He woke Christmas morning in Omaha to a half-dozen missed calls and messages — from his mother in the Republic of Congo, from a man who knew what went on where his father was imprisoned.
Percy Pika had grown to fear his phone.
“I knew someday getting a call that late would be someone announcing our father passing away. When I saw it, I was like, man, we’re getting really, really bad news here.”
He talked to the man. His father, 70-year-old Marcel Pika, had suffered an apparent stroke in the Brazzaville prison, where he’d spent nearly two years as a political prisoner of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.
Then he talked to his mother, Josephine.
She and his father — a retired colonel — had fled Africa with their family in the late 1990s, after Sassou Nguesso took office during a violent civil war.
They’d landed in Lincoln in 1999. They worked at Cook’s Foods and Kawasaki and raised eight children and became U.S. citizens and bought a house on Y Street. They’d returned to their homeland in 2007 to start a farm, and they were safe until 2016, when Sassou Nguesso regained power and Marcel Pika was carried away in the night, shirtless, to the prison.
Early Christmas morning, Percy Pika’s mother was panicking on the other end of the phone.
“I said, ‘Calm down, we’ll see what’s going to happen.’”
And less than a week later, on New Year’s Eve, Marcel Pika’s children and grandchildren greeted him at the gate at the Omaha airport. They barely recognized the man, who had lost nearly 10 inches around his waist, and who later said he felt like he could have died from the joy of that moment.
“He kept saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” his son said.
* * *
His family tried not to lose hope, but it was slipping away as the months piled up.
“We were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said his youngest son, Audrey. “We had our faith in God, but at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure we were prepared for death.”
They also stayed busy. After Marcel Pika was detained in March 2016, his family here and in Africa started fighting for his release, and making arrangements to meet his daily needs.
They spent thousands, paying for their mother’s living expenses in Brazzaville and buying their father’s medication. He has diabetes, so they hired a maid to prepare and deliver diet-specific meals to the prison.
This wasn’t a traditional prison. It was built in the 1940s to house 150 men but, according to reports, held more than 800 last year. Prisoners have no access to running water, no relief from the African heat, scant nourishment or medical care.
It was an abrupt change for Marcel Pika, who had lived a comfortable life, with servants and drivers, as an Army officer before fleeing the Congo in the 1990s. Even when starting over in Lincoln, working factory jobs, he and Josephine were able to buy a home, feed their children, make sure they went to college.
He lost weight behind bars. He developed high blood pressure. He grew cysts on his kidneys and lungs.
His family lobbied elected officials at all levels — from the Nebraska governor to the U.S. president — outraged the country wasn’t doing more to help a U.S. citizen. Finally, in August, they were encouraged by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s office, which pledged to work with the Congolese government to allow Marcel Pika to return to Nebraska.
Still, months passed, and he remained detained.
Percy Pika and his brothers began talking about flying to Brazzaville, to see their father at least one more time.
But Marcel Pika’s collapse Christmas morning started something.
After Percy Pika spoke to his mother, he called Fortenberry’s office. Soon, a team from the U.S. embassy was visiting his father in prison. Soon, Congolese officials agreed to his release.
And soon, Marcel and Josephine Pika were beginning a two-day trip, starting over in Lincoln for the second time.
* * *
Marcel Pika is sitting on a soft, leather sectional at his son Freddy’s home in southwest Lincoln. He’s wearing his slippers, and he can hear grandchildren in another room.
He hasn’t lived in the U.S. for a decade, he explains. His English isn’t as strong. He’ll speak French, and Freddy will translate.
But when he’s asked how it felt to learn of his release, he understands. He throws his arms up into a touchdown V and shouts, “Viva America.”
He and his family are grateful to everyone who helped get him here. The governor, Fortenberry and his staff, Sen. Deb Fischer, the president. They’re grateful for the Berean Church and for the nonprofit Hostage US, which supported the family during Marcel's detention. He’s thankful that Freddy’s employer, Nebraska Interactive, donated more than $5,000 for the plane tickets home.
But he also wants people to know he worries about other political prisoners in Brazzaville, held on similar flimsy charges. They’re not U.S. citizens like him, but they need our government’s help, too.
The physical conditions at the prison were dangerous, filthy and crowded. But what he saw, and what he felt, amounted to mental torture, he says through his son.
He witnessed a dozen men die. He was locked in a place for a crime he didn’t commit, with no due process and no contact with the outside world, other than the visits from Josephine.
He didn’t suffer a stroke, but he likely collapsed on Christmas from all of the suffering he’d been through.
He’s still weak now, his family says. Fragile.
And he was almost knocked down by emotion when he landed in Omaha and walked into the arms of 26 loved ones. Behind bars, he had missed a son’s wedding, the birth of four grandchildren, the burial of one.
He puts his hand to his heart. He tells Freddy what that moment was like.
“It was one of the most beautiful days of his life,” his son translates. “Not only do you feel loved, you feel blessed.”
Using a drone to spy on neighbors, drop drugs into prisons or harass cows could lead to criminal charges under a new bill Nebraska lawmakers will consider later this year.
The measure would impose new safety and privacy rules on the remote-control flying machines that are now used for dozens of jobs throughout the state.
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said she introduced the bill to protect the public without overregulating drones, the kind of technology she said is critical to the state's economic growth. The Federal Aviation Administration already oversees drones, but Blood said the agency hasn't addressed all of the public safety concerns.
"We want to make sure we have laws that tell people what our expectations are when they use technology," she said.
If the measure passes, Nebraska would join 40 other states with laws regulating drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws often address how law enforcement agencies and the general public can use the devices.
The Nebraska bill would create a variety of new restrictions for drone users. Pilots who use drones to peep inside homes without permission could face a misdemeanor charge, and so could sex offenders who use drones to violate a protection order.
Drone users who fly lower than 300 feet over private property after receiving a trespass notice could also be charged, as could pilots who fly too close to a prison or cordoned-off crime scene. The bill would prohibit pilots from strapping weapons to their drones or harassing livestock.
The legislation also would shield police officers and firefighters from lawsuits if they damage a drone while performing their official duties and believed it was interfering with their work. Law enforcement agencies could use information from drones with a warrant or in certain emergencies and situations.
A Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman said the agency has had no confirmed drone sightings over a state prison but was aware of incidents in other states where pilots used them to deliver contraband.
Blood stressed that the bill wouldn't apply to drone pilots who have a property owner's permission. She said she has spent the past year researching the issue and working with drone pilots, law enforcement, city officials and others to reach a compromise that wouldn't infringe on anyone's rights.
"People are worried about being overregulated," she said. "I keep assuring them that if they're responsible, this won't affect them in any way."
Even so, the bill will likely generate debate among drone users and their supporters. David Silchman, who owns an Omaha-based flight school, said he hadn't seen the proposal but questioned whether state laws are necessary given the current federal licensing and registration requirements.
Silchman said drones have become increasingly important in a variety of fields, such as agriculture and real estate. Railroad and utility companies frequently use them to inspect their infrastructure.
"Every day, people find more and more uses for them," he said.
Drones have also proven invaluable to some Nebraska law enforcement agencies, despite past efforts to curtail their use. In 2013, lawmakers considered legislation to ban law enforcement agencies from using drones, but the bill never advanced out of committee.
La Vista Police Chief Bob Lausten said drones have helped his department photograph crime scenes without a helicopter and scout homes before serving high-risk search warrants. Officers recently relied on a drone to locate children who had run away from home, he said. In October, they used it to reconstruct a crash involving a cement mixer that overturned and killed two Omaha men.
"There are a lot of different uses," he said. "We want to be able to utilize the technology, but do it without infringing on anyone's civil rights."
Many ranchers see drones as a helpful tool to check wells and fences and search for lost cattle amid the state's workforce shortage, said Jessie Herrmann, the Nebraska Cattlemen Association's director of legal and regulatory affairs.
But Herrmann said her group's members are also concerned that animal rights groups will fly drones over their property without permission. Earlier this year, she said one animal rights group flew a drone over the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, Nebraska, and may also have photographed a feedlot.
"There's going to be a lot of interest" in the bill, Herrmann said. "It's a pretty big issue that a lot of people are concerned about."
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has hired the former state director of Americans for Prosperity as its new administrator of communications and legislative services.
Matt Litt replaced longtime administrator Kathie Osterman, who has been in the position 20 years and before that worked with the department in its various forms since 1983.
Litt's former employer is a conservative political advocacy group funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, and said to be the Koch brothers' primary political advocacy group.
Osterman retired at the end of December, along with another communications specialist Russ Reno. Litt took over the position this month.
The position includes overseeing internal and external written, broadcast and website communication, working with senators, and with directors on testimony to present at bill hearings. The division communicates to 4,700 employees and many others in the state who use the department's services.
She has been known among those who had professional interactions with her, including members of the media, as a spokeswoman who approached her job in a professional and nonpolitical manner, with accuracy, timeliness and understanding the different audiences.
CEO Courtney Phillips hired Litt, Osterman said, and she was not involved in the process of finding her replacement nor any interviews. Taylor Gage, spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said the governor does not get involved in hiring at that level.
The job was posted by the state personnel division for about a month in an effort to attract diverse and qualified candidates, Osterman said. State Personnel forwarded the applications to the department and referred candidates. Multiple interviews were done, including final interviews by Phillips with three finalists.
Litt received a master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012, and a bachelor of arts degree in sociology in 2009.
He had been Americans for Prosperity's Nebraska director since September 2013 and deputy director for about a year before that. As such he created culture, and led strategic planning, communications, policy initiatives and grassroots operations, according to his resume.
Americans for Prosperity is described as an organization that is "building a long-term effort to undercut the left's long-standing dominance in grassroots organizing." It fights for lower taxes, less government regulation and economic prosperity for all. It encourages people to tell their lawmakers to end "the trainwreck that is Obamacare."
Ricketts was a founder of the Nebraska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, but Gage has said he has not contributed financially to the group. The organization does not make its donors public.
Litt said he applied for the position because he thought he could make a positive impact at the agency and "add to the great work that Gov. Ricketts and CEO Phillips have been leading."
He did not see his former job as a political one, he said, "at least as the word 'political' is typically used.
"As a part of the nonpartisan organization, I worked to advance policies and issues that encouraged fiscal responsibility, removed barriers to opportunity for Nebraskans, and protected free speech. I hope to continue that kind of work in advancing the policies of the agency and to communicate all the agency is doing to help people live better lives."
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said Litt's hiring for the Department of Health and Human Services didn't surprise her but concerned her.
Americans for Prosperity and the Platte Institute, which describes itself as an organization that believes big-government policies create barriers to growth and opportunity, seem to be revolving doors of their staffs through Republican campaigns, the governor's office and the Republican Party, Kleeb said.
Litt's hiring to oversee HHS communications and legislative services is yet another heavy hand from Ricketts, Kleeb said. The state is already living under one-party rule, which is bad for democracy, she said, and it's a double whammy to have Ricketts controlling everything.
"You don't get fairness, or new ideas brought to the table," she said.