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Deputy behind Beatrice Six murder investigation: It wasn’t reckless

Deputy behind Beatrice Six murder investigation: It wasn’t reckless

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The Beatrice Six, top row, from left: Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden. Bottom row, from left: Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Joseph E. White.

LINCOLN — Deputy Burt Searcey made himself a Gage County legend in 1989 when he solved the cold case killing of a 68-year-old Beatrice woman.

On Friday, he sat on a federal court witnesses stand as lawyers for six people suing the county systematically worked to dismantle Searcey’s greatest professional achievement.

The silver-haired deputy gave mostly calm responses during six hours of questioning that pinpointed the inconsistencies and factual errors in his investigation. Yet Searcey has vehemently denied that he carried out a reckless investigation, manufactured evidence or conspired to wrongly convict the six.

During one key exchange Friday, he even sounded unconvinced by DNA tests of the crime scene in 2008 that blew apart Searcey’s theory of the crime.

“I don’t think any one aspect of the crime scene would totally exclude anyone from being there,” Searcey said.

His testimony took up the entire day of the Beatrice Six civil rights trial in U.S. District Court. Searcey likely will return to the stand when the trial resumes Monday.

It’s the second time the case has gone before a federal jury. The plaintiffs’ first attempt to recover damages in federal court for their wrongful convictions ended two years ago with a deadlocked jury.

Searcey led an investigation that appeared to solve the homicide of Helen Wilson, whose 1985 slaying had stymied Beatrice police and horrified the small city in southeast Nebraska. Four years after the case hit a dead end, Searcey helped convict six people, who served more than 70 combined years in prison.

DNA tests in 2008 failed to match any of the six, but they did match a criminal drifter who once had lived in Beatrice. Police had developed Bruce Allen Smith as a suspect in 1985, which is why they still had a crucial hair sample that provided the DNA match, even though Smith died in 1992 in Oklahoma.

The shocking discovery set aside the first-degree murder conviction of Joseph E. White, the only one of the six who refused to take a plea bargain. The remaining five pleaded guilty or no contest to lesser charges, and three of those testified falsely against White at his jury trial.

Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Tom Winslow, Debra Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez say they were pressured into pleading guilty or giving false testimony by authorities and the threat of the death penalty. The other defendants in the case are Deputy Wayne Price, the department’s forensic psychologist, and the late Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, who is represented in the lawsuit by his estate.

Searcey was a former Beatrice police officer who left the profession to pursue hog farming. But when he heard about the Wilson homicide on Feb. 6, 1985, he made time to look into the death as an unpaid private investigator.

Almost immediately, he built his theory of the killing on the statements of a streetwise teenager, Lisa Podendorf. Even after he became a sheriff’s deputy in 1987, he zealously guarded the identify of the 17-year-old girl, referring to her as his confidential informant in reports and court documents.

The informant told Searcey that Taylor had bragged of the killing, saying she and White had done it together. The informant said the unsolicited confession took place at 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1985, as Podendorf and Taylor watched from across the street as police cars surrounded the apartment building where the victim lived.

But there was a glaring problem with the informant’s story: Wilson’s body wasn’t discovered and called in by relatives until after 9 a.m.

Attorney Jeff Patterson, co-counsel for the Beatrice Six, pointed to that and other problems in the informant’s statement. For example, the informant supposedly gave Searcey crime scene information that had not been publicly released, saying the victim’s hands were bound behind her back and her body was found in the apartment’s living room.

Wilson’s hands were not bound, and the police had released the other details, which were reported in newspaper accounts.

Testifying Friday, Searcey acknowledged that parts of his informant’s story were wrong. Furthermore, Searcey said he did nothing to investigate the factual errors before including them in a sworn affidavit used by a judge to authorize the apprehension of White and Taylor, the first two arrested in the case.

“If you actually put what (the informant) stated in the affidavit, it would put the affidavit in conflict with the police reports, right?” asked attorney Jeff Patterson, co-counsel for the Beatrice Six.

“If it was that way, yes,” Searcey replied.

Searcey also said Friday that he didn’t review the hundreds of pages of reports compiled by Beatrice police. The police investigation was driven by trying to find a suspect with Type B blood, which was found on Wilson’s bedding and clothing. They cleared more than 300 people, including White and Taylor.

Searcey said Friday he acknowledged the importance of the blood evidence, but there was more to the investigation than just forensics.

“That’s why you keep interviewing,” he said. “In any investigation, there’s a lot of things that change.”

Earlier in the trial, former Beatrice police investigators who worked on the Wilson case testified that they believed Searcey had identified the wrong people. That created a rift between the departments and led to the sheriff’s office fully taking over the investigation.

Searcey made more arrests and conducted more interrogations until six were facing felony charges. Patterson questioned Searcey about feeding crime scene information to some of the defendants and seemingly ignoring information in direct conflict with his theory.

The sheriff’s office closed the case without having identified a male with Type B blood. The only suspect with that blood type was a woman, Kathy Gonzalez, and she did not precisely match the blood that was recovered from the scene.

In the end, forensics played, at most, a minor role in White’s murder trial.

“Did you and Sheriff DeWitt stop and consider whether you had arrested the right people?” Patterson asked Friday.

“No,” Searcey replied.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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