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Rare testimony: Omaha woman details husband's involvement in July 2018 slaying

Eleven days after his involvement in the July 2018 slaying of an Omaha man, Phillip Figures shot a glare at his wife of eight years, warning her not to tell anyone.

Not her family. Not her friends. And definitely not the “people,” his code word for police.

“He didn’t look at me; he looked through me,” Vanessa Figures testified Wednesday. “He said, ‘Don’t make me kill you, Vanessa.’ ”

“How did you feel?” prosecutor Beth Beninato asked.

“Like I would be dead by midnight,” she said. “I felt it in my soul.”

It was a soul-searching day Wednesday in Douglas County Courtroom No. 414 — one that provided a rare sight: a woman testifying against her former husband in a murder case.

Phillip Figures’ defense attorney, J. Robert Black, had tried to stop that testimony at an earlier hearing, saying spousal privilege barred Vanessa Figures from taking the stand. However, that privilege — the ability to tell your spouse something without it coming back to haunt you — can’t be invoked in cases of confessions to violent crimes.

And so Vanessa Figures left little unsaid as her former husband’s two-week trial began in the July 2018 death of Frederick Green, 57. The scene was so unique, the tension so palpable, that a relative of Phillip Figures was escorted from the courtroom after making several gestures at Vanessa.

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According to her six-hour testimony:

Phillip and Vanessa Figures, who had known each other since they were teens, married in 2011.

Vanessa had worked for a while in a hospital. Then she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia — and stayed at home, earning disability payments, focusing on her battle with cancer and occasionally dealing the prescription painkillers she didn’t use.

Her husband didn’t work, save for occasional temporary jobs. In 2018, he sold drugs and made plans to rob other drug dealers.

One of those plans: Phillip and an Omaha man, a friend since childhood, wanted to rob Green, a man who had just been paroled after a prison stint for dealing crack cocaine.

Green’s girlfriend, Cynthia Anderson, said Green was a kind, outgoing man who worked full time at a Council Bluffs car dealership after he was paroled in 2018. Despite his day job and despite his parole status, Anderson acknowledged, her boyfriend hadn’t completely shed what Anderson called his “street business.”

Neither had Phillip Figures.

In July 2017, Vanessa Figures said, her husband would get up early, leave the couple’s Bellevue home, drive to a northeast Omaha house and spend the morning planning the robbery with an Omaha man. That friend has not been charged in Green’s slaying; prosecutors say they don’t have enough evidence.

Phillip Figures would return home, pumped about the prospect of making substantial money.

How much did he talk about it? prosecutors asked.

“All the time,” Vanessa Figures said. “Damn near every day.”

Vanessa Figures brushed off the talk as just that. Then came July 15, 2018.

As usual, Phillip Figures left the house early that Sunday to meet with the same friend.

He returned home, rushing into their bedroom. When he next appeared, Vanessa said, he had tucked a bundle of dark sweat pants and a thermal black undershirt under his arm.

She asked why he was carting winter clothes on a “100-some degree day.”

“We got to go do it now — (Green is gone and his) lady is at home by herself,” Phillip Figures responded, according to his wife.

He bolted out the door. When he returned in the early afternoon, Vanessa said, he was frantic.

“He’s hyper, he’s pumped up,” Vanessa Figures said. “He said, ‘Baby, come here, come here. He killed him! (My friend) killed the (expletive)!’ ”

“I was like, ‘Killed who?’ ” Vanessa testified. “And he said, ‘the (expletive) — Fred Green.’ ”

Vanessa said her husband described how the killing unfolded:

Phillip Figures and the gunman parked around the corner from Anderson and Green’s well-kept home near 35th Street and Newport Avenue.

When they arrived after noon, only a screen door stood between them and Green, who was eating lunch in the living room.

The two burst through the door. Figures’ friend raised a gun and, palm down, pointed it at Green.

“You know what time it is, (expletive),” the gunman called out.

Green was on the phone — talking to a former girlfriend, who just happened to be the gunman’s sister. Green urged the woman on the phone to tell her brother, the gunman, to calm down.

It didn’t work.

Phillip Figures began beating on Green with his fists and whipping him with a stun gun.

The two intruders eventually dragged Green to the basement. In the course of the beating, Phillip Figures said, the back of the stun gun fell off, spilling the batteries. Figures told his wife he picked up the batteries but couldn’t find the backing. (Omaha police found it later in Green’s basement.)

Figures told the gunman to watch over Green, while he went to look for the cash.

As he ascended the steps, Figures heard a shot. Figures turned to find Green, grabbing for his leg and begging for his life. The gunman began to panic.

“I gotta kill him, I gotta kill him, he’s gonna snitch,” the gunman said, according to Figures’ account to his wife.

“Kill him then, cuz,” Phillip Figures responded, according to his account to his wife.

The gunman shot Green in the head, neck and back, killing him.

When he arrived back in Bellevue, Phillip Figures burst through the door and immediately went to his wife to show and tell. The tell: they had netted about $2,000 in cash.

The show: Phillip pulled out a necklace with a crucifix and a gold ring attached. Green’s necklace.

Vanessa asked why he had kept the victim’s jewelry. She suggested that he burn the clothes he was wearing. And she told him it was “stupid” for him to have had his cellphone on.

Over the next several days, Phillip Figures’ panic turned to paranoia, Vanessa Figures said. Moody and tense, he turned any conversation to talk of the murder.

His behavior was erratic, but Vanessa said it wasn’t threatening — until July 26, 2018. The couple argued over “something stupid.” As he often did, Phillip Figures packed up his belongings and left.

Vanessa Figures told him to never come back. “I was tired and fed up,” she said.

She didn’t relent, despite his pleas. And Phillip became more and more belligerent, culminating with his “don’t make me kill you” threat.

Black, Figures’ attorney, questioned whether Vanessa Figures had concocted Phillip’s purported confession because she was incensed that Phillip Figures had moved out. Black also pointed out that when she went to police, Vanessa Figures asked Omaha police to give her the department’s $25,000 Crime Stoppers reward.

Vanessa acknowledged that she inquired about the reward, but only because she wanted to relocate her and her then-13-year-old daughter.

Vanessa told prosecutors she had no idea what Phillip, or his gunman friend, might do. So on July 26, she grabbed her daughter and, from the side yard, fetched the gold chain that Phillip Figures told her he stole from Fred Green.

She went to Papillion police — the only station she knew of in Sarpy County — to report the threat. The matter was referred to Omaha police, who interviewed Vanessa and arrested Phillip.

Vanessa testified that she probably wouldn’t have told anyone about her husband’s involvement in the slaying if not for the threat.

“At some point, I did love this person,” she said. “This is not what I wanted this to come to.”

She swiveled in the witness chair and looked at her ex-husband. He sat with his chin in his palm.

”I wasn’t going to tell anyone,” she said, eyeballing him. “But I thought I would end up dead.

”I just wanted to be left alone.”

Notable crime news of 2019

Suburban women favor stricter gun laws, pressure swing-district Republicans like Don Bacon

WASHINGTON — Republican resistance to gun control measures could cost them among a key voting bloc, according to new polling.

The Republican Main Street Partnership commissioned a poll of 1,000 registered voters in five suburban House districts that found that nearly three out of four suburban women polled favored stricter gun laws, according to the Washington Post.

Suburban voters like that are crucial in the districts Republicans need to take back control of the House.

“It should catch the attention of any Republican in a swing district,” University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Randall Adkins said of the poll. “While there may be pressure from the party to not take up the issue, clearly this is a priority for a large percentage of voters in the district.”

In the wake of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, President Donald Trump initially signaled an openness to bolstering background checks but has been more mixed in his comments since.

House Democrats passed a background check bill earlier this year, but only eight Republicans supported it. All GOP members from Nebraska and Iowa opposed it, and there’s little evidence that it can pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is returning early from August recess to consider additional measures.

Any action — or lack of action — may reverberate in suburb-heavy swing districts like Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

That’s where Omaha-area Republican Rep. Don Bacon has raised objections to proposals such as requiring universal background checks, banning AR-15 rifles and restricting large-capacity magazines.

Those measures drew a lot of support among suburban women in the polling released by the Main Street Partnership, a centrist Republican group that counts Bacon as a member.

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Bacon says he understands the desire for action on gun violence but questions the effectiveness and constitutionality of banning particular firearms or requiring background checks on noncommercial gun transfers.

“I believe in doing something that improves safety and is within the Constitution,” Bacon said.

Bacon said he does want to crack down on straw purchases — when individuals purchase firearms legally in order to then give them to others prohibited from owning them.

One locally notorious straw purchase was when a Georgia woman purchased a gun for her boyfriend, a felon, who later used the weapon to kill Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco. That woman received probation.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has urged lawmakers to do something on the issue.

“We’d like to see an enhanced penalty for straw purchases,” Schmaderer told The World-Herald. “We’re trying to work with a lot of people to get this addressed, but we still continue to have a number of major cases involving straw purchases.”

Bacon noted other proposals that he thinks are promising, such as modernizing databases used for background checks and improving coordination among law enforcement in evaluating threats.

He said he’s open to “red flag” laws that could allow dangerous individuals to have their guns taken away but stressed that they must include strong due process protections for those at risk of losing their guns.

Bacon said he opposed the background check measure earlier this year because it went too far, making a criminal of someone who gives a gun to a neighbor.

But polling shows that many voters — particularly those suburban women — like the idea of expanding background checks.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the issue of guns resonates with mothers, whose worries about adequately funded school music programs have been replaced with concerns about their children’s safety.

“I deeply believe that guns will be a major issue in 2020,” Kleeb said. “I think that moms are terrified at the prospect that we are now having to decide if we’re going to buy our kids bulletproof backpacks.”

Democrats vying to oppose Bacon in next year’s election have already been highlighting the need to address gun violence.

“Every single one of our candidates is supportive of strong gun reforms,” Kleeb said. “It will be a central issue.”

Bacon expressed confidence that he can ultimately win the argument, in part because the public will see that those pushing for gun control would go too far.

“The activists here, they won’t be happy until only the police and the criminals have guns,” Bacon said. “Because that will be the net effect of their policy.”

Bacon cited cases in which universal background checks have been put up for public referendum in swing states and struggled to win approval.

He said he hears from many people who tell him the 2nd Amendment represents the most important right enshrined in the Constitution.

During a recent town hall, Bacon cited a friend who likes to use an AR-15 for target practice.

Bacon said his words have been misconstrued by critics who characterized him as simply looking out for a buddy.

He said his point was that one friend represents thousands of people across the district who are law-abiding citizens exercising their constitutional right to own a gun.

“Some people — this is their favorite hobby,” Bacon said. “And some of them like it for home defense. I think we have to remember that 99% are good people.”

Adkins noted that Republicans running in swing districts have to worry about potentially attracting a primary challenge. And gun rights advocates traditionally have been more passionately focused on that single issue than those on the other side.

That could be changing.

Adkins said he expects that guns will play more of a role nationally in the 2020 elections and could well factor into Omaha’s congressional race as well.

“If Congressman Bacon continues to take a strong position with the gun advocates, then I suspect that whoever his Democratic opponent is is going to see that as an opportunity,” Adkins said.

Photos: Nebraska and Iowa women in Congress and governor's mansions

What will Omaha do with 500,000 trash cans when the city gets new carts?

Trash day in Omaha is messier now than it will be in 2021.

That’s when the city will replace thousands of residents’ trash cans and green recycling bins with large, covered trash carts. Most of those cans and bins will be recycled under plans being discussed at City Hall.

The Omaha City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a new 10-year trash contract that will provide every household with at least two of the new covered, 96-gallon trash carts. The contract starts in 2021.

Today, Omaha residents buy their own plastic or metal trash cans. The city doesn’t know exactly how many trash cans Omahans are using to toss out garbage and yard waste. Public Works’ best guess is at least 500,000.

Omaha residents also have 100,000 or more of the green, 18-gallon recycling bins. Those bins will no longer be needed because all the options for the city’s next trash contract provide one covered, 96-gallon trash cart for recycling.

The final two bidders for that trash contract committed to the City Council last week that they would help residents recycle the bins and trash cans left behind. But the costs of those efforts differ.

FCC Environmental of Spain, one of the world’s largest trash haulers, said it wouldn’t charge the city to recycle Omahans’ trash cans and recycling bins. The company said it would cover the costs if it secures the trash bid.

West Central Sanitation of Minnesota, a regional company that serves small- and medium-sized communities, said it would bid the recycling effort separately. Owner Don Williamson said it could cost the city up to $500,000.

As Williamson noted in his Aug. 13 testimony before the City Council, the effort to recycle and dispose of residents’ privately owned trash cans was not part of the bid put out by the city.

Representatives of both companies have said in recent weeks that recycling the containers will require the haulers to secure partners to do the recycling work.

FCC’s plan would select a drop-off site for people to bring their trash cans and recycling bins, based on company correspondence with the Public Works Department.

“We can recycle those, with a vendor contract, at no cost to the city,” said Dan Brazil, FCC’s director of collection services.

The city would cover the tipping fees for trash cans that cannot be recycled and have to be tossed into the landfill, which could get pricey if a lot of the cans are too old or too contaminated to be salvaged.

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West Central has said it is still developing its can and bin recycling plan.

West Central’s $22.2 million a year three-cart bid remains the council’s cheapest option. It would provide residents with a cart each for trash, yard waste and recycling. Even in the first year, with the one-time, up-to-$500,000 cost of recycling the old trash cans thrown in, it would still be $1.5 million less a year than FCC’s two-cart bid.

FCC’s total package would cost $24.2 million a year. Residents would get two carts — one for trash and yard waste together, and another for recycling. It also includes eight to 12 weeks of unlimited yard waste pickup to be split between the spring and fall.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and the Public Works Department continue to recommend the FCC bid.

Several council members have said they are still deciding how to vote on the contract.

Council members Pete Festersen and Brinker Harding said they are considering the costs and risks of each contract, including the costs of recycling Omaha’s trash cans and bins. Council member Aimee Melton said she is talking to her northwest Omaha constituents about which contract they prefer.

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