Anthony Wells could have been in jail.
In 2014, prosecutors had tried the convicted felon on charges that he provided his cousin, Nikko Jenkins, with the shotgun that Jenkins used to kill three of his four victims during an August 2013 murder spree in Omaha. However, a judge acquitted Wells after a trial.
And authorities were closing in on Wells on allegations that he had sold a weapon to an undercover informant or agent, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.
However, neither accusation led to Wells’ incarceration.
Early Sunday, prosecutors say, Wells’ path intersected with an innocent.
Joshua Hartwig, a 25-year-old Special Olympian known for his sweet nature and his love of sports, was shot and killed when a gunman opened fire on a crowd outside apartments at 18th and Knox Streets in Lincoln.
In a court affidavit, Lincoln police say Wells had been at the apartment complex and had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend — a fight that a group of people tried to stop. As the gunman left, he hollered that he “would be back,” police say. Ten minutes later, a gunman returned and started spraying bullets. Hartwig died. Three bystanders identified Wells as the shooter.
Wells, 33, couldn’t be reached for comment. He was in the Douglas County Jail on Tuesday, awaiting transfer to Lincoln.
“It’s such a waste,” Douglas Hartwig, Josh’s father, said Tuesday. “Josh was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He loved sports and loved his Huskers, no matter the sport. He would give players advice, whether they wanted it or not. He was just one of those magnetic people.”
Wells has been a different sort of magnet. From 2001 to 2012, he served at least three separate prison stints: for theft and possessing a stolen firearm, theft and burglary, and gun possession.
After serving five years in federal prison, Wells was put on three years of supervised release in April 2012.
At the end of July 2013, he celebrated Jenkins’ release from prison with family members at an Omaha hotel.
Surveillance video showed Wells walking through the Travelodge at 71st and Grover Streets. Prosecutors argued that Wells hid a pistol-grip, 12-gauge shotgun in the right leg of his baggy jeans.
However, Judge Peter Bataillon said he had watched the video “over and over” and couldn’t tell whether Wells had hidden a shotgun in his pants.
Without that, the judge said, he had only one partygoer’s word against another’s.
Another Jenkins cousin had vouched for Wells, saying he never gave a gun to Jenkins. But one of Jenkins’ girlfriends, Sherry Floyd, testified that Wells handed Jenkins the shotgun; she said she watched Wells wipe it down.
At that March 2014 trial, Wells jabbed a finger at Floyd. “You lying (expletive),” he hollered.
Prosecutors argued that Floyd had no reason to lie and was risking her own safety to identify Wells. Wells’ attorney, James Schaefer, said Floyd had every reason to lie — he accused her of providing the shotgun herself.
Bataillon said the varying accounts added up to reasonable doubt. However, the judge told Wells: “There’s no clean hands in any of this stuff. You’ve got three kids. You should be home in bed (at night) ... comporting yourself like a father.”
Schaefer said Tuesday that he’s surprised to hear the latest allegations. Schaefer noted that Wells, 33, had a decent job, was intelligent and was adamant about his innocence.
“It was the right verdict,” Schaefer said. “There just wasn’t any way that you could conclude with any certainty that Wells handed over the gun that Jenkins ended up using.”
Had Wells been convicted, he would have faced a minimum of 20 years in prison.
In the wake of Wells’ latest arrest, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine didn’t criticize the judge’s 2014 finding.
“Certainly we tried our best to convict this guy,” Kleine said. “We put everything on that we could have. Obviously in the judge’s mind, that wasn’t enough. So it’s unfortunate.”
Sunday morning, police say, that misfortune cost Doug Hartwig his son.
The Lincoln man said he and Josh were outside during the commotion. Lincoln police say Wells’ girlfriend, Rhani Henry, had called Wells to Lincoln to celebrate her 24th birthday.
Shortly after 1 a.m., police say, Wells and Henry got into a fight. Henry was “observed to have injuries ... consistent with (an) assault,” Lincoln Police detective Robert Hurley wrote in an affidavit.
Witnesses said Wells tried to force his girlfriend into his green sport utility vehicle. Several apartment dwellers who had been out smoking intervened and peeled Henry away from Wells.
At that, witnesses said, Wells told those gathered that he “would be back.”
Ten minutes later, Doug Hartwig and his son were walking toward their apartment when a gunman walked around the corner of the complex about 20 feet away and opened fire. Josh started running, with Doug behind him. Several people narrowly escaped. Josh was hit — and died at the scene.
Since then, Doug Hartwig said, friends have overwhelmed him with stories of Josh. The 2010 Lincoln East graduate was a fixture at Husker sporting events — a fan who struck up friendships with football players like P.J. Smith and baseball players like Kurt Farmer. He had season tickets and was such a fixture at Nebraska baseball games that players would rib him if he missed a game.
Josh was the driving force behind the formation of the Storm flag-football team that competed in several Special Olympics events. He convinced his dad to coach — for now.
Josh, a quarterback and utility player, told his dad his plan: He was going to play only three more years, then he was going to join his dad as a coach.
“I was very, very proud of my son,” Doug Hartwig said. “He had this huge, golden heart.
“This (gunman) needs to be put away and never let out again. He has no idea what kind of beautiful spirit he took from us.”
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