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Jeremiah Connelly’s 1987 Chevrolet van. Prosecutors say Connelly raped and killed Jeanna Wilcoxen, 22, in the van in September 2018, three months after the Nebraska Parole Board decided to release Connelly from prison.

Jeremiah Connelly couldn’t wait to cough it up.

After eating at Village Inn near 90th Street and Maplewood Boulevard, he walked across the street to the Jensen Tire store.

There, he found a car with keys still in it.

He stole the car and peeled out across two lanes of 90th Street.

Traveling south on 90th, just behind Connelly, Omaha Police Officer Kirk Weidner and his partner watched Connelly run a red light and pulled him over.

Connelly ditched the car and ran. After a short chase, Omaha police apprehended him. As they waited in the Central Police Headquarters lobby for an interview room to open up, Weidner said, Connelly was jumpy and mouthy.

“You guys are worried about this petty-ass auto theft when you should be worried about someone’s life,” he blurted, according to Weidner.

Weidner had no idea what he was talking about. The woman Connelly mentioned hadn’t been reported missing. Jeanna Wilcoxen was a 22-year-old single mom who was struggling and was known to leave home and return days later, prosecutor Cody Miltenberger told a jury Thursday.

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Authorities have said Wilcoxen struggled with drug addiction.

Officers thought Connelly was delusional — something Connelly’s defense attorneys seized on in the opening statements of Connelly’s first-degree murder trial. One officer described Connelly’s tale as a “fantasy — not real,” said Leslie Cavanaugh, an assistant Douglas County public defender.

Cavanaugh told jurors that they can’t rely on the “fantasy” of a sleep-deprived, stressed-out defendant. Prosecutors must bolster any story with evidence.

Miltenberger said the state will do just that. After their initial disbelief, Miltenberger said, Omaha police would find that Connelly’s statement wasn’t far-fetched at all.

Connelly led them to a grassy area near Ridge Road and County Road T in Fremont. There, police made a sobering discovery: the decomposing body of Wilcoxen, her head and face wrapped with duct tape.

Connelly told police in “his own words ... that he made the executive decision to kill her,” Miltenberger told jurors. “Not only will witness testimony, the police investigation, the physical evidence tell you that he’s guilty, but Mr. Connelly’s own words will tell you.”

Miltenberger and fellow prosecutor Molly Keane will share those words throughout the course of the trial, which is expected to spill into next week. Jurors will be asked whether Connelly, 40, is guilty of first-degree murder and evidence tampering.

What the jury won’t consider: why the Nebraska Parole Board paroled Connelly in June 2018, six months before his mandatory release date. Connelly had served 12 years after being convicted of attempted kidnapping and second-degree assault in connection with a crime spree that included an attempt to lure a female jogger into his car.

The Parole Board voted 3-1 to let him out of prison, even though he had not completed a violence-reduction program the Parole Board had wanted him to take. The chairwoman of the board, who did not attend the hearing, had put a note in his file saying Connelly would not be a good candidate for parole.

Three months into his parole — about this time last year — Connelly had dropped out of mechanics courses and was roaming the streets, often sleeping under bridges.

He first saw Wilcoxen at a laundromat near Christie Heights Park, near 36th and Q Streets. Miltenberger said she would do a load of laundry and, while she waited, would swing on the playground.

Driving his van, Connelly called out to Wilcoxen but didn’t get a response. So he parked his van, went up to her and started talking about the weather. They hung out at the laundromat and talked from late Sept. 15, 2018, into early Sept. 16, 2018.

Wilcoxen disclosed that she lived with an older man in apartments near the park. Connelly then made it his “crusade” to get her away from the older man, Miltenberger said.

Wilcoxen apparently agreed that she would move in with Connelly, then quickly changed her mind.

Rebuffed, Connelly told police that he told Wilcoxen “that’s fine” and went to his nearby home on the evening of Sept. 16.

He didn’t stay long. While there, Miltenberger said, he changed from his white T-shirt into a black one. He grabbed what he called his “kidnapper’s kit” — black duct tape, a breaker bar, energy drinks.

He parked his van around the block and sneaked through the park to find Wilcoxen on the swings.

“He comes out of the shadows with the breaker bar in hand,” Miltenberger said.

Wilcoxen fought her attacker in the sand of the playground. But she was overpowered. Connelly told police that he bound her ankles and wrists with duct tape.

Surveillance video from a nearby business showed a man hoist a woman over his shoulder and carry her to a van. He drove to an area near 53rd and U Streets.

There, in the back of the van, Miltenberger said, Connelly raped her.

Connelly said he slapped duct tape across her nose and mouth and around her head. As she struggled to breathe, he told police, he choked her until she stopped moving. He then held a lighter to her skin to make sure she was dead.

He said he dumped her body in Fremont and scattered her belongings in an Omaha alley.

Four days later, officers spotted him in the stolen car. After he spilled the details of the crime, he led Omaha police to her body.

“Mr. Connelly’s continued desire to ... seek recognition for his crime kicked in,” Miltenberger said. “He (told) law enforcement that the last thing he saw her wearing was a duct tape mask.”

Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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