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Otoe County farmer accused of slowly killing his livestock, again

On a farm with so much death, it was a live goat that broke open the latest case against an Otoe County producer accused of slowly killing his animals.

A motorist had spotted it out of its pen April 21, wandering close to the traffic of Nebraska 2, and called the sheriff’s office. But no deputies were near Unadilla that afternoon, so he volunteered to return it to what should have been the safety of its enclosure.

“The motorist put the goat back in the pen, and observed some dead goats in that pen,” Chief Deputy Mike Holland said this week. “The call was made to the sheriff’s office about the dead animals, and deputies responded.”

Later, those deputies would be grateful for the cool temperatures that muted the smell. Because when they arrived, they found a familiar property with nearly 10 outbuildings, and they found dead and decaying pigs and goats in each.

Holland went down the list: A farrowing house on the west side of the land — each crate had sows that had given birth, and every animal inside was dead. A goat shed built onto another building and, again, all of the animals dead. Another shed, with a pile of at least 15 pig carcasses.

In all, more than 40 dead pigs and more than 15 dead goats, Holland said.

They found live hogs feeding on dead hogs. A veterinarian euthanized the animals that couldn’t be saved, opened their stomachs and found evidence they’d eaten their own feces.

Two weeks later, Holland — a 25-year law enforcement officer — was still moved by what he called “a disgusting scene” and the thought of the animals locked inside buildings, with no food or water or rescue.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a hog farm,” he said. “But when those hogs are in distress, they just squeal and squeal and squeal. I can’t imagine what the sounds were like on that property.”

But the deputies searching the farm that day also found enough stacks of feed sacks to sustain the animals for some time, Holland said.

And while they were inventorying the scene, they found the landowner, 67-year-old John Maahs. He was returning home with another 21 feeder hogs on his trailer.

Maahs had been through this before, and he didn’t say much, the chief deputy said.

“So I don’t know why what happened, happened again.”

* * *

Maahs was charged with 10 counts of felony animal cruelty and neglect -- just as he was in 2011, when deputies discovered as many as 1,000 dead hogs in a large farrowing house on the same property.

Holland was on vacation during that discovery, and he was grateful he was. The building was so contaminated with decomposing carcasses it was bulldozed and buried onsite.

“It was a horrendous situation,” said Mark Langan, vice president of field operations for the Nebraska Humane Society. “Hundreds of dead hogs, one of the worst we’ve ever seen.”

In that case, Maahs pleaded no contest to one charge and the others were dropped. He spent more than a year in prison and paid more than $50,000 in fines, expenses and cleanup costs, said Otoe County Attorney David Partsch.

“He really didn’t have an excuse,” Partsch said. “He said he just got lazy.”

After Maahs was released in September 2013, deputies would make periodic visits to his farm. There was nothing in his punishment prohibiting him from owning livestock again — though there could have been.

“We have actually been out there a couple of times since he got out of prison and checked on things and the animals appeared to be healthy and taken care of,” Holland said.

Deputies were last there about a year ago, so he’s not sure when the animals started suffering.

“Where the carcasses were as far as decomposition, it looks to me it’s probably something that’s been going on the last six months,” Holland said.

It’s not clear how long it would take for a pig to starve. That would depend on its nutrition and condition before the feed ran out, said Thomas Burkey, an associate professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

It wouldn’t be unusual to find manure in their stomachs; pigs are known to root in the slop. Nor would it be unheard of to find evidence a pig had fed on the carcass of another.

“But they’d have to be hungry.”

* * *

Most of the surviving animals -- 41 hogs and nine goats -- were taken to the Palmyra Livestock Market. The Nebraska Humane Society is caring for a dog, two adult goats and four baby goats.

At a hearing Thursday in Nebraska City, a judge ordered the surviving animals forfeited to the Otoe County Sheriff’s Office, which will likely sell them at auction to help pay for care and cleanup costs, Partsch said. Maahs didn’t show up for the hearing, even though he had been served.

Maahs didn’t return a call seeking comment, and he apparently doesn’t yet have a lawyer. He is scheduled to appear in court May 21 on the criminal cases. If convicted, he could face 20 years and $100,000 in fines. And he could be prohibited from owning animals again.

After Partsch prosecuted Maahs in 2012, he realized he and the judge had missed something -- a section in state law allowing judges to ban future animal ownership by those convicted in cruelty cases.

That provision wasn’t obvious at the time, because it was separated from the animal cruelty law -- 13 sections away in the statute books. So the next year, Partsch worked with the Nebraska Humane Society and Omaha Sen. Sara Howard on legislation that clarified the law and added references to it in other sections of state statute.

He plans to pursue it in the new case against Maahs.

“He obviously didn’t change his behaviors,” Patsch said. “So we’ll be seeking every remedy possible to ensure he doesn’t have the opportunity to do this again.”

editor's pick topical
Adrian Smith says no obvious evidence of collusion

Rep. Adrian Smith says it may be about time to wrap up Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and move on to address the economic issues that are of concern to more Americans.

"After a year and a half, there still doesn't seem to be obvious evidence of actual collusion" between Russian officials and Donald Trump's presidential campaign, the 3rd District Republican said during an interview in Lincoln.

"The sooner we wrap this up, the better," he said. "Allowing it to linger has some negative consequences."

While the issue is consuming Washington, Smith said, that attention is not matched by the same "level of concern across the country" and the ongoing probe takes the focus off economic issues like a worker shortage and health care costs that need to be addressed.

"Mueller has a job to do," the congressman said, "and he should be allowed to do it."  

However, he said, "the American people are fed up with speculation."

Smith said he shares "concern about the bias that seems to be evident in the FBI" and wonders "where was the outrage" when former President Barack Obama privately assured outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he (Obama) could be more flexible about dealing with contentious issues like missile defense after the 2012 presidential election.

The six-term congressman, who represents all of western and central Nebraska along with the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state, responded to questions about President Trump and the Mueller probe at the end of an interview that centered on trade and workforce needs.

Smith said he remains optimistic that ongoing negotiations to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement will result in protection of U.S. agricultural markets in Canada and Mexico.

The Nebraskan was one of 10 members of Congress who participated in meetings in Montreal and Mexico City associated with the ongoing negotiations.

"We showed up; we raised some issues," he said. "I think we had some productive meetings with our counterparts."

Smith said he supports the Republican farm bill proposal that would apply stricter work requirements to millions of low-income Americans receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

That requirement essentially would affect about 7 million able-bodied men, ages 24 to 54, who would need to work at least 20 hours a week or be engaged in job training or volunteer work.

"The number of job openings will grow with the impact of tax reform," Smith said, "and we want everyone to benefit."

editor's pick
Public Service Officer Steve Standley bids LPD farewell — and daughter responds

Seventeen years ago, on Jodi Standley's first day as a Lincoln 911 dispatcher, her first call came from the man who'd inspired her to join the team: her father, Steve Standley.

So it was only fitting that on Steve's last day with the Lincoln Police Department before his retirement, his final dispatch would be answered by Jodi.

At 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, he delivered his last "Code 9" call — the sign-off all officers use at the end of a shift.

"Everybody on the other side of the microphone is part of an important team that's kept me safe and helped me to the end of this career. ... Remember that you are the best of the best."

Steve was emotional, pausing to collect himself a few times in the address.

But when Jodi responded to his call, there was no hiding the tears.

"I was overwhelmed," she said. "When he started getting choked up, I kind of moved into a different realm. I'm so proud of the impact he's had on the city and our co-workers."

After serving 43 years on the police force, as an officer for 38 years then five years as a public service officer, Steve looks forward to having more free time to be with his grandchildren, while making numerous trips to Kansas City to watch the Royals play baseball.

That type of spontaneity had always been a missing ingredient in his life. He lived for the job, which he began in 1975, after his wife encouraged him to apply.

He worked on the Northeast and Southeast teams, as well as in the crime-prevention unit, the youth-aid unit and as a school resource officer in elementary, middle and high schools around Lincoln.

Steve said that his favorite part of his job was that he could form personal connections with children and families to educate them and prevent crime before it happened.

"I learned from my first assignment near Northeast High School that you can impact kids the most, since they're impressionable," he said. "Working with people to prevent and address their needs is always important to me, and kids are first in line."

When his daughter was looking for a job after graduating from college, Steve took her to the communications room where the dispatchers work. Jodi said she was instantly amazed by the work they do.

"It's the kind of job that when you get home and when you look in the mirror at the end of the day, you feel you've made a difference," she said. "He taught me that."

The two never knew when they would come into contact with each other over the radio, as dispatchers rotate to different stations on their shifts while officers stay on the same one.

But when Steve would hear Jodi's voice on the other end, he said it was reassuring.

"It's really a wonderful thing to have a dispatcher with a personal link to you," he said. "It gives both of us an opportunity for a different level of confidence during events. She has the perspective that others may not have."

Jodi said that her father touched many lives during his tenure with LPD and that he'll be leaving behind a legacy when he retires.

"He had a hand in shaping so many in every single aspect and facet of that department," she said. "I hope they see it as a mentor fulfilling his career and for the dispatchers, we feel a giant gap in our world because he was always there to help."

Listen: Public Service Officer Steve Standley bids LPD farewell — and daughter responds

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

Adrian Smith

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos talks about the decision to fire head football coach Mike Riley on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Moos also spoke about looking for the right fit in the new head coach to come.

editor's pick
Split Lancaster County Board agrees to sell Trabert Hall to CenterPointe

The Trabert Hall decision -- whether to sell the building to a private developer for apartments or to CenterPointe for its work -- has split the Lancaster County Board.

A three-member majority of the board voted to negotiate the sale of Trabert Hall, 2202 S. 11th St., to CenterPointe, a nonprofit agency that works with people with mental illness and addiction problems, to replace an existing office and expand its programs.

Commissioners Roma Amundson, Jennifer Brinkman and Bill Avery said the nonprofit agency’s work with low-income people is part of the county’s mandated mission to serve the indigent, particularly the health needs of the poor, and helps reduce the jail population by keeping some people out of jail.

But two commissioners think the county should sell the building to Concorde Management & Development, to be turned into apartments for working people.

The apartments, which would rent at below-market rates, would provide more affordable housing for people with jobs, said Commissioners Todd Wiltgen and Deb Schorr.

The county needs the higher sale price, $925,000 to Concorde versus $400,000 to CenterPointe, to help pay for the $1.1 million investment in new offices for the county’s emergency management office, the two pointed out.

The office is moving because the city is closing the 233 Building on South 10th Street. The county may have to raise the property tax rate to make up that difference, they said.

And it is debatable whether CenterPointe’s work reduces the jail population, said Wiltgen and Schorr, pointing to emails from the directors of the jail and the Community Corrections program.

CenterPointe’s management and philosophy isn’t a good fit with the criminal justice system, according to Kim Etherton, Community Corrections director. 

CenterPointe’s services are not as structured as programs preferred by the criminal justice system.

CenterPointe uses a housing-first model, where individuals are allowed to use substances in their residences while they receive services, Etherton said in an email. In addition, much of the case management is done from offices since staff do not have company vehicles.

Community Corrections had a client whose CenterPointe apartment was uninhabitable and red-tagged “which means the individual hadn’t been checked on in a very long time,” Etherton said.

One person released to a pretrial Community Corrections program was placed at the People's City Mission until Community Corrections could get the squatters and transients out of her CenterPointe apartment, and there was crack cocaine on the living room table, Etherton’s email said.

Clients in CenterPointe’s outpatient program are not required to attend programs daily, and when Community Corrections has clients using CenterPointe for mental health services “we find that follow-through is unreliable and so we enter that relationship expecting barriers and plan accordingly," Etherton wrote.

Jail director Brad Johnson said CenterPointe’s contention that their expansion could reduce correctional costs by $2 million is “very unlikely.”

The jail population would have to be reduced by 55 inmates for an entire year, with a reduction of 32 correctional officers to meet that $2 million threshold, Johnson wrote.

Johnson said he is not opposed to selling Trabert Hall to CenterPointe, but he wants to make sure the County Board’s decision is not based on perceived correctional savings.

In an email response after the meeting, Topher Hansen, CenterPointe CEO, provided information to "correct the record." 

CenterPointe's approach is to design a treatment plan tailored to an individual's specific needs, he said.

The housing-first program, where CenterPointe provides a subsidy to about 260 people and has case managers who work to get clients treatment, employment, etc., has significantly reduced homelessness in the community, Hansen said. 

Currently, 55 percent of CenterPointe clients have current or past contact with the criminal justice system. Probation, parole, drug court, corrections, criminal defense attorneys and others make up the agency's list of referral sources, Hansen said.

The $2 million savings was an estimate, based on national estimates, for the entire criminal justice system, not just the jail, Hansen said.

During a Thursday morning discussion of the Trabert Hall decision, Wiltgen unsuccessfully argued the county should get assurances, as part of the sale negotiation, that the agency would provide specific services for the county corrections system. 

“This is a real estate transaction,” said Brinkman, in refusing to expand the negotiation discussion.

“This is a $500,000 subsidy,” Schorr said, referring to the difference in price.

And if the county is going to subsidize the agency, then “we should quantify what the public purposes are," including the level of services available to inmates leaving the jail or Community Corrections, she said.

The county has spent money in the past year hiring new corrections officers, another deputy sheriff and a part-time investigator for the county attorney’s office, Brinkman said.

“We need to counterbalance that by investing in the system that helps keep people out of the correctional system," she said. 

CenterPointe receives about $350,000 in county funds, the most of any agency, said Schorr. 

With this subsidy for the building, there is an assumption that CenterPointe's mission takes precedence over other agencies, including the Food Bank, Center for People in Need, Voices of Hope, City Mission and Cedars, said Schorr. 

Agencies, such as CenterPointe, provide preventative, front-end services, but the county also needs services for the population coming out of jail, said Wiltgen.

The five-story Trabert Hall was originally used as dorms for nursing students before St. Elizabeth Hospital moved to its location on 70th Street.

It has been used for various county offices for almost 50 years but has been empty since adult probation offices were moved to the renovated former county jail at 605 S. 10th St. last spring.