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Foul play suspected in Sydney Loofe's death; family thanks 'everyone that had anything to do with the search'

CLAY CENTER — Dozens of investigators spent hours Tuesday combing roadside ditches and the edges of cornfields in southeastern Clay County, searching for evidence in the death of Sydney Loofe a day after remains believed to be hers were found in the area.

A Nebraska State Patrol helicopter circled above while investigators marked locations a half-mile apart or more.

Loofe, 24, disappeared nearly three weeks ago. Her mother reported her missing Nov. 16 after she missed work in Lincoln.

For the first time Tuesday, law enforcement officials said they found evidence of foul play in the case. But they provided no further details on what might have happened. An autopsy has been ordered.

"We are indeed conducting a very thorough investigation to ensure we can provide an accurate account of what happened to Sydney,” said Randy Thysse, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Omaha, during a news conference in Lincoln.

Two people identified by law enforcement as persons of interest in the case — Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell — remained in custody late Tuesday at the Saline County jail in Wilber. Neither had been charged with a crime related to Loofe's disappearance or death.

Police have said Loofe was last seen Nov. 15 in Wilber, after apparently going on a date with Boswell, whom she met through the online dating app Tinder.

Trail, 51, and Boswell, 23, live in Wilber but left the state after Loofe went missing. They were arrested last week in the Branson, Missouri, area.

"We're continuing to speak with Aubrey Trail, and we'll continue to do so as long as he's willing to do that," said Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister, who declined to say whether Boswell was also cooperating with investigators.

Courtesy photos 

Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell

Trail and Boswell have denied their involvement in Loofe's disappearance through a bizarre trio of videos posted last week on social media. While both had active arrest warrants for unrelated charges, Trail said he isn't just a criminal. He said he deals antiques throughout Southeast Nebraska.

"Not saying I'm a nice guy. I'm a crook, I'm a thief — have been all my life. OK? But I'm not what you're trying to make me out to be,” Trail said in one video.

In an earlier video, Boswell claimed she and Loofe drove around Lincoln, then smoked marijuana at her apartment in Wilber before she dropped Loofe off at a friend's house. Boswell said she hadn't heard from Loofe since.

Bliemeister on Tuesday said investigators have explored the claims in the videos extensively.

"The investigative efforts have not been able to confirm those particular details," he said. "We’ll still work toward that end, but again, the analysis of the (digital records) was what led us to the discovery of who we believe to be Sydney."

Lincoln police and the FBI are jointly leading the investigation. FBI officials ask that anyone with information related to the case call the dedicated tip line at 402-493-8688 option 1.

Loofe, a Neligh native, moved to Lincoln after graduating from high school in 2011 as part of a transfer in her employment with Menards, according to her mother, Susie Loofe.

Sydney Loofe's coworkers and family said it was out of character when she didn't arrive for her shift as a cashier at the north Lincoln Menards. When her family couldn't get ahold of her, they reported her missing.

The Loofe family took to social media in the following days to raise awareness about Sydney's  disappearance in hopes of aiding the search.

Her picture appeared on billboards along Interstate 80 in Omaha and in central and downtown Lincoln, and her case became a front-page story for newspapers and led the evening news.

Her family learned shortly after 5 p.m. Monday that remains believed to be Sydney's had been found, her father told the Neligh News and Leader.

In an interview with that paper Monday night, George Loofe expressed gratitude to those who prayed for their daughter, posted fliers, spread word on social media and "everyone that had anything to do with the search for Sydney."

"The entire state and beyond tried to help, and, in our minds, a lot of good people exist in this world," he said. "Sydney just happened to run into someone that wasn't."

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From the start, Loofe investigators looked for electronic breadcrumbs

From the start of the search for Sydney Loofe, Lincoln police turned to the 24-year-old's cellphone, hoping it would send them electronic breadcrumbs they needed to find her.

The so-called digital footprint.

At news conferences, Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister used the term to describe the work investigators were doing, first to try to find Loofe, then two persons of interest in her disappearance after a date on Nov. 15.

The police chief referenced cellphones, social media and debit or credit cards Nov. 28. "Those are all different avenues that we are looking at and should be looking at in order to identify where Sydney was, where Bailey Boswell and Aubrey Trail may be."

Bliemeister called it a valuable component of the investigation. Last Thursday, he said it led to Boswell's and Trail's arrests. Tuesday, he said it led to finding Loofe's remains in Clay County.

Courtesy photo 

Larry Barksdale

Larry Barksdale, a former Lincoln police investigator who retired in 2012 with more than 40 years experience, said Tuesday the same way shipping companies can track online purchases and trucking firms keep tabs on semitrailers, so, too, do law enforcement use digital information to help in investigations.

But, for law enforcement to get the information, a judge has to review the process and approve warrants, said Barksdale, who now teaches forensic science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He said a digital footprint includes cellphones. But it also includes information from online apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, from credit card purchases or ATM visits, and from cameras along the state's highways, outside gas stations or inside businesses, Barksdale said.

Years ago, police used to get warrants for landline phone records to help them manually piece together dates and times and who called whom.

He said digital evidence is like police years ago finding a fingerprint. Unless there's some other explanation how it got there, it can be an important link for investigators.

But it still takes manpower to organize and digest what's important, Barksdale said.

In the Loofe case, he said, videos posted by Trail and Boswell denying their involvement in her disappearance had to be a big help. Investigators finally had their faces and words to analyze.

Barksdale said cases always come down to two things: physical evidence, including digital evidence, and people talking.

"Usually it's not just one thing. It's a lot of little pieces that all start coming together."

Mideast uneasy as Trump reportedly decides to move US Embassy to Jerusalem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian officials said Tuesday that President Donald Trump told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call that he planned to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, raising regional tensions over the timing and extent of U.S. moves regarding the fiercely contested city.

Trump has repeatedly pledged to take the highly symbolic step of relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv, which would be seen as de facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The White House has not said whether Trump signed a waiver this week putting off any decision on an embassy move for at least six months, as past presidents have done, and the Palestinian statement did not say whether the president disclosed a timetable.

The guessing game over Trump’s intentions brought new warnings Tuesday from Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and a potential U.S. partner in any overarching Mideast peace accord. The Saudi Foreign Ministry expressed “grave and deep concern” over reports that Trump intends to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the embassy.

Opposition has been building in the Arab world and beyond to any move by Trump to either move the embassy or formally recognize the contested city as Israel’s capital.

A spokesman for Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, was quoted by the official Palestinian news agency as saying Abbas told Trump during their phone call that moving the embassy would have highly negative repercussions.

Abbas, the spokesman said in a statement, “warned of the dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world.”

The status of Jerusalem has long been a flashpoint. Israel claims the entire city as its capital; the Palestinians want the city’s eastern sector as the capital of any future Palestinian state.

Congress passed a law in 1995 calling for the U.S. Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem. To keep it in Tel Aviv, presidents must sign a waiver every six months, as Trump did in June. Even if the president has signed the waiver, or intends to, the question of whether he might declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital has sent ripples of alarm across the Arab world and beyond.

Palestinians have threatened to cut off contacts with Washington if Trump makes unilateral decisions about Jerusalem’s status.

It has long been the consensus of the international community that the city’s future should be determined by negotiations. That is why foreign embassies are mainly located in Tel Aviv.

Sharp warnings against any move to declare Jerusalem the Israeli capital or move the U.S. Embassy have come from Turkey, a NATO ally, and a number of Arab states.

The Saudi opposition is particularly significant, in part because the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has courted the backing of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to try to marshal Arab support for peace moves in the region. But Saudi statements on Trump’s potential moves have been increasingly forceful.

“This step, if taken, will constitute a fundamental change and an unwarranted shift in the United States’ impartial position at a time when the world looks to the United States of America to work on achieving the desired progress in the peace process,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. “This step will also provoke the sentiments of Muslims throughout the world in light of the great importance and the pivotal status of Jerusalem.”

Other Arab countries weighed in as well. Ali Ayed, Jordan’s ambassador to Egypt and representative to the Arab League, said a decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would have disastrous repercussions, not only for the Palestinian territories but for the entire Arab and Islamic worlds.

In a speech at an extraordinary session of the Arab League Council, Ayed said such a decision would touch off despair and frustration among Muslims and adversely affect efforts to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, according to Jordan’s Petra news agency.

European allies including France also have said unilateral American moves on Jerusalem would heighten tensions.

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Christmas come early: UNL's academic programs safe from cuts, for now

One day before the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was scheduled to announce its plans to scale back academic programs in an effort to trim $8.5 million from its budget, Chancellor Ronnie Green had some good news to share.

No academic programs will be cut or scaled back for now.

"That's very good news, I'm very pleased about that," Green said. "I'm very pleased we're not in that position at this time."

UNL had sought to make $8.5 million in campus-specific cuts to go along with $30 million in broader cuts being implemented across the university system over several years.

NU system President Hank Bounds has set the goal of reducing NU's ongoing expenses by $5 million this year and $22 million next year.

Earlier this fall, Green told UNL staff the flagship campus would need to find $6 million in savings by June 30, 2019, a deficit created by the wider university system cuts and the addition of new funding priorities.

On top of that, Green asked campus leaders to find an additional $2.5 million -- roughly 1 percent of its state appropriation -- to create a cushion against future cuts as state tax receipts continue to fall below projections.

Administrators presented the Academic Planning Committee last month with $3.8 million in non-programmatic cuts, most coming through shifting certain positions or services from state aid to revenue from fees.

The proposals cut $500,000 from the Rural Futures Institute, nearly $340,000 from UNL's summer-school budget, $265,000 within the Nebraska Center for Virology by eliminating two unfilled faculty positions, and $275,000 from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resource's utility and self-insurance budgets.

Another $4.3 million in proposed cuts were to be made public on Wednesday, including cuts to academic programs at UNL, but recently, Green said, the calculus in the university's budget had changed.

NU was expecting increases to its employees' health insurance premiums to top 10 percent in each of the next two years, but those costs only rose 5.7 percent next year.

Deeper than anticipated cuts across the system in the first year of the budget reduction process also benefited UNL's academic programs, Green said. In November, NU said it had already identified $6.5 million in cuts, more than the $5 million goal it set earlier this year.

Finally, tuition revenue rose above projections to help further alleviate pressure on the budget, Green said. The conservative estimates factored in modest enrollment growth and increases due to a 5.7 percent tuition hike set by the NU Board of Regents in May.

UNL's enrollment topped 26,000 students this year, a new record, which pushed tuition revenue over expectations.

"We made the decision late last week that we don't need to move forward at this time with any proposals of programmatic reductions," the chancellor said. "I called it an early holiday present."

While the decision to leave UNL's academic programs untouched came before Wednesday's meeting of the Academic Planning Committee, Green said the work identifying which programs could be scaled back has been done by college deans and department leaders.

The programs that would have been on the chopping block were not identified Tuesday, but should state senators issue a mid-year budget rescission when the Legislature convenes in January, Green said the foundation has been laid.

"If we need to bring forward 2 or 3 percent of our state budget as programmatic cuts, we know what we would do," he said.

Courtesy photo 

Sydney Loofe