KEARNEY, Neb. — A Nebraska man apparently still stinging from a 2005 divorce is accused of killing his ex-wife and the lawyer who represented him in the dissolution.
Michael L. Petersen, 58, of Glenvil, was charged Friday morning in Hall County Court with first-degree murder in the shooting of Grand Island attorney Todd Elsbernd.
Next week, Petersen is expected to appear in Buffalo County Court to be charged with first-degree murder in the death of Nancy Petersen, his ex-wife whose body was found outside her rural Kearney home.
Elsbernd, 52, was killed outside his downtown law firm Wednesday night.
Nancy Petersen, 58, likely died sometime Wednesday, authorities said, but a neighbor didn't spot her body until Thursday morning.
Buffalo County Attorney Shawn Eatherton said at a press conference Friday in Kearney that Nancy Petersen's death was “absolutely domestic-violence related.” But no further details were released about the couple's relationship, before or after the divorce.
Petersen was arrested without incident around 5:30 p.m. east of Hastings by members of the Adams County Sheriff's Office and the Nebraska State Patrol. He was armed but offered no resistance, Capt. Kerry Mehlin of the Grand Island Police Department said.
Elsbernd was shot in the torso and died at St. Francis Medical Center on Wednesday night. Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken said investigators believe Elsbernd was shot with a rifle, but the exact caliber wasn't known Thursday. Two shots were fired from a parking lot, Lamken said.
Police are trying to determine if Elsbernd died before or after Nancy Petersen.
Eatherton said deputies called to Nancy Petersen's home initially thought she had a medical condition.
Investigators, however, soon determined that she had suffered a gunshot wound to the back.
There were no signs that Nancy Petersen struggled, and Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller said it was too early to determine what type of weapon was used in her death.
Miller said deputies hadn't responded to any disturbance calls at Nancy Petersen's home since the Petersens' divorce. According to online court records, Nancy Petersen filed for divorce in Buffalo County from Michael Petersen in January 2002. The divorce was finalized in February 2005.
The divorce was appealed to both the Nebraska Court of Appeals and the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Elsbernd is listed as having initially represented Michael Petersen in the divorce.
“It appears they had gone though a very rough divorce,” Miller said of the Petersens.
According to Nancy Petersen's cousin Joe Maul of Kearney, Petersen had recently become a grandmother for the second time and couldn't have been prouder.
“That's all she talked about. She would go on and on about them,” Maul said.
Nancy Petersen grew up in Amherst and had recently moved from Elm Creek to her home on Long Island Road where she lived by herself. Maul said she loved animals and had three dogs.
Recently, she took in two cats of a family member who died.
Maul said Nancy Petersen was also addicted to Facebook. “She didn't go two hours, unless she was working, without putting something on Facebook.”
It was when she hadn't posted anything on Facebook Wednesday evening that Maul said family members became concerned.
“That's what made us nervous is when we first heard about it, we jumped on Facebook and saw she hadn't done anything since Wednesday,” he said.
Family member Susie Maul of South Sioux City said Nancy Petersen was a jokester, whether it was clean or dirty, and told Ole and Lena jokes complete with the accent.
“She could just make you laugh,” Susie Maul said. “She could tell you a joke and never forgot a joke that she was told. She had a trucker's mouth from time to time, too.”
After Susie and Don Maul moved from Kearney to Sioux City 18 years ago, Nancy Petersen stayed in contact with the couple.
Faith also was important to Nancy Petersen and helped her get through the rough patches in her life.
“She was always caring and giving — always wanted the best for people and always tried to find the best in people. She was a good-hearted person. She was a real card and did not deserve to have this happen to her whatsoever. It's hard to take it all in,” Susie Maul said.
Hall County Attorney Mark Young described Elsbernd as a good attorney and a warm and caring individual.
“I think I speak for every attorney in central Nebraska when I say this is a really tragic day. This is a deeply felt loss,” Young said. “Todd was a respected attorney, a good opponent and a genuinely warm and caring individual. ”
Elsbernd was a partner in the law firm of Bradley, Elsbernd, Andersen, Kneale & Jankovitz.
According to the firm's website, he practiced civil and criminal litigation, including personal injury, divorce and child custody cases.
He presented cases before courts across central Nebraska, as well as the Nebraska Court of Appeals and the Nebraska Supreme Court. He received his undergraduate degree from Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney) in 1984 and graduated from Creighton University Law School in 1988.
Lawyers and staff from the firm released a statement expressing “shock and grief” at Elsbernd's death.
“We are concerned first for Todd's wife and three sons. He was a devoted husband and father. He was always proud to speak of the accomplishments of his boys and was actively involved in their activities. His wife, Jeanie, was the love of his life,” the statement said.
The firm noted that Elsbernd celebrated his 25th anniversary of being a member of the Nebraska State Bar Association earlier this week.
“He was a dear friend and well-respected lawyer,” they wrote. “He fought hard for his clients and was respected within the legal community for competence and honesty.”
World-Herald News Service reporters Sarah Schulz, Kim Schmidt and Jessica Kokoesh and World-Herald staff writers Emerson Clarridge and Alissa Skelton contributed to this report.