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Courts
Bailey Boswell faces new charge in slaying of Sydney Loofe, her attorney seeks change of venue

LINCOLN — Bailey Boswell faces a new criminal charge in connection with the slaying and dismemberment of Lincoln store clerk Sydney Loofe.

Boswell, 25, now is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, in addition to first-degree murder and improper disposal of human remains.

The extra charge is the same one filed against Boswell’s boyfriend, Aubrey Trail, shortly before he was to stand trial. A jury in Saline County found Trail, 52, guilty of conspiracy and first-degree murder after a nearly four-week trial that ended last month. He pleaded guilty to improper disposal of a body right before the start of his trial.

Boswell is scheduled to stand trial on Oct. 15.

The new charge alleges that Boswell and others conspired to lure a young woman via social media for the purpose of homicide for several months before meeting up with Loofe, a Menards clerk from Lincoln, in November 2017. Loofe went missing after arranging a date with Boswell via Tinder, an online dating app. Loofe’s body was discovered weeks later in more than a dozen pieces, scattered along a country road in Clay County.

After an hourlong pretrial hearing Friday, Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson took under advisement several motions, including one filed by Boswell’s defense attorney requesting that the trial be moved out of the southeast Nebraska county because of extensive coverage of the Loofe case and of Trail’s trial last month.

Todd Lancaster of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, a state public defenders office, argued Friday that comments on social media regarding Trail and Boswell showed that a “hostile environment” exists in Saline County and therefore a fair and impartial jury could not be selected there. Potential jurors in Boswell’s trial, he said, may have already formed opinions about her based on reading the “pervasive” coverage of Trail’s jury trial.

Lancaster added that the state’s statutes on change of venue were last amended in 1978, long before the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other online forums.

Sydney Loofe

The judge also deferred ruling until later on defense motions to disallow testimony about “witchcraft, sorcery or the occult” and blocking showing “gruesome” photographs of Loofe’s body to jurors during Boswell’s trial.

During Trail’s trial, three young women said they were recruited to join up with Trail and Boswell as the “13th witch” in their group. They also testified about gaining “powers” if they killed someone. Jurors were also shown several photos of Loofe’s dismembered body.

Judge Johnson also took under advisement a motion to block media from broadcasting or publishing photographs or video of the three young women who testified against Trail and are expected to testify against Boswell. During Trail’s trial, the judge expanded her order denying “expanded media coverage” of the three women to include a ban on publishing their names.

Prosecutors with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office have argued that broadcasting images of the three women would violate their privacy, and said Friday that one of the women had been harassed after testifying against Trail.

Mike Guinan, one of the prosecutors, said the judge can clearly block filming or photographing the three women when they testify — what the court refers to as “expanded media coverage.” But he added that he was “not here to be against the press” and take a position about the publication of their names. It would be up to media representatives, he said, to argue for publishing their identities.

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Lancaster said that blocking filming or photographing the three women gave them “preferential treatment” over other witnesses, and would send a signal to jurors that their testimony was somehow more important. He also argued that blocking publication of their names might give them free rein to avoid telling the truth. Overall, Lancaster said, his client’s right to a free and open trial includes identifying those who testify against her in open court.

Johnson said that the Trail and Boswell cases have prompted “extraordinary” media coverage that was “way off the scale.”

“There were individuals who were subjected to scathing, scathing remarks in the media,” the judge said, without specifying the remarks.

Notable crime news of 2019

Money
'Emotion detection' AI falls short because faces don't always reveal feelings

In just a handful of years, the business of emotion detection — using artificial intelligence to identify how people are feeling — has moved beyond the stuff of science fiction to a $20 billion industry.

Companies like IBM and Microsoft tout software that can analyze facial expressions and match them to certain emotions, a would-be superpower that companies could use to tell how customers respond to a new product or how a job candidate is feeling during an interview. But a far-reaching review of emotion research finds that the science underlying these technologies is deeply flawed.

The problem? You can’t reliably judge how someone feels from what their face is doing.

A group of scientists brought together by the Association for Psychological Science spent two years exploring this idea. After reviewing more than 1,000 studies, the five researchers concluded that the relationship between facial expression and emotion is nebulous, convoluted and far from universal.

“About 20 to 30 percent of the time, people make the expected facial expression,” such as smiling when happy, said Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, who worked on the review. But the rest of the time, they don’t. “They’re not moving their faces in random ways. They’re moving them in ways that are specific to the situation.”

It’s not surprising that something as complex and internalized as human emotion defies easy classification. Humans tend to instinctively draw on other factors, such as body language or tone of voice, to complete their emotional assessments.

But the majority of “emotion detection AI” makes inferences purely on mapping facial positioning, a concept that stems from the work of Paul Ekman, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He posited that six emotions — happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise — are represented by universal facial expressions across all cultures.

When Microsoft rolled out its emotion detection technology in 2015, it said its algorithms could “recognize eight core emotional states — anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness or surprise — based on universal facial expressions that reflect those feelings.”

It’s a common justification for such technology, and exactly what Barrett and her colleagues are pushing back against. The companies are not trying to be misleading, she said, but they need to dramatically change their approach to emotion detection to get the kind of accuracy many already purport to have. (Microsoft declined to comment about how or if the review would influence its approach to emotion detection.)

“We now have the tools and the analytic capability to learn what we need to learn about facial expressions in context and what they mean,” Barrett said. “But it requires asking different questions with that technology and using different analytic strategies than what are currently being used.”

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Such technological limits come with risks, especially as facial recognition becomes more widespread. In 2007, the Transportation Security Administration introduced a program (which Ekman consulted on, but later distanced himself from) that trained officers to try to identify potential terrorists via facial expression and behavior.

A review of the program in 2013 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the TSA hadn’t established a scientific basis for it, and that the program didn’t translate to arrests. In 2017, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that the program fueled racial profiling.

To get on the right track, Barrett said, companies should be working with far more data, training their programs to consider body language and vocal traits.

One company says it’s embracing the more multifaceted approach: Affectiva, the first company to market “emotion AI.” The company, which claims to hold the largest collection of emotion data in the world, works with naturalistic video rather than static images and is trying to integrate such factors as a person’s tone or gait into its analyses.

Rana el Kaliouby, Affectiva’s co-founder and chief executive, said she welcomes the review’s findings. “I’ve tried to solve the same issues all these years, but we’re not there yet as an industry,” Kaliouby said. “I liken it to the emotional repertoire of a toddler: A toddler will understand simplistic states, but they won’t have the language or sophisticated sensing to recognize complex emotions.”

Affectiva has encountered these limits, she said. Several years ago, Kaliouby said, a client complained that Affectiva’s technology wasn’t producing results in China when it tried to analyze responses to ads. It turned out that the program had trouble recognizing a subtle “politeness smile” many subjects displayed.

This helped highlight how different cultures display facial expressions, Kaliouby said, leading Affectiva to incorporate “culturally specific benchmarks” for facial movement. The company now trains its systems with more than 8 million faces from 87 countries.

The industry will evolve as it acquires more data, Kaliouby said, and has a long way to go.

The theoretical aim for much artificial intelligence is to create machines that are able to operate just as well as, or better than, a human. But even creating a machine with the perceptiveness of a person wouldn’t be enough to solve the problem of emotion detection, Kaliouby said.

“Humans get it wrong all the time,’’ she said.

Our best photos, July 2019

Higher-education
UNK hopes to trigger development with new University Village neighborhood

KEARNEY, Neb. — The University of Nebraska at Kearney wants to turn a vacant expanse into a trendy public-private partnership called the University Village neighborhood.

UNK reasons that development adjacent to the university will be good for everyone — the university, the city and the private developers who decide to build there. As the stream of state money for higher education slows, UNK and other schools know the major projects of the future will require private partners.

Such developments are built on the notion that close relationships and nearness in place can serve corporations and businesses with easy access to college interns, new graduates and customers. Meanwhile colleges can recruit and keep students and faculty more successfully with attractive living, shopping, entertainment and eating options nearby.

So far, though, only two buildings have gone into the 104-acre area just south of campus, and both are UNK facilities. Construction of a third building, a UNK regional engagement center, is expected to be announced soon. That center would attract meetings and community events and also would house things like state offices and businesses.

“This is not a two-year project,” UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said during a recent tour of the area. It will take time for University Village to attract private development of town houses and condos, and for businesses to put in retail shops and restaurants, he said.

Doug Kristensen

Such plans aren’t unique. David Tandberg, a vice president for a Colorado-based policy group, said partnerships are a trend in higher education.

“I will say I and others have noticed that it appears that these types of collaborations are increasing,” said Tandberg, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “I think the town and gown connections are especially important.”

A paper written last year by an American Association of State Colleges and Universities task force said partnerships are crucial for colleges “to be competitive in an environment marked by declining state funding and continual questions” about the value of higher education.

One needs only to look at Aksarben Village in Omaha to find a similar concept in which college, companies and businesses live side by side and in some cases support each other.

Besides a park, restaurants and a theater, Aksarben Village contains offices of major employers such as Pacific Life, HDR Inc., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Green Plains ethanol and Olsson.

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To the north are Mammel Hall for UNO business programs and the Peter Kiewit Institute, housing UNO’s information and technology programs and a portion of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering. And south of Aksarben Village, near 67th Street and Center Streets, is Baxter Arena, home to UNO hockey and other attractions.

Louis Pol, outgoing business dean at UNO, said students on the university’s south campus walk through Aksarben Village for lunch, dinner and on their way to hockey games.

The presence of so many business opportunities “allows us to extend the boundaries of education well beyond the classroom,” he said. Businesses can use UNO for leadership training or use Mammel Hall to conduct their own training programs, he said.

Brent Kollars, a vice president with HDR Inc., said his company intends to invite about 100 UNO and UNL students and faculty members to its Aksarben Village offices next month. They will hear presentations from HDR professionals and engage in a “social mixer,” Kollars said.

“We’re trying to be a good neighbor, too, but at the core of that is recruiting,” he said.

Undergoing construction at UNK is the $7.8 million Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center, which will serve as a child care center, learning laboratory for UNK students and location for Montessori education. The institute, paid with private and state money, will have room for 175 children, up from UNK’s 75-child limit in its current day care.

UNK already has a residence hall at University Village for graduate students, married couples, faculty members and UNK staff members.

Kristensen said the residence hall, called Village Flats, is in a good place, right across Highway 30 from the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Health Sciences Education Complex at UNK. The residence hall is convenient for professional students, such as those striving to become physical therapists and physician assistants, he said.

Blake Hoffmeyer, a UNMC physician assistant student, takes classes in the Health Sciences Education Complex and can walk to class from the residence hall. The rooms have ovens, and Hoffmeyer cooks for himself.

RICK RUGGLES/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Blake Hoffmeyer

“I like it a lot,” said Hoffmeyer, 28, from Lincoln.

The UNK regional engagement center would house some university offices, meeting rooms, perhaps state offices and possibly space for businesses such as engineering, architectural and law firms.

Nebraska leaders say the state has a workforce shortage that could be remedied in part through closer ties between colleges and the private sector.

Joe Johnson, a business consultant for the Lincoln-based Olsson engineering firm, said Olsson officials “definitely have an interest” in the regional engagement center.

“Nothing’s official,” Johnson said of a commitment to University Village. “We feel that University Village is a great space, and the potential for it is just huge for greater Nebraska.”

Kristensen said University Village came out of an NU brainstorming session a few years ago. The vast open space had been farmed for years, and UNK has owned it for decades. Now it is primarily a green expanse of alfalfa.

Kristensen envisions a long-term project into which a total of hundreds of millions of dollars ultimately is invested by all partners. His concept includes retail space, office space, residential buildings and parks distributed through a safe, walkable community.

The university already has created a large green space on the north end of University Village to serve as a “town square,” he said, for summer festivals and other activities.

He has no intention of turning University Village into strip malls and fast-food joints. A pharmacy and a deli would more likely be the kinds of operations that would be encouraged, he said.

A proposed indoor-outdoor tennis complex is a possibility. The City of Kearney has started some of the infrastructure at University Village, sinking $1 million into roads, water and sewers. Much more of those kinds of services will be needed when the area is built out, and private developers will be assessed for them, said Jon Watts, UNK’s vice chancellor for business and finance.

Jon Watts

Watts said the primary goal here is shared by many Nebraskans: “Workforce, workforce, workforce.”

Larry Butler, a Kearney attorney and head of the University Village board, said it’s taken a while for the development to take off. The board, made up of community members and university leaders, reviews plans for the area and considers how best to use the place. The board wants to move deliberately, as does UNK, he said.

Butler said that things are starting to percolate. Board members traveled around the country to view projects similar to that envisioned for University Village. And one of those places was only 190 miles east on Interstate 80. That place, Butler said, was Aksarben Village.

Our best photos, July 2019

Livewellnebraska
With Hollywood motion capture, Omaha researcher creates virtual reality for kids with disabilities

Daniel Vance pulled a virtual reality headset over his eyes, grabbed a pair of hand controls and began stretching his arms over his head, as if he were grabbing invisible handholds on a rock climbing wall.

In fact, he was scaling a climbing wall — a virtual one.

As he climbed, Daniel, 14, suggested tweaks to the wall’s creator, Jamie Gehringer, a research assistant professor at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

A little more than a year ago, Gehringer began developing virtual reality games that require children with developmental disabilities to perform movements that they’re asked to make during physical therapy.

The motions required to fire a hand-held rocket at an invading space alien in one game, for instance, are the same ones therapists have kids practice by pulling a tissue from a paper towel tube. Another puts kids to work scooping ice cream in an ice cream store, which requires strength, dexterity and coordination. The games are geared toward kids like Daniel with cerebral palsy, who typically favor using the stronger, dominant side of their body to the detriment of their weaker side. To get them using both, therapists often prescribe what’s known as Hand-Arm Bimanual Intensive Training, or HABIT.

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“They’re all tasks that require both hands to succeed,” Gehringer said.

But those tasks can become, well, tedious. Gehringer wanted to find ways to make them more engaging, taking direction from the institute’s physical and occupational therapists.

That makes sense to Cori Vance, Daniel’s mom. “You get kids to do their PT and OT in a way they’re not going to fight about, because they don’t know they’re doing it, which is fabulous,” she said.

Daniel, who’s been a Munroe-Meyer patient and loves technology, volunteered to try out the games, which Gehringer hopes to begin testing more formally next summer.

“This is the fun of having a kid come in and try it because they always have great ideas,” Gehringer said, noting that Daniel has helped a lot with the rock-climbing game. “That’s the feedback we need. We want to build something that’s going to work and people actually want to play.”

KENT SIEVERS/UNMC 

Daniel Vance, who’s been a Munroe-Meyer patient and loves technology, volunteered to try out the games

More recently, Gehringer also has begun developing virtual reality simulations of real-life events intended to allow children with developmental disabilities to practice for an occasion that might be challenging for them. One simulation lays out a virtual airplane ride, complete with flight attendant announcements and fellow passengers, and the other takes a child through a virtual haircut outing.

His work is among examples of how local researchers and clinicians are seeking to take virtual reality beyond simulation and education and put it to therapeutic uses. Nationally, researchers have reported progress using virtual reality to help manage PTSD and pain.

A team at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is designing virtual reality games that can be used in stroke rehabilitation, specifically for patients with impaired upper arms. The researchers are combining the games with a 3D-printed glove-like device to help patients extend and open their hand so they can regain the ability to grasp objects.

Nebraska Medicine is using a 3D virtual reality simulation developed by a California company with input from a child life specialist to prepare kids for MRIs and radiation treatment, with the aim of reducing their anxiety and need for sedation.

Brian Knarr, an assistant professor of biomechanics at UNO, said advances in the technology itself and the availability of more affordable — and portable — consumer headsets, such as Oculus Rift, are helping drive the push toward using the technology in therapy.

In the case of both Gehringer’s work and the UNO project, the aim is to create tools patients could use at home as well as in the clinic. Munroe-Meyer, Gehringer said, is seeking to expand its assistive technology program.

The technological advances — particularly more computing power and higher-quality displays — mean what people now experience in virtual reality is reality, Knarr said. That immersion hooks patients into thinking they’re in the virtual world in front of them and helps engage them.

KENT SIEVERS/UNMC 

Daniel Vance climbs a virtual reality rock-climbing wall.

While the researchers don’t expect virtual reality games to replace traditional therapy, he said, scientists elsewhere have shown the virtual version can add to it.

Repetition is important in stroke rehabilitation because another part of the brain has to learn how to do tasks the damaged portion once performed. The UNO researchers are using brain imaging to explore the underlying changes in the brain when patients use the system.

The UNO team, who are with colleagues at QLI and Immanuel Rehabilitation Institute, plan to launch their first pilot program at Immanuel as early as this fall.

“We’re in the early days of exploring how well this can work,” Knarr said.

The Nebraska Medicine simulation allows young patients to first explore virtual replicas of one of the hospital’s MRI and radiation suites on a laptop, said Debbie Wagers, the child life specialist who brainstormed with the California firm’s founder. If they’re comfortable with that, they can don a virtual reality headset for a more immersive practice run.

Using the system has allowed the hospital to reduce the number of children being sedated before the procedures, Wagers said. Avoiding sedation means kids don’t have to fast beforehand or go to recovery afterward, which speeds the process for them and their families. The health system is teaming with the company to study the program’s effect on reducing anxiety and on reducing the number of patients who need sedation.

ELSIE STORMBERG/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Callie Greene, a cosmetologist, tests reflectors on her body before giving a mannequin head a series of ever-shorter haircuts at the Munroe-Meyer Institute. The haircut simulation was designed with kids on the autism spectrum in mind.

“It’s all about trying to decrease their anxiety,” Wagers said. “The more knowledge we can give kids, the more control they have over their situation.”

Gehringer has similar aims for the airplane and haircut simulations he’s building. Designed with kids on the autism spectrum in mind, both were the result of requests.

To create the animation for the haircut simulation, he’s been using motion capture, the same technology behind actor Andy Serkis’ portrayals of the creature Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Gehringer’s actor is Callie Greene, a self-employed cosmetologist. During a recent filming, Gehringer stuck about 40 small, ball-shaped reflectors on Greene’s arms, legs and torso. She also wore a reflector-studded headband. As she gave a stand-mounted mannequin head a series of ever-shorter haircuts, cameras mounted around the room shot infrared light. The light reflected back to the cameras, allowing Gehringer to triangulate her position in the room. They’ll use that data to create the animated version.

Gehringer hopes to add more pieces to the simulation, including having the patron walk in from a car and check in at a reception desk.

Cori Vance, who also has a daughter with high-functioning autism, said being able to practice challenging activities before doing them in public could help such youths build competence and confidence.

The virtual reality games, she said, could serve as a bridge to adult therapy for youths like Daniel. He’s too old for the games therapists use with younger patients and hasn’t yet grown large enough to fit adult activities.

“I think every parent of a special needs child, you figure out ways to help them,” she said. “What’s amazing is these guys are taking it high tech.”

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha