Nebraska county with few people, or assets, faces $28 million judgment for wrongful convictions

In this photo from Feb. 2, 2017, a city block is seen in downtown Beatrice, in Gage County, Neb. When six people went to prison for the 1985 rape and murder of a 68-year-old Nebraska woman, county officials figured they had put the gruesome high-profile case behind them. But after DNA evidence exonerated all six of the accused in 2008, the rural farming county just south of Lincoln found itself facing a new problem, a $28 million federal judgment that could force officials to file for bankruptcy. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) 02/26 — It started with a murder, was followed by a botched trial and has ended with a small Nebraska county facing a $30 million judgment it can’t possibly pay.

Now the farmers and small town residents of Gage County find themselves on the brink of a rare public bankruptcy, and wondering about possibly selling off the county’s road equipment, public buildings and few other assets to pay down the debt.

“It’s just devastating,” said Darrell Fletcher, who owns a carpet store in the county seat of Beatrice. “It’s going to affect the whole area — businesses, farmers, you name it.”

Red arrow shows location of Beatrice, county seat of Gage County, on Nebraska county map – (AP Stock)

The county’s problems stem from the horrific rape and killing of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in 1985 and the conviction months later of three men and three women who spent decades in prison before DNA evidence exonerated them and implicated an Oklahoma man who died in 1992. Those wrongly convicted filed a federal lawsuit claiming investigators recklessly worked to close the case despite contradictory evidence, and last July, a federal jury awarded them $28.1 million, plus additional money for attorney fees.

Unless the verdict is tossed out on appeal, which experts say is unlikely, the county will be ordered to immediately pay the $30 million.

That’s a mind-boggling prospect in a rural county of 22,000 residents that only collects $8 million in taxes a year. The county, on the Kansas border about a 90-minute drive from Omaha, is mostly cropland.

Bankruptcy is “definitely an option on the table,” said Myron Dorn, the county board’s chairman, but it’s not clear how that would work.

Only a handful of cities and counties have sought bankruptcy protection in the nation’s history. The biggest was Detroit, in 2013. Bankruptcy is normally out of the question for cities and counties because, theoretically, public jurisdictions can raise taxes to pay off their debts.

But Nebraska’s constitution caps how much revenue can be raised from property taxes, and Gage County could raise only about another $3 million before hitting the legal limit. Although residents could vote to go higher, chances of approval are slim in a place where median household income is about $35,000 and farmers are struggling with low commodity prices. Don Schuller, a 61-year-old farmer, said paying off the judgment in one year would cause the county portion of his tax bill to quadruple.

“I think for a lot of people in Gage County, the unknown is the part that’s giving them the most stress,” Dorn said. “We get all kinds of questions about what’s going to happen. And, well, we just don’t know yet.”

When Detroit faced bankruptcy, it had valuable assets like the art in the city’s art museum, although private donations helped avert a sale of masterpieces.

In Gage County, the assets consist mostly of the courthouse, bridges and roads.

“You need those things to keep the county functioning,” said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

Attorney General Doug Peterson has rejected the idea of a state loan, and the county’s insurance companies say the judgment isn’t covered.

“I just hate the thought of them holding the citizens accountable for that money,” said Nick Jurgens, who owns a computer repair shop on Beatrice’s main drag. “It wasn’t really any of our faults.”

But Jeffry Patterson, who litigated the case for the wrongly accused, said it has to find a way to pay up. “Some of our clients are not in good health, and I’d really like to see them reap some benefit,” he said. One of the six died in a factory accident in 2011. He declined to make the others available for an interview, saying they want to be left alone.

If Gage County files for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, it will follow the path taken by Jefferson County, Alabama, in 2011. Jefferson County had to lay off employees, close a hospital and sell a nursing home, among other assets, to defray a $4.2 billion debt.

Gage County has little to sell.

“Wow,” said David Carrington, a commissioner in Jefferson County. “They’re in real a mess.”,-assets-faces-huge-judgment

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.




Posted in: Court Rulings, Courts & Trials, Forensics/DNA Evidence, Homicide, Investigations, Lawsuits, Victims of Crime, Wrongful Convictions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

18 − 17 =

Terms of Use for Posting Comments

Terms of Use

This site (the “Site”) is operated and maintained by Law Enforcement Education Foundation, Corporation (“Company”). Throughout the Site, the terms “we”, “us” and “our” refer to Company.  The words “user,” “you” and “your” as used herein refer to you.

Please read these terms and conditions of use (“Terms of Use”) carefully before contributing content. If you do not agree to these Terms of Use, please do not contribute content. Your use of the Site is subject to the Terms and Conditions found here .

By contributing content to the Site, you represent and warrant that you are at least eighteen (18) years old and that you have read and understand these Terms of Use and any amendments thereto and agree to be bound by them. If you are not at least eighteen (18) years old or you do not agree and accept these Terms of Use, you are prohibited from contributing content.

From time to time, we may permit users to submit content to the Site.  You hereby acknowledge and agree that by submitting remarks, comments, suggestions, ideas, graphics, feedback, edits, concepts, comments, photographs, illustrations and other materials (other than personal information and/or registration information) through the Site (individually and collectively, “Submissions”), you (i) grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such Submissions throughout the world in any media, now known or hereafter created, without attribution to you; (ii) grant us the right to pursue at law any person or entity that violates your and/or our rights in your Submissions; and (iii) forever waive any and all of your rights, including but not limited to moral rights, if any, in and to your Submissions, including, without limitation, any all rights or requirements of attribution or identification of you as the author of the Submission or any derivative thereof.  We reserve the right to remove any of your Submissions from the Site, in whole or in part, without notice to you, for any reason or no reason.

Submissions are made voluntarily. Any submissions which include personally identifiable information are subject to our Privacy Policy found here .  You may not upload or otherwise publish content on the Site that (i) is confidential to you or any third party; (ii) is untrue, inaccurate, false or other than an original work of your authorship; (iii) that relates to or impersonates any other person; (iv) violates the copyright, trademark, patent or other intellectual property rights of any person or entity; (v) contains any content, personally identifiable information or other information, or materials of any kind that relate or refer to any other person or entity other than the provider of the products, goods or services to which the Submission relates; or (vi) violates any law, or in any manner infringes or interferes with the rights of others, including but not limited to the use of names, information, or materials that (A) libel, defame, or invade the privacy of any third party, (B) are obscene or pornographic, (C) are harmful, threatening, offensive, abusive, harassing, vulgar, false or inaccurate, racially, sexually, ethnically or are otherwise objectionable or otherwise contrary to the laws of any place where such Submissions may be accessed; (D) constitute personal attacks on other individuals; (E) promote criminal, immoral or illegal activity; (F) promote or advertise any person, product or service or solicit funds; or (G) are deemed confidential by any contract or policy.

You are solely responsible for any Submissions you make and their accuracy. We take no responsibility and assume no liability for any Submissions posted by you or any third party.

Unless approved by us in writing in advance, you agree not to: (i) provide or create a link to the Site; or (ii) create any frames at any other sites pertaining to any of the content located on the Site.

We reserve the right, in our discretion, to update, change or replace any part of these Terms of Use for Posting Comments by posting updates and/or changes to our Site.  It is your responsibility to check this page periodically for changes.  Your continued use of, and/or access to the Site, following the posting of any changes to these Terms of Use for Posting Comments, constitutes your acceptance of those changes.