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In 1974, as the Watergate scandal played out in Washington, D.C., J.J. Exon won a second term as Nebraska governor and the energy crisis slogged on, a broke college student in Lincoln saw a path to a degree.

Tom Casady was newly married, well on his way to earning an English degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and running low on cash.

He’d used up the savings he’d squirreled away sacking groceries the past five years, so when John Hewitt, a Lincoln police sergeant and regular customer at the grocery store, told Casady about a federal program that would pay for tuition for police officers, he decided to sign on.

He figured the required two-year stint as a police officer was doable, and then he’d head to law school.

As it turns out, the 20-year-old college student had just stumbled into his life’s work, a career in law enforcement that would span 45 years.

Today, his influence can be seen everywhere: in an exceptional police information system, in the written policies of the police and sheriff’s departments, in the city’s community policing efforts, and in the people he’s hired and promoted and trained.

It’s in brick and mortar and hardware: four new police stations, five fire stations, a new police firing range and training facility and a new $12 million public radio system he shepherded into existence as public safety director.

And it’s in the lessons he’s learned — about compassion for victims and the need for public transparency and feet-on-the-ground police work.

“I’d like to think part of my legacy is what I’ve passed on to others in the field,” said the 65-year-old Casady, who will retire Wednesday.

First, though, he had to learn those lessons.

* * *

They started early, before he donned a uniform.

Casady was born in Oklahoma and his dad’s job — as a sales and plant manager — meant his family moved a lot, around Iowa and Missouri and, when Casady was 13, to Nebraska.

He started Culler Junior High as a ninth-grader — he knew no one, the family had been living in a motel while his dad got settled in his job and found a permanent place to live. He was self-conscious and unhappy.

But he had good teachers who mentored him and encouraged him. He got interested in school, loved speech and debate when he got to Northeast High School.

And on his first day at Culler, he caught a glimpse of his future.

“The prettiest girl I ever saw walked into the classroom. She was wearing a brown plaid dress that had white cuffs and a white collar,” he said. “It literally was one of those love-at-first-sight things and a year went by before she knew me, but I knew her.”

Eventually, Tonja Wagner did realize Casady existed and they began dating as high school sophomores. Her dad gave him a job at his grocery store. They married the day after Casady turned 20 (his family didn’t want him to marry when he was a teenager).

Then Casady put on a police uniform.

* * *

He was a motorcycle cop in 1976 — with roughly two years of experience under his belt — when he got a call to an injury accident in the parking lot of the VFW Post on Cornhusker Highway.

Donald Edelman was on the ground dying, tire tracks across his white T-shirt, and the young officer found himself investigating his first homicide.

The detectives were tied up with another homicide so the rookie motorcycle cop interviewed the witnesses, learned that Edelman and Clyde Rice had gotten into a fight over a citizen’s band radio and Bear Tracks and Blue Rover decided to settle it in the parking lot, where Rice ran over Edelman with his truck.

Casady arrested Rice, then followed the case through the trial as the primary officer.

“It was a great experience for me because first of all it was a big case and I worked it pretty much on my own, but sitting through that entire trial with Bernie McGinn (the prosecutor who would later become a district court judge) on my shoulder was very formative.”

Other cases that spanned two agencies and nearly half a century offered many lessons: tragedies and controversies and the sort of fist-pumping victories that sometimes happen when you roll the dice — and give the go-ahead to a long-odds stakeout that snags a bank robber.

As chief Lancaster County Sheriff’s deputy he would be the first on scene when one of his deputies was fatally shot. As sheriff, he would be thrust into one of the most grisly and highly publicized murders in recent history. As a new police chief he would be indicted — and exonerated — during a controversy over an in-custody death that roiled the city.

He would go on to serve 17 years as police chief — the second-longest tenure in the department’s history — and spend his last eight years as the public safety director overseeing the police and fire departments.

“His ability to handle and mix the various political elements of his work constituency is really pretty amazing,” said Mayor Chris Beutler. “He’s viewed as objective and data-driven by everybody. He’s viewed as fair by his officers. He’s viewed as progressive and thoughtful by city and national leadership. He’s overall a pretty remarkable guy.”

Beutler credits Casady with embracing and expanding community policing in the city, for helping officers understand and better handle the mental health issues that can sometimes lead to violence, for connecting with nonprofits that can help with drug and alcohol addiction.

“I think he brought a proactive approach that was ever-broadening over the years,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s the data.

Casady’s always loved stuff — tools and gadgets of all sorts, but mostly he said, he’s driven by a desire to gather information and use it.

He supported the work of records management folks at LPD who put the department at the forefront of a system that today puts a wealth of information at all officers’ fingertips, he said.

LPD became a leader in the use of crime mapping — using geographic information systems to analyze crimes and trends.

“My contribution has been to use data well and to teach others to do that and to create a culture where data-driven decision-making occurs,” he said. “It’s just part of the way I interact with the world.”

* * *

Ron Tussing saw that, and in 1986, when the Lincoln police detective won a heated election to become Lancaster County Sheriff, he appointed Casady, then a lieutenant at LPD, to be his chief deputy.

“He’s one of the brightest people I know,” said Tussing, who went on to be the Nebraska State Patrol superintendent and the police chief and mayor in Billings, Montana, before retiring. “He’s very diligent, real detail-oriented, but he’s also empathetic to people. He’s a really hard worker.”

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The election pitted the old guard against the new, and when the new guard won, Tussing and Casady did a lot to modernize the sheriff’s office. 

They had some fun, too. They frequented local diners in the county on Fridays, which they dubbed “pie day.”

They created a fictitious shoe company called Graybar Footwear to snare people with outstanding warrants, set up a storefront, sent out 500 postcards to people saying they’d won a new pair of tennis shoes and all they had to do was pick them up. When they did, they found Casady, Tussing and a host of deputies instead.

Sheriff Terry Wagner, then a deputy, learned quickly that the new chief deputy was a smart, intense guy. And he liked him.

When deputies were getting shotgun racks in their cruisers, Wagner wrote a letter to Casady explaining why he didn’t want one.

Casady gave him the letter back, edited in red pen. Wagner snuck into his office, stole his thesaurus and wrote a verbose response. He got it back covered in red pen. This went on for a while. Finally, they called a truce. And Wagner got the gun rack.

Two months into Casady’s new job at the sheriff’s office, tragedy struck: Deputy Craig Dodge was fatally shot when he responded to a domestic disturbance at a Hickman apartment.

There are some cases that stick with you, Casady said. The big ones, the life-changing ones. Dodge’s death was one of them.

“It was pretty tragic trying to support families and your coworkers and manage the investigation and deal with your own emotions as well,” Casady said. “It was very, very frightening for the families of the other deputies and Lincoln police officers.”

It wasn’t until he was elected sheriff that Wagner realized what a challenge that time must have been for both Tussing and Casady.

“They weren’t super familiar with the culture, they were the outsiders coming in,” he said. “They did a great job of working our way collectively through that.”

In 1991, Casady was named sheriff after Tussing left to head the state patrol. Within a year, a second of those life-changing cases would come along: the abduction and murder of 18-year-old Candi Harms, a University of Nebraska student randomly targeted by two strangers.

Everything made it difficult, Casady said — the depravity of the crime, the randomness of it, the innocence of Harms, the fear it engendered while she was missing for two months, the intense publicity surrounding it.

It taught the sheriff — who stood at attention in full uniform at the entrance to the cemetery as cars filed in from Harms’ funeral burial — how critically important it is to respect the families of homicide victims, he said, and that true evil exists.

“I learned that it’s difficult sometimes to conceive of the extent of evil and you’d better be able to wrap your mind around that if you’re going to solve a case or combat that evil.”

In 1994, Mayor Mike Johanns named Casady Lincoln police chief and within a year, he’d be embroiled in one of the toughest cases of his career.

Francisco Renteria was walking home from the laundromat when police looking for a domestic violence suspect mistakenly stopped him. A struggle ensued, he suffered medical problems, was hospitalized and died the next day.

Controversy and protests consumed the city, and two months later, Casady, two of the officers and a fire captain were indicted on misdemeanor charges.

Casady was placed on leave but reinstated after a judge dropped a charge of official misconduct stemming from statements the officers had made to him. A review by the state attorney general’s office further exonerated Casady.

Juries acquitted the officers and a judge dropped the case against the fire captain. The case prompted changes in how LPD handles forceable arrests, making sure suspects are sitting upright. Renteria had been kept on his stomach after being handcuffed, which made it difficult to breathe, a factor that contributed to his death.

Those were important lessons, Casady said, and there were others.

A grand jury investigated the case, which kept officials from talking publicly for months about what they believed had happened. Casady would do it differently now.

“You gotta get information out quick, as much and as accurate as you can, and sometimes you have to do that without relying on other people’s advice or desires," he said. "You just have to do it when you’re a police chief.”

He also began to understand more about the Hispanic community.

“I understand it real well now, but at the time I was pretty clueless about the extent to which, even in 1994, the issue of illegal immigration and discrimination against immigrants, people of color and Latinos and Mexican-Americans — how much pain there was surrounding that.”

Carlos Monzon, an attorney who represented the Renteria family 25 years ago, called it a historic case that changed Lincoln — and practices in the department — for the better.

“A lot of things that were going on came to light and things changed for the better,” he said, such as teaching officers basic Spanish commands.

Today, Beutler credits Casady’s leadership with the good relationship and level of trust within Lincoln’s large immigrant and refugee community.

"Lincoln doesn’t get enough credit for the relative ease for which culturally diverse people come to understand what a good police force is,” Beutler said. 

* * *

There were other big cases that marked Casady’s tenure, but one of the biggest lessons came when he and his wife were in Washington, D.C., and a man tried to snatch Tonja’s purse as they walked across the street from the White House.

The guy missed, Casady tackled him and Secret Service officers descended upon the two of them. Casady knew how it would play out. Tonja didn’t and it was traumatic.

“After living with that for about six months it gave me a new appreciation,” he said. “It really, really taught me what victims go through that I had recently been oblivious to because it was kind of routine for me.”

The upcoming mayoral election made him think about retiring to spend more time with his wife, two adult children and six grandchildren. The public service director position was created by Beutler and since Casady announced his retirement, whether to keep it is already a point of debate for candidates. So Casady will leave the stress behind.

"I've worked in pretty high-stress positions for a long, long time and the prospect of being able to shed some of that stress and enjoy a few years of life is pretty darned attractive," he said.

Looking back, some of the cases he’s proudest of are those with the invisible victims, those with troubled lives, without advocates or middle-class status that get the same dedication and effort from investigators as the high-profile cases.

“I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It makes me proud to be part of that legacy — not the person who created it but just to be part of it."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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