AUBURN, Neb. — Corey Pfeifer says he heard a jailhouse admission about one of the most well-known cold-case killings in Nebraska. And he sat on it for more than six years.
In October, news that Joshua Keadle had been charged with first-degree murder in the 2010 death of Peru State College student Tyler Thomas finally prompted Pfeifer to contact authorities. The Omaha man told an investigator he had served a 30-day sentence at the Nemaha County Jail in January 2011, the same time Keadle was held there on charges unrelated to the Thomas death.
“Josh Keadle told him he had taken Tyler Thomas down to the river, and they had sex, and they would never convict him because they would never find her body,” Investigator Kerry Crosby testified Thursday during a preliminary hearing in Nemaha County District Court.
Nemaha County Judge Curtis Maschman listened for more than six hours as 12 law enforcement investigators laid out a circumstantial case against Keadle. But the judge opted to review the evidence further before deciding whether the prosecution should proceed in a case in which the victim’s body has never been found.
Assistant Attorney General Doug Warner argued that Keadle should stand trial. Keadle told investigators that Thomas had threatened to accuse him of rape, which provided the motive to make sure she was never heard from again, the prosecutor said.
“And when you have motive ... that goes to the issue of intent and premeditation,” Warner said.
But Jeff Pickens of the Commission on Public Advocacy said the circumstantial evidence shows that Thomas is dead, not that Keadle killed her. The evidence indicates that Thomas was intoxicated on the early morning of Dec. 3, 2010, and that she had been abandoned at a remote public boat ramp on the Missouri River.
“The most reasonable inference from the evidence is that she was drunk, she was acting irrationally out of anger, it was dark out there ... and she fell in the river,” Pickens said to audible disagreement from members of the Thomas family who attended the hearing.
Keadle, 36, is currently serving a prison term of 15 to 20 years for an unrelated sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Dodge County. He becomes eligible for parole next year and is scheduled for mandatory release in 2021. On Thursday, investigators from the Nemaha County Sheriff’s Office, the Nebraska State Patrol and the FBI laid out a case based heavily on interviews with Keadle as well as Thomas’ friends and family.
On the night of her disappearance, Thomas had attended a couple of off-campus parties where she drank alcohol. Some friends said she was intoxicated, but others said she wasn’t extremely drunk. But she got into an argument with her friends and kicked a wall so hard that it damaged the drywall.
Upset, she left the party and walked across campus toward her dorm. She was a block away when Keadle and a few friends saw her as they returned to Peru in Keadle’s car after watching a movie in Nebraska City.
After telling authorities multiple times that he knew nothing about Thomas’ disappearance, Keadle gave a much different story on Dec. 7.
Keadle said that after letting off his friends, he drove to the boat ramp to smoke marijuana. There, he encountered Thomas and said he offered her a ride to Omaha in exchange for a sexual favor. After a sex act, Keadle said, he changed his mind about driving to Omaha.
Keadle told investigators she exploded and threatened to accuse him of raping her. They got out of the car, he said, and Thomas tried to strike him. He grabbed her wrists to protect himself. After she threw her phone at him, he said he drove back to the dorm, leaving her at the boat ramp.
He also expressed some nagging concerns to the investigators. First, he asked them what if her body turned up in the river and they found his fingerprints where he grabbed her? And second, what if she was found frozen to death? Could he be held responsible?
La Tanya Thomas, Tyler Thomas’ mother, said after the hearing that she does not believe an accident claimed the life of her daughter.
“I know he has to have a defense, but I’m rather disgusted by that,” she said.