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Morton
Sexual assault allegations could put Hyten's nomination for Joint Chiefs post in peril

WASHINGTON — Nebraskans have come to know Gen. John Hyten as head of U.S. Strategic Command and hailed his nomination earlier this year to the highest levels of military leadership.

But that nomination is now in jeopardy amid allegations that Hyten sexually harassed and assaulted one of his aides while running StratCom, which is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.

The accuser told the Associated Press that Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017. And she says he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.

Her allegations come as the Senate Armed Services Committee is reviewing Hyten’s nomination to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second-highest military position at the Pentagon.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is one member of the committee who has made a point of pressing all nominees about any past misconduct.

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“These kinds of allegations are serious,” Hirono told The World-Herald on Thursday. “I just learned about them yesterday, so I will be reviewing some documents tomorrow before I make a decision.”

An Air Force investigation did not uncover evidence to support the allegations.

“There was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten,” Pentagon spokeswoman Col. DeDe Halfhill said in a statement. “Gen. Hyten cooperated with the investigation. With more than 38 years of service to our Nation, Gen. Hyten has proven himself to be a principled and dedicated patriot.”

And StratCom officials also provided a written statement:

“U.S. Strategic Command fully cooperated with the investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. According to Air Force officials, there was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten.”

But one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject involved personnel matters, said the investigation also found no evidence that the woman was lying.

Armed Services Committee members were briefed this week on the allegations and the results of the Air Force investigation.

Those members include Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who have both worked on legislation to combat sexual assault in the military.

Ernst declined to comment through a spokesman. Fischer declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations but said the Air Force investigation was thorough and resulted in no charges.

“I have had a great working relationship with Gen. Hyten,” she said. “He is a committed, capable man. He has given years of service to this country.”

The woman who made the allegations said she is willing to testify under oath to the committee, preferably in a closed-door session.

She remains in the military but has moved to a different job.

“My life was ruined by this,” she told the AP.

The woman asked to not be identified by name. The AP generally does not identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., previously served on the Armed Services Committee but left the panel in order to join the Intelligence Committee. Sasse said he hadn’t heard of the allegations when asked about them Thursday morning.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have raised questions about whether Hyten received special treatment because of his high rank.

In an interview, Duckworth agreed with Fischer that the Air Force investigation was thorough and professional but questioned why Hyten was allowed to remain in his position in the interim.

Duckworth said other military officials have been removed from duties when facing such allegations.

“I do think that he’s been treated differently than other officers who have had similar allegations,” she said.

Duckworth also said members of the committee need to hear from the accuser before deciding on the nomination.

“When we have issues of sexual assault, especially in the military, that the alleged victim deserves her time to tell her story before we make decisions,” she said.

Duckworth said she has not spoken with the accuser personally but has reviewed her allegations.

“I’ve read all of her allegations, and she’s a very believable witness,” she said.

The accuser began working for Hyten in November 2016, the month he became commander of StratCom.

She said the unwanted sexual contact, kissing and hugging began in early 2017 and recurred several times that year when she was working closely with Hyten. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop.

In December 2017, when they were in California for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, Hyten came into her room wearing workout clothes and hugged her tightly and rubbed up against her, the woman says.

She said she didn’t report the incidents at the time in order to avoid embarrassment and out of fear of retaliation. She was also thinking about retiring and believed that Hyten was as well, so she concluded that he would not pose a risk to any other service members.

She later learned that she was under investigation for what officials said was “toxic” leadership behavior.

That allegation surprised her, she said, because Hyten was familiar with her leadership style and “encouraged” it. He had given her glowing performance reviews, some of which were reviewed by the AP.

“Exceptionally competent and committed leader with the highest level of character,” Hyten wrote, adding that “her ethics are above reproach.”

It remains to be seen whether Hyten will press forward or withdraw his name from consideration.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that senators are still reviewing the information available and that no hearings are scheduled at this time.

Inhofe declined to say how the allegations will affect the nomination but did point to the Air Force investigation.

And while not commenting on the allegations against Hyten, Fischer rejected a suggestion that the four-star general had been handled with kid gloves because of his high rank.

“I specifically asked the question, ‘Was there preferential treatment given to Gen. Hyten at any time during this investigation?’ and there was not,” Fischer said.

This report includes material from the Washington Post and the Associated Press.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

Courts
It's now up to a three-judge panel to decide whether Aubrey Trail gets the death penalty

WILBER, Neb. — Defense attorneys saw little point in having a jury decide whether Aubrey Trail should be eligible for the death penalty after they took less than three hours to convict him of murder.

So on Thursday, Trail waived his right to have a jury decide whether the killing of Sydney Loofe, 24, involved aggravating circumstances that could qualify the case for a death sentence.

“It may have been wasted effort” to argue aggravating circumstances before that group, said Ben Murray, one of two court-appointed attorneys defending Trail.

The waiver leaves Trail’s fate to be decided by a three-judge panel to be appointed by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican.

One of the three judges will be Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson, who presided over the murder trial.

The jury in the case was sequestered overnight at a motel after finding Trail guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder Wednesday in the slaying and dismemberment of Loofe, a Lincoln store clerk.

The jury’s focus on Thursday was to be whether aggravating circumstances — such as the heinous nature of the crime — existed that qualify the case for capital punishment.

But Trail, 52, told the court Thursday that he was waiving his right to have a jury make that decision.

He spoke only briefly to answer questions from Johnson.

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Trail opted to waive that right after seeing how quickly the group of six men and six women reached a guilty verdict in the case, Murray said.

The panel of judges will now decide on aggravating as well as mitigating factors. A hearing on those factors will likely not occur for months, he said.

Loofe’s family members were in court Thursday, as they have been throughout the trial. They appeared relieved to have gotten through this phase of the proceedings. Her father, George Loofe, said he would like to comment but would hold off for now.

“We’re a long ways from done,” he said.

Prosecutors on Thursday removed one alleged aggravator — a claim that Trail had a history of serious assaults. That leaves the allegation that the killing was exceptionally heinous, but Murray questioned the state’s case. He said prosecutors are pointing to things that happened after Loofe was already dead.

“They’re saying it was an exceptionally heinous murder, but what they’re trying to use as evidence is it was an exceptionally heinous dismemberment,” he said.

The saga began, according to prosecutors, when Loofe met someone named “Audrey” on the dating app Tinder. That someone was actually Trail’s girlfriend, Bailey Boswell. Loofe and Boswell set up a date for Nov. 14, 2017, during which they drove around Lincoln and smoked pot.

The next night, they had a second date. But Loofe, a native of Neligh, Nebraska, never came home, and prosecutors maintained that she was a victim of a conspiracy by Trail and Boswell to lure a young woman via social media for torture and death.

There was no sign of Loofe until Dec. 4, 2017. Her remains were found over two days, in 13 pieces wrapped in black plastic bags, along little-traveled gravel roads about an hour west of Wilber.

Defense attorney Joe Murray, Ben’s father, said that Trail accepted the verdict and that he expected that he would be accepting of a death sentence as well, given his serious health problems. Since his arrest, Trail has had a stroke and two heart attacks. He was brought to court in a wheelchair, although he can get around using a walker, Ben Murray said.

“His entire goal has been making clear Bailey (Boswell) had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I think he’s less concerned about himself than he is about her.”

That appeared to be the case when, early in the trial, Trail suddenly shouted out and began slashing at the right side of his neck with a small blade.

“Bailey is innocent, and I curse you all!” he yelled.

Boswell, 25, is also charged with first-degree murder, as well as improper disposal of human remains. She is scheduled to face trial in October, though her attorney has said he is seeking to move the trial out of Saline County because of the heavy publicity of the case. Trail pleaded guilty to improper disposal of human remains before his trial began.

Ben Murray said Trail cut himself with a piece of a razor blade that had been wrapped in an adhesive bandage and stuck in his collar. The Murrays declined to cast blame for allowing Trail access to the blade.

Both attorneys called the throat slashing a pivotal point in the trial and one that jurors would have had a hard time forgetting, even though the judge instructed them to disregard his action.

A 22-year-old juror named Chris, who declined to give his last name, said the cutting was the most memorable and shocking part of the trial. But he said he was able to set that aside when the jury started deliberating.

He said the group was “pretty much on the same page” in reaching a verdict.

He said he was convinced by the amount of evidence and put no stock in Trail’s changing version of events. He said Trail appeared to take the situation as a game, rather than trying to cooperate with law enforcement in solving Loofe’s death.

“I don’t think he has much credibility,” Chris said.

Other jurors left without speaking to reporters, including one man who declined to talk but said he was glad to have the trial over.

Before adjourning the trial and leaving the courtroom, Johnson thanked jurors for their service. She said she would thank each of them individually in the jury room.

Notable crime news of 2019

Hansen
Hansen: It's time for me to say farewell to piecing together stories about the state we love

When I was in the eighth grade, I sewed myself a cape.

Mrs. Bartels had commanded the fine young pupils in her Red Cloud Junior High home economics class to make a sweatshirt, and we scholars dutifully picked our patterns and headed to the sewing machines. I quickly flubbed up my Chicago Bears sweatshirt.

So I decided to freelance. I put my hand in the fabric scrap pile and pulled out a red square. I sewed it to a piece of leftover blue rectangle. I sewed that to a green trapezoid, a yellow triangle, a pink circle.

Soon I proudly wore my new rainbow cape around the classroom, flapping it behind me, marveling at my own brilliance.

Mrs. Bartels was significantly less impressed.

I mention the cape because this cape is what I picture when I think of my career here as a columnist. For almost six years, I have sought out the journalistic equivalent of blue rectangles and green trapezoids. I have tried to tell the stories that weren’t otherwise getting told. Scrap by scrap, I tried to piece together something that I hoped told a bigger story about this city and state we love.

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I bring up the cape because I need to tell you that my sewing job is nearly complete at this newspaper. After 13 years here as a reporter and columnist, my last week is next week. I have taken a new job as a managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

This has zip to do with a recent heart attack I suffered. Yes, you read that right: On July 1, I had a very mild heart attack, maybe caused by a rogue blood clot that snuck in through a tiny hole in my heart. (I had none of the normal signs of a heart attack, like high blood pressure or clogged arteries.) A week later, I’m doing remarkably well, walking every morning and actually working on a column about the episode that you will read soon.

I am very excited for the new gig at the Buffett Institute and will explain why in a few moments. But I’m also sad to say goodbye here, and I want to tell you why right now.

I’m gonna miss the stories. I love stories. I love hearing them, love telling them and considered it a gift every time one fell from Story Heaven and thudded onto my desk. Occasionally, these stories were fun but fleeting, like the one about the 85-year-old outlaw who nearly went to federal prison because he wouldn’t stop growing ... bandit asparagus on federal land.

I loved that story.

But every so often, when I got really lucky, a story mattered long after I wrote it.

In March 2014, an amateur historian named Eric Krelle emailed me to say he had discovered something shocking about one of the most famous photos in American history, the image of six men raising the flag over Iwo Jima. He wanted to show me his research. I agreed, almost canceled, and then reluctantly went to meet him.

Two years later, thanks to Eric’s persistence and my columns, the U.S. Marine Corps officially changed the history of that photo, removing the most famed flag raiser, John Bradley, and inserting a previously completely unknown Marine named Harold Schultz, who seven decades late got the honor he so deserved. The switch is now the focus of a documentary, and I’m still receiving emails from people stumbling onto my original Iwo Jima column for the first time.

That story mattered. It never would have happened without Eric.

In 2016, several employees of Goodwill Omaha came forward to tell reporter Henry Cordes and me about a stunning number of problems festering at the well-known nonprofit.

Those original tips, and months of reporting, led to the ouster of Goodwill Omaha’s entire leadership structure, a turnover of its board, an investigation by the Nebraska attorney general and, I think, a greater recognition in Omaha that running a nonprofit like a good ol’ boy’s network circa 1979 isn’t acceptable today.

That story mattered. It never would have happened without rank-and-file employees who stood up and spoke out.

A caller once left a voicemail suggesting that I look into Seneca, Nebraska, a small town that was in the process of voting itself out of existence.

The resulting column — really, a column about a community and maybe a country tearing itself apart — became one of my best-read columns and the subject of an hourlong “Radiolab” episode on National Public Radio.

A bartender once suggested that I write about a crazy viral photo appearing to show a series of manhole explosions in downtown Omaha. I did — it became a column about the nature of reality in the Internet era — and a few days later my office phone rang, and it was David Carr, a journalism hero of mine, wanting to interview me for his column in the New York Times.

And a mother once sent a desperate email. Her insurance company was throwing up roadblock after roadblock in her quest to get her daughter, Ellie, new teeth. Ellie had been born with enamel hypoplasia, a fancy way of saying she had no enamel on her teeth. Her teeth were chalky, brown, easily broken. But insurance wouldn’t pay to replace them.

I wrote a column. Dozens of people called this newspaper, bemoaning health insurance in America and demanding to donate to get Ellie pearly whites. And then a local dentist called and simply offered to do the procedure himself, free of charge.

That story matters each and every time Ellie Kolesik smiles. It mattered because you decided that it did.

I never would have left this job unless I thought that I could do something else that mattered. I’m going to work for the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska in August, helping to start and run a new online publication devoted to early childhood education and the institute’s cutting-edge work in that field.

The importance of early childhood education has been drilled into my brain since I myself was a preschooler — before her retirement, my mom, Sally Hansen, was a longtime early childhood educator and administrator.

I believe that if there’s one way to make the future of this city, this state, this country better than its present, that one way is greater investment in our youngest minds. And if I can use my storytelling skills to make people see that early childhood education is essential, then yes, I think my new job will matter very much.

That doesn’t make saying goodbye easy, and one reason it’s so hard is you.

The connection between a newspaper columnist and a newspaper’s readers is something I did not fully appreciate until I became that columnist. You called me on the phone with ideas almost every day. You stopped me on the street, in restaurants and coffee shops, to ask: “Hey, have you ever thought about a column on ... ?”

You emailed to praise me, to harangue me, to poke and prod at a column’s conclusions, to ask me questions, to give me answers, to say thank you.

“You are the best thing to happen to Omaha since Orsi’s pizza,” says one email I saved.

“You give new meaning to the term ‘slimy, dirt bag a**hole reporter,’ ” begins a handwritten letter I have tacked to my cubicle wall.

Thank you for all of that. Even the mean stuff.

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You motivated me to keep finding new stories. You reminded me over and over that life here is endlessly fascinating, and all a columnist really needs to do is dip his or her hand into the scrap pile and pull out something suitably revealing.

I’m going to miss writing about this city’s characters, like one of my very first columns focused on the man who long ago got scalped, lived and then donated his own scalp to the Omaha Public Library. I’m going to miss pointing out the city’s and state’s struggles, like Omaha’s lack of transportation foresight or the state’s overreliance on property taxes.

And I’m going to miss sharing it all with you, two or so times a week, this makeshift patchwork of hundreds of happy columns and sad columns and triumphant columns that together made one helluva weird journalistic cape.

I’m proud of that cape. No word on what Mrs. Bartels thinks of it. But, since you all had so much to do with it, I hope you are proud of it, too.

Check out 42 stories that built, defined and characterized Nebraska

Metro
Tick and mosquito numbers are up in Nebraska. Here's how to defend against pesky bugs

There’s no escaping them — unless you want to stay inside all summer, you’re going to have to deal with bugs.

But even that won’t guarantee that you will avoid the pests altogether, urban entomologist Jody Green said.

In just a two-day period earlier this week, Green responded to more than 40 inquiries from the public about bugs. She identified such species as cockroaches, termites, Japanese beetles, carpenter ants, bedbugs, mosquitoes, crickets, stink bugs, drain flies, wasps and butterflies. Even, from a photo, an animal’s insect-filled vomit in a homeowner’s driveway. In it were about 25 cicada nymphs the animal had dug up from the soil.

This summer, Green said, the numbers of ticks, painted lady butterflies and mosquitoes are up, but other than that, the bug population is about normal.

ELSIE STORMBERG/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A Painted Lady Butterfly rests on a Emperor Purple Coneflower at Indian Creek Nursery on Thursday.

Most reports about bug problems are anecdotal, she said. Some people simply spend more time outdoors than others do — camping, hiking, gardening or going to sporting events.

Exposure to pests may depend on location, time of day and, sometimes, just bad luck. A picnic spot might look really inviting until you discover that it’s also a spot where microscopic chiggers are thriving.

Green, an educator with the Lancaster County Extension Service, has worked with the public and responded to calls, emails and tweets for more than three years. That’s four summers of bugs.

Summer is when the number of questions explodes because of temperatures, environmental conditions, insect life cycles, levels of drought and available food resources.

“I imagine entomologists get the same calls each year for their region of people wanting to stop the bugs,’’ Green said. “It’s all about protecting yourself. There is no silver bullet or pesticide that will kill all the things you don’t like bugging you.’’

If you are outside, wear insect repellents to prevent bites from mosquitoes, biting flies and chiggers. Green said humans have to learn how to live with insects because it’s the trade-off for being outside.

“Insects play a very important role in the ecosystem, so we don’t want to kill everything,’’ she said.

The happy insect news this year is about those painted ladies being reported in high numbers. Monarchs also are in flight.

“I hate the chiggers but love the butterflies,’’ Green said.

Here’s how you can manage some of the less desirable insects and arthropods:

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Japanese beetles

Numbers and complaints are down from 2017, when the invasive species hit the area like a tidal wave. But they can still be a problem.

Don’t use the traps unless you want to draw beetles from within a 5-mile radius.

“If you walk outside with one of these open pheromone traps, beetles start hitting you in the head, it’s so attractive to them,’’ Green said.

Organic sprays such as neem oil may provide short-term protection for your plants, but they will need to be applied more than once. And treating the turf for grubs will not stop adult beetles from flying in from elsewhere.

Green’s best advice? Hand-pick the beetles off your favorite plants every night at 7 p.m., then drop them in soapy water.

Mosquitoes

Although numbers are high in some areas of the state, Green said there is no need to panic because the most abundant species are not carrying diseases; they are more of an annoyance.

Green’s best advice for mosquitoes? Dump standing water on your property. West Nile virus becomes a concern in late summer, so get into the habit of wearing EPA-approved repellents (DEET, picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus) when outdoors, especially from dusk until dawn.

JIM KALISCH/UNL DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY 

The number of mosquitoes is up this year and is especially high in some parts of the state. But Jody Green of the Lancaster County Extension Service said the most populous species aren’t carrying diseases. They are just a nuisance.

Gnats

There’s not much you can do to stop them besides dressing appropriately. Wearing long-sleeved pants and shirts will keep them off your skin. If they are biting midges or no-see-ums, repellents should help.

Chiggers

Green said these are the worst. The microscopic, immature mites are not blood feeders but feed on liquefied skin tissue. They locate an area on the skin that is especially tender and warm, usually where clothing is tight — think around the sock line. If you are not wearing socks, they will keep climbing until they find the perfect environment.

Green said people should shower immediately after returning inside and wear pants, tucking the pants into your socks. If it’s too hot, wear repellents.

Ticks

Checking private areas while taking a shower immediately upon returning inside will help prevent illness transmitted by ticks. Ticks like warm areas where the skin is thin, such as behind the ears and knees, armpits and scalp. If you feel a small, hard lump, have someone check it out if it’s hard for you to see. Make sure that you’re treating your pets, too, because they’re much more likely than you to pick up a tick while running through the grass.

If you do find a tick, remove it promptly with pointy tweezers and keep it in a baggie in your freezer in case there are complications from a bite.

Green recommends that people wear repellents and conduct frequent tick checks of yourself, your children and your pets.

Painted lady and monarch butterflies

“Enjoy,’’ Green said.