Almost 26 years ago, an 8-year-old girl lay in bed in her Millard home, frozen in terror.
She had woken to the loud cries of her baby sitter in the bedroom next door. She had nodded when a young man poked his head in to say everything was OK, could he just shut her door?
Then Beth Ann Bushon spent the next three hours in utter fear, listening to sounds that haunt her to this day. The running down the hallway, the tromping up and down the stairs of her family’s split-level home. The creaking of the bird cage downstairs and squawking of Sunshine, her pet cockatoo. The crying and crying of her beloved “Chris,” as she called Christina O’Day, a sunny Millard South senior who was more big sister than sitter.
Chris was brutally murdered that night. Beth Ann was spared. But she was left with memories, fear and crushing guilt that she didn’t do more.
Now Beth Ann is determined to do something. She knows she can’t bring Chris back. But she can protest the potential early release of her killer. Beth Ann is returning to Omaha this week to attend a resentencing hearing for Christopher Garza, one of two men serving life sentences for Chris’ murder. She has written a statement that will be read aloud at the hearing, scheduled for Friday in Douglas County District Court.
Garza was 16 during the 1990 murder and thus eligible for a potentially lighter sentence under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared that life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. Under the 2012 ruling, judges can still impose life sentences, but they must consider other options.
Garza’s co-defendant, Wayne Brewer, is ineligible for resentencing because he was 18 at the time. Garza is one of 27 Nebraskans who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles and now are being resentenced.
For Beth Ann, the prospect of Garza leaving prison before he dies is “my worst nightmare come true.”
In 1990, Beth Ann was a second-grader at Walt Disney Elementary School and the only child of Martha Bushon, a widow who had been working the overnight shift at U.S. West Direct. Christina O’Day would come over and sleep in Martha Bushon’s bedroom next to Beth Ann’s. She’d get Beth Ann up in the morning, fed and off to school. Chris drove her own car and parked it in the Bushon garage.
Chris, then 17, lived two blocks away and had been baby-sitting overnight at the Bushon home for about a year. She had briefly dated Garza, who at one point also lived in the neighborhood. Garza had dropped out of Millard South. In early 1990, Garza was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where he met Brewer, a co-worker.
Both young men were eventually charged with robbery, rape and first-degree murder. Garza maintained his innocence; Brewer pinned him with the murder and gave this account:
The two visited the Bushon house, southwest of 108th and Q Streets, twice. They first came on Monday, March 19, 1990, when Martha Bushon was still home. Chris told them to leave.
The following night, in the early hours of March 21, Brewer and Garza returned. Garza needed money for car insurance and said they could rob the Bushons. Brewer went along with it. Garza cut the phone lines and a basement window screen, entering the house that way and letting Brewer in through the front door. Brewer loaded items into Christina O’Day’s car. He described watching Garza enter Beth Ann’s room, hearing Garza tell Beth Ann everything was OK. He said Garza was holding a crying Chris by the arm.
Brewer said they both raped Chris, who was gagged, tied to the bed and wearing a T-shirt.
He said Garza retrieved a butcher knife from the kitchen and went to the bedroom.
A forensic pathologist would later testify that Chris’ death was caused by one of three things: a deep cut to her right wrist, strangulation from an electrical cord tied tightly around her neck or asphyxiation from a scarf and hat used to gag her.
The commotion woke up Beth Ann, who then endured three hours of frozen fear until she heard someone leave around 5:30 a.m. She then drifted off to sleep and woke again when Chris’ alarm clock went off at 6:30 a.m.
Beth Ann slipped on some pants, crept outside her bedroom and peered inside her mother’s room, where she saw blood on the pillowcases and sheets. Creeping downstairs, she saw Sunshine’s feathers all over the floor and the home in disarray. She reached for the phone and dialed 911, but the line was dead.
So Beth Ann opened the front door and ran to a neighbor’s house.
“I rang the doorbell five times, but nobody answered,” she testified in 1990. “I went to the next house and rang the bell three times, but nobody came. I went to the third house and rang it once, and they were home. When he answered the door, I told him, ‘I think my baby sitter’s dead.’ ”
That day and in the weeks after, Beth Ann and her mother stayed at an aunt’s home. Beth Ann knew that Chris had died and attended the baby sitter’s funeral, which drew 700 to St. Gerald’s Catholic Church in Ralston and a nearby school gym that took the overflow. She talked to police officers and testified at Brewer’s trial. But she didn’t know the details until years later.
Looking back, Beth Ann said her mother and extended family worked hard to shield her from the horror. This was a feat given the publicity. In fact, the story was so widely covered that a Douglas County District Court judge decided to draw a jury from North Platte and Lincoln County for the Garza trial.
Garza maintained his innocence, saying he was home asleep when the murder happened. His family complained that the all-white jury was biased against him because he was half-Latino. His attorney raised questions about Brewer’s testimony, noting that Brewer faced the death penalty and had reason to blame Garza. As a juvenile, Garza could not be sentenced to death under Nebraska law.
But Garza, nevertheless, was convicted of first-degree murder and using a knife to commit a felony — a conviction upheld by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Citing the brutality of the murder, Douglas County District Judge Robert Burkhard declared that Garza should never be freed.
“I’ve been on the bench for a number of years and heard many murder trials,” Burkhard said during Garza’s sentencing. “This one is by far the most brutal I’ve ever heard.”
Martha Bushon pulled up stakes in Omaha, where she had family, and moved herself and Beth Ann to the southeastern United States — Beth Ann declined to say exactly where.
In high school, using the then-new Internet, Beth Ann learned more details about the murder, and she plunged into a deep depression. She suffered fear and terrible guilt. She returned to Omaha briefly to see her childhood counselor. She briefly attended Millard West, and then returned to the southeast United States.
She finished high school, attended college, got married and got a job, working as a fundraiser for a child advocacy group. She has tried to move on and has been successful in building a life for herself that wasn’t defined by this horrible thing that happened when she was a child.
Then came 2012 and the Supreme Court’s ruling on life sentences for juveniles. The high court called such sentences a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The court noted that offenders younger than age 18 don’t yet have fully formed brains, and imprisoning them for the rest of their lives is unconstitutional, in part, because of their immaturity.
This sent Beth Ann into a spiral of worry. She has had trouble sleeping. In recent weeks she has woken at 2:30 a.m., the time she remembers first hearing Christina O’Day’s cries.
“I relive it all,” she said, “over and over.”
She has decided to face this fear by attending Garza’s hearing. The hearing is on Friday, Beth Ann’s birthday. She will be 34. Garza, 42, is in the Tecumseh State Prison.
Though she can’t testify, she has written a statement that will be read in court. Beth Ann wants to give voice to Chris’s suffering, and to her own. She wants to move on.
“I couldn’t save her then,” she said. “But today all I can do is make sure he spends the rest of his life in jail.”