff plans to conduct the searches professionally and with as little disruption as possible to avoid increasing tensions.

Frakes declined to detail what changes would be made to increase safety at the prison but mentioned that drug dogs will undergo some new training in hopes of detecting K2 and that more restrictive mail and visitation policies will be considered, though he wants to continue to encourage correspondence and meetings with family.

“There will be changes,” he said.

Notable crime news of 2019

Dorian rakes Carolinas as it moves up coast
Hurricane's winds weaken after day of tornadoes and rain, but part of North Carolina and Virginia still at risk

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Hurricane Dorian sideswiped the Carolinas with shrieking winds, tornadoes and sideways rain Thursday as it closed in for a possible direct hit on the dangerously exposed Outer Banks. At least four deaths in the Southeast were blamed on the storm.

Twisters spun off by Dorian peeled away roofs and flipped trailers, and more than 250,000 homes and businesses were left without power as the hurricane pushed north along the coastline, its winds weakening after sunset to 100 mph.

Trees and power lines littered flooded streets in Charleston's historic downtown. Gusts had topped 80 mph in some areas.

North Carolina's Outer Banks, a thin line of islands that stick out from the U.S. coast like a boxer's chin, braced for a hit late Thursday or early Friday. To the north, Virginia was also in harm's way, and evacuations were ordered there.

The damage from the same storm that mauled the Bahamas was mercifully light in many parts of South Carolina and Georgia, and by midafternoon, many of the 1.5 million people who had been told to evacuate in three states were allowed to return.

But overnight winds were expected to cause trees and branches to fall on power lines, anddebris could block repair crews fromgetting to damaged lines, said Mike Burnette, senior vice president of Electric Cooperatives, a North Carolina utility provider. Customers should prepare for prolonged power outages, he said.

"We have a long night ahead of us," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. "Everyone needs to stay in a safe place and off the roads until the storm passes."

About 150 evacuees were camped out at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said.

After leaving at least 30 people dead when it slammed the Bahamas with 185 mph winds, Dorian swept past Florida at a relatively safe distance, grazed Georgia, then hugged the South Carolina-North Carolina coastline.

"I think we're in for a great big mess," said 61-year-old Leslie Lanier, who decided to stay behind and boarded up her home and bookstore on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, making sure to move the volumes 5 to 6 feet off the ground.

The National Hurricane Center forecast as much as 15 inches of rain for the coastal Carolinas, with flash flooding likely.

In Charleston, a historic port city of handsome antebellum homes on a peninsula that is prone to flooding even from ordinary storms, Dorian toppled some 150 trees, swamped roads andbrought down power lines, officials said, but the flooding and wind weren't nearly as bad as feared.

Walking along Charleston's stone battery, college student Zachary Johnson sounded almost disappointed that Dorian hadn't done more.

"I mean, it'd be terrible if it did, don't get me wrong. I don't know — I'm just waiting for something crazy to happen, I guess," said Johnson, 24.

Dorian apparently spawned at least one tornado in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, damaging several homes, and another twister touched down in the beach town of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, mangling and overturning several trailer homes in a jumble of sheet metal. No immediate injuries were reported.

In coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, just north of the South Carolina border, heavy rain fell horizontally, trees bent in the wind and traffic lights swayed as the hurricane drew near.

The four deaths attributed to the storm took place in Florida and North Carolina. All of them involved men who died in falls or by electrocution while trimming trees, putting up storm shutters or otherwise getting ready for the hurricane.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Dorian was centered about 35 miles southeast of Wilmington. The Category 2 storm had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph and was moving northeast at 13 mph.

As it closed in on the Eastern Seaboard, Navy ships were ordered to ride out the storm at sea, and military aircraft were moved inland. More than 700 airline flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday were canceled. And hundreds of shelter animals were airlifted from coastal South Carolina to Delaware.

By midday Thursday, coastal residents in Georgia and some South Carolina counties were allowed to go home.

Love or hate them, electric scooters have just two months left in their trial run in Omaha

How people feel about Omaha’s electric scooters is a matter of perspective.

Riders say the scooters are hip, fun and convenient for short trips. But many pedestrians and drivers have a different view.

The city is gathering data and public input as part of its six-month pilot program with scooters. When the trial run ends in mid-November, city officials will decide whether to ban the rental scooters or allow their continued use in Omaha, with regulations.

The city has been working with smartphone app-based scooter companies Lime and Spin to gather data on the number of local rides, where the scooters are being ridden and where the scooters are left, or parked.

The results so far show scooter use clustered in four areas that are part of the pilot program — downtown, Midtown Crossing, Aksarben Village and Benson.

City maps also show riders going onto neighborhood streets and into other areas where riders were prohibited, including the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Some on the City Council have questioned whether the companies are doing enough to keep people from riding where scooters are prohibited.

Omaha residents are sounding off to city leaders, including Mayor Jean Stothert, who approved the pilot program that started in May.

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Most people who have contacted the Mayor’s Hotline by email or phone say they want the scooters more heavily regulated or gone, city records show.

Many people who emailed the city, including downtown resident Melanie Hecker, don’t like encountering the scooters on sidewalks, where they are prohibited.

Others, including John Wright, don’t like driving near the scooters on the streets, where they are allowed, just like a bicycle.

Some, including pediatrician Dr. Tina Scott-Mordhorst, expressed worry about rider injuries. She said her 25-year-old son broke his arm on a scooter in Omaha.

Several people, including Benson’s Cheri Harris and Sherri Harding, said poorly parked scooters limit sidewalk access for disabled people and the elderly.

Scooter critics are butting heads with a committed core of enthusiasts, most of whom are riding scooters for trips of less than a mile.

One of those is Marianna Foral, who wrote the mayor that she uses the scooters for trips that are “a little too far to walk or if I’m short on time.”

“I recently hosted some friends from Kansas City who are considering relocating to Omaha,” Foral wrote. “They loved the benefit of the scooters (in Omaha) and were impressed that our city has this to offer.”

Some of the riders are the young professionals that civic leaders say Omaha needs to attract and retain to stay vibrant.

John Fahrer, owner of Scriptown Brewing Co. in the Blackstone District, said he enjoys having the scooters around, as do many of his customers.

Some riders don’t park the scooters correctly and leave them near the entrances to businesses or blocking access to crosswalks. That can be a nuisance near a business, he said. But things have gotten better as the pilot goes on.

In fact, he said, he’s ridden the scooters himself, including for a quick trip to the bank, giving the drive-through teller a story to tell.

“I see people abiding by the rules,” Fahrer said.

City Council President Chris Jerram said this week that he’s receiving fewer complaints and comments about the scooter pilot program than when it first began.

Jerram, who represents south-central Omaha, including parts of downtown and the Blackstone District, said he’ll wait until the pilot program ends to weigh in.

Ben Gray, whose north Omaha district stretches to the riverfront and parts of downtown, said he has heard no complaints lately about scooters.

Councilman Pete Festersen, whose north-central Omaha district includes Benson, said he’s heard from people who love and hate the scooters.

He said he wants to learn more about how effectively the scooter companies can enforce limits on where the scooters can be ridden before the council makes its decision.

Jen Bauer, president of the Aksarben-Elmwood Park Neighborhood Association, said she wants more clarity about what can be done to restrict the scooters’ use.

Residents of her south- central Omaha neighborhood enjoy walking in the area, she said, but some are nervous about getting hit by a scooter.

“They’re not supposed to be on the sidewalk, but they’re on the sidewalk,” she said. “We thought there were boundaries, and there are no boundaries.”

The scooter companies serving Omaha, Lime and Spin, have said they are working with the city to encourage riders to follow the rules.

Both have told the city that they are continuing to work on programs to better enforce geographic restrictions on where the scooters can go and improve users’ riding and parking choices.

About 20 people were injured for every 100,000 scooter rides in Austin, Texas, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found.

The numbers in Omaha, where the program is newer, are slightly higher, based on early estimates.

Local hospitals report about 65 injuries related to scooters. Omaha riders have taken more than 148,000 trips through Aug. 20, according to data provided to the city.

Lime spokesman Alex Youn said it’s clear that people in Omaha are enjoying the scooters.

Stothert said in a statement that the city is using the pilot program “to evaluate the pros and cons before we consider a city ordinance that would allow scooters beyond the test period.”

“We will review all the feedback from citizens, data that measures the use of scooters, injury reports and the number of citations issued by Omaha police,” Stothert said. “Public safety must always be the first consideration.”

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)