LINCOLN — For seven long years, the family of Tyler Thomas searched for answers.

For months after the 19-year-old Peru State College student went missing in December 2010, they searched the farm fields and wooded banks of the Missouri River near the campus at Peru, Nebraska.

For years, they wondered if criminal charges would ever be filed against a prime suspect, a fellow student eventually convicted of a sexual assault at another college, who was the last person to see her alive.

On Tuesday, they finally got some answers: The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office filed first-degree murder charges against that long-suspected student, Joshua Keadle.

The body of Tyler Thomas was never found, but her mother said her family never gave up hope that criminal charges would eventually be filed.

“When someone you’ve given birth to and loved for so long and is taken so brutally ... I just cannot see not fighting to see what happened, to get some justice, some answers,” LaTanya Thomas said from her Omaha home on Tuesday.

Tyler Thomas was last seen about 1:30 a.m. Dec. 3, recorded by a security camera as she walked across campus.

According to court records, Keadle, then 29, had initially denied having been with Thomas, the captain of the college dance team, on the night of her disappearance.

He had asked a roommate to lie about his whereabouts — to say he had been with him — and had appeared nervous the day after Thomas’ disappearance.

Eventually, four days after Thomas went missing, Keadle told investigators that he had picked up Thomas and driven her to a remote boat launch near Peru. Thomas asked for a ride to Omaha, and Keadle asked for a sex act in exchange.

But afterward, Keadle told investigators, he changed his mind. Thomas grew angry, he said, and threw her cellphone at him and threatened to report that she had been raped.

Keadle said he eventually drove off, leaving Thomas behind.

Extensive searches for her by family members, volunteers, law enforcement and trained dog handlers in the following days were not successful.

But during a search of the boat launch, a sheriff’s deputy said he saw tire tracks matching Keadle’s SUV, and what appeared to be drag marks leading to the river bank.

While Keadle was identified as the only person of interest, years passed and the mystery intensified.

Authorities filed other, unrelated charges against Keadle.

Earlier in 2010, an 18-year-old female student told authorities that he took her to the boat launch near Peru and threatened to push her in the Missouri River if she didn’t perform a sex act. Keadle was charged with several felonies in that case. The charges were eventually dropped.

But in 2012, Keadle was sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison for first-degree sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Fremont in 2008, while he was a student at Midland College.

While a federal lawsuit against Peru State College was dismissed, in 2016 a six-woman jury in Nemaha County awarded the Thomas family a $2.6 billion verdict against Keadle.

More than a year ago, the attorney for the Thomas family, Vince Powers of Lincoln, said he met with Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson. Peterson, who took office in 2015, pledged to look into the case, according to Powers.

While Powers said he felt that the evidence he presented in the civil lawsuit would have been enough to attain a guilty verdict in a criminal prosecution, the Attorney General’s Office lawyers indicated that they wanted more.

“They are professional prosecutors who want to make sure they’ve crossed all their t’s and dotted their i’s,” he said.

What exactly tipped the balance after seven years and led to the filing of criminal charges on Tuesday was unclear.

Keadle, now 36, is an inmate at the Lincoln Correctional Center. He was scheduled to be eligible for parole from prison in 14 months for the rape conviction out of Fremont.

Powers said he had promised the family that if no criminal charges were filed, he would launch a petition drive to impanel a grand jury in Nemaha County to consider evidence in the case. Such a petition would have required fewer than 250 signatures, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said there would be no comment besides the five-paragraph press release issued by the agency.

Powers, who filed the wrongful death lawsuit, credited the persistence of the Thomas family.

“They never gave up,” he said “Their concern was to keep the memory of their daughter alive so this day would come.”

A spokesman for Peru State said that college officials continue to cooperate with authorities and that those who knew Tyler Thomas “still seek closure.”

Thomas’ mother said that her daughter, a graduate of Omaha Bryan High School, loved to dance, liked to laugh and dreamed of eventually teaching young children.

“She always talked about doing art with children, or working with children with disabilities,” LaTanya Thomas said.

On Tuesday, she was almost speechless when first asked by a reporter for her reaction to criminal charges being filed.

“It’s been a long time. A long, long process,” the mother said. “We’re going to remain hopeful that justice will be served for Tyler.”

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584

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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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