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Scooters unlikely to return to Omaha this year as City Council votes 4-3 against agreements

Electric scooters probably aren’t coming back to Omaha this year.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 4-3 against operating agreements with Spin and Bird, the two companies that submitted proposals to serve Omaha during a second pilot program this summer and fall.

Had those agreements passed, the first fleet of scooters could have been reintroduced as early as next Wednesday. That’s the day a previously passed ordinance on rules for riding scooters goes into effect. The pilot was expected to end in November.

But some council members had concerns about rider safety, the possibility of spreading the coronavirus and whether the city’s infrastructure can safely support riders.

Council President Chris Jerram — whose district covers much of downtown and midtown, areas that saw heavy scooter use last year — said he heard from many business owners who found the scooters to be a nuisance when they were parked outside shops or speeding by their front doors on sidewalks, which wasn’t allowed.

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Jerram said the city’s recently passed ordinance on scooter rules is “woefully inadequate” because it does not mandate helmet use. He also questioned whether Omaha police officers should be spending their time enforcing scooter rules.

“I can go on and on and on, but I just don’t think … (this) is where our focus needs to be,” Jerram said. “Our focus needs to be on greater community needs.”

His arguments were apparently enough to persuade Councilman Ben Gray, who said he decided to vote no after listening to Jerram speak. Earlier in the meeting, Gray, who represents parts of North Omaha, had said he wanted to see more scooters in that part of the city.

Councilmen Rich Pahls and Vinny Palermo joined Jerram and Gray in voting no. Council members Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton and Pete Festersen voted yes.

In an interview after the vote, Mayor Jean Stothert said she plans to let the council’s decision stand. Stothert said she shared some of the concerns brought up Tuesday, echoing one of Jerram’s: that the city lacks adequate infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, to shield riders from cars.

“I’m not saying no to the possibility of bringing the scooters back for a second pilot at another time, but right now is not the right time,” Stothert said.

Scooters were introduced to Omaha during a six-month pilot program that began in May 2019.

City employees and representatives of Spin and Bird spent much of Tuesday fielding council questions about the specifics of the pilot program, including how scooters would have been prevented from going to off-limits areas of the city.

Melton said she was supportive partly because the city would have had more control over this pilot program compared with the one last year.

In addressing concerns about the coronavirus, representatives from both companies said scooters would be collected and sanitized at the end of each day.

“We have robust sanitation protocols in place,” said Frank Speek, a Spin employee.

Spin and Bird also offer free helmets to riders and educational events and campaigns about safe riding practices, among other safety incentives.

No city ordinance prevents the companies from bringing scooters to Omaha without explicit approval, but that’s unlikely to happen, Stothert said. Spin, for example, doesn’t launch its services without permission from the cities it serves, a spokesperson told The World-Herald.

In advocating for the pilot program, Keegan Korf, coordinator of Metro Smart Cities — an initiative that uses technology to solve transportation problems — said scooters are one part of what should be a broader effort to diversify nonvehicular transit options in the city.

Scooters, she said, are a safe, environmentally friendly way for people to move around the urban core.

“We remain committed to working toward a transportation system benefiting a vibrant and inclusive, equitable and sustainable city,” Korf said in a statement after the vote.


Our best staff images from June 2020

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Livewellnebraska
Investors sue company that provides COVID-19 tests for TestNebraska

LINCOLN — The Utah company that provides the COVID-19 tests used by the TestNebraska and TestIowa programs has been sued in federal court, accused of pumping up its stock price through misleading claims about the “100%” accuracy of its test.

The alleged “pump and dump” scheme by Co-Diagnostics Inc. of Salt Lake City cost investors millions of dollars, according to the lawsuit, filed by Cayman Islands-based Gelt Trading Inc.

The investment firm alleged that Co-Diagnostics executives misrepresented their Logix COVID-19 test as being “100% accurate.” That claim, the lawsuit alleges, was later proven to be false but only after Co-Diagnostics stock rocketed to a high of $23.42 a share on May 13.

“This was quite an accomplishment for a company that was at risk of being delisted from the (stock) exchange on New Year’s Day 2020, when it was trading at $.91 and was worth less than $25 million,” the lawsuit stated.

Company directors, officers and scientists “made continual, knowing and willful misstatements” about their COVID-19 test to inflate the Co-Diagnostics’ stock price, with company officers and directors “poised to make a fortune,” read the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Utah.

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“Their fraudulent misstatements, and disregard for the basic scientific principles that make their falsity of their statements clear in retrospect,” caused investors to lose millions of dollars, Gelt Trading Inc. alleged.

A spokeswoman for Co-Diagnostics said Thursday the company would vigorously defend itself in court.

“Co-Diagnostics stands behind the quality of our technology platform and performance of our testing products,” said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Webb.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said he does not comment on pending lawsuits.

The governor signed a $27 million, no-bid contract with Co-Diagnostics and three other Utah high-tech firms in late April to provide COVID-19 testing equipment and supplies for the State of Nebraska.

That came after Co-Diagnostics had won emergency approval from the FDA on April 6 for its COVID-19 test and launched a testing program called TestUtah in that state. Similar programs in Iowa and Nebraska then followed, and a TestTennessee program was launched later.

So far, TestNebraska has failed to meet its goal of providing 3,000 tests per day, logging about 1,600 a day in recent days. But Ricketts has steadfastly defended the program as accomplishing its main goal — to increase COVID-19 testing in the state — while stating that there were few other options to do that when he signed the contract.

Some state lawmakers expressed concern after The World-Herald reported that the Utah companies had filed Internet domain names in nearly every U.S. state and some Canadian provinces in order to market its tests. It appeared, they said, that the Utah group was seeking to cash in on a crisis, which was denied by the Utah companies.

The lawsuit claimed that Co-Diagnostics had a “market first” mentality in developing its COVID-19 test and used the “100%” accuracy claim to differentiate itself from rival firms whose tests might not be 100% accurate.

Nebraska officials have said the Nebraska Public Health Lab has validated the TestNebraska tests with a population-based sensitivity rate of 95% and a diagnostic specificity rate of 94%. On Monday, Ricketts again defended the reliability of TestNebraska testing amid questions raised by an article in the New Yorker magazine.

In the lawsuit, Gelt Trading says the accuracy claims by Co-Diagnostics were based on a small sample size, and even if the tests were 98% reliable, several people would test “negative” for COVID-19 when they are actually infected, and several others could test “positive” when they are not infected. The lawsuit maintains that the 100% claim has been refuted by both independent assessments and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Gelt Trading alleges that falsehoods about test accuracy helped drive Co-Diagnostics’ stock value to record-high prices before a “momentous” drop in mid-May after the company became evasive about the accuracy of its tests.

Co-Diagnostics stock closed at $16.69 on Tuesday.

The lawsuit says Gelt Trading and other investors paid artificially inflated prices for Co-Diagnostics stock and might not have purchased if they had been aware that the stock price had been “artificially and falsely inflated” by the claims.


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Democrats ask Chris Janicek to quit Senate race after 'sexually inappropriate' text messages

Nebraska Democrats are asking their U.S. Senate candidate to quit the race after he sent staffers text messages that the state party described as “sexually inappropriate.”

Omaha baker Chris Janicek sent a group message June 4 to at least five people, including a female staff member who subsequently filed a complaint with the Nebraska Democratic Party. His text said they needed to “get her laid,” referring to the female staffer, who has since quit the campaign.

Janicek has apologized and said he’s staying in the race.

“This is a moment in time where I made a terrible mistake in a text message,” he said.

The World-Herald obtained copies of the text messages. Janicek’s texts described lining up multiple partners for group sex with the staffer and suggested that the “three guys” could be paid.

“Thoughts?!money” he wrote.

Janicek said that his texts did not come out of the blue, that his messages reflected the tone of an earlier office conversation he overheard. A lawyer for the female staffer said no such conversation involving her occurred.

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The state Democratic Party issued a press release Tuesday announcing that party officers had asked Janicek to withdraw from the race last week, once the texts were brought to their attention. On Monday, he declined.

That’s when the party went public in pressing him to withdraw from the race.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the state party would provide no support to Janicek’s campaign and neither would the national party. Janicek is running this fall against GOP Sen. Ben Sasse.

“Our Democratic Party has no tolerance for sexual harassment,” Kleeb said.

The Sasse campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scott Howitt, Janicek’s spokesman, said that the comments were indefensible and inappropriate and that Janicek said so within six minutes of sending the texts. He said the campaign has owned the mistake and learned from it.

Janicek also apologized in a text to the group: “I hope everyone understands, including you … that this is a joke … I’m going on no sleep and a bunch of exuberant excitement and I think I was out of line now that I read my text back I apologize.”

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Janicek said that he apologized to the staffer at her home and that she accepted the apology. But the lawyer handling her complaint, Democratic Party activist Vince Powers, said she did not accept his apology and still wants him out of the race.

“Anyone who reads the text knows that Janicek should not be a candidate for high office,” said Powers, who said the staffer does not want to speak publicly. “My client has done nothing wrong, and by prolonging the inevitable he’s only made it worse.”

Omaha-area House candidate Kara Eastman was one of many Democrats calling on Janicek to drop out, saying she was “repulsed” by the statements. Her political consulting firm, Kara Eastman Partners, had worked with Janicek’s campaign into mid-2019.

Janicek has until Sept. 1 to file paperwork with the Nebraska secretary of state to withdraw from the race. The party could replace him if he resigns before that date.

Janicek said he will not step aside. He said state party leaders have opposed his candidacy from the beginning, in part because he is a conservative Democrat who values gun rights and is personally against abortion, though he supports a woman’s right to choose.

Another factor: He said he told Kleeb he might run against her for state party leadership in 2018.

State party officials have denied any bias against him and said they want a standard-bearer who treats men and women “with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Janicek, who owns Cupcake Omaha, was the most experienced candidate in this May’s seven-way Democratic primary for Senate. He had finished second to Lincoln grocer Jane Raybould in the party’s 2018 Senate primary. He has made frequent appearances over the years on local talk radio.

Janicek won the 2020 primary with 43,212 votes. His next two closest competitors were community organizer Angie Philips, who received 33,475 votes, and mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton, with 31,516 votes.

Philips, reached by text message on Tuesday, said she and her campaign were discussing with Shelton the best way “for our community to move forward right now and how we can be part of the solution, together.”

“Nebraska will have a strong woman candidate to vote for to represent Nebraska in the United States Senate,” she wrote. “Because that’s what Nebraska deserves and that’s what girls do.”

Shelton said Tuesday that she was “deeply disturbed that this brave individual experienced sexual harassment in that manner.” She said she is a sexual assault survivor.

Shelton said she was “prepared to run as a write-in candidate against Chris Janicek with the support of Angie Philips.” But state law appears to prevent candidates who lose a party primary from filing as a write-in candidate unless the winner leaves the race.

If Janicek stays in the race, party insiders say at least one Democrat could enter the race as write-in candidate and secure the party’s backing.

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'Every day is the 17th for us': Families face 1st anniversary of crash that killed 4 Gretna girls

Together, they will take a deep breath and make it through the first anniversary of their daughters’ death.

Together, they are committed to keeping their memories alive, through scholarships and memorials and funny little stories about the time Kloe did this or Alex said that.

Together, they got tattoos on their hands, four small hearts to represent the four best friends.

The mothers of the four Gretna teenagers killed in a late-night car crash one year ago — Abigail Barth, 16; Kloe Odermatt, 16; Addisyn Pfeifer, 16; and Alex Minardi, 15 — have formed their own tight-knit support group, forged out of tragedy, grief and the shared experience of suddenly losing a child.

“It’s obviously terribly unfortunate to have this kind of group,” said Wendy Pfeifer, Addisyn’s mother. “It’s easier than doing it alone, I’d say.”

They knew each other before, but now they text, plan decorations for the girls’ roadside memorial at holidays and invite one another to family birthday parties.

“We’ve bonded much more as friends, through the loss of the girls,” said Amy Barth, Abby’s mom.

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

From left, Tonja Minardi, Julie Odermatt, Wendy Pfeifer and Amy Barth at the Heartfelt Children’s Memorial in Seward, Nebraska. An engraved brick at the memorial honors their four daughters, who were killed in a June 17, 2019, car crash that also severely injured a fifth girl.

During this difficult milestone, Pfeifer, Barth, Tonja Minardi and Julie Odermatt are choosing to focus on the symbols, ceremonies and memories that bring them peace and remind them of their daughters.

A butterfly statue has been placed at Gretna High. The girls’ families and friends will meet up for lunch at Spikers Sports & Spirits in Gretna on Wednesday. There are volleyball courts there — the girls always kept a spare volleyball on hand for spontaneous games.

They’ll release white balloons Wednesday evening at Water’s Edge Church, and some or all of the families may visit the scene of the crash, marked by crosses and other mementos. A “Fore the 4” golf tournament will be held Friday at Tiburon Golf Club to raise money for scholarships in the girls’ names.

“We’re trying to work through all these firsts,” Pfeifer said. “It’s just hard. You have all those firsts with your kids, and you’re trying to figure out how to go through your first without them. The community events, the memorial stuff, the support of other people makes it feel like people are still thinking of them.”

The four girls — all soon-to-be juniors at Gretna High — were inseparable. With their friend Roan Brandon, 15, they met up the night of June 17, 2019, in the parking lot at the high school — a popular hangout spot for bored teens — and took off in Barth’s Ford Fusion, with her driving.

They sped down Platteview Road, reaching speeds of 90 mph, before crashing just west of 180th Street after 11 p.m. The car barreled into a ravine and caught fire. It was later discovered that all the girls but one had alcohol in their systems.

The four girls died. Brandon survived, suffering burns and a broken collarbone that required a weeks-long stay in the hospital.

The families still see Roan Brandon periodically, Amy Barth said.

“We all love Roan, and she still loves our girls,” she said. “Roan had a lot of hard healing to do this year, physically and emotionally.”

Mike Brandon, Roan’s father, declined to comment for this story.

TONJA MINARDI 

Alex Minardi, center, poses with her best friends. Alex, along with Abby Barth, Addisyn Pfeifer and Kloe Odermatt, were killed in a June 17, 2019, car crash in Sarpy County. Roan Brandon, left, was injured in the crash. The five girls were inseparable, according to their families.

Hundreds attended memorial services and grieved alongside the families, but there were few neat conclusions to the investigation into what happened that night.

The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office urged anyone who knew how the girls obtained alcohol to step forward and promised reward money for tips. Still, there have been no arrests.

The case remains open, but authorities say they need more information in order to hold someone responsible.

“As time goes on, it’s looking less likely that there’s going to be a person coming forward,” said Chief Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Bonnie Moore.

In the first six months since the crash, the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office combed through nearly 100 tips, served 22 search warrants and conducted 40 interviews, Sheriff Jeff Davis said at a press conference in December.

But since January, the sole investigator on the case hasn’t received any new leads, said Chief Deputy Greg London.

Authorities did identify two people of interest but don’t have probable cause to arrest or ticket them.

“It would be nice if someone picked up the phone and gave us a lead or two,” London said. “It sure would be helpful if the public finally came forward and said, ‘Yes, this is what happened.’ ”

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Amy Barth at the Heartfelt Children’s Memorial in Seward, Nebraska. The brick she's touching honors the memories of her daughter Abby, and Alex Minardi, Kloe Odermatt and Addisyn Pfeifer.

Officials confirmed that the five girls did not attend a large party in the area that night, and they believe another person gave the girls the alcohol — the girls didn’t steal it, purchase it or take it from family members.

London said he recognizes that some have called for the investigation to end, to let the families grieve and to not punish anyone else.

“We have four dead high school girls. We would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t investigate and follow up,” he said. “This is a major incident that happened in the county, and we have an obligation to investigate and try to prevent another incident like this.”

The families would like to know too, said Tonja Minardi, Alex’s mom.

“We had all hoped the results would have been different,” she said. “At this point, we’re just trying to focus on the memorials and things to remember our girls.”

Julie Odermatt, Kloe’s mother, said her anxiety was ramping up as the anniversary approached. She keeps reliving her last moments with Kloe, when the two met up at a cheer gym so Kloe, a dedicated cheerleader, could get measured for her uniform.

As Kloe prepared to head out for a sleepover with her friends, Julie Odermatt told her daughter she loved her.

“That makes me feel good,” she said.

The first birthdays and holidays without the girls have been hard, but Tonja Minardi said it’s not just the special events. Every day is a reminder of what they’ve lost — four lively girls who cheered and danced and played soccer and teased their siblings and had bright lives ahead of them.

“Every day is the 17th for us,” she said. “It’s definitely hard on those moments, a birthday or holiday, but it’s just as hard on the 15th or the 2nd or the 1st when we don’t have a child to wake up and tell them to do chores. … We are engulfed in grief, daily.”

Family members, including the girls’ siblings, handle their emotions differently, they said.

Wendy Pfeifer said her 11-year-old son froze at school during an innocent prompt from a teacher — oldest siblings stand on this side of the room, youngest children over here. With Addisyn gone, was he now the oldest child? Still in the middle?

“It’s the random things that pop up for them, the unknowns, how to answer questions,” she said.

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

From left, Wendy Pfeifer, Tonja Minardi, Amy Barth and Julie Odermatt take photos at the Heartfelt Children’s Memorial in Seward, Nebraska, on Friday.

People often say and imagine that losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a person — and it is, Barth said. But there’s also comfort in sharing memories.

Some people tiptoe around them, afraid of saying the wrong thing or bringing up an upsetting subject.

But the four said they love to talk about their girls to anyone who will listen.

“You also need to find time to connect with your child’s spirit in heaven and find time to honor their memories, and honor their lives,” Amy Barth said. “Having each other and such a supportive community helps us do more than grieve.”

“We’ve already experienced the saddest thing in the world,” Julie Odermatt said — she can handle being asked about her daughter, or how the family is coping.

The Gretna school district has been gracious, they all said. The district allowed moments of silence before the first football game last fall, for example, but a long-standing school board policy doesn’t allow memorial plaques, busts or photos on school grounds for staff members or students who die.

“The sculpture we have at school, the butterfly, it doesn’t have their names on it,” Julie Odermatt said. “That doesn’t matter — we all know who it’s for.”

Counselors will be available at Gretna High School on Wednesday to speak with students who may be struggling with the anniversary. Principal Todd Mueller said that despite the tragedy and shock of the girls’ deaths, it has been heartening to see how the school and the community responded over the past year.

“I was pretty impressed with how the community rallied around the kids and the families,” Mueller said.

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Julie Odermatt gets a tattoo from Jay Kells as Tonja Minardi, Amy Barth and Wendy Pfeifer watch at Artists Unbound in Omaha.

Last Friday, the group bound together by loss and their daughters’ friendships did one more thing together.

The women got new, tiny remembrances — heart tattoos.

Each mother has four hearts on her hand, drawn in each girl’s signature color — green for Addisyn, blue for Kloe, yellow for Alex and orange for Abby. The heart for each mother’s own daughter is filled in.

Their grief is collective, and so is their love for each of the four girls who died that night.

“We feel very strongly about keeping our girls remembered together, as they lived so strongly together,” Tonja Minardi said. “It’s not a coincidence those four girls were together that night. They were pretty much together all night and all day.”

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.

Photos: Fatal Sarpy County crash; memorials set up at Gretna High School