Nikko Jenkins and Anthony Garcia eat alone and bunk alone, but they have plenty of company at the Douglas County Correctional Center.
The accused killers are among 30 jail inmates waiting to be tried or sentenced on homicide charges.
That's the largest number of homicide suspects housed at the jail at any one time in at least three decades, according to the recollections of longtime staff members. The number of such prisoners has led to new security measures and beefed-up training and has increased vigilance among the correctional staff.
“I don't think anybody thought we'd ever have this many murder suspects in Omaha, Neb.,” said Mark Foxall, Douglas County Corrections director.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer credits the surge to improvements in police work.
The Omaha Police Department's clearance rate for 2013 stands at 84 percent — the highest it has been in years and well above the national average of roughly 65 percent. Police consider a case cleared once an arrest is made.
Schmaderer said changes within the department, including more collaboration with federal and local agencies, have allowed detectives to make arrests in more homicide cases, including five that had gone cold.
“We've made a strong emphasis within the Omaha Police Department that murders and violent crime are going to get our full attention,” the chief said. “We do everything in our power to make the (homicide) unit as strong and as powerful as possible.”
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine is seeking the death penalty for Jenkins, Garcia and Sergio Martinez-Perez, the 19-year-old accused of raping and murdering a 93-year-old woman this past summer. Kleine said his attorneys are swamped as they prepare to prosecute those and other homicide cases in the coming months.
“It's one thing to charge someone, but it's another thing to prepare evidence and prepare the case for trial,” Kleine said. “All cases we handle are serious, but these have the highest stakes involved. We follow through to the end.”
At the jail, corrections officers are taking extra precautions in the face of so many suspects accused of homicide. Officers have been trained to use new restraints that can be placed on inmates' wrists and ankles through a slot in a door, enabling corrections officers to shackle suspects before opening a cell, Foxall said.
Jail supervisors have started carrying pepper spray. And no homicide suspects held in the jail's segregated wing — including Jenkins, Garcia and Martinez-Perez — are allowed cellmates or top bunks that could potentially be used to jump officers.
“There's a heightened sense of awareness,” Foxall said. “As a correctional facility, you have to adapt. ... Enhancing officer safety has been the focus given what's happened this year.”
So far this year, 35 people have been killed in Douglas County, the vast majority of them in Omaha. (Six more died in what authorities ruled as justified homicides.) Omaha police have arrested 27 suspects.
Police this year also closed five homicide cases from past years, including last year's gang-related shooting death of a 16-year-old Benson High student who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In accordance with FBI tracking, police included those arrests in their 2013 clearance rate.
Last year, police made arrests in 19 of 39 homicides, putting the 2012 clearance rate at 46 percent.
Schmaderer said police have sought more help from other agencies than in the past, a change that he and others said led to more arrests in homicide cases.
After the May slayings of an Omaha couple that bore some similarities to the killings of a Dundee boy and his family's housekeeper in 2008, Schmaderer put together a task force that included FBI agents. The task force ultimately arrested Garcia, and he was charged in all four deaths.
Police worked closely with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office to track down and arrest Jenkins three weeks after he was released from prison. During that time, prosecutors and police say, he had killed four people.
“Homicide investigators understand the importance of these cases, and they are willing to take them on,” said Deputy Chief Mary Newman, who has been with the department, much of it in homicide, for 24 years. “It becomes personal to them.”
In some cases, the officers from the felony assault unit have helped with homicide investigations.
“Due to the volume of cases ... we had to utilize our resources by having the felony assault squad and an ad hoc investigative team join the homicide investigations, and they were successful,” said Capt. Kerry Neumann, a 17-year veteran who heads the department's criminal investigation bureau.
Of the 30 in jail in connection with homicides, four have been convicted and will be moved to the state prison system after sentencing. Twenty are charged with first-degree murder; seven with second-degree murder; two with manslaughter; and one with child abuse resulting in death.
Two of the inmates are women — Sarah Cullen and Erica Jenkins, Nikko Jenkins' sister. Both are pregnant.
Some of the accused are in segregated housing, which is reserved for inmates who act out, have mental illness or are high-profile. They're dressed in yellow jumpsuits instead of the orange ones worn by prisoners in the general population.
Foxall wouldn't disclose how many are in segregated housing, but Garcia, Nikko Jenkins, Erica Jenkins and Martinez-Perez all donned yellow jumpsuits during recent court appearances.
Even with the yellow jumpsuits, new restraints, pepper spray and heightened awareness, it's no easy task to hold the accused killers for months as they await trial or sentencing, Foxall said. He said it's a high-stress job, as officers work daily to prevent injuries or escapes.
“People don't think about what happens after a person is removed from the street,” he said. “But once we get them here, we have to keep them here.”