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Crime-and-courts
Nebraska’s new lethal injection drugs came from Gretna pharmacy

LINCOLN — A Gretna company, Community Pharmacy Services, obtained the four drugs used in the August 2018 execution of double-murderer Carey Dean Moore, the state’s first execution in 21 years.

The supplier was revealed in 44 pages of public documents released late Thursday by the Nebraska Department of Corrections after the ACLU of Nebraska, The World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star sued for their release.

The owner of the company, Kyle Janssen, issued a statement shortly after the records were released saying that Community Pharmacy Services regretted its decision to sell those drugs and that it has not sold drugs to the Nebraska prison system, or any other correctional department, since.

“I regretted the decision as it does not align with our company’s values to provide the best patient care and customer service to the long-term care industry,” he said.

Janssen, who is a member of the Gretna school board, said the pharmacy was hired to manage pharmacy operations for state corrections facilities from 2016 to 2018. As part of that contract, the state asked the company to legally sell drugs to the department. The company followed all federal Drug Enforcement Administration protocols, and understood the potential use of those drugs, Janssen said.

Nebraska used a novel, four-drug cocktail to execute Moore. Because it was the first time the combination was used in a lethal injection execution, questions were raised about whether the combination would cause undue pain and suffering.

The four drugs used were diazepam (a sedative), fentanyl (a powerful opioid painkiller), cisatracurium (a paralyzing drug intended to stop the inmate’s breathing) and potassium chloride (a drug that causes a heart attack in high doses). That four-drug combination has not been used by any state since, according to Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center based in Washington, D.C.

At least one of the drugs, potassium chloride, was set to expire the month that Moore was put to death.

The records indicated that a fifth drug was also obtained: hydromophone, a potent painkiller sold under the brand name Dilaudid. But Dunham speculated that Nebraska officials declined to use it after the drug was one of two used in a botched execution in Arizona.

The documents didn’t make clear how much the state paid Community Pharmacy for the drugs, though it appears that the amount was about $10,500.

Redacted documents on August 2018 execution

In a fall 2017 email, Tyler Johnson, director of operations at Community Pharmacy, said the Gretna business would charge the state $8,000 for the four drugs but would discount that to $5,000 if Community Pharmacy became the contracted pharmacy for the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

The pharmacy later billed the state for two payments, one for $8,000 and one for $2,500.

The records released Thursday indicated that the drugs were tested for purity by the State Crime Lab, a Nebraska Department of Agriculture lab in Yutan — a lab that normally tests fertilizer — and a private lab in Minnesota.

The manufacturer of the cisatracurium used in the execution, Frensenius Kabi, a German company, had sued the state unsuccessfully to block the use of its drugs in the execution, saying they had not been obtained by an authorized representative.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed the lawsuit, saying he would not frustrate the will of Nebraska voters, 61% of whom voted to overturn a legislative repeal of capital punishment in 2016.

On its website, Community Pharmacy describes itself as an “independently owned,” “different kind of (long-term care) pharmacy.”

“Community Pharmacy was started in 2007 when two forward thinking pharmacists found a need in their community for a long-term-care pharmacy dedicated to doing what was right, taking care of both the residents and the facility,” the website says.

In an email to Dr. Harbans Deol, the Corrections Department medical director, Johnson acknowledged that any work with the state on executions would be a departure from Community Pharmacy’s typical business of providing medications for seniors.

Obtaining drugs to carry out lethal injections has been a roadblock in the U.S. for years, with several pharmaceutical companies blocking the use of their drugs. That, in turn, has raised concerns about the source of the drugs that are being used and their purity and effectiveness.

One of the invoices from Community Pharmacy alluded to the difficulty in obtaining such drugs: “Since most of the products needed are rare in our world, we are going to have to bill for most of all of it. For payment, we could take a cash payment or a check written to CPS.”

In recent months, state officials have indicated that they have not attempted to obtain new lethal injection drugs because there are no executions scheduled in Nebraska.

Moore, who spent 38 years on death row, was condemned for the slayings of two Omaha cabdrivers, Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland, in 1979.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said that after years of waiting, the public finally got access to records they were entitled to from the beginning.

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“Today is another win for open government and the ACLU was proud to be a part of the effort to shine a bright light on the source of the lethal injection drugs utilized by the State of Nebraska as it rushed to carry out an execution shrouded in secrecy from start to finish,” she said.

Dunham, the national death penalty authority, said every state that continues to use capital punishment is trying to shield the source of its drugs. He said the remorseful statement issued by the Gretna pharmacy was the first such statement by a supplier that he was aware of.

“It would appear that the company sold its values and developed seller’s remorse after cashing the check,” he said.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in May that state officials must release documents revealing where Nebraska got the lethal injection drugs used to execute Moore. The ruling marked a victory for the newspapers and the ACLU, which had sued the Corrections Department for denying their separate public records requests.

The state had argued that the records should be confidential because they could lead to the identification of members of the execution team. Those identities are protected under state law.

But the high court rejected the state’s arguments, saying they “contradict the text of Nebraska’s public records statutes and are adverse to this court’s public records precedent.” It ordered the department to redact confidential portions of the documents, such as the names of execution team members, and release the rest.

The newspapers and the ACLU had filed their open records requests before Moore’s execution and after prison officials announced that they had obtained supplies of four drugs they planned to use for an execution.

The documents at issue include purchase orders, chemical analysis reports, communications with the drug supplier, DEA forms, invoices, inventory logs and a photograph of the packaging in which the drugs arrived.

World-Herald staff writers Todd Cooper and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

The 12 men on Nebraska’s death row and their crimes

Local
Founder says she's sad for workers after Joe Ricketts closes pie-making facility in Eustis

Judith Larsen turned her American dream into a small-town Nebraska reality with her Village PieMaker business, and the operation has gone cosmopolitan under a big-name owner.

By the time Larsen and husband Chuck got out of the business two years ago, the Village PieMaker produced about 2,000 pies and used 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of fruit daily, Larsen said. When they left, the business had about 35 employees in the south-central Nebraska town of Eustis, where the enterprise grew up, she said Thursday.

Larsen’s is the story of entrepreneurship and diligence. It’s also a story of what happens when great success blossoms from small beginnings.

JEFF BEIERMANN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Joe Ricketts

Joe Ricketts, father of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, acquired the Village PieMaker from Larsen. Joe Ricketts announced this week that he would close the original Eustis production site and move the operation entirely to the Omaha area.

He said in a written statement issued Wednesday: “Today, we closed the Village PieMaker production facility in Eustis. … It was a difficult decision, and not one I reached lightly.”

Joe Ricketts founded the TD Ameritrade stock-trading company and owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team with his family. He said the growth of the Village PieMaker and enhanced food safety standards played a role in the decision. The Village PieMaker now has what he called a “state of the art” production facility near 132nd Street and Giles Road in Sarpy County.

“Joe Ricketts approached us,” Larsen said. “And that’s kind of what started the ball rolling.”

Judith "Jude" Larsen

She said she was sorry the Eustis facility had closed and “sad for the people who had the rug pulled out from under them.” Ricketts “was good to do business with and he made the decision I guess he thought he had to make.”

Ricketts said he has offered the employees a chance to move to the Sarpy facility. Gov. Ricketts said in a statement Thursday that he “understands that yesterday was an incredibly difficult day for Eustis. The company has announced that teammates will be offered new positions, and the Department of Labor has reached out with reemployment and training services.”

Joe Ricketts, 79, splits time between Nebraska and Wyoming residences.

Larsen learned how to make pies from her grandmother in Nebraska’s Sand Hills and got good enough to clear out a spare bedroom and build a pie kitchen in Sumner, Nebraska.

She bartered with pies and sold them. One time she used pie to hire a man to drag an upright piano from the basement. “I learned that you could get a man to do just about anything if you offered him a pie,” she said.

Then it was on to the village of Eustis, population 401, where in 2003 she rented an old creamery for her business. Sales took off. She named it the Village PieMaker, saying every place has its village drunk and village idiot, and she would be its piemaker. “No canned stuff” became the company’s motto.

KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Judith Ogden prepares pie filling at her "Village Pie Maker" bakery in Eustis, Nebraska, in 2004.

She sought to produce pies that tasted homemade and looked homemade. “I wanted a product that people could be proud of because making a pie is a dying art,” she said.

She dated a Cozad man in the radio business named Chuck Larsen (she was Ogden at the time), and she compelled him (with pie) to become her salesman. They married in 2005.

Chuck Larsen was an excellent marketer and salesman, she said. He drove throughout the Midwest signing up restaurants, grocery stores, meat lockers and other places that wanted to sell their fruit pies.

They had a fruit broker in New York, and Judith “Jude” Larsen employed truckers, pastry makers, assembly workers, packagers and cleaners for the Eustis business. “We hired people and not machines,” she said. She worked long hours beside those people and also kept the books.

“In the early days, I worked 80 hours a week in that shop,” she said. “In the beginning, I would do every job that everybody else would do.”

They made millions of dollars, she said, and they invested millions back into the business.

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Larsen, now 59, decided that she and Chuck needed more time with their seven grandchildren from a blended family of four kids. Her husband was a bit worn out from driving constantly throughout the region.

They moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2016, which was between grandchildren in Tennessee and Nebraska. She sold to Ricketts in 2018, she said.

They live comfortably, she said, but are far from retired. Chuck is 74 and still reffing soccer games. She has started a small business in which she uses a “longarm sewing machine” to assemble quilts. “I’m an entrepreneur and I’m also somebody who can’t sit still,” she said.

Who knows? Maybe her new business will do fairly well.


Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

Local
breaking
Mask mandate may be coming to Omaha

Douglas County health officials, working with Omaha officials, are moving toward requiring people to wear masks in indoor public spaces in Omaha.

Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, said Thursday that she thinks it’s time to take the step.

Adi Pour

“We need to get our cases under control if we want to get our schools open,” Pour said at a press briefing with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.

Pour said she and members of the Douglas County Board of Health began investigating their options this week after the Lancaster County Health Department announced that people would be required to wear masks in indoor public places there, with some exceptions. That measure took effect Monday.

But Douglas County has different regulations than Lancaster County.

Pour said she can’t do what Lancaster County did without permission from the state.

But Stothert said Omaha’s city code gives Douglas County’s health director the authority to make rules and regulations for the city during epidemics and public health emergencies.

Stothert said Pour “is the one that has the authority to make rules and regulations for public health and safety.”

Jean Stothert

The rule, if it goes into effect, would not apply to Douglas County communities outside Omaha.

Stothert said she would prefer that every Omahan voluntarily wear a mask when they can’t distance from others.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said this week that the Lancaster County mandate is an example of government overreach that isn’t backed by hard data.

Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said Thursday that Ricketts is reviewing whether Douglas County health officials have the authority to mandate masks.

Stothert said she must consider how a mask mandate would be enforced. Police and prosecutors, she said, are already busy.

But when asked whether she would stand in the way of Pour issuing a mandate, Stothert said she and Pour would have to discuss the matter.

“I value her expertise, I need to value her expertise … but I want to make sure we’re doing the right thing at the right time,” the mayor said.

Also to be considered would be the length of a mandate. Stothert said Pour has indicated that she would like to keep the measure in place until the end of August and then reevaluate. That’s the same plan announced by Lincoln’s mayor.

Pour said the measure would likely closely mirror Lancaster County’s rules. That measure includes a number of exceptions, including for people exercising or eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant. Those who can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition and people seeking state or county government services don’t have to wear masks, either.

Pour said she will have further discussions with the mayor and others in the community. “It looks like we’re going to go ahead,” she said, “but it’s going to take a few more days.”

Chris Rodgers

Chris Rodgers, president of the Douglas County Board of Health, said a consensus has emerged in public health quarters that masks, along with social distancing and proper hand hygiene, are important in reducing the spread of the virus.

Wearing masks is also seen as a means of keeping businesses open and allowing schools to safely reopen.

“If you want to avoid another lockdown,” Rodgers said, “you’ve got to put masks on.”

Rodgers said the Board of Health would have to take action on a mask requirement to cover the rest of the county outside Omaha.

Cases in Douglas County, Lancaster County and the state as a whole ticked up last week. This week’s rate of positive tests in Douglas County reached 11.6% on Thursday, Pour said. At the end of last week, it was 7%.

Pour also provided an update on COVID-19 cases. Some 61% of the county’s cases, she said, have been in people ages 34 and younger.

She also provided an age-group breakdown for young people in Douglas County:

» Birth to age 4: 127 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

» Ages 5 to 9: 139 cases.

» Ages 10 to 14: 220 cases.

» Ages 15 to 19: 607 cases.

» Ages 20 to 24: 1,104 cases.

» Ages 25 to 29: 1,038 cases.

Cases among the Hispanic community have decreased to 44% of the total, Pour said, while cases among white residents have risen to 29%.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Videos: Feel-good moments in Nebraska amid the pandemic

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'I'd prefer working': As COVID-19 drags on, the unemployed line up for help at Omaha office

While it was still dark, before much of the city started to stir, the line for unemployment and job search help began to form outside Heartland Workforce Solutions.

Mary Pirtle, 65, was the first to arrive sometime after 4 a.m. Thursday. She snagged the coveted spot at the front and settled in to wait until the job center, the only unemployment insurance assistance office in Omaha, opened its doors at 8 a.m.

“You have to get here,” she said. “I had some sleep and I was ready to go.”

Experience had taught her and the others gathered early that it doesn’t pay to sleep in.

Inside the Heartland Workforce Solutions office at 57th Street and Ames Avenue, staff is limited, and ironing out unemployment claims takes time. No one wants dozens of people crowding inside a building while the coronavirus still lurks. So people sign up on a list outside the building when they arrive and receive a number that’s called when it’s their turn to enter, like a deli counter for the unemployed.

By 11 a.m., 117 people had signed in. A whiteboard outside let everyone know what number they were up to: 58.

So they waited — the out-of-work, the furloughed, the job-seekers. They came from a variety of backgrounds: old and young, white, Black and Latino, a software developer whose hours have been reduced and a former nursing home aide raising three kids by herself.

“I can’t stand sitting at home,” said Edith Gamble, a 64-year-old who worked on the production line for Oriental Trading and isn’t ready to retire. “I just like to work. I don’t want to stay on unemployment. I want a steady paycheck — that way I know all my bills are paid.”

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They lined up on the sidewalk, or kept their distance in the parking lot. They brought camp chairs to sit in and books to pass the time, or swapped layoff stories and shared job leads: “Yeah, my niece works there. She said they’re always hiring.”

Months after the start of the pandemic and the economic crash that followed, thousands of Nebraskans are still struggling to find work while also navigating the state’s unemployment system.

As the pandemic drags on, the hurdles mount. Without intervention from Congress, the extra $600 per week many have been receiving will expire Saturday in Nebraska, shrinking the unemployment checks used by many to pay rent or mortgages, buy groceries and simply stay afloat.

“Maybe they should come down here and see how it is,” Anjelica Montelongo, 26, said of the politicians negotiating over extending pandemic relief. “Right now, my kids think we’re on vacation,” said the former aide at the Douglas County Health Center. “They don’t know I lost my job.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has said more employers are hiring, and earlier this month reinstated job search requirements for those receiving unemployment benefits. If they can’t prove they’ve applied for jobs or been looking for work, benefits may be denied.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Tom Prescott, left, helps Beate Correa with her unemployment benefits at Heartland Workforce Solutions at 5752 Ames Ave, on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Correa waited two hours before she was able to get in.

Velma Poe, 60, an Omaha Public Schools paraprofessional who is waiting to see if the district brings her back when schools partially reopen next month, snorted at the idea that open jobs are plentiful. The few she finds — listings for grocery store cashiers or health aides — seem risky for older workers like her during a pandemic.

“Yeah, you can get a job — at a nursing home,” she said. “ ‘We’re hiring.’ Well, of course you are.” Nursing homes have been hit hard by virus outbreaks that have sickened both workers and residents.

“It’s just really sad,” she said. “You just feel like you’re forced to put your health in danger.”

Gamble would love a job at the 3M plant in Valley that makes N95 face masks or the Amazon distribution center in Sarpy County, but her car isn’t reliable, and she’s not sure it will survive the commute from North Omaha to the suburbs.

Still, she circled a few that looked promising on a list of available jobs that a Heartland worker passed around. It advertised a mix of white- and blue-collar job openings: a cook at Buffalo Wild Wings, a computer engineer at PayPal, a pharmacist and a stocker at Lowe’s.

“I’m trying to think of jobs I can do by myself,” Gamble said. “I looked at the garbage man the other day and said, ‘Damn, he’s by himself.’ ”

Some of those waiting had been out of work for months and needed help untangling problems with their unemployment claims so they could get paid.

"I haven’t been receiving benefits for three weeks now,” said 19-year-old Tri’Onna Piller, who wasn’t getting enough shifts at her job at McDonald’s after she gave birth and the pandemic hit. “I have babies.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Tri’Onna Piller applies for jobs at Heartland Workforce Solutions at 5752 Ames Ave, on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Others were job-hunting, filling out applications or updating their résumés. Some, like Judy Smith, came in person because they wanted to be sure they did everything right.

The 67-year-old hotel worker is getting benefits while unemployed, but she has been calling her bosses at the Hilton in downtown Omaha each week to see if business has picked up enough to bring her back. “I’d prefer working. This is so frustrating. I don’t want to come down here every week.”

Grace Johnson, a Nebraska Department of Labor spokeswoman, said about 99% of claims are submitted online, and people don’t have to apply in person to extend their benefits. The volume of calls to the state’s unemployment hotline fluctuates, but Johnson said more people have been calling in with questions since the job search change was announced.

The state’s unemployment program was swamped at the start of the pandemic.

State officials say there are now signs of improvement. Johnson said the turnaround time for processing unemployment claims is getting better — over the past month, 75.5% of unemployment checks for first-time filers have gone out within 28 days.

New unemployment filings have dropped sharply from a weekly high of more than 25,000 in early April. And Nebraska’s 6.7% unemployment rate in June was better than the national rate of 11.1%.

But cutbacks and layoffs haven’t stopped. State data shows nearly 4,000 new regular unemployment claims were filed last week, plus another 1,500 from independent contractors and those who are self-employed seeking special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Some who are unemployed still complain about missing payments, claims denied for reasons they can’t understand and other glitches that require them to spend hours on the phone or seek help in person.

One 36-year-old man who didn’t want to give his name was furloughed from his job due to the pandemic. He’s trying to prove to the state that he doesn’t have to apply for new jobs, because his job plans to recall him this fall. But the job waiver his employer sent is still not showing up on his unemployment claim, even though he has sent emails and waited in phone queues.

“It’s not an easy system to navigate, and I’d say I’m good at computers,” said Donna Knerr, the operations manager at Heartland Workforce Solutions. “Most people that come here need the extra help. It’s not (intuitive).”

Those assisting at Heartland include in-house staff, three unemployment specialists from the Department of Labor and contractors from the National Able Network. Johnson, from the Department of Labor, said the state increased its staffing there in response to the pandemic.

Knerr said there’s no doubt they could use more.

“We could help more people and serve more people, but we don’t have the staffing,” she said.

Smith, the hotel worker, just wants her old job and routine back. She was tired and frustrated after waiting in line and then spending over an hour applying for jobs and answering the same questions on the online forms “over and over again.”

“I’m old school,” she said. “Let me work for my money. Let me earn it.”


Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020