LINCOLN — A jury sent an emphatic message Wednesday when it returned a $2.64 billion verdict against the man questioned in the 2010 disappearance of a 19-year-old Peru State College student.

The family of Tyler Thomas won’t be able to collect, considering that the defendant in their wrongful-death lawsuit lacks financial assets and is serving a prison sentence for an unrelated rape conviction. But the verdict still provides the family with a degree of solace, said their attorney, Vince Powers of Lincoln.

“It’s important that the family knows that Tyler’s not forgotten and her life had value,” Powers said.

The six-woman jury in Nemaha County District Court entered the judgment against Joshua Keadle, the former Peru State student who investigators considered a person of interest in Thomas’ disappearance. Although authorities questioned Keadle, he was never charged in the Thomas case.

Thomas’ parents — La Tanya Thomas and Kevin Semans, both of Omaha — and other relatives gave emotional testimony about the loss they suffered when their loved one disappeared on Dec. 3, 2010, Powers said. She has not been heard from since, and a court declared her deceased in 2013.

“It was a hard day for the family, and it was a hard day for the jury,” Powers said.

Trial testimony lasted about three hours, and jurors deliberated for about two hours.

Jurors awarded $240 million to Thomas’ estate and her parents for wrongful death, pain, suffering, mental anguish and emotional distress. They multiplied that figure by 10 to arrive at punitive damages of $2.4 billion.

Under Nebraska law, punitive damages must be distributed to the public schools, Powers said.

Keadle, 34, did not appear and was not represented during Wednesday’s trial at the courthouse in Auburn, Nebraska. During a pretrial deposition, Keadle asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions.

The family has been unsuccessful in its attempts to collect damages from the State College Board of Trustees, which oversees Peru State and two other state colleges. Federal and state judges have said college officials could not have foreseen that Keadle would possibly commit violence against a fellow student. The family has appealed the dismissal of their federal lawsuit against the college.

Now both state and federal courts have entered judgments against Keadle, essentially holding him responsible for Thomas’ death. The judgments are not the same, however, as a criminal conviction.

A security camera recorded Thomas walking across the campus about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2010. She was headed toward her dorm after drinking alcohol at an off-campus party.

Keadle, then 29, told investigators that he picked up Thomas and drove her to a secluded boat ramp along the Missouri River, where they had consensual sex. He said he then left Thomas alive at the boat ramp after she threatened to accuse him of rape.

He is serving a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in Fremont in 2008. The victim came forward after seeing news coverage of Thomas’ disappearance.

Keadle will be eligible for parole in late 2018 and is scheduled for mandatory release in 2021, according to prison records.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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