It was a gorgeous May day, and Jason Peterson was running a bit behind.
The owner of Transfer 88 — he moves pianos and their 88 keys — backed into the driveway of Roger and Mary Brumback’s house at 11421 Shirley St.
He grabbed his four-wheel dolly and placed a ramp up to the front of the two-story white house with black shutters.
He hustled up to the front porch, where he found the storm door closed but the front door cracked open.
Such a sight is typical, Peterson said. A lot of people will crack their door in anticipation of the movers.
But no one answered at the Brumbacks’ house. Peterson knocked, called out hello, even ventured around to the backyard in case “someone was doing yard work.”
He returned to the front and opened the screen door.
As he peeked in, he noticed a shiny object on the floor.
A magazine from a handgun.
“I said, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Peterson testified, between chews of his gum. “ ‘Let’s back up off of here.’ ”
Peterson, his son and a nephew bolted to the driveway, where Peterson called 911. Omaha police arrived.
Peterson said he trailed a “lady officer” to the front door. She pushed open the door a bit more, then “immediately called for backup.”
“I’ve moved a lot of things in the course of moving a piano,” Peterson said. “But I’ve never had to move a gun clip. That just didn’t seem right.”
Had Peterson poked his head inside the house, he would have seen how wrong it was:
Just behind that cracked door, Roger Brumback was splayed face down, and his 6-foot-3, 200-pound body in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the shoulder and stomach and stabbed in the neck.
In an adjacent sitting room, Mary Brumback was face up, her arms spread, lying between a number of belongings that appeared to be packed and ready to move.
The Brumbacks were on their way to West Virginia, where they had decided to retire after Roger Brumback’s long tenure in the pathology department at Creighton University.
“They were ready to make this move that they were so excited about,” prosecutor Brenda Beadle said.
On Wednesday, day three of Anthony Garcia’s trial, prosecutors transitioned from the March 13, 2008, deaths of 11-year-old Thomas Hunter and 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman to the May 12, 2013, killings of the Brumbacks.
The parallels between the two sets of crimes — even the innocuous ones — were impossible to ignore:
» Both sets of killings took place on seasonable days. A warm, windy day in March 2008. A sun-splashed Mother’s Day in May 2013. Further, prosecutors say, both attacks occurred in the middle of the day — though the defense team questions how prosecutors know.
» The first paramedic to arrive at both scenes: Omaha Firefighter Jason Gohr. The first detective at both scenes: Omaha Police Officer Derek Mois.
» The chosen murder weapon: knives, presumably from inside the victims’ homes. All four victims — even Roger Brumback, who was shot — had knife wounds. All four basically bled out.
Prosecutors spent much of Wednesday detailing at least some of those wounds through the testimony of Dr. Michelle Elieff, a coroner’s physician.
On the 80- and 60-inch screens in Judge Gary Randall’s courtroom, jurors got high-definition views of:
» Eighteen cuts to Sherman’s neck. The wounds to the grandmother looked like the teeth of a zipper running up the right front of her neck. They generally grew wider as they went up the neck — half-inch scars to inch-wide punctures to the fatal plunge, a two-inch wide, C-shaped wound.
Sherman also had a bruise to her forehead, probably from a fall to the floor, Elieff said.
» Nearly 10 wounds to Thomas’ neck, including the severing of his jugular veins and carotid arteries on both sides.
Thomas also had bruises ringing his mouth and a swollen lower lip. Elieff called those “compression bruises” — consistent with the killer sneaking up from behind and muzzling Thomas’ mouth.
The photos fed into both prosecution and defense strategies.
Prosecutors used them to try to show that the killer was poking away at the victims’ necks, searching for the two key vessels of blood in the neck: the side-by-side carotid artery and jugular vein.
Who would know to search? A former pathology student like Garcia, prosecutors argue.
Meanwhile, the photos have gone without any defense protest at trial. Many defense teams will object to gratuitous photos of autopsies, and most judges will set limits on how many photos are admitted, so as not to inflame jurors any more than necessary.
However, Garcia’s defense team hasn’t objected.
The reason: Although the photos are disturbing, even disgusting, their client didn’t inflict these wounds, his lawyers say. No physical evidence connects him to the killings.
For his part, Garcia never gave more than a passing glance at the photos. He spent the entire day scribbling notes and rarely peering anywhere but down through his black-rimmed glasses at a set of reports.
Jurors and spectators saw all they could handle.
As prosecutor Don Kleine displayed a close-up of the zipperlike wounds on Sherman’s neck, Sherman’s brother Brad Waite winced. “Oh my God,” he muttered. He used his left hand to wipe tears from his right eye; his right hand to wipe tears from his left.
A juror in the back row pivoted her body toward an outside wall, occasionally looking at the screen over her shoulder. One young female juror buried her chin between her thumb and forefinger, then wrapped her hair partially over her face.
After about an hour of viewing the photos, a middle-aged juror wrote on her notepad: “Break please.”
Judge Randall recessed jurors for 10 minutes.
Things didn’t get much easier following the break. After several close-ups of Tom’s autopsy, prosecutors turned to graphic photos of what Omaha police found inside the Brumback house.
Roger Brumback was found, shot and stabbed, just inside his front door.
Under the state’s theory, he answered the door, then tried to prevent his attacker from entering. Mois testified that a bullet went through Brumback as he stood in front of the door, then went through a door and into a front-entry wall. (The defense mocked that theory, questioning how the bullet could travel that high or far.)
Startled by the commotion, Mary Brumback, who perhaps had been in the kitchen, came to the front of the house to try to help her husband.
“She fought till her death,” Beadle told jurors in opening statements. “She fought with every fiber she had in her.”
She fought so hard that she had several defensive wounds on her left hand, Mois said. Her left thumb was nearly severed.
Remarkably, the Brumbacks’ neighbors didn’t hear much.
A block away, neighbor Larry Mason said he heard three pops that Sunday. He said he initially believed that they were gunshots but then scanned his neighborhood for anyone running, anyone screaming. He didn’t see anything, he said, so he attributed the noises to a backfiring lawnmower.
The time? About 3:30 p.m.
Garcia’s defense team, meanwhile, continued to contend that prosecutors have no timeline for the Brumbacks’ deaths. They were last heard from on Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013. But their bodies weren’t found until May 14, a Tuesday.
That led Robert Motta Jr. to ask a simple question of Gohr, the first firefighter to enter the Brumbacks’ house.
With bodies laying there for nearly two days, he asked: “Did the house smell?”
“I’ve walked into some houses, and the first thought I had was, ‘There’s a dead body in here,’ ” Gohr testified. “I don’t remember thinking that here.”
Motta also pointed out a curious sight: that Mary Brumback’s body appeared to be a foot or so from a large blood spot. In between her and the blood spot: mostly clean carpet.
Motta questioned how Mary Brumback’s body moved. Gohr said no first responders altered her body.
“I see what you’re talking about,” Gohr said. “That wasn’t something I made a mental note of. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow that’s a lot of blood.’ ”
Even with all the blood, it wasn’t hard to spot the signs of a couple on the cusp of their new adventure.
The house was almost completely packed. Two computer towers sat in the living room. The dining-room hutch was devoid of drawers. Boxes were stacked. Furniture was pushed to the middle.
On the kitchen table: the Sunday paper, its sections scattered, comics on top. Just beyond it, a romance novel that Mary Brumback was reading, its pages propped open by a rock.
As he prepared the house to sell, Roger Brumback was dressed in painting clothes and loafers. There was a ladder in the entryway. Just beneath the ladder: an opened can of beige paint. In the paint: a drop of blood.
No more than 20 feet away, an 8-by-10 photo of a smiling Roger Brumback sits on a small desk. It’s his professional mug, from when he was chairman of Creighton University’s pathology department, in charge of residents — like Garcia once was.
A crime-scene photo captures that desk and its surroundings:
A manhole-sized blood stain on the carpet.
The lifeless legs of Mary Brumback.
And a promotional folder from the company hoping to pack up the rest of the Brumbacks’ belongings.
On its front, in large letters:
“Life never stops moving.”
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