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'The system failed her': Omaha woman fought for each day of her life after domestic violence abuse

'The system failed her': Omaha woman fought for each day of her life after domestic violence abuse

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The empty gas cans, the puddle and the lighter were the terrifying clues to what Carl “Michael” Bohm had planned.

There was no time to escape what came next.

Bohm dropped a lighter and a whoosh of flames engulfed him, his wife, Janet, and their 18-year-old daughter, Amanda.

All three survived the February 2019 fire, but Janet would die two years and eight months later despite an arduous recovery from severe injuries.

Her case motivated the Nebraska Legislature in 2019 to close a loophole in domestic violence protections that her family feels may have contributed to her death.

With an average of 15 domestic violence deaths each year in Nebraska — and about 58,000 reports of violence and intimidation against an intimate partner  more changes are needed, according to Janet’s family and those who advocate for victims.

“The system failed her,” says Susan Thurman of La Vista. “My sister was the center stone of our family, she was strong. She deserved to live a full and happy life.”

* * *

For years, Janet Franks-Bohm put up with a husband her family describes as a loner and alcoholic.

She worked two jobs, while Bohm often was unemployed.

The marriage was the second for both, and he was about 10 years her senior. Both had children from prior marriages.

Janet and her children, 2010 (copy)

Janet Franks with her children at the 2010 Omaha wedding of her sister Pam Sorgen. From left, Dan Franks, Amanda Bohm, Janet and Ryan Franks.

Amanda Bohm, the couple’s only child together, says when she was young, she couldn’t figure out why her mother didn’t leave her dad. Bohm rarely helped around the house. He was mean and bullying. He taunted his wife and daughter.

It was only in Amanda’s teenage years that her mother explained why she stayed in the marriage: his graphic threats.

“Try to leave me,” he’d tell his wife, “and I’ll hurt the dogs.”

“I’ll cut you up and scatter the pieces for wild animals to eat.”

“I’ll burn down the house.”

Except for Amanda, few people apparently knew about the abuse.

“He was smart,” Amanda says of her dad. “He knew not to leave any marks.”

Dan Franks, Janet’s son from a previous marriage, says his mother and Amanda didn’t talk about the abuse they suffered.

“I knew he was an alcoholic … I knew he drank,” Franks says. “But that’s how some people choose to unwind.”

Janet’s siblings didn’t know the full extent of the abuse, either. She was from a large South Omaha family. The Lentis kids — Janet, Pam, Gloria, Susan, John and Andrew — grew up near 20th and Y Streets in the Little Bohemia area and graduated from South High School.

Sisters Pam Sorgen of Omaha and Susan Thurman describe her as smart, strong and capable, someone who always had creative ideas.

“No one could have imagined it would turn into what it did,” Thurman says. “She was such a strong person, I think she felt she could tolerate it until she could get the divorce and move on.”

Her siblings say they had limited contact with their brother-in-law because he was a no-show at family get-togethers.

Sorgen didn’t know that Janet had tried — unsuccessfully — to get a protection order.

“She didn’t talk about him. We didn’t ask.”

That someone would keep abuse private is not surprising, domestic violence advocates say. Often, people don’t want others to know about the abuse because they fear consequences worse than the abuse they are experiencing. Maybe they’ll lose their kids. Or their abuser will make good on the threats and kill them. Even children often are unaware of the full extent of abuse, experts say.

* * *

For most of her early childhood, Amanda says, her daily contact with her mother was a voice on the other end of the phone.

Janet worked two jobs to cover the family’s bills and to help dig the family out of bankruptcy after her husband’s auto body shop failed, Amanda says.

Janet Franks (copy)

Janet Franks

Bohm picked up various automotive jobs, according to his daughter, but never stayed with anything for too long.

“He would have a job for three months, then he’d get pissed off and quit,” Amanda says. “That put a lot of weight on my mom’s shoulders. But she carried that weight well.”

Janet’s primary job was in accounting at Ag Processing. In the evenings, she would head to a part-time job such as cashiering at Walmart. Amanda says her mother would call her during breaks from work to make sure she was doing OK.

Mother and daughter would make up for lost time on Janet’s days off.

“On weekends, we would never really be home,” Amanda says. “Later, I figured it was because of my dad.”

During Amanda’s teenage years, her mother cut back on the second jobs and spent more time at home.

Franks says he still can picture his mother in the years before the fire, sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard next to a kiddie pool, watching the family’s ducks paddle about.

Janet loved the family’s animals — four dogs, three cats, seven ducks and chickens. And a miniature goat.

“She’d sit out there a couple of hours a day, sitting and thinking, watching the ducks and being peaceful.”

Franks chuckles about the time Janet brought the goat to his daughter’s soccer game.

“About an hour after we left, she called me to say she was just now leaving — every kid had wanted to pet the goat,” he says.

“She was a very loving person.”

* * *

In July 2018, Bohm set fire to a large pile of family possessions in the yard of their northeast Omaha home. Amanda says she can still visualize the 8-foot-high flames.

The house would be next, he warned his then-17-year-old daughter.

Worried about Bohm’s ominous actions, Janet and Amanda sought a protection order two days later from Douglas County District Court. They hoped the order would keep Bohm away from Amanda’s school, North High, and force him from the family home near 37th Street and Himebaugh Avenue.

In the request for the protection order, they wrote about the bonfire and said he burned whatever items he could grab — chairs, pillows and blankets.

They also wrote that Bohm had:

» Told his wife on several occasions he could kill her and would chop up her body so that she couldn’t be identified.

» Endangered his asthmatic daughter’s health by refusing to stop smoking in the house. His actions led to Amanda being hospitalized, they wrote.

» Violently kicked the dogs. “For him to hurt them makes me concerned for our safety as well,” Janet wrote.

» Set a family dog loose on his daughter’s pet duck, killing the duck.

» Choked his daughter and told her he could “snap” her neck if he wanted to.

» Engaged in emotional and financial abuse. “I have to work two jobs, and still do everything in the house,” Janet wrote. “He cannot do anything to support the house, I do everything I can to keep the bills paid, and all he does is drain our resources and contribute nothing.”

District Court Judge Shelly Stratman turned down the request without holding a hearing or explaining the decision.

Stratman was recognized for her domestic violence work while she was a member of the Douglas County Attorney’s Office. She did not comment on the Bohm case due to the judicial code of conduct.

Amanda thinks a court hearing might have made a difference.

Janet Franks and her daughter Amanda Bohm (copy)

Amanda Bohm and her mother Janet Franks were especially close. Amanda helped with her mother's care after she moved out of a rehabilitation center and into an Omaha home they shared.

“It’s a lot harder to deny a person a protection order when you can hear the fear, the sadness in their voice,” she says.

The mother and daughter did not know what to do next.

“We both cried quite a bit,“ Amanda told The World-Herald after the fire. “We were lost. What are we supposed to do? We’re trying to do this the right way.”

* * *

People stay in abusive relationships for valid reasons, say the staff at the Women’s Center for Advancement, an Omaha organization focused on helping people escape abuse.

“Not leaving is not a failure or a deficiency, it is their strength,” says Kathryn Welsh, the center’s legal director. “They are protecting someone, often their children, or they are protecting themselves. Staying makes sense to them.”

Parents fear their children will be taken away from them or returned to the abusive parent. Homelessness looms large. Religion can be a factor. So can pets. Some people become so beaten down, they accept their circumstances, and instead of fighting against their abuser, they focus on surviving within the relationship, Welsh says.

Leaving can be deadly.

“The most dangerous time for someone is when they leave,” says Dawn Conley, program director for Heartland Family Service Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Program. “Even with a protection order in place, it’s just a piece of paper. It’s not a for-sure safety.”

Omaha Police Capt. Tracy Scherer, who heads the department’s 12-person domestic violence squad, says the department is part of a communitywide collaboration that includes the courts and social services and focuses on improved response to domestic violence calls.

The collaboration is coordinated by the Women’s Fund of Omaha. Jo Giles, executive director of the fund, said a systemwide approach is needed to address the under-reported crime of domestic violence.

The fund analyzes data gathered by metro area law enforcement, which provides a basis for assessing the problem and progress.

Scherer says improved training of officers has resulted from the collaboration. The Women’s Fund credits that better training with a 49% increase in domestic violence arrests in Douglas County from 2015 to 2017, the most recent years for which figures are available.

“The biggest thing I want people to know is that we do want to help,” Scherer says. “We want to do what the victim needs, or help in whatever way we can.”

Unlike many other crimes, domestic violence rarely occurs around witnesses. And that, she says, is the greatest obstacle to prosecuting it.

“This isn’t a public crime, it usually takes place behind closed doors,” Scherer says. “If it’s in somebody’s home, you don’t have a camera, you don’t have third-party witnesses.”

Leaving is a process that can take years, say advocates for victims of domestic violence.

Jannette Taylor, executive director of the Women’s Center for Advancement, says anyone seeking support through the center’s free domestic violence services will be believed and helped.

After the fire, Janet talked about her experience in an interview and encouraged others to leave their abusers.

“Do it. Don’t wait too late like I did,” she said. “Do it.”

* * *

In the months before the fire, Janet began confiding in her close friend, Mary Robbins.

“When she was thinking of leaving, she really opened up,” Robbins says.

Janet Franks and Mary Robbins (copy)

Janet Franks and her friend Mary Robbins. Franks began confiding her fears about her husband with Robbins as she prepared to leave the marriage.

According to Robbins, Janet felt she had to stay in the marriage to protect Amanda and the house.

“She was afraid he’d set the house on fire,” Robbins says. “She was scared to death ... and she just kind of stayed in it. I begged Janet to leave, but she thought she could handle it. I wish I would have pushed harder.”

In December 2018, about two months before the fire, Janet filed for divorce.

As Bohm slow-walked his paperwork in the divorce proceedings, his daughter says, tensions continued in the home. Janet prepared to have her husband forcibly removed from the home. On the last weekend of February 2019 — by then, Amanda was 18 — Bohm made good on his threats.

The family spent the weekend fighting, and Bohm was drunk, Amanda says. About 10:30 on that Sunday night, as fighting between father and daughter got physical, Bohm slammed Amanda’s head into some stairs. Her mother called 911.

Police spent about an hour at the Bohms’ home, according to 911 call logs.

According to Lt. Neal Bonacci, a spokesman for the Omaha Police Department, the information gathered that night recounts that both father and daughter acknowledged that fighting between them had gotten physical.

Domestic violence applies only to intimate partner violence, according to Nebraska law.

If Bohm had struck his wife in his daughter’s presence, instead of hitting his daughter in front of his wife, officers would have had clear grounds to take action, according to Capt. Scherer. That’s because there would have been a witness to corroborate intimate partner violence and state law allows authorities to make a domestic violence arrest regardless of the family’s preferences.

On this night, both father and daughter declined to press charges, there were no obvious injuries and both declined medical attention, responding officers wrote.

Bonacci says police cannot force someone from their home unless they are taken into custody under arrest. Looking back on that night, Amanda has mixed feelings. She fears that had she pressed charges, her father may have bailed out of jail and returned to set the house on fire while she and her mother slept.

Instead, officers told Bohm to go to a separate area of the house and leave his wife and daughter alone.

That didn’t last. Bohm sought out his wife and daughter, and soon he and Amanda were fighting again.

Then, Amanda says, her father uttered the words that haunt her to this day: “I will hurt you more than you will ever know.”

Bohm headed to the home’s attached garage and a worried Janet followed him. Soon, Amanda heard her parents struggling, so she too, went to the garage.

When Amanda stepped onto the landing in the garage, she saw a large puddle near the freezer and her parents struggling over a lighter.

For a fleeting second, she wondered why the freezer was leaking. Then she saw empty gas cans.

“That’s when I realize, ‘Hey, that’s not water.’ “

Her mother yelled for help, so Amanda rushed to her aid.

The three, standing in a pool of gasoline, wrestled for control until her father dropped the lighter to the floor.

Couple's home destroyed in fire set by husband; wife's injuries lead to her death (copy)

In 2019, Carl "Michael" Bohm set fire to his family's home in northeast Omaha while he, his wife, Janet, and daughter, Amanda, were in it. All three were injured, and Janet died of complications from the fire in October 2021.

In a whoosh, they were surrounded by flames as the garage caught fire.

Amanda — her feet burning — raced outside, turned and saw no one behind her.

“I made it out, but where’s my mom?” she recalls.

She ran back in, pushed her father aside and found her mother — on fire — crawling up the steps.

Amanda took her mother outside and covered her with snow. While she was trying to save her mother, she looked inside and saw her father sitting on the couch, surrounded by flames.

Her mother later told her that Bohm had followed his wife to the steps of the garage.

“He had grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her back in,” Amanda says.

Amanda spent two days in the hospital and underwent multiple subsequent surgeries to treat the burns around her feet and ankles. Her father spent nearly five months in the hospital.

Janet suffered the most severe injuries, with deep burns to more than 65% of her body. Her shoes and some of her clothing had even seared to her skin.

Daughter stands in domestic violence related fire that led to mother's death (copy)

Amber Bohn stands in the wreckage of the February 2019 domestic violence fire that left her mother, Janet Franks, severely burned. Franks' injuries contributed to her death in October 2021.

Her injuries were so severe she was placed in an induced coma and flown to St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, which has a nationally recognized burn care center. She would spend a combined one-and-a-half years in the hospital and at Ambassador Health rehabilitation center in Lincoln.

After the fire, Amanda went to her father’s hospital room to get his signature, which was needed for the family to sign their property over to Habitat for Humanity. It was the only time she would visit him.

When they talked about the fire, Bohm told his daughter he didn’t remember it.

Three times he asked his daughter: “What did you guys do to make me do this?”

“He didn’t see any blame on him,” Amanda says. “It was all on us. That we made him do this.”

 * * *

Janet gritted through 70 surgeries, survived a rare infection, stomach and organ failure, burst lungs, dialysis and COVID-19.

Janet Franks spent months in hospital and many more months at a rehab center (copy)

Amanda Bohm checks on her mother, Janet Franks, at St. Elizabeth Regional Burn and Wound Care Center in Lincoln. Franks was taken there in February 2019 after being severely burned when her husband set their home on fire. Amanda later underwent special training to help her mother with her care during her recovery. Franks died in October 2021.

At one point, she was undergoing three skin graft surgeries a week, Dan Franks says. In addition to Janet’s own skin, surgeons grafted shark skin, pig skin and human cadaver skin onto Janet to help her heal.

The family rode the waves of hope and heartbreak along with Janet. Family members took turns driving to Lincoln nearly every day during the months she was in the hospital, Thurman says.

On five occasions, Amanda says, doctors told them it was time to say goodbye. Each time, Janet survived.

“The whole recovery process was nothing short of a miracle, let’s be 100% honest,” Franks says. “If that isn’t a testament to her being a fighter, I don’t know what is.”

Janet Franks underwent extensive physical therapy (copy)

Janet Franks arrived at Ambassador Health in Lincoln unable to get out of bed or breathe on her own. Here Deb Rodgers-Olson, a physical therapist at Ambassador, assists Janet as she re-learns to walk.

When Janet transferred from St. Elizabeth’s to Ambassador Health in September 2019, she still couldn’t walk, breathe on her own or get out of bed. She needed help with all aspects of daily living.

A team of nurses and physical, occupational, speech and respiratory therapists would help her relearn how to breathe, stand, walk and take care of herself. Just weaning her from the ventilator took about seven months.

“Her accomplishments ... were truly a miracle,” her therapy team says in a joint statement to The World-Herald. “A testament to the character of a woman that fought for her survival, each and every day.”

Janet displayed a deep reservoir of resilience, they say.

“Some days (were) harder than others, but her smile was the best and so unforgettable,” her team says of therapy.

About 16 months after the fire, Janet was again in Stratman’s courtroom.

This time, it was via Zoom from the Ambassador rehabilitation center.

The judge was hearing her request for a divorce.

Bohm, the court noted, hadn’t responded to divorce papers and remained in jail on $2 million bail.

Janet Franks celebrates divorce from husband who set house on fire, severely injuring her (copy)

Balloons and a smile. Janet Franks in June 2020 celebrated her divorce from the husband who severely injured her when he set their home on fire. This photo was taken at Ambassador Health rehabilitation center in Lincoln.

The judge’s decision? Divorce granted.

Janet no longer would carry her husband’s last name and would instead go by Janet Franks.

From her bed at Ambassador, still hooked to medical equipment, Janet celebrated. A photo taken by one of her sisters shows her smiling and holding two balloons aloft. One is a cheery yellow smiley face. The other is a purple balloon with these words written in black magic marker:

“Happy divorce!”

* * *

Even as Janet wavered between life and death at St. Elizabeth’s, her case helped persuade the Nebraska Legislature to better protect victims from abusers. LB 532, which had been introduced by Sen. Michaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, the month before the fire, was given added urgency in the wake of that violent February night.

Within weeks of the fire, the bill was given priority status by Sen. Robert Hilkeman, also of Omaha. The bill required, among other things, that judges hold a hearing before denying a domestic violence protection order. It brought Nebraska in line with 48 other states, Cavanaugh said.

Janet’s family worked closely with Cavanaugh, and Amanda testified in favor of the legislation.

Christon MacTaggart, executive director of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, describes Amanda’s testimony as “incredibly instrumental” in the bill’s passage.

The 47 legislators voting that day all voted for it.

“We couldn’t help Janet, but because of Janet’s story and because of the bill that we passed, we are helping people every single day in the state,” Cavanaugh said to her colleagues in comments on the floor of the Legislature. “It’s a good reminder of what we can do when we work together.”

The law has made a difference, MacTaggart says.

Janet Franks was grievously injured when her husband set fire to their home in February 2019. Injuries she suffered contributed to her death in October 2021.

In 2020, the year after the law went into effect, not a single domestic violence protection order was denied outright in Douglas County, MacTaggart says. In the four years prior, between 13% and 19% of domestic violence protection orders were denied annually in the county.

MacTaggart says there still is work to do. Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln have proposed bills before the Legislature this session:

» LB 118, Morfeld’s bill, would extend the duration of protection orders beyond a year so that people don’t have to go back to court as often. It also would make it easier to request one by allowing the abused individual to swear, with their signature, that their statements are true, rather than obtaining a notary public.

» LB 1009, Brandt’s bill, would create a statewide Domestic Violence Death Review Team to create recommendations to help prevent future deaths. Bonacci, the Omaha police spokesman, says the department is open to such a panel. “The Omaha Police Department takes domestic violence incidents very seriously,” Bonacci says. “We ... welcome additional oversight when it comes to better serving our community.”

Brandt’s bill has been attached to a priority bill so it will be considered by the Legislature this session. Unless a senator attaches Morfeld’s proposal to another bill, it will die at the end of the session, though it could be re-introduced next year.

Welsh says Nebraskans also could benefit from the creation of a domestic violence court where judges can develop expertise on the issue.

And MacTaggart says a significant area of need is overall support for people seeking to leave abusive relationships, such as counseling, housing and other real-life resources.

With something like domestic violence, Welsh says, the help of the larger community is needed.

“We need more people to join us and change systems so the response to survivors gets better,” she says.

* * *

Nearly three months after Janet died, an ill Bohm pleaded guilty on Jan. 5, 2022, to arson and attempted assault. He appeared in court in a wheelchair. The next day, he was hospitalized. He died nine days later. Amanda says her father suffered from liver failure and had COVID-19 at the time of his death.

His death brought relief to the family.

Sorgen wrote on the family’s Go Fund Me page that she had been waiting years to post the news: Bohm had pleaded guilty and was dead.

Wreckage of home following fire set by husband (copy)

The 2019 domestic violence fire that eventually cost Janet Franks her life also destroyed the home that she had worked in vain to protect from her husband.

“Our family is now able to have the closure we need for this dreadful, senseless murder. It will still be difficult missing Janet ... (she) will never be forgotten.”

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine says his office pursued arson and assault charges rather than attempted murder because a guilty verdict was more certain and potential sentences were the same. They did so in consultation with Janet’s family. Amanda says she asked Kleine’s office to pursue a plea so that she would not have to relive the case in the courtroom.

* * *

Amanda brought Janet home to live with her in their house near 90th and Fort Streets in August 2020. Amanda, who now works as a certified nursing assistant, had undergone extensive training at Ambassador so she could care for her mother.

Having her mother home brought new ups and downs, Amanda said. Janet could be healthy one minute, and a half-hour later, the family would need to call an ambulance.

Still, Janet and her family embraced their life together.

Big family dinners with Dan and Ryan, her other son from her previous marriage, their families — including her five grandchildren — and her siblings and their families.

Janet Franks and some of her family enjoying time together (copy)

Janet Franks and her family paused for this photo in October 2021, just two weeks before she died. The family had traveled to Kansas due to the death of her sister, Gloria Minnis. From left, another sister, Pamela Sorgen, a brother, Andrew Lentis, daughter Amanda, Janet, and son Dan. Kneeling are two of Janet's grandchildren, Thomas Franks and Mercedes Marsh.

They brought back the family tradition of salsa-making parties.

“It was like she really didn’t miss a beat,” her daughter says. “She was a little bit slower, but we got things done.”

The family is thankful for the help that they and Janet received.

Nearly 390 people donated to Janet’s GoFundMe page, and the nearly $28,000 raised made a difference.

“She had nothing when she got out of physical rehab, and those (GoFundMe) supporters helped her and Amanda with a new start,” Sorgen says.

Additionally, Julie Geise, Nebraska’s victim advocacy coordinator, helped make the home that Janet and Amanda shared more accessible.

After the fire, Dan said, he thinks his mother understood the fragility of her health.

“We had to look at every day as a bonus,” he says.

About 14 months after moving in with Amanda, as Janet gained strength, it was time to celebrate. Mother and daughter would take a much-delayed dream trip to the Colorado mountains.

Amanda, her boyfriend and her mother loaded up the car and headed to Fairplay, Colorado. Although additional surgeries lay ahead, Janet was medically cleared by her doctors to take the trip.

“It was so beautiful up there, we were going to look at property,” Amanda says.

Janet Franks (copy)

Janet Franks recovered enough to eventually go home and enjoy time with family and friends.

Janet died in Colorado on Oct. 23, 2021 — Amanda’s 21st birthday. A coroner concluded that her death was directly related to injuries she suffered in the fire, and Janet’s name has been added to the list of Nebraska’s domestic violence homicides.

She was 59.

“My mom, she was a wonderful woman, she really was,” Amanda says. “She made things happen. She was very loving. She loved being with family.”

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