Beating death suspect was safe haven drop-off

2013-11-20T11:20:00Z 2014-08-29T14:16:05Z Beating death suspect was safe haven drop-offBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star

Five years ago, a suspect in two Lincoln deaths was dropped off at a Lincoln hospital under the state's safe haven law.

Tyler Thornburg was 17 when his mother and stepfather took him to BryanLGH Medical Center West on Oct. 28, 2008, to try to get mental health treatment and other help for him.

Thornburg was charged Tuesday with four felonies, including second-degree murder, in the deaths of two Lincoln men who were beaten in June and died in July.

Sue Quakenbush said she took her son to the hospital after he was dropped off from a detox center.

"This is about our son and getting any kind of help we can get for our child," she said at the time. "I call him my lost soul."

Quakenbush said then that the decision was heart-wrenching.

"I love my son very much. We are not bad parents. … We are not dumping our son."

The Legislature passed the safe haven law in 2008 with no age specified, although senators intended that parents of newborns find a safe haven rather than harm or abandon them out of sight of someone who could help.

The law went into effect that July, but by the time a special session could be called to limit the age of the child to one month, 35 children, many of them teenagers like Thornburg, had been dropped off by parents, grandparents or guardians. Most said they thought they could not get help for the youths' mental and behavior problems any way other than to allow them to become state wards.

In October 2008,  Thornburg already had been a state ward for a time and had been in a Cedars group home and the Omaha Home for Boys. He had faced several criminal charges in 2006 and 2007, including theft and disturbing the peace.

The parents told police, who responded to a disturbance Thornburg caused at the hospital, they could not provide the programs he needed. They said he refused to follow their rules and was putting the family in danger.

Quakenbush had talked to a Wall Street Journal reporter in December 2008, outlining problems her son had been having since he was 6 and diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. She described temper tantrums, being uncooperative at home and lying. In eighth grade, he kicked in the glass on the front door of his middle school.

After that story ran  Nov. 22, 2008, the state sought and was granted a gag order to keep the Quakenbushes from publicly disclosing their son's full name, birthday and medical information. State officials argued the disclosure of information embarrassed the teenager, and they were concerned about his future employability and other issues.

The Quakenbushes said their reason for talking was to not only get him help, but to help others in the same situation. They said the gag order, which was lifted by a Nebraska Appeals Court ruling after a year, took away their constitutional right of free speech.

Court records for Thornburg during his first time as a state ward show he was uncooperative at group homes and was discharged from one about a year before the safe haven drop-off because he was said to have struggled with peer interactions and lacked impulse control.

His case was closed after he made positive progress in school and in working with a group.

Quakenbush could not be reached Tuesday.

But Melanie Williams-Smotherman, director of the Family Advocacy Movement, a nonprofit group that works with families in the child welfare system, who had worked with the Quakenbush family, said the state had a window of opportunity to help Thornburg when his parents reached out for help.

By all accounts, she said, he didn't get the treatment his parents desperately wanted for him.

The state focused instead, she said, on the role of his parents, entering Quakenbush's name on a child abuse and neglect registry for physical neglect of her son.

"They were desperate to get him help before he hurt himself or someone else," Williams-Smotherman said, "which is always the plea of parents with severely disturbed kids. They're reaching out and saying, 'Look, you cannot wait until something really bad happens.'"

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or Follow JoAnne's tweets at

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