Seth Brinkman, 16, slumped to his knees in his living room, crumpled by the weight of what he had just watched unfold.
Taking a shower — as he and his mom and dad prepared to go out for dinner on Dec. 23, 2016 — he had heard a pop.
He thought it was just a pop gun but then “I smelled gun smoke,” he said on a recording played Wednesday in the trial of an Omaha man accused of murder.
Seth emerged from the shower to find two gunmen in clown masks — one chubby, one skinny. Both at separate ends of the Brinkmans’ main hallway in their ranch house just northwest of 180th and Q Streets. The taller, skinny gunman held Seth’s mom at gunpoint.
On the other end of the hallway, the chubby man brandished a gun at Seth and at his father, Mike Brinkman. So Seth pulled off the shower rod and swung it at the man, striking him. The man responded by punching Seth in the eye.
Somewhere in the melee, the chubby gunman rattled off three shots. Seth rushed to find his dad collapsed against a bedroom door. He tried to help him up — only to hear his father gasp some of his last breaths.
And so as police tried to process the scene, Seth wavered between wails and wide-eyed wonder. On his knees, his hair still wet, as paramedics were working on his father, he turned to an Omaha police officer, whose body cam was rolling.
Palms up, the 16-year-old motioned down the hallway. “I don’t know where that food came from in the bathroom,” Seth said. “I don’t know why they would do that. ... Who brings food to a robbery? Can you check it for DNA?”
Omaha police indeed did. And as prosecutor Brenda Beadle laid out Wednesday, the DNA on the Raising Cane’s Texas toast in the bathroom was run through a statewide database of convicted felons. That database turned up a match: LeAndre R. Jennings, 30, of Omaha.
But that wasn’t the only evidence against Jennings that Seth Brinkman had a hand in. As it turned out, Omaha police investigators swabbed the shower rod. That DNA also was consistent with Jennings’ DNA profile, Beadle said as Jennings’ weeklong trial opened Wednesday.
In opening statements in front of a packed courtroom, Beadle replayed a confounding crime: Two gunmen in a white SUV, drove through the quiet west Omaha neighborhood where Brinkman lived with his longtime girlfriend, Kim Milius, and their son Seth, then a sophomore at Millard West High School.
Police cruiser and body cam video showed a house with green and red LED lights draped from the gutters. A multi-colored Christmas tree sparkled in the dark. A sign on the front door said “Snow Big Red.” A Santalike figure in the foyer was adorned with one word: “Believe.”
Piercing that backdrop, Beadle said, were two men bent on a home-invasion robbery.
“It was seven minutes of terror and devastation,” Beadle told jurors.
Jennings’ attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, urged jurors to consider whether the killing could have been committed by someone who knew Brinkman, who had a grudge.
Two years before the crime, Brinkman had sold his roofing business, Xcel Roofing, and retired. However, Riley said, Brinkman wasn’t happy with the direction the new owners were taking his old business. So he started doing roofing on the side — contrary to a noncompete clause that was part of Brinkman’s sale of the business, Riley said.
Brinkman’s girlfriend, Milius, had mentioned to police that Brinkman had recently had a falling out with a longtime friend — an older man who had become threatening.
And she told police that she heard the fat gunman tell the other one “I got it, let’s go,” and assumed he was talking about a bank bag that Brinkman sometimes carried.
But Riley noted what the robbers left behind in the house. An envelope with 13 $100 bills — which Beadle suggested Brinkman was using to shop for Christmas gifts. A safe, opened only after Brinkman’s death, that had $200,000 in cash in it.
“I’m sure everyone leaves $200,000 in a safe,” Riley scoffed, drawing an objection from prosecutors. “Where did that come from? And what was done by police to try to find out where it came from? Zippo.”
All of that led Riley to conclude that Brinkman wasn’t the victim of a chance robbery, as prosecutors suggested.
“Maybe this isn’t quite so random after all,” Riley said. “I suggest to you this is a pretty well thought out, planned out crime. ...
“In spite of what the state may think is a slam dunk, the defendant is not a perpetrator of this offense.”
The second robber has not been publicly identified, or arrested, in this case.
Beadle said phone records, car rental receipts, Raising Cane’s surveillance video and overwhelming DNA test results all will point to Jennings. The odds that the DNA on the Texas toast belonged to any one other than Jennings? 1 in 123 octillion. (An octillion is 1 followed by 27 zeros.)
Milius and Seth were left to sort out the sordid ordeal. As officers stood by, Seth replayed the day — how he had just been playing basketball with a friend at the YMCA. How he had hopped in the shower because his dad said they were going out to eat at a nice place — Brother Sebastian’s.
How he thought it was someone playing a “stupid joke.”
“Dude,” Seth tearfully told a police officer, “I (initially) thought there was a mouse because my mom was screaming.”
Incredulous, Seth picked up a glass vase from the coffee table and slammed it, causing a few shards to scatter.
“Just why?” he said, looking up at the officers. “Whyyyyy? Why did this happen?
“This is my dad, OK?”
He dropped his head into his hands.
“Oh my God,” he whimpered. “Dad, you can’t die.”