LINCOLN — In the fall of 2017, a student at Neligh-Oakdale High School contacted an Omaha-based nonprofit about doing a school project on the dangers of online dating and sex trafficking.

The student also asked her school principal if the topic was appropriate, and whether the group, the Set Me Free Project, could do an educational program at the school.

The principal, George Loofe, signed off, even though he said it wasn’t really a problem in that part of rural, northeast Nebraska.

Horribly, Loofe’s daughter, Sydney, a 24-year-old graduate of the school, was lured to her death only a couple of weeks after that exchange. She was victimized, according to authorities, by two people, using the online dating app Tinder.

Stephanie Olson, chief executive officer and president of the Set Me Free Project, relayed the story, saying it illustrates that even a kid from a strong family can fall victim to an online predator, and even in Nebraska.

“I think it’s really important that Sydney’s death is not in vain,” Olson said. “What we’re trying to do is educate kids about how to be safe. There are real predators in the world that are absolutely after no good.”

George Loofe, she said, told her later that “it was something I’d never thought of, and then it was something I thought of daily.”

The trial of the man accused of killing Loofe is set to begin Monday, and testimony could continue for up to four weeks.

Aubrey Trail, 52, whose background includes convictions for forgery, writing bad checks and scamming a Kansas couple out of $400,000, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder. He is also charged with conspiracy to commit murder and improper disposal of human remains.

Also charged is Trail’s girlfriend, Bailey Boswell, 25, a former basketball standout from Leon, Iowa. Her trial is scheduled in October.

Among their activities: posing as rare coin dealers and using websites and documents to fool a Hiawatha, Kansas, couple into financing the purchase of a nonexistent gold coin. The pair also posed as high rollers at a Pennsylvania antique auction. So convincing was their act that the auctioneer took their check, which bounced.

Trail, in phone calls to reporters, has claimed that he alone was responsible for Loofe’s death and that he deserved the death penalty. But he maintained that it was an accidental death — strangulation, during a sexual fantasy — and not premeditated.

But the charges filed by prosecutors allege something even more sinister: that he had conspired for months with Boswell to solicit “young females through social networking” sites with the purpose of murdering them.

More than 40 witnesses, including other young women who spent time with Trail and Boswell, have been called to testify. About 300 Saline County residents have been called as potential jurors, a number so large that jury selection is being held in a Wilber veterans hall large enough to accommodate the crowd.

George Loofe, who retired a year ago as high school principal, and his wife, Susie, an elementary teacher in Neligh, have rarely talked about the case and declined to comment for this story. Others in the community also didn’t want to comment publicly.

“Everybody is still very aware of it, and they’re very protective of the Loofes,” said Carrie Pitzer, publisher of the Antelope County News.

But people who know them say that losing their youngest daughter in such a heinous way has been devastating.

“She was looking for that one special person with whom she could spend time,” her parents wrote in a Facebook post months ago. “She took to Tinder to look for that person and, unfortunately, found someone that had nothing but evil plans for her.”

In a story that the parents helped write for the Set Me Free Project website, Sydney was described as an “incredibly inquisitive child” who discovered, at age 3, that your tongue really can stick to a frost-covered water pump in the backyard. She also once saved her older sister, MacKenzie, from choking on a jawbreaker, using the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the candy.

She loved animals and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. But college proved difficult for her right out of high school, so she “found a career, and a circle of friends,” while working at the Menards store on North 27th Street in Lincoln.

Co-workers there described her as caring and trustworthy, a person who allowed a down-on-their-luck acquaintance to live at her duplex while paying off debts.

The Loofes have expressed public appreciation for the outpouring of support. Hundreds of people distributed posters and tied green ribbons — representing a missing child — and posted photographs on social media after Sydney was reported missing on Nov. 16, 2017.

More than 120 people attended a candlelight vigil for Sydney in Lincoln. After her body was found, mourners filled a Lutheran church in Neligh for her funeral.

The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska also reached out to the family. The tribe has historical ties to the community of Neligh. During the tribe’s forced relocation from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1877, a young girl, White Buffalo Girl, died during the long walk called the “Trail of Tears.” Townspeople arranged for a Christian burial and have faithfully maintained the girl’s grave, fulfilling a promise to the tribe.

Candace Schmidt, secretary of the Ponca Tribal Council, said she was moved to do something after Sydney’s death. Last year, a memorial bench was installed in Loofe’s honor in a Neligh park, at a favorite fishing spot along the Elkhorn River. Coincidentally, the date chosen for the dedication was May 23, the same day that White Buffalo Girl had died more than a century earlier.

“This was an overwhelming and unplanned discovery that gave the whole event a full-circle effect, resulting in goosebumps,” Schmidt said.

Loofe’s co-workers at Menards raised $2,500 to dedicate a bench for Sydney at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, one of her favorite spots. Memorials given to the family funded two other benches.

And the Set Me Free Project, which was drawn into Loofe’s story by chance, established a college scholarship in her name. Donations came in higher than expected, and the first scholarship, worth $3,000, was awarded last month to a Sutton, Nebraska, student who hopes to study criminal justice and look at the root causes of human trafficking.

A month after Sydney Loofe’s body was found in December 2017, Olson, the Set Me Free Project’s CEO and president, spoke with students and community members at the Neligh-Oakdale school.

Human trafficking and online predators are real, Olson told the crowd in Neligh. It’s a message that she has delivered at dozens of other schools. “And it’s not what you think it looks like.”

Sydney Loofe was not your typical target, she said, because she came from a close-knit, well-connected family. But the world is different today, Olson said. Young people are accustomed to connecting with people online.

“We tell kids that (social media) is not where you meet people,” she said. “You should only connect with the people you know and you trust.”

Yet online dating is designed to meet up with people you do not know. Olson’s organization has several suggestions, including never meeting an online date alone.

She said the goal of the Set Me Free Project is education and to prevent someone else from becoming a victim of a trafficker or of an online predator.

“We want to make (Sydney’s) legacy something positive, about safety and protection for youth,” Olson said.

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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