Aubrey Trail in court

Aubrey Trail used a wheelchair at his plea hearing Monday in Saline County District Court.

WILBER, Nebraska — Lawyers began the laborious process Monday of picking a jury for the expected three-week trial of Aubrey Trail, who is accused of the slaying and dismemberment of a Lincoln store clerk in November 2017.

Just before the start of the jury selection process, Trail, a 52-year-old ex-convict, pleaded guilty to one of three charges he faced in the slaying of Sydney Loofe — improper disposal of human remains.

It was a strategic move by his defense team in the hopes of avoiding jurors’ being shown autopsy photos of Loofe, whose body, authorities say, was dismembered and deposited in plastic bags found three weeks after her disappearance. The body was found in farm fields near Edgar, Nebraska, which is about an hour’s drive west of Wilber, a Czech farming community where the slaying allegedly occurred.

Trail has pleaded not guilty to two other charges: first-degree murder, which carries the possibility of the death penalty, and conspiracy to commit murder.

Prosecutors alleged that Trail conspired for several months with his girlfriend, Bailey Boswell, to lure young women via the Internet for the purpose of homicide. Trail, meanwhile, has maintained that Loofe was killed accidentally and that Boswell was not present. Boswell, now 25, faces trial in October on charges of first-degree murder and improper disposal of human remains. She, too, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted on the murder charge.

The pool of potential jurors was initially 300. The number was so large because of the extensive publicity surrounding the case and the possibility of jurors knowing someone involved in the case.

A few of the 197 potential jurors called for the trial Monday said they’ve already made up their minds.

“I think he’s a piece of crap. He’s trying to get out of the death penalty and trying to get sympathy with his claims that he’s had two heart attacks and a stroke,” said one, a 50-year-old woman from Crete who agreed to speak only if identified by her first name, Laura.

Laura was among six potential jurors dismissed Monday morning after telling the lawyers and District Judge Vicky Johnson that she could not be impartial. Laura said she had followed the case closely in the news media and was appalled at what was done to Loofe.

“I think she was prey for them,” said Laura, who has a daughter who is 26, two years older than Loofe.

As Laura talked to a reporter, another potential juror who had just been dismissed walked up, crying. “I’m an emotional person,” she said.

Forty-five jurors, whose names were drawn out of a box like one used in bingo games, were initially called for questioning by the judge and the attorneys. All were identified by numbers instead of their names.

The jury selection was moved from the courthouse to the Wilber American Legion Hall to accommodate the large number of potential jurors. It is expected to continue into Tuesday before a jury of 12, and three alternates, is selected. Opening statements in the trial are anticipated on Wednesday morning.

Trail was wheeled Monday into the courtroom and Legion Hall in a wheelchair. He has suffered a stroke and two heart attacks since his arrest, and has been housed at a state prison in Lincoln, rather than the Saline County Jail, because the prison has nursing home-style beds for aged and infirm inmates. Saline County Sheriff Alan Moore declined to comment on where Trail will be housed for the trial.

Trail answered with a solid “I do” when asked by the judge if he understood the consequences of changing his plea from not guilty to guilty to the charge of improper disposal of human remains.

The charge he pleaded guilty to Monday morning is punishable by up to two years in prison. That is much less than the life in prison or death sentence he faces if convicted of first-degree murder. But his plea change Monday will shorten the murder trial and could mean that some grisly photos would not be shown to jurors who will be deciding whether Loofe’s slaying was premeditated or accidental.

Loofe, 24, disappeared on Nov. 16, 2017, after arranging a date via Tinder with Boswell. Trail and Boswell shared an apartment in Wilber and had participated in scams involving antiques and rare coins before they were arrested in connection with Loofe’s death.

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The FBI joined the search for Loofe after she failed to show up for work at a Lincoln Menards store. Trail and Boswell were quickly identified as “persons of interest”; they posted a video on social media claiming their innocence.

Trail, in later phone calls with reporters, had claimed that he was responsible for killing Loofe, saying it was an accidental strangling during a sexual role-playing fantasy and not a premeditated slaying.

He has told The World-Herald that he deserves to die for what he did but that Boswell should not face the death penalty.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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