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Needed: 10,000 dogs for project that could also benefit humans

SEATTLE (AP) — Can old dogs teach us new tricks? Scientists are looking for 10,000 pets for the largest-ever study of aging in canines. They hope to shed light on human longevity, too.

The project will collect a pile of pooch data: vet records, DNA samples, gut microbes and information on food and walks. Five hundred dogs will test a pill that could slow the aging process.

"What we learn will potentially be good for dogs and has great potential to translate to human health," said project co-director Daniel Promislow of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

If scientists find a genetic marker for a type of cancer in dogs, for instance, that could be explored in humans.

For the study, the dogs will live at home and follow their usual routine. All ages and sizes, purebreds and mutts are welcome.

Owners will complete periodic online surveys and take their dogs to the vet once a year, with the possibility of extra visits for certain tests. Their welfare will be monitored by a bioethicist and a panel of animal welfare advisers.

To nominate a pet, owners can visit the Dog Aging Project's website, dogagingproject.org.

The five-year study was formally launched Thursday at a science meeting in Austin, Texas. The National Institute on Aging is paying for the $23 million project because dogs and humans live in the same environment and get the same diseases, and dogs' shorter lifespans allow quicker research results, said deputy director Dr. Marie Bernard. The data collected will be available to all scientists.

Leslie Lambert of Parkville, Maryland, enrolled her 11-year-old rescue dog, Oscar, in an early phase.

"I would selfishly like to have him around forever," said the 33-year-old veterinarian. "Unfortunately, he ages much, much faster than I do."

But she's torn by the prospect of an anti-aging pill because so many abandoned dogs go without care. "Just because we can, should we?"

Compared with farm dogs in the past, today's pampered pups live longer and get more geriatric diseases, said veterinarian Dr. Kate Creevy of Texas A&M University, the project's chief scientific officer.

Yet no standard measures exist for frailty or prognosis in sick, aged dogs, Creevy said. The project will develop those tools.

One dog year is roughly equal to seven human years, Creevy said, but that varies by breed. Large dogs have shorter lifespans than smaller dogs. A Great Dane's lifespan is about half that of a toy poodle's.

That makes large dogs better test subjects for the pill. Dogs weighing at least 40 pounds will be eligible for an experiment with rapamycin, now taken by humans to prevent rejection of transplanted kidneys. The drug has extended lifespan inmice. A small safety study in dogs found no dangerous side effects, said project co-director Matt Kaeberlein of the University of Washington.

Human devotion to dogs drives projects like this, the scientists said. Owners will gladly fill out surveys, send records and submit a pup's poop for analysis if they think it will help all dogs live longer, even if it won't help their pet.

"People love dogs," said Promislow, who normally studies aging in fruit flies. "No one has ever come up to me and said, 'Oh my goodness, I just love fruit flies.' "

Promislow's mixed breed, 14-year-old Frisbee, will not participate to prevent a conflict of interest.

"It's too bad because she's a terrific example of a really healthy ager," he said.

Creighton student sues fraternity of pledge who slashed her neck in 2017

A Creighton University student has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a fraternity’s negligence led to her being slashed by a pocketknife-wielding fellow student.

Teresa Spagna, whose neck was cut by a fraternity pledge, has sued Creighton’s now-suspended chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and numerous entities and men connected with the fraternity.

Spagna suffered the slash to her neck in the early morning of Feb. 11, 2017, at the hands an inebriated pledge of Phi Kappa Psi, also called Phi Psi.

The pledge, Christopher Wheeler, was sentenced last year in Douglas County District Court to 30 days in jail and five years of probation. His primary defense in the trial was that the fraternity hazed him and that he was so drunk on booze and high on pot that he didn’t know what he was doing.

The lawsuit, filed two weeks ago in federal court in Omaha, describes periods of intense drinking by fraternity members and those seeking to become members. The suit contends that fraternity negligence led to Wheeler wandering in disorientation into Spagna’s dorm room on the Creighton campus.

Wheeler cut a roughly 5-inch-long gash in Spagna’s neck. The two didn’t know each other. The lawsuit says Spagna suffered scarring and disfigurement and had post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and other problems after the attack.

Ronald K. Ransom II, executive director of the Indianapolis-based fraternity, said he couldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit. Efforts to reach several fraternity members named in the lawsuit were unsuccessful.

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Spagna’s attorney, Matthew Lathrop, said he is collecting documentation, policies, procedures and other papers from the local chapter and the national fraternity. A trial hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Creighton suspended the fraternity until 2025 because of reports of underage drinking, drug distribution and hazing. The suit says Creighton put the fraternity on probation in 2016 after an investigation of underage drinking and hazing.

The university ordered the fraternity to hold an alcohol-free rush in 2017 and to provide a formal alcohol education session.

The lawsuit alleges that, nevertheless, the 2017 rush included “multiple occasions of forced drinking, drinking games, providing alcohol to minors, going to local bars and encouraging alcohol consumption by potential new members to the point of vomiting and/or blacking out.”

Further, the suit says that in early February 2017, the fraternity held the drug and alcohol education session mandated by the probation. “However,” the suit says, “when the presentation concludes, the members and pledges move to a different location and begin drinking.”

Phi Psi’s national office and alumni group knew about the 2016 probation but left members to manage the chapter, the suit maintains. Wheeler underwent initiation on Jan. 30, 2017. The suit claims that initiation included an order to keep activities secret; blindfolding; underage drinking and forced alcohol consumption; all-night drinking; and withholding food or water.

Eleven days later, the pledges again played drinking games at the chapter house as part of initiation; Wheeler brought alcohol and consumed it, the suit says. Then members took pledges, most of whom were underage (including Wheeler, 19 at the time) to a local bar, then back to the house for more drinks.

The suit alleges that a water bong for marijuana also emerged and was passed around by members to Wheeler. Wheeler eventually blacked out, the suit says, and members dropped him off on campus. Witnesses described Wheeler as “confused, out of character, and at times belligerent.”

About 1 a.m. on Feb. 11, he entered a women’s floor at Gallagher Hall, although men weren’t supposed to be on that floor without an escort.

Wheeler “enters Teresa Spagna’s room without permission and without knowing where he is,” the suit says. Spagna was frightened and told him to leave. He began to walk out but forgot his keys. As she handed them to him, the suit says, he raked her neck with the pocketknife.

The university banned Wheeler from the campus. Spagna remains a Creighton student, her attorney said.

Besides the national fraternity, the suit names five related organizations, such as the Phi Psi alumni group and the fraternity’s foundation. The suit also names eight fraternity officers or members and 10 unnamed members of the local fraternity.

Notable crime news of 2019

Video of Burke stabbing 'almost impossible to watch,' judge says; suspect will be tried as juvenile

The disturbing case of a former Burke High School student’s near-fatal attraction plays out in court files in two ways.

One is a chilling surveillance video of a girl — having broken up with Nick Cisar months before — walking down a Burke hallway thumbing through her cellphone, unaware that her ex-boyfriend is lurking nearby.

In a video that a judge called “almost impossible to watch,” the next several frames show Lacey Paige, then 15, literally running for her life after Cisar sneaks up behind her and jams a knife into her back.

The other is in Cisar’s notes from the hospital after his attempt to take Lacey’s life and his own.

Unable to speak because he had slit his throat, Cisar spills a mix of regret, depression, angst and adolescence, repeatedly asking if his ex-girlfriend is OK and why he didn’t die.

Now the entire case will play out in juvenile court after a judge concluded this week that Cisar, 17½, should be tried there rather than in adult court over the Oct. 9, 2018, assault.

Douglas County District Judge Duane Dougherty’s decision sparked outrage from Lacey and her family, according to their attorney, Darren Pekny of Omaha. 

"They're disappointed in the judge's ruling," Pekny said Friday. "They wanted it to stay in adult court based upon his age and the severity of the crime so, yeah, it's upsetting to them."

And to Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.

“It’s shocking,” Kleine said. “I understand the court sometimes has a difficult job to do. But this is not a case that I anticipated would get transferred to juvenile court, especially when the defendant is 17½ and will age out of the system in a year and a half.”

In Nebraska’s justice system, juvenile court maintains jurisdiction over a defendant until age 19.

Cisar’s attorney, James Martin Davis, pushed for the transfer, noting that both a defense psychologist and a state psychiatrist had recommended that the case be handled in juvenile court.

In his six-page order, Dougherty relied heavily on the mental health professionals’ opinions. They noted Cisar’s lengthy personal and familial history of mental illness and suicide attempts.

Dr. Klaus Hartmann, a state psychiatrist at the Lincoln Regional Center, wrote that Cisar “has reasonable goals for the future and appears determined to follow through.”

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“He is considered to be rather fragile in view of his and his family’s history,” Hartmann wrote. “Placing him in an adult correctional setting would most probably be deleterious to him and amount to a major setback. ... He expresses considerable remorse as to what has happened.”

What happened played out in chilling detail on school surveillance cameras.

The video shows Lacey walking to the restroom from her ROTC class. She passes a teacher and scrolls through her phone, unaware that Cisar is lurking.

Backpack slung over his shoulder, Cisar walks down a hallway. He glances over his shoulder to make sure that one teacher isn’t watching him. He then stops at a water fountain to get a drink while another teacher approaches.

Cisar veers past the teacher, who is going the opposite way, and ducks into a doorway.

Lacey then circles out of the restroom. Cisar lets her pass.

He checks to make sure that the teacher is still going the other way before walking quickly toward Lacey. He puts his left hand on her neck, then uses his right hand to stab her in the middle of her back. She reflexively grabs the wound in her back and pivots to face him, then takes off running.

The video then shows Lacey furiously scrambling for her life. Off camera, she is stabbed two to three more times. Prosecutors say the three or four stab wounds to her midsection lacerated her liver and nicked her pancreas. She now has nerve damage and post-traumatic stress disorder, prosecutors say.

“This could have easily been a murder,” Kleine said.

Cisar’s scribblings from his hospital bed show his adolescent outlook on life, his disturbed state and a mix of distress over his actions and over the fact that he and Lacey are no longer together.

In missives to his mom, he wrote that it had been four months since “we broke up.”

On hospital stationery, Cisar wrote: “I loved her more then I loved myself and I couldn’t stand to see her get over me.”

Later, he asks if Lacey is in the same hospital. (She was.) He writes that he thinks he can hear her screaming. (There’s no evidence that Lacey was the patient he thought he heard.)

“Can she walk” he asks in his scribblings. “I’m scared I parilized her”

Another page:

“Am I going to be in trouble

I miss her — the person I hurt

... I tried to hurt her very badly”


“I can’t stop replaying the memorie wishing I held her hand as we both bleed”


“I just want to be happy but I’m always sad She was the one thing that ever made me happy”


“Is my life and my friend’s life in jeopardy? Is she going to be traumatized for life”


“did you talk to my friends ... How long until i get my ps4 back”


“How many times did I stab her. Why did they save me? I tried to kill someone.”

That fact seemed to be lost in the experts’ opinions, Kleine argued.

The defense psychologist, James Mathisen, wrote that he “does not believe these incidents involved premeditation.”

Kleine noted that Cisar had been stewing about the breakup for months, that he brought a knife to school and that he was lying in wait in a hallway.

“I don’t understand how anyone can say it wasn’t premeditated,” he said.

Based on Mathisen and Hartmann’s testimony, Judge Dougherty concluded that the act was “inextricably intertwined with the defendant’s mental illness including, but not limited to, major depression.”

Dougherty noted that under state law, judges “shall” transfer the case unless prosecutors prove that it should be in adult court.

“The court acknowledges the issue of public safety being relevant ... but the court is not of great concern at this time about public safety,” he wrote. “The court further notes that this is a one-time incident.”

Kleine hopes so. He said he’s concerned about the limited amount of time that the juvenile court system will have to work with Cisar.

Dougherty wrote that the court recommends that Cisar “continue in secured detention, or at a minimum, supervision but does not find that, at this time, this is necessary beyond his age of minority.”

Long before the judge ruled, one party in the case had an opinion on whether he would be treated as a juvenile or an adult: Cisar himself.

“I think we all know where I’m gonna be,” Cisar wrote. “We just don’t want to admit it — I’m going to be locked up.”

Notable crime news of 2019

special report
Don't forget: Omaha won't have an official Thanksgiving lighting ceremony downtown this year

If you show up to the Gene Leahy Mall after Thanksgiving dinner this year, you’ll see the space adorned with construction equipment. No twinkling lights to be found.

Because of the construction, there won’t be an official Thanksgiving lighting ceremony, breaking a 19-year tradition. There also will not be a concert.

Those are some of a few changes to this year’s Holiday Lights Festival.

“All of your other favorite events will return, and we will add some new holiday magic to the Old Market,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Thursday at a press conference.

Starting Nov. 25, the Old Market and surrounding streets will be decked out at night with white lights and other festive decor during the holiday season. Lights will brighten 10th to 13th Streets and Harney to Jackson Streets.

The Gene Leahy Mall is undergoing major construction as part of a nearly $300 million riverfront makeover. The mall is expected to be open again in 2021, at which point the lighting ceremony will return. The entire project, which includes renovating Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing, should be done in 2024.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people attended last year’s Thanksgiving lighting ceremony. Organizers said the event featured more than 1 million lights hung over a 40-block area, mostly in the mall or park.

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Another construction-related change is being made to the New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Viewing for the show will be near the CHI Health Center and TD Ameritrade Park. Free parking to watch the show is available in Lots A, B and C of the CHI Health Center.

“It’ll be temporary, but we wanted the show to go on,” Stothert said.

Familiar favorites like ice skating, a family festival and seasonal concerts will still take place this year, as well as lighting events in north and South Omaha.

Stothert said the city wanted to stick with tradition and keep the event — in its 20th year — downtown, especially since other events take place nearby.

“When the Gene Leahy Mall is reopened, and then Heartland of America Park, in the future we know it’s only going to get bigger and better,” Stothert said. “We want to keep it right where it is and keep the tradition going. I think the Old Market and the areas we will be decorating this year are going to be just beautiful.”

Holiday Lights Festival schedule

For more details, visit holidaylightsfestival.org.

Holidays in the Old Market

Nov. 25 through Jan. 5: Holiday lights will be illuminated nightly. Displays include white lights, garland, LED snowflakes, window decor and lighted reindeer. Special activities and events will take place, too.

South Omaha Lights

Nov. 29, 5 to 7 p.m.: The holiday event includes a tree-lighting ceremony, a mariachi performance, holiday lights show and free hot chocolate and cookies. The event takes place at Plaza de la Raza, 24th and N Streets.

Sounds of the Season

Saturdays, Nov. 30 through Dec. 28: The concerts showcase local choral groups, including youth choirs and seasoned professionals. Performances take place at various locations in the Old Market.

Family Festival

Dec. 1, noon to 5 p.m.: Six downtown organizations offer free admission and activities for families. Free trolley service will be provided by Ollie the Trolley.

» Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S. 20th St.

» Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Barn, 615 Leavenworth St.

» The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St.

» W. Dale Clark Library, 215 S. 15th St.

» Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St.

» Downtown YMCA, 430 S. 20th St.

The Capitol District Ice Rink

Dec. 6 through Jan. 21: 10th Street and Capitol Avenue Open daily, except Christmas, with special hours on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and during the Omaha Public Schools’ winter break. Admission is $10, including skate rental.

Christmas in the Village

Dec. 7, noon to 5 p.m.: A holiday lighting event in north Omaha takes place along 24th Street, from Ohio to Burdette Streets.

New Year’s Eve Fireworks Spectacular

Dec. 31, 7 p.m.: The fireworks display will be set to music on Star 104.5 FM. Free parking to view the shows is available in lots A, B and C of the CHI Health Center. Lots open at 6 p.m.

Photos: Omaha's Gene Leahy Mall through the years