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'Another family lost' as teen who mistakenly targeted, wounded 13-year-old is sentenced to prison

J’Tavion Smith sat in an orange Douglas County Corrections jumpsuit in Courtroom 501, waiting on this dreary day to hear how much of his future would be behind bars.

This was a moment of reckoning for a 19-year-old with a rap sheet that until now had been handled in the softer, gentler juvenile court system.

J’Tavion had messed up and gotten breaks. He’d messed up and gotten help. He’d messed up and helped himself, graduating from high school and planning to enter Iowa Western Community College in the fall.

Now, after being accused of shooting and injuring a 13-year-old boy, J’Tavion was in adult court. Having pleaded guilty to two felonies in connection with the shooting, he was waiting to be sentenced. And he was facing a judge who appeared to be in no mood for mercy.

Judge Gregory Schatz had just handed jail sentences to two inmates in hearings preceding J’Tavion’s. One young woman, a nonviolent drug offender, begged to go to her father’s funeral the next day. Schatz gave her 191 more days in jail. Schatz gave three years to a man asking for probation. Then the judge, stone-faced with a gravelly voice, even snapped at a baby.

“Out!” he growled, after the infant made a soft cry. “Don’t want ’em in here.”

Onlookers froze as two young women hustled infant carriers out of the courtroom.

The abrupt command foreshadowed the bad news to come. And it signaled the end of one chapter of a sad story about a shooting on an Omaha street.


R.J. Eckhardt, 13, who was mistakenly targeted and shot in the arm on March 29, poses for a portrait at the home of his mother, Janna Eckhardt, in Omaha. 

* * *

Omaha police were able to quickly piece together what happened after 13-year-old R.J. Eckhardt was shot outside a family friend’s north Omaha home in March. The shooting followed a Friday night youth basketball tournament at Benson High School.

By that Monday, police announced that five suspects had been arrested in connection with the shooting that miraculously hadn’t killed the boy.

Because the boy didn’t die, because police made arrests, because there are so many shootings in Omaha, this particular shooting scarcely registered with the public. Then came the mug shots of the offenders with their wide-eyed stares and baby faces.

What had led the suspects, teenagers themselves, to this dramatic moment, a shooting that would have been a homicide were it not for poor aim or dumb luck? Were these young people, who had mistaken the victim’s father for a gang member, somehow victims, too? What was it about a random shooting we could learn?

The World-Herald’s attempt to answer those questions resulted in a three-day series that ran in June. The result: A shooting — even one that doesn’t severely injure a person — carries a giant toll. The hospital bill. The cost of emergency response from police and paramedics. The cost of public defenders or court-appointed attorneys (four, in this case) and prosecutors and court time. Jail time, prison time and the lost time of someone’s life. J’Tavion’s.

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* * *

J’Tavion had been in and out of trouble before the March 29 shooting of R.J.

But until that night, his run-ins with the law had been handled in juvenile court. The Douglas County Juvenile Court is supposed to be a reform court for delinquent youths, a place for second chances, a way to hold parents and children and other helpers around them accountable. Ideally, when the court system works and its charges do what they’re supposed to, this should be a court of hope.

Adult court, on the other hand, is governed by different rules with much steeper consequences.

What lands you in one versus the other is your age, the seriousness of the charge and your criminal history. Under Nebraska law, the juvenile court system has jurisdiction over lawbreakers who are between ages 11 and 19, and prosecutors have discretion on which court is most appropriate.

J’Tavion was about three months shy of his 19th birthday when the shooting happened. Given his history, the seriousness of the charges and time until he turned 19, his case went to adult court.

He was charged with five felonies: two counts of use of a firearm to commit a felony and one count apiece of second-degree assault; discharging a firearm near a building or vehicle; and criminal conspiracy.

Police and court records show a troubled past for J’Tavion that included a stint in foster care because of his mother’s abusive boyfriend when he was 14 and felony and misdemeanor charges when he was 17. The felony accessory charge was dropped, but the misdemeanor, obstructing a peace officer, sent J’Tavion to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney. He later went to an Arizona youth treatment center, where he graduated and earned certificates in welding and landscaping.

In interviews last week, J’Tavion’s mother, TyKeeva, said she loved her son and did the best she could for him under the circumstances but felt undercut by the Douglas County Juvenile Court system, which she said lacked follow-through.

She said her son was “not a bad kid” but got caught up in the wrong crowd. The first red flag was skipping school. And when his behaviors grew out of her control, she complained that the system did not apply enough structure, consequence or time for her son to succeed.

For instance, J’Tavion was allowed visits home but would run away. One time, he went missing for two weeks. TyKeeva said that when she tried to get help, her son was moved to other relatives with looser rules and gang ties.

She would complain to his probation officer and others but felt helpless and ignored. She said she filed a missing person report at one point and worried about the welfare of her son and two younger children at home.

“We don’t get help until it gets worse,” she said. “(At) first they say, ‘Oh he’s not a criminal. But then he (gets accused) and he’s now a ‘monster.’ ”

TyKeeva said she lived with the fear of “police coming to my door, telling me to identify the body of my child.” Or police coming to tell her that J’Tavion was involved in a serious crime.

* * *

So what happened the night of March 29?

A recap of police and court records, plus interviews with R.J. and his parents, lays out this story:

R.J.’s family had gone to a basketball tournament at Benson High that Friday night. Opposing gangs had shown up.

Renard Estima, R.J. Eckhardt’s father, said in an interview that a gun was being passed in the bleachers, that he sensed trouble and reported it but didn’t see anyone taking action and didn’t feel safe. He decided to leave, and about 9 p.m., he told his kids — two teenage daughters, a 13-year-old stepson and R.J. — to go home.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers was in a car in the parking lot, waiting, police said, to settle a score. Driving the car was a 16-year-old girl. Passengers included: Kheana Notoua, an 18-year-old high school senior, an honors student with college prospects and no criminal record; Jaqueris Allen, an 18-year-old with a long juvenile court history; Jaquez Turley, a 19-year-old with former known gang ties; and J’Tavion, then 18.

Estima pulled out of the parking lot, heading for his daughters’ home a mile away near Fontenelle Park. The teens drove behind them as they headed to 48th and Spaulding Streets. Estima pulled onto Spaulding Street. He heard pop-pop noises and turned around to tell the boys who were exiting the car that this was not the time or place to pull fireworks.

That’s when he said he saw the figure of a shooter — standing in the street — the car full of teens, and his son, bleeding from his arm.

What happened next was chaotic. R.J. ran into the house. The teens fled. Someone called 911. Estima tied a tourniquet around R.J.’s arm; he was falling in and out of consciousness and bleeding so much that relatives later said the house looked like a murder scene.

Police said it was a case of mistaken identity; the suspects had followed the wrong car and shot at the wrong people.

By Monday, they had arrested all five of them.

* * *

Violence begets violence.

That’s what Dr. Charity Evans, a trauma surgeon at the Nebraska Medical Center who developed a violence prevention program, said.

She said it’s much cheaper and better to treat gun violence like a disease and work toward prevention. Prevention works, she said.

Certainly, gun violence appears to be trending downward in Omaha. Nonfatal shootings and gun-related homicides are down. My columns explored some possible reasons why as the Omaha community and police beef up the front-end prevention work.

Just being in proximity to a shooting can place one at risk, not only of physical harm, but also of psychological problems, Evans said. Direct experience with violence can make one more prone to being a victim or perpetrator of it.


Dr. Charity Evans, a trauma surgeon, speaks to youths who participate in the Dusk to Dawn program, including Matthew Bose, center, 15, at the Nebraska Medical Center. Dusk to Dawn is a youth violence prevention program.

* * *

How did the case wind up?

R.J. healed pretty quickly. Dr. Evans described his wound as “a through-and-through injury.” The bullet missed bone. R.J. did not lose much blood, thanks to his father’s fast thinking. He’s an eighth grader now and turns 14 next month.

Four of the five teens arrested are out of jail.

The driver, who was 16 in March, is now 17. She is living at home in Omaha but is under the watch of the Juvenile Court. Her next hearing is right before Christmas, and she could be released from probation then. If that happens, her juvenile court record will be sealed. That’s why we’re not naming her here.

Kheana, 18, had no prior criminal record. Her felony was traded for a misdemeanor. She pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of false reporting because she hadn’t been upfront with police right away, said her attorney, Glenn Shapiro.

But Kheana is not in college as she had planned.

“We were hopeful she’d go and follow scholarship opportunities,” Shapiro said. “These events and other issues put her on hold. She’s working and figuring out her course of life.”

Shapiro said his client and her family declined to comment.

Jaqueris, 19, had a lengthy juvenile court record — some of which was sealed during the reporting of this story. He pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit a felony, which is a felony. He got out of the Douglas County Jail after serving six months. He was released Oct. 2 and placed on four years of probation. He has to pay probation fees totaling $1,610.50.

As a convicted felon, Jaqueris lost his right to vote. And getting a job and a place to live are now that much harder because of his criminal history.

Jaquez’s case wound up the same way. The 19-year-old pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a felony for being in the car that night. He, too, was sentenced to four years of probation and the probation fees of $1,610.50. Jaquez, who police said had gang affiliations but a lesser criminal past than Jaqueris and J’Tavion, is now a convicted felon.

Attorneys for Jaquez and Jaqueris declined to comment.

So what about J’Tavion? Police said he was the shooter. Originally charged with five felonies, he pleaded guilty to two — second-degree assault and discharging a firearm at an inhabited house, occupied building or motor vehicle.

Despite the plea deal, he still faced prison time.

And that’s what brought him to Courtroom 501 on Tuesday.

* * *

J’Tavion wore glasses and had gotten a new haircut. He sat straight up at the defense table as his public defender, Jessica West, gave a measured, forceful statement on his behalf.

“This is obviously a very serious matter,” she began.

West asked the judge to consider “mitigating factors” like J’Tavion’s age, pointing out that neurological research shows that the teenage brain is impulse-driven, risk-inclined and not fully formed. She pointed out the relatively light consequences for the four co-defendants. She referenced J’Tavion’s challenging background. She cited a statement from J’Tavion saying he takes “full responsibility,” as evidenced by his guilty pleas. She said he asks for no pity and has no resentment “toward his upbringing or the system.” She said he understands “the gravity of the situation.”

Then West added this: J’Tavion had recently become a father. A baby was born in October. This has made him especially aware of “the emotional and physical toll” the shooting took on R.J. and his family. It also makes him more motivated to turn his life around.

Which brought West to her request: J’Tavion knows he’s going to prison. But please, she asked Schatz, offer a “wide” sentence range to give this new father an incentive and hope behind bars so that “making something of himself (isn’t) snuffed out by the court.”

Schatz asked J’Tavion if he had anything to say.

“No, sir,” J’Tavion answered.

Then came the prosecution’s turn. R.J. and his parents, who were present, were invited to make a statement but declined. Instead, prosecutor Ryan Lindberg went through the facts of the case: how J’Tavion and his friends “lay in wait,” how he “purposefully shot at a residential area,” how it was extremely lucky that no one was killed.

The judge took over. Flipping through the case file, Schatz said “the defendant and his cohorts” followed the victim’s father and unloaded a .40-caliber handgun, firing six shots at the family as they entered the home.

“I’ve got a duty to impose a sentence based on the seriousness of the offense,” the judge said.

Count one? 10 to 15 years. Count two? 20 to 25. Consecutively. Nebraska sentences are automatically cut in half, and the judge gave credit for the 220 days J’Tavion had already been behind bars.

The math boiled down to this: 16½ years before J’Tavion can be eligible for parole. The 19-year-old new father would be almost 36 before he gets out. His new baby would be of legal driving age.

Some family members began to sob. His mother and younger brother and sister called out, “Love you!”

J’Tavion glanced back and then, as deputies led him out, he glared at the judge and called him a name.

“What did he say?” the judge asked.

* * *

Outside Courtroom 501, a group of J’Tavion’s supporters walked slowly toward the elevators.

“Sad day,” one said.

TyKeeva Smith said she believes that her son wasn’t the gunman but was pressured into a plea deal. No matter what, she stands by him. It could be worse, she said. She could be visiting him in a graveyard instead of a prison.

Then R.J.’s father, Renard Estima, walked heavily out of the courtroom. The 43-year-old said he once was a troubled teenager who spent time at Boys Town and felt for J’Tavion and his family.

“Another family lost,” he said.

Estima tried to make sense of it. He appreciated that J’Tavion hadn’t blamed someone else. He pledged to write J’Tavion in jail.

But then J’Tavion snapped at the judge on his way out the door, calling him a “cracker,” a derogatory reference to the white judge’s race.

Was J’Tavion sincere in his apology? Estima didn’t know.

He did know that R.J. was OK, and for that he was grateful. He did know that his son could have been killed, that the event itself was horrible and scary, and that he isn’t sure how his son is dealing with it now. Is R.J.’s new moodiness a result of being an eighth grader? Or is it an aftereffect of the trauma?

Estima couldn’t shake the fate of his son’s shooter.

“If it was my choice, I wouldn’t have given him years like that,” he said. “At the end of the day, nobody wins. No happiness in it.”

Notable crime news of 2019

Fire union wanted Omaha's mayor charged with felony witness tampering. The witness? Don Bacon

Omaha’s firefighters union wanted Mayor Jean Stothert charged with felony witness tampering over comments she made to a character reference who went to bat for an embattled fire union president.

The character witness the fire union says Stothert tried to tamper with: Rep. Don Bacon.

Under state law, a person tampers with a witness if they attempt to induce a witness to “testify falsely or withhold any testimony, information, document or thing.”

Michael Dowd, an attorney for the Omaha fire union, said it was tampering for Stothert to urge Bacon to pull his letter of support for the union president, Steve LeClair, who had been fired by the city after a bizarre off-duty incident with a woman.

Eventually, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to file charges against the mayor. Stothert said last week that the issues being raised weren’t new.

Bacon wasn’t the only one targeted over statements in support of LeClair, Dowd said.

Three current or former Nebraska state senators “testified (to) what they feel was inappropriate pressure placed upon them to alter their testimony in connection with these proceedings,” according to Dowd.

Attorneys for the mayor and the city, hired on a contract basis from Omaha’s Baird Holm law firm, either called or sent letters warning that they were going to subpoena various character witnesses — including State Sens. Steve Lathrop and Justin Wayne and former State Sen. and U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford — if they continued their support of LeClair.

“Given the fact that you have backed Mr. LeClair against the City of Omaha despite the behavior that resulted in his discharge, we have decided to subpoena you to testify under oath about your relationship with Mr. LeClair and ongoing support for him,” attorney George Martin III wrote to Lathrop and Wayne.

Those letters, which Lathrop described as an “attempt to intimidate,” didn’t work. All three men, who are also attorneys, went forward with their support of LeClair.

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Bacon told others that he was going to do what was right. The Republican congressman sent a letter of support for LeClair.

“It’s painful because the mayor and Steve are both my friends and I’m sure the partisans will twist things, but honesty is always (the) best policy,” Bacon said, according to a document submitted to the arbitrator.

LeClair, who remains the union president, has appealed his termination. Dowd is representing him before the arbitrator — an administrative judge who will decide whether the termination was justified. A decision is expected soon.

After questioning Stothert during LeClair’s arbitration hearing in August, Dowd took the transcript, a text message and two exhibits to Kleine for review.

Kleine, a Democrat in his 13th year as Douglas County attorney, 33rd year as a prosecutor and 42nd year of practicing law, reviewed the documents and declined to charge Stothert, a Republican. Before he made a decision, Kleine said, he had a veteran prosecutor in his office also review the transcript. That prosecutor agreed that there wasn’t enough to charge Stothert.

One important factor, Kleine said: Bacon was not deterred from sending the letter of support for LeClair. Another: At the arbitration hearing, Stothert said she was simply informing Bacon that he might be subpoenaed to testify if he sent a letter on LeClair’s behalf.

Kleine said Stothert would have been better off not approaching Bacon about his support for LeClair. But her actions didn’t add up to felony tampering.

“I don’t see evidence that rises to the level of tampering,” Kleine said. “There has to be criminal intent. I just didn’t see this rising to the level that her intent was to impact the outcome of this investigation or hearing.

“It’s just kind of informing (Bacon), ‘Hey, you’re going to have to testify if you send this letter.’ ”

The fire union argued that it was much more. The union alleges that Stothert’s behavior was the result of a festering grudge she has held against LeClair for 10 years — an accusation the mayor denies.

Dowd suggested that the mayor and the city’s contract attorneys combined to interfere with witness testimony and, thus, influence the outcome of LeClair’s effort to get his job back, according to transcripts of the arbitration hearing.

For her part, Stothert issued a statement Friday that said: “The issues being raised today are not new. They were raised by Mr. LeClair’s legal counsel during the arbitration nearly two months ago. We are confident that the arbitrator will appropriately address them.”

Stothert went on to defend the attorneys’ efforts to subpoena Bacon, Lathrop, Ashford and Wayne.

“That strategy was the only means to ensure that the arbitrator would learn what Mr. LeClair’s attorneys did not want her to know: that those elected officials had an extremely limited understanding of Mr. LeClair’s discharge when they wrote their letters of support and no informed opinions about whether he should get to keep his job,” Stothert said.

The World-Herald and other news outlets reported extensively about LeClair’s behavior in a November 2018 incident in which LeClair struck a black woman at a bar and said “white power” after she resisted his advances. The four elected officials indicated that they had read the news reports but that they wrote their letters because they thought such behavior was an aberration compared with their dealings with LeClair.

Omaha Fire Chief Dan Olsen, a Stothert appointee, fired LeClair after the bar incident.

In June, LeClair was sentenced to six months of probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct.

In August, he went to arbitration to try to get his job back. The fire union argues that LeClair did not deserve to be fired, especially after his years of service, including his involvement in public safety legislation and in advancing diversity in the Fire Department.

According to a transcript of the arbitration hearing obtained by The World-Herald:

Dowd spent considerable time questioning Stothert in August, suggesting that the mayor was thrilled to have the opportunity to try to fire LeClair after a contentious relationship.

Stothert and LeClair have had their share of turbulence over the past decade, going back to Stothert’s first days as a city councilwoman.

After one spat in 2009, Stothert texted LeClair: “It will be a long 4 years if your goal is to turn OFD against me.” At the time, Stothert said she wrote that because, after questioning whether the department was using city funds to train in Belize (it wasn’t), she had received “a stack of some of the most disrespectful, threatening emails” from firefighters.

During that August hearing, Dowd suggested that Stothert had spread “false rumors” that LeClair had threatened her in 2009. “Stothert alleged she had heard a secondhand report ... that I made statements to the effect that I was going to ‘pull the trigger’ on her ‘like I did in Iraq,’ ” LeClair, a U.S. Army reservist during the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, said in 2010.

Later, LeClair said, Stothert “alleged that I stated I would ‘do to her what (I) did in Afghanistan.’ I have never been to Afghanistan.”

After detailing their rocky relationship, Dowd focused on whether it was fair to fire LeClair over an off-duty incident when another Fire Department administrator received a two-day suspension for racially charged behavior.

Dowd pointed out that a Battalion Chief Joe Salcedo received the suspension after he shared Facebook posts comparing President Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement to terrorist organizations. Salcedo was on duty at the time he shared the posts.

“And the only distinction between he and Steve LeClair, at least in terms of their employment, is that he is management and Steve is a labor leader,” Dowd said at the hearing.

He then turned to Stothert’s exchanges with Bacon. The mayor said that she and Bacon are friends and that Bacon had gone around Omaha with her on National Night Out in early August. The next night, at Bacon’s request, she went with him and his wife to a town hall the congressman held in Waterloo. LeClair’s arbitration hearing was set for the following week.

On Aug. 9, Stothert and Bacon spoke by phone.

During questioning, Dowd told the mayor that Bacon “has described the contact as getting heat regarding the letter that he submitted in support of Steve LeClair.”

Stothert: “I would not say that that’s accurate.”

Dowd: “How would you characterize it?”

Stothert: “I was trying to — well, what I did is, tried to educate him because what he told me is that he submitted a character reference letter because Steve LeClair called him and asked him to do so. He had no idea ... where it was going to be used or how it was going to be used.”

Dowd: “So your conversation with seated congressman Don Bacon was that you were educating him, you weren’t putting heat on him?”

Stothert: “No I wasn’t putting heat on him because I told him, I said, ‘This is a termination arbitration.’ And he said, ‘I wasn’t aware of that.’ He said Steve just asked him to write a letter of — a character reference letter for him.”

Dowd showed the mayor a text message that Bacon sent in which he said “the mayor wants me to pull my letter but I won’t.”

Stothert: “That’s not accurate.”

Dowd: “You disagree with what Don Bacon has written in that regard?”

Stothert: “I do ... he said, ‘I’m not going to even be in town, I’m going to be on vacation (during the arbitration hearing) ... And I said to him, ‘I’m not sure you’ll have a choice.’ And he asked the question, he said, ‘Well, I don’t — I don’t know what to do, I’m not going to be there.’ And I said I think the only thing you could do would be to withdraw your letter to avoid the testimony but I didn’t tell him to.”

Dowd: “You just suggested that he do that?”

Stothert: “No I just told him that that would be a way that he would not have to testify because we are — I knew our lawyers were going to subpoena him and if he didn’t have a character reference letter, they weren’t going to subpoena him but I didn’t tell him to pull it at all.”

Stothert wasn’t the only one accused of pressuring LeClair’s supporters.

George Martin III, a Baird Holm attorney hired to represent the mayor, sent Lathrop a subpoena and a letter. The letter characterizes the assault at the bar, Tiger Tom’s. It describes LeClair’s “boorish advances” to a “female, African-American patron.” It goes on to say that after being rebuffed, LeClair struck the woman in the back with enough force to “cause her to fall of her barstool and drop her cell phone.” Martin then writes that LeClair said “White Power! at least once.”

The next line says: “Given the fact that you have backed Mr. LeClair against the City of Omaha despite the behavior that resulted in his discharge, we have subpoenaed you to testify under oath about your relationship with Mr. LeClair and your ongoing support of him.”

Lathrop, a Democrat and personal injury attorney who once edged out Stothert for a state legislative seat, said he knows many attorneys he respects at Baird Holm.

“I’ve never seen anything like (the letter) in my 40 years of practicing law,” he said.

The subpoena from the city was unnecessary, Lathrop said, because he was already scheduled to testify on LeClair’s behalf.

“The subpoena became a vehicle to send the letter,” said Lathrop, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “And the letter was an attempt to intimidate ... as if I’ve never seen a subpoena before.

“It didn’t work. In fact, it turned into a pretty good fizzle.”

Wayne, an attorney since 2005, said he had just planned to write a letter about LeClair’s involvement in his youth mentoring program. Then he got the same letter from Martin warning that he would receive a subpoena “given the fact that you have backed Mr. LeClair against the City of Omaha.”

“I’ve never seen a letter like that before in my life,” Wayne said. “It was extraordinary considering I wasn’t a material witness — I wasn’t there to testify to what happened that night.”

Ashford, another longtime attorney, said lawyer Scott P. Moore of Baird Holm called him twice to suggest that he withdraw his letter of support for LeClair. In one call, Moore asked Ashford if he wanted to see the video from Tiger Tom’s.

Moore also asked him if he really wanted to support LeClair, suggesting that it could harm wife Ann Ferlic Ashford’s run for Congress, Ashford said.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be happening,’ ” Ashford said. “Has the practice of law really gotten to this point in Omaha? I thought the whole thing was inappropriate.”

Martin and Moore did not return phone calls seeking comment.

At the hearing, Martin tried to play the surveillance video of LeClair’s actions so that Ashford could watch it. Dowd objected. The arbitrator, Peggy McNeive of Kansas City, refused the city’s request to play the video.

McNeive noted that Ashford had no knowledge of the Tiger Tom’s incident and was there to simply testify to his general impressions of LeClair, Ashford recalled. Ashford said LeClair had been nothing but professional when he advocated at the Legislature — and had gone to great lengths to increase diversity in the ranks of the Fire Department.

Lathrop said another Baird Holm attorney called him and asked if Martin could discuss his plans to testify. Lathrop declined to take Martin’s call.

While the arbitration hearing was still going on, an attorney for the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter indicating that Bacon would not testify.

Bacon himself sent a text that said: “The House lawyers told me my letter is good and advised I stand by (my) letter and not comply with subpoena. A House member doesn’t have to comply with an Admin subpoena.

“The mayor wants me to pull my letter but I won’t.”

8 local mayors and their salaries

8 local mayors and their salaries

special report
'Fortunate to get him': As his tour of Nebraska nears end, finalist looks likely to land top NU job

Walter “Ted” Carter’s crash course in Nebraska will soon end.

The “priority candidate” — that is, the only finalist — for the University of Nebraska system’s presidency has spent the past couple of weeks touring the state, talking to groups and answering questions.

The decorated naval aviator served for five years as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and one year before that as leader of the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

Carter has a 30-day public review period before the NU Board of Regents decides whether he’s the right man for the job.

He and his wife, one-time substitute teacher Lynda, have been to central Nebraska, eastern Nebraska and southeast Nebraska. They will visit Columbus, Norfolk and Fremont on Monday and Scottsbluff on Tuesday.


Walter "Ted" Carter, then the priority candidate for the NU presidency, speaks during a November forum at the Thompson Alumni Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The visits have had light moments. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Faculty Senate President Kevin Hanrahan asked Carter questions about free expression among professors. And then:

“Do you know Tad Hanrahan?” Hanrahan asked in front of a UNL audience of 150.

“Yes, I do,” Carter said.

“He’s my cousin,” Hanrahan said. He said later that the cousin, Paul “Tad” Hanrahan, attended the Naval Academy at the same time as Carter.

Mainly, the events have featured Carter talking to large public groups without notes. His wife has attended every session.

Through Friday, they had made 18 appearances in communities, most of which included a roughly 50-minute talk by Carter and a 30-minute question-answer session.

Calling Carter, 60, the odds-on favorite to be named NU’s president would be like calling Secretariat a pretty fast horse.

Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln told an audience that it was about to be “wowed” by Ted and Lynda Carter.

Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, who headed the NU presidential advisory committee, said he has watched Carter at many of the appearances. People inevitably are impressed, he said.

Pillen said Friday in Omaha that it’s time to “get this finished.” He said Nebraska is “fortunate to get him.”

“I know how I’m voting,” Pillen said. “And I’m 99.9% sure how everybody else (on the board) will.”

Following are questions and answers culled from three of Carter’s appearances. They are edited and paraphrased. In some cases they are composite answers and comments from more than one session.

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Q: How exhausting is this tour?

A: I’ve run a few marathons. They were easier. My personality is right on the edge of introvert and extrovert. But when I get to talk to people, that’s what gets me excited.

Q: How do you envision diversifying the campuses?

A: Diversity is much more than the color of your skin, much more than your ethnic background. It’s geography, economics, religion, gender, who you love, first-generation college students, language diversity. But it’s really about diversity of thought. I feel we have a mandate — a mandate — to be a cross-section of our nation and of our world. We’re always going to be better when we work in teams where we have diversity of thought.

Q: What do you think about Nebraska’s brain-drain and workforce problems?

A: If we do everything right here, we’ll create a path in which people want to work in Nebraska and stay here. There’s work to be done in creating internships and making sure those business leaders are paying the right wage to attract you and make you want to stay. One slogan that jumped out at me — “Nebraska, it’s not for everyone.” Who came up with that? Nebraska is for everyone.


UNO grad student Hameidah Alsafwani asks Ted Carter a question at UNO’s Thompson Alumni Center. 

Q: How do you describe your leadership style?

A: The leadership trait that I’m still working on is the simple concept of humility. When you go to a place like the Top Gun fighter-jet training school, you think you know everything about everything. As you get older, you realize you don’t know everything. And the sooner you grasp that and become a better listener and collaborator, the better. My leadership style is more of a player-coach style. I believe in the team concept and being humble.

Q: You’ve studied suicide prevention. What have you learned?

A: Early this decade, I led a team looking at suicide and mental health. The Navy, the Army, the Marine Corps — it was a horrible time for suicide. In 1996, the four-star admiral in charge of the Navy took his life. We wrote a 30-page document called “Task Force Resilient.” It’s on the Internet. We learned three things must be present for suicide — a sense of isolation, a loss of self-worth and the ability, the means, to harm yourself. If we get into one of those spaces, we have a chance to change some outcomes.

Q: Isn’t the military all about giving and taking orders?

A: In April 1999, we flew a daytime mission to take out a bridge in Kosovo. I was the strike leader. Seconds before releasing the warheads, I could see it was a traffic jam on the bridge. I transmitted the abort code. I was asked, why, why didn’t you execute? I could have been court-martialed. Then they saw the video. I was neither praised nor court-martialed. Common sense prevailed. I sleep very well at night.

Q: How did you feel when Pillen called you and said you were the priority candidate?

A: I said, “I’m emotional.” I also see there’s opportunity here. As I looked at this job, I felt I had something to contribute.

Photos: Husker mascots, past and present