Category Archives: Regional News

3-Dead in Wrong Way Crash

Omaha, NE.— Two drunk drivers are suspected in a two-car, wrong-way interstate crash that left three people dead in south Omaha.

The victims, all from Omaha, are identified as 32-year-old Alvaro Contreras, 33-year-old Homero Guerrero and 36-year-old Alberto Longino-Maldonado.

The crash is still under investigation but, according to police, Contreras had been driving the wrong-way on the JFK before he plowed nearly head-on into a car driven by Guerrero.

The accident occurred early Sunday morning just south of downtown along I-480.

All three men were pronounced dead at the scene. Longino-Maldonado was in Guerrero’s car.

Omaha landlord and his secretary want bribery case dismissed, say their actions were coerced

On a Friday in late February 2012, Reggie Johnson arrived at the north Omaha office of the landlord who dominates the city’s Section 8 housing program.

Johnson, then an employee of the Omaha Housing Authority, was to have lunch with Lafi Jafari, who owns 165 rental properties that provide a federally subsidized place to live for some of the city’s poorest residents.

Before Johnson could leave the landlord’s office, however, Jafari’s secretary stunned him with a question. MaryLou Gruttemeyer, who is known as “Ted,” asked if he was wearing a wire. Then she patted him down.

There was no wire. But later when he spoke with Gruttemeyer he would be using one, under the direction of federal law enforcement agents. Recordings of those conversations would become the underpinning of a bribery conspiracy indictment returned against Jafari and Gruttemeyer in U.S. District Court.

The bribery case unfolding in the federal courthouse in downtown Omaha involves a strikingly small amount of money, $2,098 in alleged bribes over three years. During roughly that same time period, from 2012 to 2014, Jafari received substantial federal rent payments of about $2.1 million.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the FBI spent about four years investigating Jafari and Gruttemeyer, and a grand jury returned an indictment in November 2016. Initially the probe was done without telling others at OHA, as agents explored whether the alleged corruption had spread further. No one at the agency has been indicted.

Details of the case have emerged publicly in recent weeks during court hearings as attorneys for Jafari and Gruttemeyer seek dismissal of the case. They argue that Johnson, at the behest of the government, cajoled and coerced their clients into the actions that landed them in court.

The case began with the February 2012 lunch at Tussey’s restaurant in the Florence area, a meeting that a HUD agent described in court testimony.

Johnson and Jafari chatted about the landlord’s relationships with mayors and OHA executive directors. At one point, the agent testified, Jafari leaned back, closed the blinds next to their table and put a half-inch-thick envelope on it. In it was $500. A good share of the cash was in two-dollar bills, a characteristic of at least three of the alleged payments.

Take your family out for a nice dinner, the landlord instructed. Jafari did not ask for anything in return.

Johnson would not use the money to go out to eat. Instead, he called an agent at HUD’s Office of Inspector General in Kansas City to report the meeting. At the time, Johnson was OHA’s first program integrity specialist. He had previously been an assistant inspector general for the Army at Fort Riley, Kansas.

HUD opened an investigation that led to Jafari and Gruttemeyer’s indictment on six counts each of paying a bribe to an agent of an organization receiving federal funds and one count each of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Jafari also was indicted on one count of making false statements to HUD agents. He is accused of telling them that he had never provided anything of value to an OHA employee and did not know Johnson. Jafari and Gruttemeyer have pleaded not guilty.

In seeking the case’s dismissal, the defendants’ attorneys, Jerry Hug and Brent Bloom, have argued that investigators’ actions constitute “outrageous government conduct,” a legal standard. That defense relies in part on an undisputed fact: Federal investigators twice directed Johnson to ask Gruttemeyer for money in exchange for performing favors for the rental company.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp noted that Johnson made the requests after receiving unsolicited money on three occasions.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Bazis is expected to rule on the dismissal request in February. If the judge allows the case to proceed, Jafari and Gruttemeyer potentially face heavy fines and substantial prison time.

The indictment alleges Jafari or Gruttemeyer gave a total of about $2,100 to Johnson over five occasions. Four of those were arranged meetings, and three of those were recorded. In one instance, for example, Johnson carried a key fob that contained a camera. The FBI also instructed him how to record telephone conversations.

Gruttemeyer held broad responsibilities at Jafari’s company, including being present at inspections, collecting rent and going to court eviction proceedings. She also is in a relationship with Jafari, her attorney said.

Gruttemeyer handed Johnson envelopes of cash four times, the indictment alleges. Jafari is accused of providing an envelope on one occasion, at the February 2012 lunch meeting.

OHA provides housing to people with low to moderate incomes. In the Section 8 program, federal rent subsides are directed to private landlords. At 74, Jafari is the city’s largest Section 8 landlord and has been in the rental business for decades.

At the time of Jafari’s indictment a year ago, about 100 families lived in properties in north Omaha owned by either Jafari or his company, MM&L International Corp. A substantial share were in the Minne Lusa area, where Jafari lives.

Following the indictment, HUD suspended Jafari’s Section 8 eligibility in February, and OHA began suspending payments to him as leases expired, house by house. As of early November, 31 families remained in Jafari-connected properties, said Judith Carlin, OHA’s chief executive officer.

Jafari has challenged HUD’s order suspending his eligibility, and is suing OHA to resume rental payments.

Beyond surreptitious audio and video recordings, HUD tracked mail sent to Jafari. For at least a month the U.S. Postal Service gave investigators copies of the outsides of envelopes mailed to Jafari, a practice known as a mail cover.

The investigation was kept from senior OHA officials.

“We did not know at that point where this could lead, whether … anyone else within the housing authority might be taking bribes from other people,” testified a now-retired HUD special agent, Karen Gleich.

HUD investigators’ suspicions were fueled by something they heard in an interview with the director of Section 8 in Omaha, testified HUD Special Agent Kris Kanakares. He said that the supervisor in the Omaha OHA office told him that one of her employees admitted to receiving referral fees from Jafari.

OHA ethics guidelines forbid employees from recommending a landlord to a tenant in exchange for money. That employee was either fired or resigned, Kanakares testified. Carlin, the OHA chief executive officer, said she had no knowledge of the alleged incident because the employee left before Carlin arrived at the agency.

Most of Johnson’s meetings with Jafari and Gruttemeyer were arranged. But there also was an unplanned encounter referred to by attorneys as “The Cracker Barrel Incident.”

Johnson and his wife, Linda, ran into Jafari and Gruttemeyer at the Council Bluffs restaurant after a weekend breakfast in the summer of 2013.

As the Johnsons were leaving, Gruttemeyer approached their vehicle and offered an envelope to Johnson’s wife through the passenger window. Linda Johnson, who had been ill for years and died of cancer in October 2016, accepted it. The envelope was filled with $200 in two-dollar bills.

It is not clear what ultimately happened with that money.

Kanakares testified that it appears that Johnson’s wife spent it, while Johnson said the couple turned it over to investigators.

Bloom, Gruttemeyer’s attorney, questioned what happened to it.

“That money was never recovered?” Bloom asked.

“No, it was not,” Kanakares said.

“ ’Cause Mrs. Johnson spent it, right?” Bloom asked.

“That’s my understanding. Yes,” Kanakares said.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Johnson said, “I recall me telling my wife ‘Baby, you can’t take that money.’ … I did not want my wife to know any of the stuff that was going on. I didn’t want her implicated in this thing.”

He testified that law enforcement agents came to the couple’s home to retrieve the money. He said he wasn’t certain, but he believes they came that same night.

An element of Jafari and Gruttemeyer’s defense is that they were disliked by some OHA employees.

In a motion, the defendants’ attorneys wrote that OHA employees, “without basis for their opinion” had described Jafari as “evil” or “shrewd” in interviews with federal investigators.

“The race and ethnic origin of Jafari and Gruttemeyer, as well as the relative success of Jafari in his business dealings made them an object of suspicion and derision for OHA employees and caused OHA employees to suspect Jafari, Gruttemeyer, and MM&L International,” the attorneys wrote.

Jafari, a Palestinian who spent his youth in Jordan, decorated his office with photographs from his younger days as a track athlete. Gruttemeyer is from the Philippines and has lived in the United States since 1985.

The defendants’ attorneys have argued that there was an “OHA whisper campaign” that was intended to impugn Jafari and Gruttemeyer’s characters to HUD investigators.

Another leg of the defense is that Johnson had a forceful physical presence that helped induce a reluctant Gruttemeyer to offer him money.

“He’s a big guy. A big man who works out,” Bloom said Wednesday of Johnson, who is about 5-foot-10 and at the time weighed about 210 pounds. “Mrs. Gruttemeyer is a very small, older woman.”

Gruttemeyer is 58, Johnson is 55.

The defense attorneys described the government investigative efforts as “hounding, bullying, pestering and coercive.”

Some of the alleged bribes were not accompanied with a specific request, and that, too, is among the central questions raised by defense attorneys.

However, a Creighton University School of Law professor said the law does not require a prosecutor to demonstrate a quid pro quo to prove conspiracy to commit bribery.

“The government just has to prove, by giving the money, the defendant intended to influence the housing authority,” Patrick Borchers said. “In general, the government doesn’t have to prove there was an agreement.”

In February 2015, Johnson asked Gruttemeyer for one last envelope of money. It was Johnson’s last day as an OHA employee — he would be taking the job he still holds, managing the Omaha police vehicle impound lot.

Johnson had discovered during an investigation that Jafari had received federal rent payments for a tenant who had moved out of a Crown Point Avenue rental, a HUD agent testified.

At HUD’s direction, Johnson told Gruttemeyer he could cover up the results of his investigation.

On the line was about $6,200 in rent overpayments that Jafari would have to pay back.

Johnson went to the MM&L office where it had started three years earlier. He walked up stairs to a patio, where Gruttemeyer stood.

Gruttemeyer remained suspicious of Johnson, he testified. She spoke in a low tone and held up a handwritten sign with three questions:

Can we do this out here?

Is $700 enough?

Can I trust you?

‘Star Wars’ director got his start in ‘Omaha’

The director of the new “Star Wars” movie got his start in film with a picture shot in Omaha, set in Omaha and about Omaha. In fact, the movie was literally called “Omaha.”

Since working on “Omaha,” Rian Johnson has established himself as a filmmaker to watch with his work in “Brick,” “Looper” and three of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

Now the 43-year-old director has landed “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a film that has inspired so much faith in Johnson that Disney has signed him to make a whole new “Star Wars” trilogy as well.

It’s a rare vote of confidence from the studio, which has fired the majority of its “Star Wars” directors since reviving the franchise. Suffice it to say, Johnson’s profile is pretty high right now.

But long ago, before he took over the biggest movie franchise in the galaxy, Johnson worked as a lowly production assistant for the 1995 film “Omaha (The Movie).” (Production assistants do a lot, actually. The role carries a grab bag of tasks and responsibilities that help keep productions running smoothly.)

“Omaha” was a tiny movie, a micro-budgeted road-trip romcom shot mostly in Nebraska. It was the directorial debut of Omaha native Dan Mirvish, and Johnson’s first IMDb credit.

Johnson is currently far, far away and could not be reached for comment. But Mirvish, who now lives in L.A., recalls working with the future “Star Wars” filmmaker. He recounted the experience, in fact, in his recently published book, “The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking.”

When Mirvish was a grad student at the University of Southern California, he met a “plucky high school kid” who lived in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth. The kid, Steve Yedlin, brought along his buddy — an “equally precocious lad” named Rian Johnson. Johnson was born in Maryland, but his family moved to California when he was young.

The two high schoolers would stop by USC on the weekends to see if any grad student projects needed additional camera assistants.

Before Johnson and Yedlin even attended USC themselves, Mirvish said, they had a pretty solid grasp on filmmaking (at least the camerawork portion of it).

“It was clear even then that these guys were talented and worked well together as a team,” Mirvish said.

They’ve never stopped working together. Yedlin is Johnson’s longtime cinematographer, all the way up to “The Last Jedi” and likely beyond.

Back in the mid-’90s, Mirvish was making “Omaha” and needed to do one day of shooting in L.A. The crew was allowed to shoot on the Paramount lot, where they were filming a scene with Michael Scott, a former KETV news anchor who at that time was a correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight.”

Mirvish needed extra hands. And he knew where he could find two talented aspiring filmmakers. Yedlin worked as a camera assistant, and Johnson as a production assistant. “If you see (the ‘Omaha’) end credits,” Mirvish wrote, “you’ll see that I spelled Rian’s name with a ‘y.’ Oops.”

Despite the name gaffe, Mirvish and Johnson stayed friends.

Mirvish later submitted “Omaha (The Movie)” to Sundance, which rejected the film, spurring Mirvish to co-found his own fest, Slamdance Film Festival, in 1995. Slamdance did accept “Omaha (The Movie).” The Park City, Utah, fest is still running.

The second year of Slamdance, the fest accepted Yedlin and Johnson’s short film debut, “Evil Demon Golf Ball from Hell!!!”

And the year after that, Mirvish recruited Johnson to be a programmer for the festival. Around the time of the fest, Johnson showed Mirvish “a brilliant little high school noir script he was working on, called ‘Brick.’ ”

That movie (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) would take years to get off the ground, but Johnson eventually got it made. The film scored great reviews and launched a career that is probably just getting started.

It was clear to Mirvish, all those years ago when they first worked together, that Johnson had the right stuff.

“(He’s) humble, gracious, generous and an ingenious director who’s got an amazing knack for where to put the camera,” Mirvish said of Johnson, “but also how to get the most out of actors.”

He knew Johnson was good. But landing-a-“Star-Wars”-movie good? No one could have guessed that.

Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” which opens Thursday, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and promote and is expected to be the highest-grossing movie of 2017, further boosting the unfathomable profits of the most popular film franchise in this or any other universe.

But his career started with a movie called “Omaha,” which cost about $38,000 to make.

micah.mertes@owh.com, 402-444-3182, twitter.com/micahmertes

* * *

Out of ‘Omaha’

Not even counting the “Star Wars” director, great things have come out of “Omaha (The Movie)”:

» Dan Mirvish has been working in film ever since he directed “Omaha (The Movie),” most recently on “Bernard and Huey,” a dramedy written by Jules Feiffer. A further Omaha-y connection: One of the leads of “Bernard and Huey” is Jim Rash, who won a screenwriting Oscar alongside Alexander Payne for penning “The Descendants.”

» Jon Bokenkamp, the Nebraska native who would go on to create NBC’s “The Blacklist,” first worked as an assistant editor on “Omaha.”

» The film’s talent stretched all the way to the U.S. Senate and a presidential administration. Ben Nelson starred as himself in “Omaha,” and Chuck Hagel helped the movie get made. They each hold a credit on the film. The year after “Omaha” was released, Nelson and Hagel ran against each other for a Senate seat. Hagel won, but Nelson picked up the other seat four years later. Each man would go on to serve multiple terms in the Senate, and Hagel would serve as secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. But before then, each had a small part in a weird little film that would give an early break to the future director of a “Star Wars” movie.

Ashland man who shot himself before sexual assault conviction has died

Thomas M. McLaughlin died on Tuesday, just days after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 7-year-old and less than a week after he shot himself outside his Ashland home.

The 70-year-old was scheduled to be sentenced in February and faced 15 years to life in prison. He was also awaiting trial on five counts of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in Saunders County.

McLaughlin’s wife of seven years, Linda McLaughlin, filed for divorce at the end of November.

“All of this has been horrible,” Linda McLaughlin said, adding that she wants him to be remembered as a church member, an Eagle Scout, an architect, an artist, a father and a grandfather.

“Up until this last year, he had a lot of people who loved him and some still do. I’m just really, really sorry that this happened and that people were hurt. If there was anyway I could undo all of this, I absolutely would.”

After McLaughlin didn’t show up for court on Nov. 29, a Saunders County sheriff’s deputy went to check on McLaughlin and found him lying outside his home with a gunshot wound to the head. He was taken to Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy in extremely critical condition.

The next day, a judge in Douglas County refused the defense attorney’s motion to declare a mistrial, ruling that by shooting himself, McLaughlin had essentially waived his right to testify or be present in court.

Jurors were not told that the defendant had shot himself and deliberated for about three hours before finding him guilty of two counts of sexually assaulting a child.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said the victims “were very courageous to come forward.”

“It’s heartbreaking to have to see these two young girls go through this — first the trial and now this,” he said. “He ended everything by ending his own life.”

Services for McLaughlin were held Saturday at United Methodist Church in Ashland.

Iowa town bewildered by former star athlete’s link to Sydney Loofe case

LINCOLN — As friends and family in Nebraska mourn the death of Sydney Loofe, residents of an Iowa farm town are mystified that a one-time star athlete from there is involved in the tragic and bizarre case.

Bailey Boswell, 23, is one of two “persons of interest” being held for questioning in the death of Loofe, who disappeared after going on a date with Boswell on Nov. 15. The date was arranged through the online dating service Tinder.

Boswell grew up in Leon, Iowa, a community of 2,000 about an hour’s drive south of Des Moines, just north of the Missouri state line.

She is remembered as a popular and friendly kid from a good family. She was a standout athlete who once scored 25 points in a basketball game and is listed as a member of the fastest 200-meter relay team in Central Decatur Community Schools history.

But after graduating from high school in 2012, her life took a wrong turn, said a former neighbor. Court records and her own videotaped statements indicate she was involved with drugs.

“She got into a bad crowd,” said Madison Blades, who works at the local Casey’s convenience store in Leon. “She kind of went on a bad path.”

More recently, Boswell and a male accomplice, 51-year-old Aubrey Trail — the other “person of interest” in the Loofe case — have been charged with crimes involving passing bad checks at antiques shops.

In April the pair presented themselves as high rollers at an antiques auction in Pennsylvania and walked away with $28,000 in gold and silver coins purchased with a bad check, an antiques dealer said. Now, law enforcement officials suspect they were involved in a series of similar rip-offs across the country that might add up to $300,000 or more.

The two were first identified by Lincoln police as persons of interest in the Loofe case on Nov. 28.

The next day, Boswell posted a video on social media with Trail in which they denied involvement in the disappearance of Loofe. She said Loofe, 24, was dropped off at a friend’s house after she and Boswell drove around town, smoking marijuana and stronger marijuana derivatives called “wax” and “shatter.”

“I just want the family to know I’m truly sorry. I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Boswell said in the video, posted Nov. 29.

“I hope Sydney is found, too,” she said, calling her “a sweet, amazing girl.”

The case took a grim turn Monday when a body, believed to be Loofe’s, was discovered in a remote farm field in Clay County, Nebraska.

More than 27,000 people have followed a “Finding Sydney Loofe” page on Facebook.

But while officials have released few details, more is becoming known about Boswell and Trail.

The two had a very public reaction to being named “persons of interest,” going on social media to defend themselves.

“Weird” and “strange” were two words that a veteran Lincoln police investigator used to describe their posts.

In videos, they denied involvement, complained about authorities “chasing us around like dogs” and tried to shift blame to police, who they said didn’t respond to their phone calls. In a later video, they announced plans to turn themselves in.

Boswell and Trail were taken into custody near Branson, Missouri, on Nov. 30.

“To me, they were kind of acting like Bonnie and Clyde, or James Dean — a ‘rebel without a cause,’ ” said Larry Barksdale, who teaches forensic science courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He said he’d never seen such brazen posts in any past case.

Trail has a criminal record that includes two stints in Nebraska prisons for forgery and passing bad checks in Pierce and Dawson Counties. On the video, he also said he had been sought for crimes in Minnesota.

“I’m a thief but I’ll be goddamned, I’ve never killed anyone in my whole life,” Trail said.

Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt said he remembered Trail, “and not in a good way,” before he was sent to prison.

Representatives at antiques shops and malls in Omaha; Lincoln; Falls City, Nebraska; and Hiawatha, Kansas; said that Trail had frequented their shops.

Most said they were aware of his record of using bad checks. Antique toys and advertising signs were his favorites, said one dealer. Another said he arrived once with two young women.

In recent months, according to court files, it appears that Trail was working with Boswell in the antiques trade.

In April the two put on “a pretty good show” at an antique coin auction in York County, Pennsylvania, after sending several inquiries about the rules of participating in the auction.

Boswell showed up dressed in high heels, stylish slacks and a blouse that covered her extensive tattoos. Trail — who initially portrayed himself as Boswell’s father — sported a walking cane, a sweater vest and a chauffeur’s hat.

“They presented themselves as high rollers,” said Scott Wehrly of Wehrly’s Auction in Pennsylvania.

The couple produced a letter from a bank in Leon indicating that they had money to bid and that they were “players,” he said.

But the letter, as well as the $28,298 check provided by Boswell for antique gold and silver coins, were frauds.

“They were very professional,” Wehrly said. “I bet they sold (the coins) and had a heck of a party.”

Trooper Tyler Stepanchick of the Pennsylvania State Police said the two are suspected in theft and bad check cases from several states totaling between $300,000 and $500,000.

In Pennsylvania, Boswell is charged with three felony theft and bad check charges. She posted $7,500 in bail and is scheduled for a court appearance in February.

Court files in Pennsylvania indicate the Farmer’s Bank in Leon also reported that Boswell passed a fraudulent check of $15,391 in Kansas.

On Friday, Boswell and Trail were charged in federal court with unlawful transportation of stolen goods valued at $5,000 or more from Hiawatha, Kansas, to Nebraska.

Also Friday, Lincoln police posted a request for information on a Facebook page that focuses on crimes involving coins and collectors.

The post said Boswell and Trail were suspected in a counterfeit coin case in Lincoln in June, as well as other cases in Iowa, Utah, the central Plains and in the southeastern U.S., including Tennessee.

“We are also looking for additional victims,” the post stated.

In Wilber, Nebraska, the last place that a cell tower received a ping from Loofe’s cellphone, Boswell and Trail rented the basement of a house just yards from the town’s high school. The two had lived there for at least the past six months but were a mystery to most people in town.

One neighbor, Alex Schettler, said he noticed the two arguing a couple of times as they hurried to leave. He also said they didn’t return his friendly waves.

“I just thought ‘That’s not very Wilber-like,’ ” he said.

Clerks at the local convenience store said Boswell would come in alone most of the time, buy cigarettes, and prepay for gas. She dressed nicely, they said, and had manicured nails.

In Leon, Boswell was known as a girl who liked to dress up and wear false eyelashes. She had only one minor infraction during high school: failure to use a seat belt.

After high school she moved to northern Missouri. There, she had a child with a former high school football player. In February 2016 she filed a protection order against the father, who was living with her in Trenton, Missouri, alleging emotional and physical abuse. The toddler now lives with her parents in Leon.

In April 2016 she was arrested for possession of marijuana and use of drug paraphernalia in Lincoln, then failed to appear for a court hearing in May.

How Boswell became involved with a man twice her age remains unclear. In Wilber, people who saw Trail and Boswell together assumed they were father and daughter — until they saw them holding hands. In Pennsylvania, officials there believed they were engaged.

In Leon, Blades, Boswell’s former neighbor, said people thought she would go to college and maybe play basketball.

Instead, Boswell faces criminal charges in Nebraska and Pennsylvania, as well as questions about a woman’s disappearance and death.

“In high school, she really didn’t seem like that kind of person,” Blades said.

Tinder ‘fully cooperating’ with investigation of Syndey Loofe’s death

LINCOLN — An FBI spokesman said Friday that speculation about sex trafficking or other motives that might have led to Sydney Loofe’s death is just that.

“I’ve heard a lot of things going around, but it’s all speculative at this point,” said FBI spokesman Huston Pullen.

Loofe, 24, of Lincoln disappeared after going on a date with Bailey Boswell on Nov. 15. The two women met on Tinder, and the dating site said it’s “fully cooperating” with the FBI.

Boswell, 23, and Aubrey Trail, 51, are in custody as “persons of interest” in the case. In one homemade video, Trail said Boswell had a separate phone to access Tinder.

Authorities in sex trafficking say that having multiple cellphones or disposable phones is not uncommon for those involved in that activity, and that using a separate phone for such dates makes it harder to trace.

However, authorities have not announced any connection to sex trafficking in the Loofe case.

Meanwhile, Pullen said law enforcement teams were out Friday combing ditches for evidence west of Wilber, where Trail and Boswell last lived in a basement apartment.

Small evidence flags were visible along Highway 41 west of Wilber on Saturday. Similar flags that had lined a gravel road where a body believed to be Loofe’s was found north of the village of Edgar had been removed by Saturday.

Dozens of law enforcement officers, including some from the FBI, combed the two areas beginning Nov. 27 and had planted the flags, presumably as evidence markers.

Janet Haney of rural Edgar said some evidence was recovered from a marsh on her farm.

“The more I hear about (the case), the more scared I get,” Haney said Saturday.

Pullen said that some details are not being revealed to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

Pair of overnight fires leave buildings with significant damage, send 2 to hospital

LINCOLN, Neb. – A pair of overnight fires in Lincoln sent two people to the hospital and left several displaced.

The first fire was called in shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday at the 2600 block of N 5th St., near 5th St. and Nance Ave.

Lincoln Fire and Rescue Capt. Rick Schneider said the residents were able to escape without injury.

Capt. Schneider said the cause is believed to have been electrical, but an investigation is still ongoing.

The fire is being ruled as accidental.

Capt. Schneider said the fire caused an estimated $100,000 in damage.

At about 2:40 a.m. Sunday, Lincoln Fire and Rescue crews were called to a fire at Raintree Apartments at the 100 block of N 32nd St.

LFR Capt. Rick Schneider said two people were transported to the hospital to be evaluated.

Crews are still investigating to determine the cause of the fire, and Capt. Schneider said the fire caused an estimated $130,000 in damage.

No other injuries were reported.

3 killed in early morning car accident on I-480

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) — Three people died after a driver collided nearly head-on with another vehicle on I-480 early Sunday morning, police said.

Omaha police got a personal injury accident call just before 1 a.m. Sunday on I-480 southbound to the JFK southbound/I-80 eastbound on-ramps.

A preliminary investigation reveals a 2014 Chevy Cruze was going northbound in the southbound lanes of JFK when it hit another vehicle nearly head-on.

Three people were killed in the crash. Two were in one vehicle, and one person was in the other without a seat belt.

Nebraska State Patrol and the State Department of Roads were on scene to assist with the closure. Lanes were closed for about six hours.

Omaha police told our sister station WOWT 6 News that the traffic unit is working to identify the three victims. All three were adult men.

An autopsy is scheduled for Sunday morning.

Names will be released when next of kin has been notified.

At Lincoln vigil, Sydney Loofe is remembered for compassion for others

LINCOLN — At a candlelight vigil Saturday evening, Sydney Loofe, whose disappearance and death has drawn national attention, was remembered as a caring person who would help people she barely knew.

Addison Mills, who worked with the 24-year-old Loofe at a Menards store, said Loofe took in a male co-worker who didn’t have a place to live and was down on his luck.

Over several months, she helped the co-worker clean up, get to work on time and get caught up on his bills, Mills said.

“She’d give everything off her back to someone if they needed it,” she said. “She was the most caring person I ever met.”

Loofe, who lived in a duplex in Lincoln, went missing after going on a date with a woman set up via an online dating site on Nov. 15. A body believed to be hers was found Monday after nearly two weeks of searches. Foul play is suspected, and authorities have detained two persons of interest for questioning.

More than 120 people gathered at Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens for the candlelight vigil. Some wore green ribbons with the name “Sydney” on them. Some wiped away tears as songs that Loofe enjoyed were played.

Matthew Steele of Lincoln said he and his fiancée, Jessica Watson, organized the event even though they’d never met Loofe.

Steele said that the couple have a 2-year-old son and that learning that another family had lost someone so tragically “really hit close to home.”

Memorial services for Loofe will be held 10:30 a.m. Monday at Grace Lutheran Church in Neligh, her hometown. Visitation with the family will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the church.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that a monetary donation be made to be used for a memorial at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Beyer Snider Memorial Funeral Home in Neligh.

Nebraska students to be offered in-state tuition at USD

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The University of South Dakota has announced it will offer in-state tuition to first-year students and transfer students from Nebraska.

The Omaha World-Herald reports that the school in Vermillion, South Dakota, made the announcement Thursday, describing the change as a pilot program that has been formally approved by the South Dakota Board of Regents.

The university enrolls about 10,000 students.

USD competes in the Summit League, as does the University of Nebraska at Omaha. For football, the Coyotes play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. USD says a similar program last year in Iowa substantially increased its enrollment of Iowa residents.

In-state tuition and fees at USD total $8,772 this year for 30 credit hours.

Electrical Wiring Blamed in Norfolk House Fire

NORFOLK — Overheating and stress from electrical wiring appears to be the cause of a Friday house fire in Norfolk.

The home at 610 south 4th Street suffered over $60,000 in damage from a fire, according to a news release from Fire Captain John Reding. The Norfolk Fire Division responded to a 911 call of smoke and fire coming from the attic at 2:43 PM on Friday afternoon.

Upon arrival, the residents had evacuated the home and firefighters found the fire in the second floor and attic areas. The news release says the firefighters encountered heavy smoke and fire in the second floor but were able to contain the fire to the upper floor. The building sustained heavy damage to the roof and second floor.

There were no injuries to the residents or firefighters during the incident.

The building is owned by Christ Lutheran Church, which is directly west of the house, and was occupied by Greg and Jamie Dempster and their family. A GoFundMe page set up for the family says all of their belongings were in the house and nothing is salvageable.

Firefighters remained on scene for several hours to completely extinguish the blaze and conduct their investigation. Fire Marshal Terry Zwiebel and Fire Inspector Nate Wortman conducted the investigation and determined electrical wiring in the wall and attic started the fire. NPPD, Black Hills Gas and the Norfolk Police Department assisted during the incident.

The GoFundMe page for the family can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/family-fire-help-them-restart.