Gage County will pay roughly $3.8 million a year for the better part of a decade to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 murder in Beatrice.
Seeking justice for the so-called Beatrice 6, who spent a combined 75 years in prison after a county-led investigation violated their civil rights, has created another injustice, Gage County residents told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Right now, Gage County can only collect more in property taxes to pay the $28.1 million judgment and $2 million in attorneys' fees awarded to the six by a U.S. District Court jury in 2016.
The Gage County Board of Supervisors approved a tax hike last year after the county's legal options dwindled, resulting in a 31.5 percent increase to the property tax bills of every landowner in the county.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a former chairman of the Gage County Board, asked the Judiciary Committee to consider a bill (LB474) adding civil judgments made in federal courts to the State Tort Claims Act and the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.
Gage County briefly explored the option in 2016 in the wake of the judgment, but was told by Attorney General Doug Peterson the state tort claims processes did not apply to judgments awarded in federal court.
Dorn's bill, similar to one introduced two years ago by his predecessor, Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, would allow political subdivisions to file a claim in cases where federal court determined that a person's rights had been violated, where the judgment exceeds the available financial resources and revenue of political subdivisions, and is made within two years of the final judgment.
"LB474 was brought today to ask for help," Dorn said. "We are all aware of the crisis of property taxes, and now the citizens of Gage County have this additional burden."
Current Gage County Chairman Erich Tiemann told the committee Dorn's bill would potentially provide relief for Gage County, and could help other counties found liable for massive federal judgments in the future.
In Gage County's case, the county was found liable for a reckless 1989 investigation into Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathleen Gonzalez for the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment.
Five of the six offered false confessions and later testified against White during his jury trial at the end of the cold-case investigation led by former Gage County Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy Wayne Price.
A review of DNA evidence more than 20 years after the crime was committed showed that none of the six were involved, however.
They were exonerated in 2008 and sued Gage County in federal court the next year. The case will finally be settled in coming weeks when the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to review the matter.
Tiemann said in the future, other counties could find themselves in a situation similar to Gage County, having to pay a large judgment without the resources to do so. He said Dorn's bill would help protect those counties and their taxpayers.
"We realize the state has its own budget shortfalls, and it's always tough because other organizations are always asking for money," Tiemann said. "We also realize you're not required to pay this, but we're coming to you for help."
The multimillion judgment is triple what Gage County usually collects in property taxes and because the county is limited in how it can generate revenue, the onus is put primarily on the 1,300 farmers who own 75 percent of the taxable land there.
Art Nietfeld, a farmer in southern Gage County near the Kansas border, said he will pay an estimated $10,000 more in property taxes each year until the Beatrice 6 judgment is paid off.
"And I sure didn't have anything to do with it," he added.
Other testifiers supporting Dorn's bill echoed Nietfeld's sentiment.
Lyle Koenig, a Beatrice attorney who defended Taylor in 1989, told the committee the county's investigation into the six relied upon using the death penalty — which he pointed out is a state law — to secure their false confessions, while the prosecutor, Dick Smith, was granted prosecutorial immunity by the state, leaving the financial liability to fall on the taxpayers of a single county.
"It appears that Gage County is not capable of paying it," Koenig said. "So if Gage County can't pay it, there is an additional injustice imposed upon these people, namely that they suffered this injustice and they don't recover from it. That's not fair either."
A former District 30 legislative candidate, Don Schuller of Wymore, told the committee the people of Gage County are just as innocent as the Beatrice 6, arguing that the deputies who conducted the cold-case investigation that violated their civil rights were working under state law.
The Nebraska Association of County Officials and the Nebraska Farmer's Union both supported Dorn's bill, saying it would protect counties and taxpayers in specific circumstances.
Although Gage County's legal remedies are largely settled, Dorn said the county is still searching for avenues to pay the six.
Chairman Steve Lathrop on Thursday said the committee was sympathetic to the plight of both the six and Gage County, but didn't offer any promises Dorn's proposal would advance to the floor for a full debate.
"What we can do about it remains to be seen," he said.
Silent film star Harold Lloyd has 213 acting credits, which is more than both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The Burchard native is most famously known for dangling from a clock several stories in the air in the film "Safety Last!"
The Gage County Historical Society's Gage County Classic Film Institute will present a tribute to Lloyd on March 1-3 as its 2019 annual film event. The focus will be on Lloyd’s childhood in Beatrice and Burchard.
Lloyd and his older brother spent a lot of time in Beatrice. They would work for the circus when it came to town in order to get a pass inside. Lloyd got his first acting appearance in "Macbeth" with the Shakespeare Repertory Company. He sold popcorn at the three train depots and taverns to make money to buy school clothes.
The Lloyd family moved many times, living in many Nebraska towns including Pawnee City, Humboldt and Omaha. After Nebraska, they stayed a couple places in Colorado before his father and Harold moved to California in 1913. From then on, Lloyd worked his way up in the entertainment business. In addition to acting, he directed, wrote and produced several films.
In an interview on Social Security in Action in 1965, Lloyd discussed how his films were not shot in front of a green screen. Lloyd was actually hanging from a building, clutching the hands of a clock.
“This was actually up just as high as you see it,” Lloyd said. “Of course, I wasn’t crazy enough to get out there and commit suicide, so I had platforms built a long ways below me. Probably about 16 feet or something like that below, so that the camera could shoot down. But there was no railings around. We piled mattresses on it, and if you lit you had to light flat. You could bounce off of it, and then there wouldn’t be much need for the platforms. These pictures had a great impact.
“I would say out of maybe 300 pictures that I made, only five of them were up on the sides of buildings,” Lloyd said. “But the impact, evidently, was so strong, I’m almost remembered as a thrill comedian.”
Gayle Butler, a Historical Society member, said the Historical Society has been trying to highlight different people from the Beatrice area that have made it big in movies.
“There was quite a group that went to California back in the 40s and 50s and made it big," Butler said. "So we wanted to educate people in this area and the surrounding areas about people that have made it, and what it took for them to make it out in California."
They have previously held events for actor Robert Taylor, cinematographer John Fulton who worked on 1956s "The Ten Commandments," and Gene L. Coon, a writer for the original "Star Trek."
The Gage County Classic Film Institute is partnering with the Beatrice Public Library and the Beatrice Community Players Theatre. The library will feature a special exhibit about Lloyd during February and March.
On Friday, March 1 at 6 p.m., the Beatrice Public Library will have reception and a meet and greet with the featured guests, followed by a presentation and book/DVD signing.
On Saturday, March 2 at 8 a.m., a car caravan will drive 50 people to Burchard to tour the Harold Lloyd Home. Guests are also welcome to visit the Welsh Heritage Centre in Wymore, which is open 9–11 a.m.
A Q&A session, moderated by Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford, will be at 12 p.m. at Valentino’s Primavera Room, 701 E. Court St.
At 1:30 p.m. in the Beatrice Community Players Theatre, Beatrice librarian Laureen Riedesel will discuss Lloyd’s history in the community, featured guest Scott Eyman will discuss Lloyd’s contributions to silent films and local film historian Jeanelle Kleveland will discuss “The Kid Brother.”
Another meet and greet followed by a screening of “Professor Beware” will be hosted at the Beatrice Public Library at 7 p.m.
On Sunday, March 3 at 1:30p.m., the Beatrice Public Library will have a screening of “Mad Wednesday" followed by Riedesel discussing the film.
“Mad Wednesday” is a 1950 re-cut, shorter version of the film “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," which was released in 1947. It was also Lloyd’s last acting credit.
All events at the Beatrice Public Library are free. Tickets are needed for Saturday March 2 morning and afternoon sessions.
Featured guests will be author Scott Eyman and silent film composer and accompanist Ben Model. Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, is providing films, shorts, home movies and photos from Harold Lloyd’s 1949 visit to Beatrice.
This year’s event is also presented in conjunction with The Harold Lloyd Museum in Burchard, part of the Pawnee County Promotional Network, and the Welsh Heritage Centre in Wymore. Funding provided by grants from Hevelone Foundation and Gage County Foundation.
Tickets are $35 for adults, and $10 for children age 12 and under.
Tickets can be purchased by credit card or check at the Gage County Museum, online by credit card at www.eventbrite.com (children tickets not available) or by check through a mail-in registration form, available on www.facebook.com/GageCountyFilm.
Questions about the event can be directed through email to email@example.com or call 402-540-2579.
A Clatonia restaurant announced plans to relocate to Beatrice and will operate in the Indian Creek Mall.
According to a post on the Legends of Clatonia’s Facebook page, owner Ron Tegtmeier is trying to sell the restaurant in Clatonia and relocate to Beatrice.
“The opportunity has risen to relocate Legends to a larger town,” the post stated. “I have bought the lease out on two existing restaurants in the Indian Creek Mall in Beatrice… Legends of Nebraska will be going in where Woodee’s Diner and The Garden were previously.”
The Garden Deli and Treat Shop celebrated its grand opening in November, 2018.
Tegtmeier posted that many of the staff will work in the Beatrice location, and he’s selling the buildings in Clatonia separately in hope of attracting someone who wants a smaller operation.
Legends of Clatonia opened around seven years ago. Since then, it’s served as a tribute to the town’s people and history, displaying a large collection of Clatonia memorabilia, photos, school uniforms, yearbooks and other items.
One of the hallways features plaques of “legends” those who have been honored for their commitment to the town.
The restaurant has an outdoor beer garden decorated to look like past and current business in town, with the fence line designed to look like building facades.
The transition is expected to take place in April, and gift certificates can be used at the Clatonia or Beatrice locations.
Beatrice police arrested two men Thursday evening for drug offenses after a search warrant was issued.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m., Beatrice police served a search warrant at 1510 High St. in Beatrice.
According to arrest documents, police found Nicholas Umphenour and Jered Lockwood inside a shed at the address.
During a search of the shed, police found approximately 2.2 grams of suspected methamphetamine in a plastic baggie, along with multiple pipes and syringes. Three scales with a white substance on them were also found in the shed.
Arrest documents state that Lockwood admitted to seeing narcotics transactions from Umphenour and that one of the scales was his.
Lockwood was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Umphenour was arrested for distribution of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.