When The Bill Comes Due In Gage County

One of the most obvious reasons people should care about bad cops and prosecutors is that DNA has brought some of the mistakes home. Not just that it happened, but to actual homes, in the form of property tax. You’re willing to accept mistakes? You support cops, even when they’re wrong, violent, racist or criminals? Not that it’s a fair position, but it’s certainly not unique.

Then the bill comes due. Not always, and not enough as many cases have no DNA to prove innocence and so the errors will never be found, the innocent never freed. But in those few that are, the cost can be steep. And as the people of Gage County, Nebraska, found out, it can be a bill from decades before. And it can be costly.

The tangled case began in February 1985, when Ms. Wilson was found inside the apartment where she lived by herself. She had been beaten, raped and suffocated.

A horrible crime anywhere, but especially in a rural county in eastern Nebraska.

As the official investigation went cold, a former Beatrice police officer, Burdette Searcey, was pursuing his own private investigation, and eventually took over the case after he was hired as a Gage County sheriff’s deputy in 1989.

Mr. Searcey, who did not respond to a request for comment, focused on six mostly poor, troubled people with loose ties to Beatrice. Some had substance abuse problems and criminal records. One of the three women charged in the murder said she had been sexually assaulted multiple times as a girl and had spent her life dealing with mental illness. Another had developmental disabilities and said she had been raped by her stepfather.

Searcey accomplished two things. He closed the case and did so without implicating anyone people cared about.

“None of us were living aboveboard lives,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “We were all partyers. We were all basically chemically induced idiots. That made us disposable. That made it O.K. for them to throw us away.”

The only problem was that DNA subsequently proved the false confessions and testimony were, well, false.

A task force led by Nebraska’s attorney general then identified the real killer as Bruce Allen Smith, who had been 22 at the time of the murder and was seen heading toward Ms. Wilson’s apartment building the night she was killed. Mr. Smith died in 1992.

The defendants sued and won a judgment for a total of $28 million. The cost of such judgments is hard for large geographical areas to swallow. For Gage County, the bill was harsh.

Gage County spent a decade and nearly $2 million in legal fees fighting the suit, rejecting offers to settle for $15 million, before its final appeals were rejected by the United States Supreme Court early this month. The county’s insurance will not cover the judgment, which puts taxpayers on the hook for the full $28 million.

There’s no big pot of money sitting around to pay the judgment, and there’s no vast number of taxpayers around whom it can be divided, so no one feels the pinch too hard.

“I wasn’t even born,” said Nick Faulder, 25, who manages a paint store. He expects to pay an additional $3,500 in property taxes this year on his family’s 320-acre farm. “I’m unfortunate enough to have to pay for the mistakes of the past leadership.”

There are two ironies here, the first being obvious in that Faulder couldn’t influence, even if he was so inclined, the manner in which the case was investigated or prosecuted before he was born. The second is that it’s not clear what past leadership got wrong, based upon law enforcement methodologies of the time.

Sure, they elicited false memories and statements, but that was largely the point of the Reid Technique. This was how cases were solved. But for DNA, this would have been a huge investigative success. After all, they got a conviction at Joseph White’s trial, the only case not to end with a plea.

Had it only been the price of the bill, the personal impact on the residents of Gage County who did no wrong, but pay for the mistakes of others, it would be understandable. But there was a secondary complaint as well.

But a darker view also pervades conversations across Beatrice’s downtown among those who still believe that the six people who were convicted are guilty, despite the pardons, the DNA evidence and the state-run investigation identifying a different killer.

It’s not enough that the Beatrice Six spent a collective 77 years in prison for a crime committed by some dead guy, but that the DNA exoneration still doesn’t end the belief that, facts be damned, they were guilty of something.

“They knew too much about it to be innocent,” Karen Probst said one afternoon as she chatted with customers inside her family’s quilting store. Her family owns hundreds of acres of precious irrigated land outside Beatrice, with tax bills that she said were likely to increase by $10,000 or more.

Is this because Karen Probst is angry that her share of the bill is so high, and so she manufactures an excuse that’s comforts her at the expense of the disposable but innocent Beatrice Six? And then there’s the “real victim” rationalization.

“She’s the forgotten person in this,” Mr. Houseman said one morning, standing at the counter of his family’s dry-cleaning business, where he has spent 30 years answering people’s questions about his grandmother’s murder.

Whether Helen Wilson is forgotten is up to the people of Gage County. There is no question that there was a murder victim here, as without it there wouldn’t have been a Beatrice Six to sit in prison for a killing they didn’t do. But that doesn’t change the issue at hand, that there is a $28 million judgment and Gage County has to get the money to pay it from somewhere, even if that means it has to reach into the pockets of people who did nothing wrong, weren’t even alive at the time.

Ms. Gonzalez said she was struck by the irony.

“Because I know about paying for something somebody else did,” she said.

The bill has come due and it has to be paid. Not to rub salt in the wound, but there may be more bills due as well.

23 thoughts on “When The Bill Comes Due In Gage County

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s what makes this scenario particularly interesting. Were they really sins, or was this just the ordinary injustice of the system grinding away?

  1. John Barleycorn

    Interesting county website Gage has. They don’t have a parks and recreation department but they do have a Weed Superintendent. So baring the Weed Superintendent getting the county in on some of that broad leaf pesticide cash I don’t think they will be selling any park land.

    The county does have some job openings though. Corrections officers both full and part time as well as a part time office assistant with spreadsheet expertise. Go figure?

    Could be worse for they tax payers though as the District Court Clerks Office does have a self help tab, which is nice, I think…. I wonder if that self help tab will have a drop down for forfeitures and a disclaimer about speed traps in the near future after the Board of Supervisors wrap up their next session?

      1. John Barleycorn

        Well the underlying premise of your post, over the long term has some potential flaws.

        And seeing as it is tax time I wouldn’t want your readers to start thinking that over the long term that the great American philosophy of having other people pay at least part of any given municipalities tax burden is going away anytime soon.

        I will endeavor to time the placement of my back page observations towards the footnote section in the future…

        See you at the Board of Supervisors meeting! If Karen brings cookies, I will bring the crayons and vodka. Nothing like crayons, vodka, cookies, and the agenda handout to keep a guy occupied during the closed door executive parts of a good old fashion County Sup Meeting. The county Insurance agenda item is gonna be ROCKING!!!

  2. B. McLeod

    This has always been the problem with how 1983 liability works. The people actually responsible for the conduct are not held accountable, but the taxpayers pay the check.

  3. Korey Reiman

    The missteps have continued from the initial hiring of inept police in the 80’s, to when the next county board let their insurance coverage lapse in the 90’s, to when the county chose to reject settlement offers. These same folks that cry we had nothing to do with it! Were the same who wanted the county to reject any settlement because “they must be guilty!!”

  4. Igor Kaplunov

    The cult of authority is strong in this country. It’s a deeply unnerving feeling once you realize it.

  5. Noe Kiddin

    “But that doesn’t change the issue at hand, that there is a $28 million judgment and Gage County has to get the money to pay it from somewhere, even if that means it has to reach into the pockets of weren’t even alive at the time.”
    And nothing else written in the post resolves the issue. So what, if in spite of the established facts, people in “conversations across Beatrice’s downtown” choose to “still believe that the six people who were convicted are guilty…” So what if there is “‘real victim’ rationalization.”
    The post merely restates the obvious, viz, Gage County owes a judgment and the people of the county with the money, mostly real estate taxpayers, will pay it, including those who were around at the time and those who came late to the party.
    Cops and sheriff deputies often use improper, illegal or illegitimate means to get the results they want without regard to the truth and when they get caught and are made to pay, the taxpayers pay the bill. Such events are widely reported and well known.
    It is probably fair to state the “people who did nothing wrong” are the same people who often vote for frugal and parsimonious supervisors who promise lower taxes and for sheriffs who are “tough on crime.” Those voters and those who vote otherwise get to pay for actions of the officials the majority elects. That is part of the deal and teaches the lesson to choose wisely.
    For Gage County and its small population, it will just take longer and perhaps affect proportionately more people who participated and who did not participate in the decision on who to elect, than a county with more people and bigger pockets.

    1. SHG Post author

      You expected a solution from the post? I expect more than repetition of the obvious from a comment. We’re both disappointed.

      1. SHG Post author

        Many people are all for reparations because of the sin of slavery, the racism faced by the descendants of slave, the existence of a nation built on the back of slavery. But when it comes time to actually pay, people have to dig into their pockets to come up with the money, when they didn’t own slaves, they weren’t racist, their descendant weren’t even here until 20 years ago and had nothing to do with slavery.

        Theoretical ideas are much easier to swallow than actually paying for them.

  6. Jardinero1

    That municipalities make decisions that affect future generations of taxpayers is not novel. Other than for the salaries of municipal employees, the vast majority of current municipal tax revenues go to municipal sinking funds dedicated to retiring municipal debt, i.e. debts incurred by previous municipal decision makers, but to left to future taxpayers who had nothing to do with it. Every municipality, also faces lawsuits, settlements and judgments. Those lawsuits are inevitably the consequence of something that happened in the past that has nothing to do with today’s taxpayers. Nothing to see there. Municipalities can either tax additionally to meet their obligations or, more typically, they can default or declare bankruptcy and thus renegotiate. That this municipality is choosing to tax and make good on its obligations instead of defaulting is what is truly novel.

  7. Chris Halkides

    From what I can gather Oklahoma forensic chemist Joyce (black magic) Gilchrist incorrectly excluded the actual murderer by mistyping his blood. Therefore, a small portion of the blame should be placed elsewhere.

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