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Dodge County judge's sudden resignation followed relationship with meth user

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FREMONT, Neb. — For a gregarious guy, Judge Ken Vampola moseyed quietly out of the Dodge County Courthouse on Sept. 2, his last day.

No retirement party. No cake. No staffers gathered round, wishing him well. No proclamations from governors, past or present. The biggest adieu for the longtime judge? A small gathering at a local steakhouse, after hours.

Judge Ken Vampola

Vampola

There was a reason for that: Vampola’s departure was much more resignation under duress than retirement into sunset.

It was spurred by the judge’s numerous ethical violations connected to his relationship with a 32-year-old self-professed meth addict, according to several sources’ accounts and multiple documents obtained by The World-Herald.

The judge had such a close relationship with the woman — a litigant in his courtroom numerous times — that he bought her cars, had her spend nights at his Platte River cabin, begged a fellow judge to not issue a warrant for her arrest and bailed her out of jail. To boot, the woman had his credit cards on her when police recently stopped her and searched her on suspicion that she was high on meth.

Vampola declined to comment when The World-Herald posed several questions about allegations of current and past misconduct.

Turns out, the judge got out of Dodge just in time. His sudden resignation means he’ll get to keep his state pension.

He’s not the only judge who has done so. In the past four years, four embattled judges — Supreme Court Judge Max Kelch, Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich, Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett and now Vampola — have retired before formal ethics charges could be brought against them. Kelch, Barrett and Vampola had been accused of sexually harassing or unethical behavior with women. Crnkovich resigned amid allegations that she held private hearings and illegally kicked attorneys out of her courtroom.

Each judge had a motive to resign abruptly: It allowed them to salvage either all, or a major chunk of, their pensions. Currently, state law calculates each judge’s pension based on their years of service multiplied by 3.5% of their $179,000 salary. At most, judges can receive 70% of their salary if they serve 20 years.

Because he retired three years short of 20 on the bench, Vampola’s annual pension will amount to about $106,500 annually. The pension is funded by a mix of court fees, returns from an investment authority, taxpayer dollars and, to a far lesser extent, judges’ contributions.

The trend is one reason that former State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha is contemplating a return run for the Legislature in 2024. Among his many roles, Chambers took it upon himself to file complaints against judges accused of corruption, calling himself the “garbageman of the judiciary.”

Judges facing trouble “shouldn’t get anything,” Chambers said. “That pension is their filthy lucre — and they will protect it by all means. If the law was (re)written so that their pensions truly were in jeopardy, it would put an end to this unethical behavior.”

Under state law, judges facing formal charges aren’t allowed to retire and collect their pension. But the same statute also builds in an escape hatch for a judge in trouble: Before formal charges can be filed against a judge, the Judicial Qualifications Committee must hold an informal, confidential hearing advising the judge of the informal complaint against them.

That allows judges, if they know they’re in legitimate trouble, to resign and retain their pension. It also allows them to disappear without any public accounting of their unethical behavior.

The JQC, as it’s known, publicizes allegations against judges and the discipline they receive only if they face formal charges. In turn, the alleged misdeeds of the four judges mentioned above came to light only through digging by The World-Herald.

The accusations against Vampola might be the most involved.

* * *

Vampola’s ascension to a robe-filled career almost hit a snag before he was appointed.

In 2005, then-Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who once called Fremont home, received the names of Vampola and another attorney to consider for a judgeship serving Dodge, Burt, Cedar, Dakota, Dixon, Thurston and Washington Counties. A few years before, state officials, including a Nebraska Supreme Court judge and the Judicial Nominating Commission, had received something else: a letter from a concerned citizen.

“I think it would reflect poorly on the judiciary if Mr. Vampola became a judge,” the Fremont resident wrote the commission. He attached a lengthy police report from 1989.

According to that police report: The night of Sept. 27, 1989, Vampola was 33 and studying to become a lawyer at the University of Nebraska Law School. He and an attorney had gone to Boomers, then a strip club in Fremont.

Two “entertainers,” ages 18 and 23, told Fremont police that they had been hounded by two men all night, with the attorney offering “hundreds of dollars” for sex acts. The dancers said Vampola asked if he could hire them for a stag party.

“The most important thing to them was trying to get us to prastute (sic) for them,” the then-18-year-old wrote in a police report. “I told them I am strictly an entertainer, not a prastute.”

After the dancers finished their shift, they were driving home when they spotted the two men following them in an Oldsmobile Toronado. The women drove around, hoping to lose them. They couldn’t. The women decided to head to the police station while the men rode their back bumper.

“When we wouldn’t stop, they passed us and then cut in front of us as if they were trying to run us off the road,” the 23-year-old wrote. Instead, Vampola crashed into a curb, a front tire snapping off and the car coming to rest in a yard.

Vampola told Fremont police that he only wanted the entertainers to “dance for my Ducks Unlimited committee.” He said he was driving the attorney’s car, had trouble reaching the pedals and inadvertently gunned it as he was trying to get the women’s attention.

Fremont police cited him for careless driving.

The concerned citizen cited the ordeal to a Nebraska Supreme Court judge as Vampola sought a judgeship. After Heineman appointed Vampola to the bench in 2005, the citizen wrote that “dozens of Fremont men” still talk about a different stag party involving sex acts, fruits and vegetables, a dancer named “White Thunder” and Vampola “on stage.”

“I was stunned at this appointment,” the Fremont man wrote Heineman. “Mr. Governor, you must know that all the old stories of his vile behavior again are making their way around the community. Is this man truly fit to be a judge?”

Heineman did not return a reporter’s phone call last week about the appointment.

Vampola had some qualifications. After graduating from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1992 at age 36, Vampola worked as a Winnebago tribal prosecutor in criminal cases and as an attorney in juvenile cases for four years. He served as a tribal judge and did civil and criminal defense work out of Fremont and Arlington before becoming chairman of the Nebraska Parole Board under then-Gov. Mike Johanns. From 2003 to 2005, he and the board made weighty decisions on whether to put prisoners back on the streets.

Then Johanns took a federal appointment to become the U.S. secretary of agriculture. After Heineman took over for Johanns, one of the first open judgeships was in Heineman’s old stomping grounds, Dodge County. Vampola presented as a born-again Christian who, by then, had more than a decade of experience as a lawyer and as an arbiter of parolees’ fate.

Of the seven attorneys who applied, a Judicial Nominating Commission tabbed Vampola, who had served as legal counsel to the Dodge County Republican Party, and former and current Dodge County Attorney Paul Vaughan as finalists.

Heineman appointed Vampola.

* * *

A county court judge’s role is limited in Nebraska courts. Judges at that level preside over misdemeanors involving relatively minor crimes (most serious: drunken driving) and over the beginning stages of major cases such as murders. They handle civil matters from small claims to litigation over wills and estates. Judges in smaller counties also preside over juvenile court and parental custody cases.

Three Fremont-area attorneys interviewed by The World-Herald — all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were talking about a member of the bench — described Vampola as affable in court. As far as his legal acumen, they said he was adequate — pointing to bar surveys in which about 78% of attorneys recommended he be retained. Such a score is mediocre — most judges top 90% favorable reviews on the anonymous surveys.

The reviews were far less positive regarding his behavior outside court. Two sources told The World-Herald that Vampola, who is married, and a then-county court clerk were overheard one late afternoon last year having sex in a visiting judge’s office next to a courtroom. An employee also caught them making out, the sources said. That clerk did not return World-Herald calls.

Vampola and a Nebraska Health and Human Services staffer also were caught “in the act” after hours at the state office near the courthouse several years ago, the sources said.

Then there was Brooklynn Rydel. Rydel, 32, a waitress at a Fremont restaurant, has had ongoing problems with substance abuse, according to court records and Rydel’s estranged mother, Carla Rydel.

In 2007, Brooklynn Rydel first appeared in front of Vampola as a 16-year-old charged with possession of marijuana and alcohol. Vampola ordered probation, which she successfully completed. Four years later, she was cited on the same charges plus possessing drug paraphernalia — and Vampola again fined her for the misdemeanors.

In February 2015, Rydel, then 24, picked up her first felony, possession of meth. Her case was pleaded down to a misdemeanor — fairly typical for a first felony — and Vampola gave her probation.

In June 2015, she was charged with felony meth possession again. The case was bound over to district court, where a judge ultimately gave her 30 months of probation.

The woman was serving that probation at the same time as she was still on probation under Vampola.

In July 2016, Rydel sent the judge a letter, writing in bubbly letters: “Dear Judge Vampola, I currently am on two probations, one in county court and one in district (court) due to my drug addiction to meth. Currently I am 16 months sober, have completed outpatient treatment and have taken all the classes required for the probation.”

There was just one problem, Rydel wrote. Her father, Mike Rydel, a former general manager at a Fremont restaurant, had suffered a massive stroke. So, she wrote, she moved back home to help her mom care for her dad, and the family was scraping by. In turn, she couldn’t afford the $425 in fines levied against her.

“All I do is work and come home to help my mom take care of my dad,” she wrote. “I’ve done everything that’s needed to be done and haven’t missed or failed a single (drug test). I’ve changed my entire life around and am very grateful.

“Now that I am clear-minded, I’ve realized how valuable life is. Please, if there is anything you can do ... I would appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.”

A few weeks later, Vampola ended Rydel’s probation, writing that “all costs and fees have been paid.”

* * *

It is unclear when Vampola and Rydel struck up a personal relationship. But her contact with the courts didn’t stop after he granted her grace.

In 2019, Rydel again was picked up for possessing meth. For reasons that aren’t apparent, the case was pleaded down to attempted possession, a misdemeanor. In November of that year, Vampola sentenced her to 18 months of probation.

In January 2021, Vampola released her from probation about four months before it was set to expire, a common practice if defendants are complying with terms.

In July 2021, Vampola signed court documents in a misdemeanor case in which Brooklynn alleged that her mother assaulted her. According to Carla, Vampola signed a warrant based only on Brooklynn’s version. Carla said she wasn’t interviewed.

Carla adamantly denied assaulting her daughter — and soon after, the case was dismissed and sealed. Sealing a dismissed case also is typical.

Then came 2022. Then came atypical.

Vampola with Broklynn Rydel

Brooklynn Rydel took a selfie with then-Dodge County Judge Ken Vampola and posted it on social media. In the caption, she described him as "my adopted father from another father." 

In January, Vampola bought Rydel a car — a 2012 Chevy Impala — and registered it in both his name and hers, listing his home address in Arlington.

Two months later, he helped her buy a 2003 Toyota Highlander to replace the Impala. Again, he registered the vehicle under both his name and hers.

That left a Fremont attorney wondering: “How long do you have to know someone before you buy (her) a car?”

In between the two car purchases, Rydel was cited after her pit bull got loose in Fremont and bit a couple of people.

As that case was pending, Vampola signed an order granting a delay in the case, despite his relationship with Rydel. In April, Rydel failed to appear for a hearing in the case. (She also took the pit bull to Omaha; it bit someone and Rydel was fined $100.)

Back in Fremont, a clerk found Rydel passed out in her and Vampola’s Highlander at a gas pump at a BP station on May 6. The clerk tried to rouse her, she stirred and then passed back out. The clerk called 911. Rydel awoke and took off.

A Dodge County sheriff’s deputy found her about four blocks away. In her cigarette pack: a baggie containing 1.1 grams of meth. In the truck registered to her and Vampola, a bag of mushrooms, a hypodermic needle, a baggie with meth residue and a small, empty bottle of liquor.

She was charged with felony possession of meth. According to sources, Vampola either bailed her out of jail or provided the money to bail her out.

Despite his relationship with her, Vampola continued to preside over the dog bite case. In late May, she pleaded to a citation-level offense, similar to a speeding ticket, where she was allowed to pay a fine. Vampola signed an order accepting her guilty plea.

On July 26, she appeared in court at 9 a.m. on the gas station drug case. Judge Francis Barron grew concerned about whether she was under the influence — a violation of her bail. He ordered her to go get tested at the Dodge County probation office not far from the courthouse. If she failed the test, Barron warned, he would revoke her bail.

By 11:26 a.m., Rydel hadn’t shown up.

Barron began the process of issuing a bench warrant. Suddenly, he was interrupted by Vampola.

Attorneys say Vampola tracked down Barron and frantically begged him not to issue the warrant, telling Barron “she’s at the (probation) office now!” Barron ignored Vampola and issued the warrant.

That afternoon, a Fremont police officer arrested her at home and took her to jail. Judge Barron upped her bail to 10% of $25,000.

That afternoon, someone posted the $2,500 bail for Rydel. It is not clear how the waitress came up with that money.

Her mom has suspicions. Last year, before mother and daughter stopped talking, Carla Rydel said she asked her daughter whether it was true what she heard, that she was spending weekend nights at the judge’s Platte River cabin near Schuyler.

How are you driving if you’ve been drinking? Carla asked.

I go to a bedroom and sleep it off, she said.

Carla pressed: Why would a judge who is married and overseeing your cases have a woman, half his age, stay at his cabin?

Her daughter shrugged, saying it was no big deal, Carla said.

“I drink my White Claws — and he smokes his cigars,” Brooklynn said, according to Carla. “He counsels me.”

* * *

The text with the photo arrived on Carla’s phone shortly after her daughter posted it to social media earlier this year.

It was a picture of Brooklynn smiling, with Vampola close over her left shoulder.

“My adopted father from another father,” she captioned it.

Asked the nature of her relationship with Vampola, Rydel told a World-Herald reporter “no comment” and hung up.

Vampola didn’t answer World-Herald questions about any of the allegations. He announced his resignation nine days after confronting Judge Barron on Rydel’s behalf.

Vampola appears to have violated several judicial canons. Among them: Judges are to recuse themselves from cases involving family, friends or associates — anything that might jeopardize their ability to be impartial. They aren’t supposed to have any one-on-one communication about cases outside court. They’re not to attempt to intimidate or influence their fellow judges.

And they are to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Late last month, Carla Rydel said she didn’t know where to begin in her complaints about the judge’s behavior. Hosting a young woman at a cabin. Buying her cars that allowed her daughter to drive around “drugged out of her mind.” Bailing her out. Allowing her to gain access to his credit cards.

Given her daughter’s ongoing drug battle, Carla Rydel questioned whether Vampola was counseling the young woman.

“I call it enabling,” she said. “Whether he has good intentions or not, I don’t know. It’s all very shady. He is enabling a drug addict.”

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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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