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Crime
Jury takes less than an hour to find man guilty in killing of vulnerable Omaha woman

So much for it being a fantasy, as the defendant had suggested at trial.

A Douglas County jury deliberated just an hour Tuesday before concluding that Jeremiah Connelly’s coldblooded murder of Jeanna Wilcoxen, 22, was all too real.

After receiving the case at 11:15 a.m., the jury of four women and eight men came to a guilty verdict so quickly that they asked to finish lunch before announcing the verdict.

It was one of the quickest murder verdicts in recent Douglas County history — and for good reason.

Connelly, 40, not only had confessed to the crime, he also was the first to report it to police. No one had reported Wilcoxen missing, in part because the young mother was known to disappear for a few days as she struggled with drug addiction.

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She had the misfortune of running into Connelly in September 2018 near Christie Heights Park at 36th and Q Streets in South Omaha. She ignored him as he called out to her from his van. He parked the van, sidled up to her, started talking to her about the weather.

He clung to her side, following her to a laundromat and then back to the swings at Christie Heights Park, where she would wait for her laundry to finish drying. He later told police that she agreed to move out of the apartment she shared with an older man and live with Connelly.

If Wilcoxen had initially agreed to that, she quickly changed her mind. The day after their first meeting, she told Connelly she wasn’t going to move in with him, according to his account to police.

Five days later, Omaha police officers spotted Connelly as he ran a red light in a vehicle that had just been reported stolen from Jensen Tire near 90th Street and Maplewood Boulevard. After a short chase, they arrested him and took him to Central Police Headquarters.

As they waited in the lobby for an interview room to open up, Connelly cracked: “You guys are worried about this petty-ass auto theft when you should be worried about someone’s life.”

Officers initially thought Connelly was delusional — something Connelly’s defense attorneys seized on in the opening statements in 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. She suggested to jurors that the crime was cooked up in Connelly’s head.

But it wasn’t. He described how, after Wilcoxen told him she wouldn’t move in with him, he went back to his house and grabbed his “kidnapper’s kit” — duct tape, breaker bar, energy drinks.

He lurked near Christie Heights Park and spotted Wilcoxen on the swings. From “the shadows,” he pounced, prosecutors Cody Miltenberger and Molly Keane said. After they struggled in the playground sand, he overpowered her with the breaker bar, duct taping her wrists and ankles, hoisting her over his shoulder and carting her to the van.

He drove to another part of South Omaha and raped her in the back of his van. He covered her head by wrapping it in duct tape. As she struggled to breathe, he choked her to death. He held the flame of a cigarette lighter against her skin to make sure she was dead and then drove her to Fremont and dumped her body.

The killing came three months after the Nebraska Parole Board decided to release Connelly on parole following 12 years in prison for a crime spree that included trying to lure a female jogger into his car. And it came six months before his mandatory release date. The Parole Board released him despite Connelly’s failure to complete a program for violent offenders.

Keane and Miltenberger told jurors that Wilcoxen would have had little idea who she was interacting with.

“She was vulnerable,” Keane said. “The defendant saw an opportunity and he seized on it.”

Notable crime news of 2019

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For the first time ever, most new working-age hires in the U.S. are people of color

CLINTON, Md. - When Mónica Hernández told her husband that her 2019 New Year's resolution was to go back to work, he was surprised. He kept asking her whether that's what she really wanted to do. She had been out of the workforce for a year after a difficult pregnancy and the birth of their first child.

"I want to put my brain to use," Hernández told her husband. "Now my son is here, and it makes me want to do even more."

Hernández, 28, landed a job this spring as a part-time receptionist at Impressions Pediatric Therapy in Maryland, making her part of a surge of Hispanic and African American women who are entering the workforce amid one of the hottest labor markets in U.S. history.

Today, she earns $15 an hour, a big jump from the $9-an-hour cashier jobs she once thought would be her working life. Clients like that Hernández is bilingual, and the owner of the fast-growing therapy practice just offered her a full-time position.

The surge of minority women getting jobs has helped push the U.S. workforce across a historic threshold. For the first time, most new hires of prime working age (25 to 54) are people of color, according to a Washington Post analysis of data the Labor Department began collecting in the 1970s. Minority hires overtook white hires last year.

Minority workers 1

Women are predominantly driving this trend, which is so powerful that even many women who weren't thinking about working - because they were in school, caring for kids or at home for other reasons - are being lured into employment, according to The Post's analysis.

Minority women began to pour into the labor market in 2015, and they have begun to reshape the demographics of the U.S. workforce, especially because many white baby boomers have been retiring. There are 5.2 million more people in the United States with jobs than at the end of 2016, and 4.5 million of them are minorities, according to The Post's analysis of Labor Department data.

Now, the question is whether minority groups will hold on to these gains as the economy shows signs of fraying. Job growth is slowing this year, the Labor Department reported Friday, giving rise to fears that a trade war and global economic slowdown that have already hit U.S. economic growth could begin to restrict hiring.

President Donald Trump frequently celebrates the recent record lows in the Hispanic and African American unemployment rates, one of his favorite talking points as he makes the economy a central argument for re-election.

"We've seen a lot of gains in employment among lower-income and lower-education groups," said Marianne Wanamaker, an economist and former member of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers. "But it is precisely those groups that are vulnerable to layoffs if economic activity slows."

Politicians and top policymakers, including at the Federal Reserve, say it's critical to keep this economic expansion going so more Americans can get jobs - and build financial security. And it's especially critical for many minority families, who usually earn less and have far less wealth than whites.

A typical white family has a net worth of over $170,000, while a typical African American or Latino family has a net worth under $21,000, Fed data show.

"People who live and work in low- and middle-income communities tell us that this job market is the best anyone can recall," Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a speech last month in Jackson, Wyoming. "Our challenge now is to do what monetary policy can do to sustain the expansion so that the benefits of the strong jobs market extend to more of those still left behind."

Minority workers 2

Economists say the minority hiring boom is explained mainly by a tight labor market that is forcing employers to look beyond their normal pool of candidates. But interviews with more than 30 new hires, their managers and caseworkers who help people find jobs suggest other forces, such as cultural attitudes and educational attainment, are pushing up the supply of minority women in the work world.

Many Latino women today say their families encourage them to work outside the home, a major change from when their mothers and grandmothers were expected to remain home with kids.

"Culturally, our role was to stay home and take care of the children," said Frances Villagran-Glover, vice president of student services at Northern Virginia Community College, which has seen Hispanic enrollment double in the past decade. "But that mind-set is changing. And as women go into the workforce, they see opportunities for leadership and growth."

Villagran-Glover and other experts say more women are also getting jobs because families need two incomes to pay rent and other bills. Minority women over age 45 have been some of the biggest job gainers now that their children are older.

Deportation efforts by the Obama and Trump administrations may also be a factor causing more females to seek employment. More than 90 percent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests are of men, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

"We see women entering the workforce because their husbands may no longer be in the country," said Samantha Sherman, chief program officer at Wesley Community Center in Houston that offers employment coaching.

Four years ago, Milagros Tasayco immigrated to Manassas, Virginia, from Peru with her family after she was able to get a green card. She knew almost no English and stayed home with her two children while her husband, an American citizen, ran a mechanic shop.

Another mom at the school bus stop told her about low-cost English classes at Hogar Immigrant Services, a community center in a Manassas strip mall that's run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.

Tasayco, 49, enrolled in the beginners course and eventually branched out to computer classes, a CPR course and a certificate program in child development offered by Hogar and Penn State Extension's Better Kid Care. As Tayasco's English improved, her husband's health deteriorated. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Ultimately, he had to close his business.

Tasayco, a former social worker in Peru who hadn't worked in years, had to become her family's breadwinner. She found a job in summer 2018 at Macy's, stocking shelves for $9 an hour, but she longed to work with children again. In the spring, with the help of Hogar, she got a job as an recreational aid in the preschool classroom at Manassas Park Community Center for $10 an hour.

"Now there are more job opportunities, I think. I look for jobs that want English and Spanish speakers," said Tasayco, who spends her mornings at the community center and her afternoons at a private day care. "My children say, 'Wow Mommy, you have two jobs!' My husband is proud, too."

Job postings containing terms such as "fluent in Spanish," "Spanish required" or "Spanish preferred" have nearly doubled since 2017, according to the job site Indeed.

Arely Angel, the lead preschool teacher at the Manassas Park Community Center, liked Tasayco as soon as they met at a job fair. Angel was looking for someone mature who could grow quickly into a leadership role. Tayasco's social work degree and her Spanish were an asset for a school where about half the students are bilingual or speak Spanish as a first language.

Tayasco's family is no longer on food stamps, but it still struggles. Angel has urged the woman to earn additional qualifications.

"I want to learn to be a nurse to help children more and maybe get a better job," Tasayco said. "I love working with kids."

More than any other population, Latinos made huge strides to further their education when jobs were scarce after the Great Recession, making them more attractive to employers.

About 72 percent of Hispanic Americans over age 25 have high school diplomas, up from 59 percent in 2006, according to the Education Department. And college enrollment among Hispanics has tripled since 1996.

Hernández credits the Training Source, a Maryland nonprofit, for transforming her life. She was unemployed from 2014 to 2016. Despite sending out résumés daily, she couldn't get past the phone interview stage.

As she browsed Indeed for cashier and barista jobs - anything that didn't list strict qualifications beyond her high school degree - an ad popped up offering free certified nursing assistant (CNA) training near her home in Clinton. She feared it was a scam, but she dialed the number and connected with the Training Source, which helped her acquire everything from a CNA license to an interview-appropriate wardrobe.

"I still have my notes from the professionalism course they provided," Hernández said. "They taught me how to be more confident and outgoing."

The Training Source has been around for more than 25 years, but it only started offering a course for people to obtain geriatric nursing assistant (GNA) and CNA licenses in 2014. The program is free because of a state government grant, one that could be on the chopping block in a recession.

Companies and labor unions have also stepped up their outreach to minorities and have their own training programs. Labor Department figures show employers started 3,229 new apprenticeship programs last year - almost double the rate in 2016. Part of the jump may be due to companies feeling the need to grow talent from within and the Trump administration's push to formally register apprenticeship programs.

Suriana Rodriguez, 19, is earning about $40,000 a year as an apprentice lab technician in IBM's office in Poughkeepsie, New York, a step on the career ladder that her family members say wouldn't have been available at their Mexican restaurant.

Last year, she graduated with both a high school diploma and associate degree, part of a new program IBM helped create eight years ago called P-Tech (Pathway to Technology Early College High School), which aims to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into tech. This fall, 93,000 students in 10 states are enrolled in P-Tech programs.

"I want to make my family proud, especially my mom," said Rodriguez, who is the first in her family to earn a college degree and was just offered a full-time IBM job with higher pay. "My mom took a chance on bringing me to the United States at such a young age."

On graduation day, Rodriguez's mother brought her blue and gold balloons, telling her they symbolized how she could "go beyond the sky." For Rodriguez, the main hurdle now is that she's part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, which Congress and the Trump administration have left in limbo.

These women - Rodriguez, Hernández and Tasayco - were not in the workforce three years ago. They credit local programs with helping them launch new careers. They have been telling their sisters and friends to also get credentials to open doors to better-paying jobs, but they know the programs they went through have limited spots - and funding can evaporate at any time.

"I try to advise my peers to take a risk and get out there," Hernández said. "I have a CNA title under my name. I am proud of it. I'm moving in the right direction."


Money
Mutual of Omaha cleared a chunk of midtown, but now it's in limbo without a concrete plan

A section of midtown that Mutual of Omaha for six years has been buying up and tearing down to make way for redevelopment today sits in limbo, without a concrete plan.

Mutual spokesman Jim Nolan confirmed that an out-of-town developer Mutual tapped a few years ago has pulled out of a proposal to build a high-end housing, hotel and office mix on that tract east of Turner Park around Farnam Street.

He said Mutual held on to the assembled land in case it was needed for a new headquarters project. Nolan late last month said pursuit of a new headquarters was on hold, so now the question becomes: What’s next for the gaping real estate holes east of Mutual’s Midtown Crossing retail and housing campus?

To date, Nolan said, “Those conversations have not been held.”

The delay and overall process, meanwhile, have frustrated some fresh and former residents, as well as preservationists who protested the 2014 razing of the century-old Clarinda-Page housing landmark.

“It’s always a disappointment when a historic building is demolished without firm plans for whatever is going to be replacing it,” said Adam Andrews, president of Restoration Exchange Omaha, which wanted the deteriorating Clarinda-Page restored and incorporated into a future redevelopment design.

Architect Eric Wolfe, who lives atop the remaining twin tower condo structure at 30th and Farnam Streets, says he’d prefer less “secrecy” from his neighbor, Mutual, about what’s happening outside his front door.

“Is there a master plan — and what is it?” asked Mary Ann O’Brien, whose advertising agency was nudged out of its longtime home along Farnam, but not before she took a brick as a memento. “It was a very meaningful place to me.”

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The Clarinda-Page and O’Brien’s OBI Creative were among about 20 parcels on both sides of Farnam Street that, according to county records, Mutual assembled at a price tag of about $9 million. Purchased under an entity called Turner Park North LLC, the stretch of properties east of Turner Park and west of Interstate 480 included stand-alone buildings, parking lots, storefronts and apartments.

Mutual’s goal: to clear the way for new development east of its existing headquarters and the more recently built $365 million Midtown Crossing, which hasn’t created the ripple development effect the insurance titan had hoped.

Representatives said early on in the acquisition process that Mutual was not interested in permanently extending its reach in that area. Instead, they said Mutual sought to create a shovel-ready site that would be a carrot for a developer to swoop in and launch a private venture.

At that time, Mutual leaders had not publicly discussed the possibility of building a new headquarters. (The Mutual board approved exploring a future work site in late 2017.)

On Tuesday, Nolan gave no details about why or when Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. backed away from the Turner Park East redevelopment proposal, other than to say the lead developer could not “gain enough traction to proceed.”

Ryan Cos. did not return phone calls.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

The lots on the southeast corner of Turner Boulevard and Farnam Street where the Clarinda-Paige building used to be now sit empty.

Nolan said Mutual decided not to do anything with the Turner Park East site until it finished the headquarters feasibility study. He said that in the event Mutual had gone forward with a new headquarters, envisioned as a $200 million-plus venture, that area might have served as temporary parking or a construction staging area or even the site of the new headquarters.

After Mutual announced the indefinite hold on a new headquarters two weeks ago, Nolan responded to The World-Herald’s questions about Turner Park East.

The private effort had reached the point that, in March 2017, the City of Omaha committed to building a 400-space parking complex.

A Ryan spokesman said at that time that the city’s participation would kick forward the first phase and the developer’s formal search for tenants in an initial 150,000-square-foot office building.

Kevin Andersen, Mayor Jean Stothert’s economic development aide, said that from the city’s perspective, nothing materialized beyond that point.

“It’s a prime location,” he said, noting that the property is in private, not public, hands. “We’re confident something will come out of it.”

Wolfe, president of the Condominiums at 3000 Farnam resident association, said this week that his neighbors have mixed feelings about any new development that would rise around their 11-story high-rise. Some aren’t thrilled about the disruption, yet others, including him, are eager for a boost of business and bustle.

“New vitality would be good for the city, the economy, the neighborhood,” said Wolfe, who lives in the 105-unit south tower, which was to blend in with Turner Park East. The northern “twin” tower, vacant for years and deteriorating, was razed in 2013.

CINDY GONZALEZ/THE WORLD-HERALD 

The WCA building on Farnam, as it was demolished in April 2019.

Meanwhile, a few former businesses that initially balked at moving said in interviews this week that the inconvenience had a silver lining.

Amy Richardson, executive director of the Women’s Center for Advancement, at first resisted relocating the agency that serves vulnerable and abused women. Now, she said, staff and clients feel at home in their new and larger headquarters in the Blackstone District.

O’Brien has similar sentiments. OBI Creative leased bays in an old building that was sold to Mutual’s real estate arm. The marketing agency left the diverse neighborhood that O’Brien said exuded good energy and inspired her team — and entered Millard’s Lumberyard District much farther west.

The new home doesn’t have the same creaks, and rent is higher. But O’Brien said she and her team adore the larger digs and vibe they built.

What bothers her now, she said, is passing through idle open space in the midtown pocket where she once worked amid a mix of restaurants, medical clinics, the WCA and a tattoo shop.

“I don’t like the grass growing under my feet, I like to move fast,” she said. “So seeing that, it’s kind of sad.”

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18 YEARS LATER, ADAY TO REMEMBER 9/11 VICTIMS

Norma Molina of San Antonio, Texas, leaves flowers by the names of firefighters from Manhattan's Engine Company 33 at the September 11 Memorial in New York City. Americans will hold tributes Wednesday for victims of 9/11 on the 18th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist acts on American soil. Tributes will be held at the three sites directly scarred by the attacks as well as cities around the country, including Omaha. Nearly 3,000 people died as a direct result of the attacks, but many more died indirectly from toxins in the air near Ground Zero in New York City.