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'She was killed at the river and dumped there': Opening arguments begin in Joshua Keadle trial

BEATRICE, Neb. — A prosecutor and a defense attorney agreed on one thing Tuesday: Peru State College student Tyler Thomas was never heard from again after a late-night trip to a boat launch on the Missouri River in December 2010.

But they gave jurors wildly different explanations of what happened to the 19-year-old student from Omaha.

Doug Warner of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said that a fellow student who gave her a ride to the river, Joshua Keadle, was responsible for her death.

“She was killed at the river and dumped there,” Warner said.

But Keadle’s court-appointed defense attorney said there could be many other explanations. Thomas, he told jurors, was upset and “falling down drunk” that night, and had been kicked out of a party after getting into an argument with her best friend.

Despite not wearing a coat on the cold December night, Thomas said she was headed home to Omaha “even if I have to walk there,” according to Jeff Pickens of the Nebraska Commission for Public Advocacy.

Thomas also had told two men on social media that she was pregnant with their child, Pickens said. Other Facebook posts said that the pregnancy had ended and that she was engaged.

Thomas, whose body was never found, might have wanted to “voluntarily disappear,” Pickens said, or might have harmed herself. And she might even still be alive, he said.

“We believe the evidence will show that when Mr. Keadle left Tyler Thomas at the river, she was alive,” Pickens said.

The opening statements came at the start of what’s expected to be a three-week trial of Keadle, who was charged with first-degree murder in 2017, seven years after Thomas was last seen.

Keadle, authorities believe, was the last person to see the student, who was captain of a dance team at the southeast Nebraska college.

Warner, the lead prosecutor, told the jury of nine women and three men that initially Keadle had denied picking up Thomas. But four days after she disappeared on Dec. 3, 2010, he changed his story, acknowledging that he had seen her walking near the campus and had driven her to the boat launch, just outside of Peru.

He told authorities that Thomas wanted a ride to Omaha and that he agreed on one condition — sex.

But after Thomas performed a sex act, she became upset and a struggle ensued, according to Keadle. He said he pushed her away, and he eventually drove back to Peru, leaving her behind.

But Warner, during his opening arguments, said drag marks were found on the river bank by investigators, suggesting that something had been dragged or dumped into the river. He also said Keadle had told classmates that he was 23 years old when his actual age was 26.

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Pickens, during his opening arguments, said that there were “bad facts” for prosecutors as well as against his client but that he would “reconcile” those bad facts later in the trial. He said the facts included that Keadle initially had lied to law enforcement and that he had searched the Internet for information about whether fingerprints could be detected on a body recovered from water.

Pickens said his client was concerned he could be held “criminally liable” if Thomas had accidentally died.

When members of Thomas’ family testified Tuesday, the defense attorney repeatedly asked if they had concerns about her mental state, or whether she’d expressed concerns about excessive drinking or any pregnancy.

LaTonya Thomas, her mother, said her daughter had some anger problems in high school, but just before her disappearance, Peru State had approved her request to form a dance team to perform at athletic events.

“She was so proud of that dance team, it was something she had accomplished on her own,” the mother said. “She was so happy.”

Keadle wasn’t charged with murder until 2017 in relation to Thomas’ death, and that came after Attorney General Doug Peterson — who attended a portion of Tuesday’s court proceedings — took office and ordered another look at the case. By then, Keadle was in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teen in Fremont.

Before that, the Thomas family filed a civil lawsuit, claiming that Keadle was responsible for her death. A Nemaha County jury awarded the family members $2.6 billion — a record settlement — even though it’s doubtful they will ever recover anything close to that.

A key witness expected to testify next week in the trial is a former prison cellmate of Keadle’s, who came forward after he was charged with murder to say Keadle had made statements about Thomas’ death and how authorities would never find her body.

Notable crime news of 2020

A year after Iowa introduced medical cannabis, here's how the program is making gains

After a bad workplace accident in 2001, Rick Parham wound up with steel plates and rods in his spine.

He also found himself dealing with ongoing pain, including cramps in his legs that woke him up at night.

A little less than a year ago, Parham turned to a newly opened medical cannabis dispensary on the edge of Council Bluffs. He now uses a combination of cannabis tinctures, creams and vapor to keep himself moving during the day and to get adequate sleep at night. Recently, he’s been putting siding on his home in Pacific Junction, Iowa, which took a hit from flooding last spring.

“I rove around like a 20-year-old,” he said. “Before, I could barely even walk.”

Parham’s story is among many Amber Points has heard since the Have a Heart Compassion Care dispensary opened in December 2018 on the east bank of the Missouri River, one of five authorized in the state as part of a law the Iowa Legislature approved in 2017.

The Council Bluffs dispensary served 39 patients during January 2019, its first month, said Points, shop manager. This December, the count was 128, down from 150 in November, a dip she attributed to snow and cold and the difficulty older customers have in traveling — sometimes as much as an hour or two — to the shop just off Interstate 29.

“We’ve seen a lot of success,” Points said.


Rick Parham of Pacific Junction, Iowa, discusses how he has benefited from CBD oils and creams developed by MedPharm Iowa purchased from Have a Heart Compassion Care, a medical cannabis dispensary in Council Bluffs.

Iowans can’t just walk into a dispensary and purchase the products. Only residents who are certified by an Iowa-licensed physician as having a qualifying condition can apply for a special ID card to purchase the products — capsules, tinctures, vapor and creams with different ratios of cannabidiol, or CBD, to THC.

The Iowa program as a whole has seen gains. An annual report by the Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Board in December tallied $2 million worth of sales statewide during the first year as well as a growing list of physicians — nearly 900 — who have certified at least one patient to participate. The addition of between 300 and 450 new patients a month brought the total to nearly 5,000 certified patients and caregivers. MedPharm Iowa is the state’s main medical cannabis manufacturer. A second manufacturer, Iowa Relief in Cedar Rapids, also has begun producing products.

But some say the program faces too many restrictions, including caps that are difficult to navigate and a limited number of qualifying medical conditions for which Iowans can be certified to purchase products. That, advocates say, limits the number of Iowans who can participate.

“We’ve shown in the first year this can work, this can benefit people,” said Lucas Nelson, MedPharm Iowa’s general manager. “But at the same time, we’ve got to make some improvements if it’s going to last long term.”

Another concern for the budding industry, he said, is the availability of recreational marijuana in Illinois. Iowans, he said, could cross the state’s eastern border as of Jan. 1 and buy products there. While they can’t legally bring them back into Iowa, he believes they’ll take the risk.

Mike McKelvey, chairman of the Iowa cannabidiol board, said the panel takes its mandate seriously and has proceeded cautiously when it comes to recommending new qualifying conditions given a dearth of long-term, peer-reviewed studies about the products’ safety and efficacy. Much of the evidence that has been presented to the board, he said, is based on smaller, shorter studies or anecdotal information.

The main role of the board, composed of physicians and law enforcement, is to make recommendations about program operations, including the addition of new conditions and product makeup.

“There’s a lot of competing agendas here,” said McKelvey, a Mason City police captain, noting that the program still is evolving. The concern that Iowans will bring back product from Illinois, he said, is a “bit of a stretch.”

Iowa’s rules and regulations are among a patchwork that have emerged in recent years as states have pushed ahead to legalize marijuana, first for medical and more recently for recreational use. With marijuana still illegal at the federal level, each state essentially has acted as its own mini-Food and Drug Administration, said Owen Parker, program manager for the Iowa program. He works for the Iowa Department of Public Health, the agency tasked with implementing it.


Amber Points, shop manager for the Have a Heart Compassion Care dispensary, says, “We’ve seen a lot of success.”

Efforts to expand the state’s program are expected to continue in the Iowa Legislature this session.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, a proponent of the program, said the state needs to get rid of some of the “red tape” that makes it difficult for patients to get approved and to get to a place where manufacturers can stay solvent.

He’s said he’s currently working on a proposal to make some of those changes, although he didn’t spell out what they might be.

“We really need to make some pretty dramatic fixes to the Iowa program this year,” he said.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds last year vetoed a bill that would have done away with a 3% cap on THC, the high-inducing chemical compound in marijuana plants, replacing it with a per-person limit of 25 grams per 90 days. The cannabidiol board, however, has recommended a lower cap of 4.5 grams per 90 days.

That’s where the program gets confusing.

Parker, the Iowa program manager, said 4.5 grams over 90 days actually would be less than patients currently can get.

The 3% cap means that products can’t contain more than 3% THC by weight. But that doesn’t limit the amount a manufacturer can put in the product, he said. If a manufacturer produced a 660 milligram capsule, 3% would work out to 20 milligrams of THC. Colorado has a 10 milligram limit on edible products such as gummies.

Removing the cap, Parker said, would make it easier for manufacturers to formulate products and for the state to track how much a patient is purchasing or consuming. It also would bring the state more in line with other states.

Nelson, the MedPharm official, said the 3% cap has kept costs artificially high because of the amount of materials and labor involved to make the products. Testing at the one available lab also is costly.

Both the state and MedPharm continue to educate residents, health care providers and others about the Iowa program.


MedPharm Iowa has developed medical cannabis in pill, cream and liquid form, which is available to Iowa residents from Have a Heart Compassion Care, a medical cannabis dispensary in Council Bluffs.

Nelson said the company has held upward of 125 events in the past year, including tours of its manufacturing plant in Des Moines. “Each one of those helps break down stigma or break down a myth,” he said.

Parker has been making his own presentations, now numbering upward of 60, for health systems, medical schools, pain specialists and others, including a half a dozen or more in Council Bluffs and Omaha.

“I tell them what the program is and what it is not,” he said.

Two large Omaha-area health systems — CHI Health and Methodist Health System — operate hospitals and clinics in western Iowa. When the Iowa program launched last year, officials with the two systems said their policies were to follow federal law when it comes to the practice of medicine. Both said recently that their positions remain unchanged.

Qualifying conditions include untreatable pain, the most commonly cited, as well as multiple sclerosis, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and seizures. Physicians don’t prescribe or recommend the products. Instead, they certify that patients are eligible based on their qualifying medical condition.

In 2019, the Iowa board considered petitions to add 11 new qualifying medical conditions to its list. It recommended five for approval, including chronic pain. The Iowa Board of Medicine, a higher authority, denied two of the five, including chronic pain. The medical board will consider the addition of PTSD and an intellectual disability condition Feb. 7.


Have a Heart Compassion Care, a medical cannabis dispensary in Council Bluffs.

The Iowa cannabidiol board also has recommended a number of other changes. One would change the name of the program to the Iowa medical cannabis program to reflect that the fact that the products contain THC as well as cannabidiol. It also would help head off confusion with the cannabidiol or CBD products sold in health food stores and other outlets, Parker said.

McKelvey, the board chairman, said a federal decision on the regulation of marijuana would be helpful to everyone. Because federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use,” it’s difficult for researchers to conduct studies that would meet scientific standards without running afoul of the law.

The board also has recommended that dispensaries staff pharmacists, as Minnesota and several other states require, to consult with patients. Minnesota also requires patients to provide certain information to participate in its medical marijuana program. Researchers have begun tapping that data to conduct observational studies.

Bolkcom, the Iowa City state representative, said medical cannabis doesn’t help everyone. Nor does every drug help every patient who takes it. But it does help thousands across the country.

“Of course we should have more study,” he said. “Saying there’s not evidence of medical evidence is an excuse for inaction, in my view.”

Parham, the Pacific Junction resident, just hopes no one takes the program away.

“It’s like instant,” he said, “and you can feel relief.”

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha

McConnell: GOP lacks votes toblock witnesses

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans lack the votes to block witnesses at President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded late Tuesday, a potentially major hurdle for Trump's hopes to end the trial with a quick acquittal.

Earlier, Trump's lawyers concluded his defense with a plea to move on.

Even after sitting through days and late nights of argument, several Republicans apparently are ready to join Democrats in considering in-person testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and perhaps others.

Trump's lawyers made their closing case for a speedy acquittal Tuesday, but to no avail.

McConnell told colleagues in a private meeting that he did not yet have the votes to block Democrats from summoning witnesses. That outcome would prolong an election-year trial that Trump and his legal team had hoped was on track, as one lawyer said, to "end now, as soon as possible."

McConnnell's statement, in a closed-door meeting of senators, was an acknowledgment of the extent to which revelations from Bolton have scrambled the trial's schedule and the desire for testimony. Bolton writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion, if true, would undercut a key defense argument and go to the heart of one major article of impeachment against the president.

Trump complained anew at a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, focusing on Democrats rather than Republican senators.

"While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, the congressional Democrats are obsessed with demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades," he said.

There are still several days before any potential witness vote would be taken. A decision to call more witnesses would require 51 votes to pass. With a 53-47 majority, Republicans can afford to lose only three. If senators agree they want more witnesses, they would then have to vote again on whom to call.

McConnell convened the private meeting shortly after Trump's legal team concluded their arguments in the trial, arguing forcefully against the relevance of testimony from Bolton and insisting that nothing Trump had done amounted to an impeachable offense.

While scoffing at Bolton's book manuscript, Trump and the Republicans have strongly resisted summoning him to testify in person about what he saw and heard as Trump's top national security adviser.

A day after the defense team largely brushed past Bolton, attorney Jay Sekulow addressed the controversy head-on by dismissing the book — said to contradict a key defense argument about Trump's dealings with Ukraine — as "inadmissible."

"It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts," Sekulow said.

A night earlier Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz said nothing in the manuscript — even if true — rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Sekulow also sought to undermine the credibility of Bolton's book by noting that Attorney General William Barr has disputed comments attributed to him by Bolton.

Senate Republicans spent considerable time in private discussing how to deal with Bolton's manuscript without extending the proceedings or jeopardizing the president's expected acquittal. Those lost steam, and Democrats showed no interest.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat, called a proposal for senators to be shown the manuscript in private, keeping Bolton out of public testimony, "absurd."

"We're not bargaining with them. We want four witnesses, and four sets of documents, then the truth will come out," he said.

Senators are being warned that if they agree to call Bolton to testify or try to access his book manuscript, the White House will block him, beginning a weeks-long court battle over executive privilege and national security. That had seemed to leave the few senators, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have expressed a desire to hear new testimony without strong backing.

Also, other Republicans including Sen. Pat Toomey want reciprocity — bring in Bolton or another Democratic witness in exchange for one from the GOP side. Some Republicans want to hear from Biden and his son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company when his father was vice president.

The Bidens were a focus of Trump defense arguments though no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged. The lawyers also delved into areas that Democrats see as outside the scope of impeachment, chastising former FBI Director James Comey and seizing on surveillance errors the FBI has acknowledged making in its Russian election interference probe.


Senators can take up to 16 hours over two days asking questions of each side. A vote is likely Friday on whether to hear witnesses in the trial.

Caril Fugate, girlfriend of killer Charlie Starkweather, seeks pardon six decades later

LINCOLN — More than 60 years after she accompanied Charlie Starkweather on one of the nation’s most notorious killing sprees, Caril Ann Fugate is seeking a pardon.

Fugate was 14 when her boyfriend went on a murderous rampage in 1957-58 that left 11 people dead in Nebraska and Wyoming, including her mother, stepfather and baby half-sister. She was convicted of first-degree murder and felony murder in the commission of a robbery. She spent 17 years in prison before being paroled in 1976.

Starkweather, her 19-year-old boyfriend, got the death penalty for what was one of the nation’s first mass killing sprees.

In her application, obtained by The World-Herald, Fugate, now 76 and going by her married name of Caril Ann Clair, indicated that she is seeking peace of mind in her advancing age.

“The idea that posterity has been made to believe that I knew about and/or witnessed the death of my beloved family and left with Starkweather willingly on a murder spree is too much for me to bear anymore,” Fugate wrote. “Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden.”

Her application for a pardon was filed on Aug. 29, 2017, but wasn’t scheduled to be heard by the State Board of Pardons until Feb. 18. The World-Herald sought the application after it appeared on the agenda.

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The Pardons Board, which consists of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen, recently came under fire during a legislative hearing for scheduling only 13 pardons hearings during the past three fiscal years, compared with 345 the previous three years. Critics said it had created a huge backlog of cases, and denied “a fresh start” for offenders who had completed jail or prison terms and gone onto productive lives.

Fugate, in her application, said she had had no other arrests or convictions since the Starkweather spree, and had been employed by a hospital in Lansing, Michigan. She married after moving to Michigan, but indicated that her husband had died. Fugate now lives in Hillsdale, Michigan.

The question of her guilt or innocence in the killing is still debated in Lincoln, where Starkweather and Fugate lived, and where the string of slayings began.

While a pardon would not declare her “innocent,” it would represent a formal forgiveness of her crimes.

“When I was 14 years old, I was abducted and held captive by Charlie Starkweather,” she wrote. “I was terrified and did whatever he wanted me to.”

She said Starkweather told her his gang was holding her family hostage and they would be killed if she tried to escape. Her application said she was present when one of the victims, Robert Jensen of Bennett, was shot, and did hold the money taken from him.

“Starkweather frightened me to death … whatever (he) told me to do I did,” Fugate wrote. “I lived in constant fear for my family’s safety. Because I loved them with all my heart.”


Caril Ann Fugate, second from right, is booked into the Scotts Bluff County Jail in Gering, Nebraska, on Jan. 30, 1958. She was escorted by Hazel Heflin, wife of former Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin of Douglas, Wyoming.

Fugate maintained that she was convicted only because Starkweather “lied” about her involvement after she had sent him a note telling him she didn’t want to see him again. That’s when, she said, he changed his story, and told police that she had shot and murdered some of the victims.

John Stevens Berry, who co-wrote a book about Fugate and is one of the attorneys handling her pardon request, wrote in the application that she was the youngest female ever tried for first-degree murder at the time.

He added that Fugate’s personality disintegrated due to the trauma of the slayings, causing her to have a “blank” expression that people interpreted as “cold.” Since 1958, Berry wrote, much has been learned about juveniles and their lack of ability to comprehend their acts.

The lawyer also questioned the validity of her conviction, criticizing the use of Starkweather as the chief witness and pointing out that one juror, even before Fugate’s trial began, had laid a bet that she would get the electric chair.

Among those submitting letters in support of her pardon was a granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims, C. Lauer and Clara Ward of Lincoln; two of Fugate’s stepsons; a former warden of the Nebraska women’s prison; and a Michigan woman who had hired Fugate as a nanny.

One letter, from a minister in the United Kingdom, asked the board to deny a pardon, saying there was no evidence that she was wrongly convicted.

Notable crime news of 2020