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The Life and Death of Brooklyn Maxwell
'She'll always be there with us': Lincoln 4-year-old's death remains unsolved after nearly 7 months

Before she became the subject of Lincoln Police Department case B7-060718, Brooklyn Maxwell was a 4-year-old who loved playing at the park, stuffed animals and "The LEGO Movie."

She beamed with joy and spunk during her 1,579 days on Earth, even amid a shifting home life, her former caretakers say.

How she ended up dead in a Bryan East Campus hospital room in July remains under investigation.

As Lincoln police continue their probe, those who cared for Brooklyn grieve and wonder when answers will come.

"I think about her every day, and I’m scared that she’s going to be forgotten about," said Brooklyn's aunt, Yvonne Johnson, who raised her for almost three years.

Said her legal father, Regence Maxwell: "Every day with her was a great day. It was like she was like a gift from Heaven."

Courtesy photo 

Brooklyn Maxwell, then 2, smiles in the sun at Holmes Lake. Last July, she died at Bryan East Campus, but police still have yet to determine what led to her death.

Brooklyn's life

Brooklyn Alejandra Maxwell was born March 15, 2013, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Johnson and Maxwell, her then-boyfriend, drove from Lincoln to Memphis to bring Brooklyn back here under an arrangement between Johnson and her sister Olivia Ross, the girl's biological mother, according to child custody records.

During her pregnancy, Ross agreed to have Johnson and Maxwell raise the girl, as they wanted a child of their own and were able to provide a stable home, they said in interviews.

The permanency of that agreement is still disputed. Ross couldn't be reached for this story.

Three days after Brooklyn's birth, Regence Maxwell signed a document acknowledging him as her father. Then he and Johnson returned to Lincoln with baby Brooklyn in tow.

"She was just the most playful, just happy little thing,” says Johnson, 35.

Everybody who met her fell in love, says Maxwell, 34.

Courtesy photo 

Regence Maxwell became Brooklyn's legal father soon after her birth and helped raise her for much of her short life.

The couple nicknamed her "Ria," which they picked out while Brooklyn was still in the womb. They planned to teach Brooklyn her given name when she was older, Johnson said.

Brooklyn obsessed over her binkies and hugged her stuffed animals in the nursery. Some, like a large stuffed bear, were big enough to prop her up and hug her back.

Courtesy photo 

"She was just the most playful, just happy little thing,” says Yvonne Johnson, Brooklyn's biological aunt and former caretaker.

Elmo and the "Sesame Street" crew captivated her. So did Strawberry Shortcake.

When she found her voice, Brooklyn used it often — echoing when Johnson hollered for another one of her children's attention.

With Maxwell, she loved piggy-back rides and putting her tiara on his head while playing dress-up.

One of her feet was larger than the other, requiring some physical therapy. Johnson said one of her shoes didn't fit her: Brooklyn often threw her boots and sandals around — sometimes out the window — during car rides.

She was a mischievous toddler, swiping candy from dishes and stashing it alongside Oreos and her binkies in the oven of her Minnie Mouse play kitchen.

But she couldn't get in trouble, even when she performed unauthorized experiments with Johnson's eyeliner.

"She got away with everything because I couldn't stay mad at her," said Johnson, a mother of four.

Sixteen months after Brooklyn's birth, Maxwell sought a court order for permanent custody.

That began a yearlong fight, which ended in 2015 when a judge placed 2-year-old Brooklyn back with her biological parents, Olivia Ross and Barry Streater, who still lived in Memphis.

By that time, Johnson and Maxwell had split up.

Ross and Streater would eventually move back to Lincoln, where Johnson and Brooklyn adapted to new roles as aunt and niece.

"My heart literally broke in 500,000 pieces as I knew my life would never be the same," Johnson said of the day she handed Brooklyn over, "and I knew hers wouldn’t either."

21:54 July 11, 2017

Brooklyn became unresponsive after two hours at Bryan East. Doctors couldn't revive her.

Streater had taken her there at about 8 o'clock that night. He and Ross told police their daughter had been acting sick and complained of abdominal pain.

An autopsy two days later found Brooklyn had bruises, including a larger one on her abdomen. Juvenile court records list the cause of her death as blunt force trauma.

What caused that trauma hasn't been determined.

A month after Brooklyn's death, the state took five other children out of Ross and Streater's Lincoln home as the Lancaster County Attorney's Office grew concerned for their welfare, according to court records.

County prosecutors sought to keep the children out of their home, alleging the parents have been unable to explain how Brooklyn sustained her injuries.

Ross told police that Brooklyn said she jumped off the top of her bunk bed and hit her head two hours before she went to the hospital July 11, court documents said.

Ross and Streater in November pleaded no contest to allegations that they lacked proper parental care.

Brooklyn's siblings remain in foster care. Final resolution of the case is scheduled for March.

In a statement provided by his attorney to the Journal Star, Streater described Brooklyn as a "wonderful girl."

"We miss her every day," he said.

Ross' attorney didn't respond to a request seeking comment.

There's been no closure for Maxwell, who learned of Brooklyn's death from a friend, or for Johnson, who found out on Facebook.

Maxwell had just moved to Houston two weeks prior for a job as a machinist.

Brooklyn's death haunts him, he said, and he knows the police investigation won't uncover the answers as fast as detectives do on TV.

Courtesy photo 

Johnson and her friends served this cake during a memorial one month after Brooklyn's death. Inspired by "The LEGO Movie," it includes the lyrics "Everything is Awesome," Brooklyn's favorite song from the movie.

March would have brought Brooklyn's fifth birthday, and the promise of more milestones, he said.

"She kept me going no matter what I was going through," Maxwell said. "There’s things that I’ll never get a chance to see and do with her. There’s always going to be a 'What if?'"

A month after Brooklyn died, Johnson held a little gathering with friends in her new home in Las Vegas.

They got a "The LEGO Movie"-themed cake to honor the little girl whose eyes lit up her life.

Cake frosting spelled out the words to Brooklyn's favorite song from the film: "Everything is Awesome."

That song always got Brooklyn to bust out in a wobbling dance neither Johnson nor Maxwell will forget.

"We didn’t know that we needed her but we did,” Johnson said. "She’ll always be there with us.”

Courtesy photo 

Lincoln native Ondrea Fernandez is shown with her husband Marquez and their son Mason. The couple recently picked up a $300,000 investment from ABC's "Shark Tank" for their healthy doughnut business.


Greg Bell is one of many Husker recruits expected to enroll early at Nebraska.

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Decades-old state Supreme Court decision on Legislature's power in governing NU system a renewed topic at Capitol

Prophesying to the Lincoln Journal in July 1977, then-University of Nebraska attorney John C. Gourlay noted the significance of a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that the Board of Regents — and not the Legislature — was the university’s governing authority.

“The decision will chart our relationship with the Legislature for years to come,” Gourlay said.

The ruling in Board of Regents v. Exon, which granted the eight-member board “the power and responsibility to manage and operate the University as free from political influence and control as possible,” has reanimated inside the state Capitol this year.

After Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell asked NU to devise a new reporting mechanism detailing how it divided its $583 million in state appropriations last July, university leaders responded that any such direction from lawmakers was prohibited by the Exon decision.

It was raised by the university in Education Committee hearings for bills by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld (LB857) and Omaha Sen. Sara Howard (LB898) requiring Nebraska’s colleges and universities to create new mechanisms for reporting on allegations of sexual assault and harassment on campus.

And it loomed as a specter last week during a three-hour hearing for a bill (LB718) by Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings requiring colleges and universities to draft free-speech policies and report disruptions to free speech to the Legislature.

Testifying at that hearing, Anthony Schutz, an associate professor at the Nebraska College of Law, told the Education Committee the 1977 Exon decision “relieves you of having to deal with these problems.”

Tracing the history of the state Constitution and the Exon decision, Schutz said Nebraska has relied on an elected Board of Regents vested with the “general government” of the university for more than 140 years.

“To make policy and implement it in the university setting, we need a governance structure that attends to our needs, which is what the constitution created,” said Schutz, who has authored a book on the state’s governing document with University of Nebraska at Kearney Professor Peter Longo.

NU sued Gov. J. James Exon in Lancaster County District Court in 1975 not in an “adversarial spirit,” according to then-President Ronald Roskens, but to clarify the duties of regents and lawmakers when it comes to university governance.

Regents gain expertise in attending to the university’s needs “nimbly and adaptively,” Schutz said, and are directly accountable to the districts that elected them.

Regents can’t curry political favor by taking favorable stances on nonuniversity issues, he added.

In interpreting the constitution, the Supreme Court did not read any level of “legislative prerogative over the Board of Regents’ decision-making,” particularly in how NU uses tuition revenue and donations, awards raises to employees, builds or renovates facilities as well as purchased or disposed of property.

“Rather, the court concluded that the constitutional text severely limited the Legislature’s interference with University prerogatives,” Schutz explained.

Exon applauded the decision at the time, saying it reflected his desire for the Legislature to make one bulk appropriation to NU instead of needing to pass dozens of smaller bills to fund university activities.

“I have been maintaining that the Legislature has been attempting to invade the administration of laws,” the conservative Democrat said then. “The Board of Regents and the University administration have the job of making independent decisions.”

Sens. Richard Marvel of Hastings and Jerome Warner of Waverly cautioned the university from celebrating the ruling.

“Whoever has the power assumes the criticism,” Marvel told the Lincoln Journal in 1977. “With additional power goes additional criticism.”

“It’s beautiful for politicians,” Warner told the newspaper. “We in the Legislature can give them the (tax) money and turn around and give them hell for how they are spending it.”

Schutz last week brought those former senators’ arguments to the present, pointing over his shoulder to Regent Rob Schafer of Beatrice as an example, saying voters can judge Schafer on his performance related to university matters “independent of anything else.”

“If you don’t like Schafer, you can throw Schafer out,” he said.

Sitting senators on the Education Committee said they still expected the Legislature to maintain some oversight into the university’s activities.

“Most people who vote for us look for leadership from us on all these issues,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn.

Morfeld, a former student of Schutz’s, said the Legislature provides the budget allowing the university to exist, which can contain some ties guiding how the regents use it. Schutz agreed, in part, saying it would depend on just how many strings were attached to a spending bill.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard encouraged the Legislature to not pause at the Exon decision and pass bills dictating policies to the university, saying it was up to a court to decide which laws were constitutional in Nebraska.

And Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said Board of Regents v. Exon was only relevant as long as the language in the state constitution made it so.

“The people could get in an uproar right now, add a constitutional amendment and change it,” he noted.

Gourlay, the university’s first full-time legal counsel, died in 1979, long before he could witness the Exon decision rippling in today’s political climate.

“It will obviously increase the need for better management at the university on items that have been dictated to us before,” he said at the time. “We view this as a historic decision with implications which will affect the governing of the University of Nebraska for many years to come.”

Marines seek young, tough recruits in Super Bowl ad

WASHINGTON — For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Marine Corps will air an ad during the Super Bowl, using an online-only spot Sunday to target a young, tough, tech-savvy audience for potential recruits looking for a challenge.

The high-powered, battle-heavy, 30-second ad shows Marines deploying from ships in amphibious vehicles, dropping bombs from aircraft and hurling a shoulder-launched drone into the air.

"It's not just the ships, the armor or the aircraft. It's something more. It's the will to fight and determination to win found inside each and every Marine that answers a nation's call," the announcer says, as the camera follows a squad of Marines storming off helicopters into a mock firefight while explosions erupt around them.

The goal, said Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, head of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, is to reach young men and women who have faced and conquered challenges in their life, probably played physical sports such as wrestling or rugby, and have a bit of that fighting spirit.

Network television viewers of the game won't see the Marine spot. But those watching through online streaming services — which charge a fraction of the advertising price — will see it twice.

"I'm not trying to enlist fathers or mothers, I'm trying to enlist 18- to 24-year-olds," said Kennedy. "And they tend to be cord-cutters. They take in entertainment differently and they tend to do it on a device rather than a television."

The Marine Corps would not provide the exact cost because the specific pricing is proprietary. But the online ad represents a savings of nearly 85 percent over the broadcast price. Thirty-second slots are going for more than $5 million for broadcast airtime alone. And the online ad — which can be viewed on — is expected to reach more than 20 million viewers.

As the military services struggle to meet recruitment goals in these times of low unemployment, they are competing for many of the same young people — physically-fit high school graduates who can score 50 or higher on the military's aptitude test.

The Marine Corps is on target to meet its recruitment goal of about 38,000 for the budget year ending Sept. 30. But recruiters have historically found that the months of February through May are the toughest for finding new enlistments. By this time, many high school seniors have decided what they will do or what college they will attend.

So Kennedy is hoping the ad will reach some who may still be open to serving in the Marine Corps. Targeting the streaming broadcast has now become a more effective option as viewership online grows, he said, and is the best way to reach more young people while spending less money.

"I don't have unlimited funds," he said. "And this is probably the most-watched event, as we move into the toughest months of recruiting."

The visuals in the ad, he said, go to the heart of what Marines do, deliberately focusing on the fight rather than some of the intangibles such as the potential for paid college tuition, bonuses or other incentives. The images are designed to attract people who are tough and resilient — key words the Marines use repeatedly to describe the force.

The battle scenes were filmed on the West Coast with Marines participating in a military exercise called Dawn Blitz in order to show more-realistic scenarios. The ad also shows Marines deployed on the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, which was off the California coast for training, to mimic a deployment near the shores of an adversary.

"This ad talks to the fighting spirit of young people that have come up through high school," Kennedy said. "We want young, tough, smart warriors that want to continue to seek challenges, and we're seeking them from men and women from all walks of life."