LINCOLN — A state investigator provided some answers in court last week, but his testimony about an unusually violent assault in Nebraska’s only women’s prison also prompted new questions.
Benny Noordhoek, a criminal investigator in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, told a judge that prison lifer Erica Jenkins sought to settle a score last fall when she used a combination lock as an improvised brass knuckle to beat her fellow inmate and cousin, Christine Bordeaux.
The bad blood between the two Omaha women flowed from Jenkins’ 2015 murder trial, during which Bordeaux testified for the prosecution.
During his 15 or so minutes on the stand at a preliminary hearing last week the investigator revealed that the cousins had been assigned to the same cell at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women near York.
He also said it took him nearly 10 days to launch his investigation because, as one of only two investigators for the entire prison system, he couldn’t get to it sooner.
The investigator did not answer why prison staff would have failed to protect a key witness for the state by placing her in the cell of a violent felon highly motivated to deliver payback.
Or why the State Patrol was not called to investigate the assault if the prison’s own investigators were overwhelmed.
In response to a follow-up inquiry, Corrections Department spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the law prevents her from discussing what led to Bordeaux being put in the same cell as her cousin.
“That information is part of the inmate’s institutional file and is not subject to public release without a court order for good cause,” she said.
Smith did, however, dispel speculation about a supposed policy that allows related inmates to share living space. No such policy exists, she said.
As for why the State Patrol was not called in, Smith said the department’s investigators handle misdemeanor crimes and some felonies, including many inmate-on-inmate assaults. Noordhoek testified that he has investigated “hundreds” of assaults during his nearly 30 years with Corrections.
“If it is alleged that an inmate has killed, attempted to kill or inflicted serious bodily injury to another person, the matter shall be referred to the Nebraska State Patrol,” Smith said in an email.
While trying to ward off a lock-weighted fist, Bordeaux suffered a broken forearm and finger. She also was left with a concussion, a fractured nasal bone and multiple bruises to her face and arms, which required medical attention at a hospital.
The prison spokeswoman did not provide the department’s definition of “serious bodily injury.” Nor did Smith offer an explanation as to why the injuries to Bordeaux apparently were not considered serious.
As for motive, the investigator said Jenkins had tried to talk Bordeaux into recanting testimony that helped prosecutors convict Jenkins of first-degree murder. The beating occurred after Bordeaux allegedly refused to sign an affidavit stating that Jenkins wasn’t present at the killing, he testified.
Jenkins, the sister of spree killer Nikko Jenkins, is serving life in prison for helping her brother kill Curtis Bradford of Omaha in 2013. On top of her life term is stacked more than 100 additional years for robbery, a weapons conviction and several assaults of jail staff members.
She faces up to 70 years combined for the new charges of assault and use of a deadly weapon.
Bordeaux, because of her cooperation, was allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges and is serving a combined 20 years for criminal conspiracy and attempted robbery.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who prosecuted the brother and sister, has said he’s disappointed the prison could not keep Jenkins away from Bordeaux, whose testimony was critical to the case. Such incidents could make it even more challenging to persuade witnesses to take the stand.
Marshall Lux, the state ombudsman, frequently investigates complaints from inmates and their families about prison conditions. He also expressed deep concern about the breakdowns at the York prison that led to the cousins sharing a cell.
Some might view the prosecution of someone already serving essentially two life terms to be a waste of time and public funds. Lux said he disagreed.
“It’s worthwhile to go through this prosecution,” he said. “This is someone who easily could have been killed in this kind of assault. It needs to be handled the way we’d handle any other assault.”
The prison investigator testified that Jenkins, 27, threaded a finger through the loop of the lock and wrapped her fist around the tumbler. She then wielded the improvised brass knuckle to thrash Bordeaux, 42, as another inmate held her down.
The lock was readily available because prison officials sold them to inmates, who used the locks to secure personal belongings in footlockers.
Lux said the Bordeaux assault prompted the department to stop selling the locks. Inmates serving life terms had their locks taken away, Lux said.
He called that decision one positive aspect of the incident at York. He could not recall another case of a lock being used as a weapon at the women’s prison.