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Eight-time Omaha felon acquitted of mysterious murder in '96 is back in prison again

Eight-time Omaha felon acquitted of mysterious murder in '96 is back in prison again

A jury long ago acquitted James Hatten of a mysterious murder at a farmhouse near 152nd and Fort Streets.

In the 24 years since 24-year-old Adam Figueroa was found dead, Hatten hasn’t exactly made the most of his second chance.

The 49-year-old Omaha man has been to prison three times and to jail at least that many times for drunken driving alone.

His latest prison send-off came last week: Douglas County District Judge J Russell Derr sentenced Hatten to two years in prison for an August chase in which he crashed a Cadillac Escalade with stolen plates into a tree.

On top of the prison sentence — which equates to one year, under Nebraska’s good-time law — Hatten must serve nine months of supervised release.

Long stretches of freedom have been hard to come by for Hatten.

His prominence in law enforcement circles began shortly after the 1996 killing of Adam Figueroa.

Two weeks before Christmas that year, a gunman confronted and killed Figueroa in what was then a remote white farmhouse at 15202 Fort St.

Figueroa’s roommates found him dead with two gunshot wounds to the head.

Douglas County sheriff’s officials had little to go on but wondered whether the gunman might have been after money from one of Figueroa’s roommates, a bookie. Figueroa wasn’t involved in gambling, authorities said.

Not much moved in the case until Hatten’s girlfriend broke her silence, telling investigators and later jurors that Hatten had confessed to the killing.

She relayed how her boyfriend described a chilling murder.

The couple were struggling for money. Then one night, Hatten came home with a wad of cash — more than $1,500. The girlfriend said he eventually confessed to leading Figueroa to a back bedroom, gun at his head. He pulled the trigger. Click. The gun jammed.

Figueroa used the brief reprieve to beg for his life. The gunman didn’t care. He cleared the jam and promptly put two bullets into Figueroa’s head.

Moments later, he arrived home and, according to his girlfriend, said: “I can’t believe I put my life on the line for $1,500.”

Figueroa, a manager at Qwest who volunteered for a number of nonprofit groups in Omaha, was not the bookie Hatten was trying to rob, according to sheriff’s officials.

The girlfriend told jurors that she used some of the money to pay for an abortion. The couple also were trying to stave off eviction and had a number of debts.

Even so, jurors had no physical evidence to corroborate the girlfriend’s story.

“A lot of us did think (Hatten) was guilty,” a jury forewoman told The World-Herald in 2001. “But we didn’t have enough proof to convict.”

On his way out of the courtroom, Hatten turned to Figueroa’s parents: “I didn’t do that to your son. I’m not the one.”

He was convicted of being the one in numerous crimes since. He went to prison in May 2000 for robbery, weapon use and kidnapping.

After his release in 2006, he collected multiple DUIs, culminating in two felony drunken driving convictions in 2012. He served three years before his release in 2015.

Fast forward four years. In August, an Omaha police officer heard and then spotted a man repeatedly honking as he drove in a Cadillac Escalade SUV near John A. Creighton Boulevard and Lake Street. An officer pulled the Escalade over near 40th and Lake Streets, and the driver put his head out the window.

“What’s the problem?” the driver asked.

Officers noticed the brake lights were on — and told him to put the SUV in park. The driver took off at a high rate of speed — so fast that officers decided not to pursue him.

He then crashed into a tree two blocks away, at 40th and Grant Streets. Police found him in a nearby backyard — and identified him as Hatten.

Confronted by officers, the eight-time felon told officers that he didn’t want to talk — for fear that he might implicate himself.

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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