LINCOLN — Friends and family of missing Peru State College student Tyler Thomas have long said only death would prevent her from contacting them.
Now they have convinced a judge.
Nemaha County District Judge Daniel Bryan has taken the unusual step of declaring that Thomas, 19, died the night she was last seen on Dec. 3, 2010, even though her remains have not been found.
LaTanya Thomas of Omaha requested a death certificate for her daughter so she could continue to pursue wrongful death lawsuits. Thomas has filed claims in state and federal courts saying state college officials were negligent for failing to protect her daughter from another Peru State student who is a suspect in the disappearance.
Joshua Keadle, 32, has not been charged in the Thomas investigation. He currently is serving a 15- to 20-year prison term for the 2008 rape of a 15-year-old girl while he attended what's now known as Midland University in Fremont, Neb.
The Fremont victim came forward after news media reported Keadle was a person of interest in the Thomas investigation.
In a Nov. 12 order, Bryan said Thomas' cause of death remains unknown but the evidence leaves no doubt that she is dead.
State law presumes missing persons are deceased if they haven't been heard from after five years. A judge must find sufficient evidence to declare a person dead before five years expires.
Bryan described signed affidavits from multiple friends and relatives who said Thomas has not been heard from since she left an off-campus party. Nor has she used her financial accounts, Facebook or cell phone over the past three years.
LaTanya Thomas and Kevin Semans, Thomas' father, gave emotional testimony during an October court hearing, saying they are convinced their daughter was killed, said Omaha attorney Timothy Ashford, who represents the parents.
“It brought home a sense of finality to it,” Ashford said. “It brought it home that she was dead, even though we knew that.”
The judge ordered a death certificate to be issued no later than Monday.
The ruling allowed LaTanya Thomas to be named the special administrator of her daughter's estate. The title gives her standing in the lawsuits, Ashford explained.
She has sued the Nebraska State Colleges Board of Trustees and Keadle.
Keadle told authorities he picked up Thomas as she was walking from a party to a dormitory where they both lived. He said he drove her a remote spot near the Missouri River, where they had consensual sexual contact. Finally, he said he left her near the river after she threatened to accuse him of rape.
Authorities and volunteers searched the river and the hills surrounding the campus in the days after Thomas was reported missing.
Ashford said law enforcement authorities have told them the case remains open. Messages left Tuesday with Nemaha County Attorney Louie Ligouri were not returned.
After Ligouri declared a potential conflict of interest, the judge appointed Johnson County Attorney Julie Smith to represent Nemaha County in the death certificate matter. Smith did not oppose a motion to have the judge declare Thomas dead.