HEBRON — The death of a Norfolk country singer at the Thayer County fairgrounds this summer was a "senseless" accident but won't result in criminal charges, the local prosecutor said Thursday.
Abby Uecker, known by her stage name, Abby Nicole, died after being pinned beneath a utility vehicle loaded with people on the fairgrounds in Deshler before sunrise July 23.
But law enforcement didn't respond until more than two hours after the incident, and nearly everything officials pieced together in the two months since has come from witnesses, most of whom were riding in the utility vehicle with Uecker, Thayer County Attorney Dan Werner said Thursday.
Uecker, 25, was apparently sitting on another passenger's lap as the utility vehicle — filled with five people, including driver Jason S. Lienemann of North Platte — circled the fairgrounds' dirt racetrack after 4 a.m.
Then someone's hat blew off.
Witnesses told investigators the driver made a "slow and controlled" turn so someone could pick up the fallen hat from the ground. The Can-Am utility vehicle tipped, and Uecker became trapped beneath the roll bar.
Other riders helped lift the utility vehicle off her while a security person called 911, Werner said. Still, Uecker died from a head injury about an hour later at Thayer County Health Services in Hebron.
"Every accident is senseless," Werner told reporters Thursday at the county courthouse. "This one involved a hat. Certainly not very important."
But exactly what factors contributed to the accident are unclear.
Lienemann, 22, admitted to drinking five or six beers that evening, but told investigators he had stopped consuming alcohol hours before the crash.
Local law enforcement didn't immediately respond to the scene because it wasn't on a public road, Werner said. By the time he asked them to investigate at 6:35 a.m., the driver and some riders had left the scene, so there is no precise measurement of anyone's blood-alcohol content.
Also, Werner said, the utility vehicle's speed may have been higher than the group perceived, and the uneven distribution of passengers, combined with the slope of the track, may have contributed to the crash.
Nebraska State Patrol investigators first made contact with Lienemann about 12 hours after Uecker died.
No evidence gathered by the State Patrol, local law enforcement or Werner himself supported filing criminal charges, Werner said, and the crash has been deemed an accident.
“If I had the ability to direct the investigation from the time of the accident, (the driver's blood-alcohol) would have been investigated," Werner said. "That’s all I can say.
"I put myself in the position of the family. I actually wanted to be able to prosecute. I wanted to find some criminal conduct. I wanted to give the family closure."
Uecker's family understands and respects the decision, its lawyer wrote in a statement read Thursday by Werner. The family said it would make no more comments.
"As we have discussed, the circumstances of Abby's death may be best dealt with in a context that does not involve criminal prosecution," wrote attorney Dave Domina of Omaha, who represents the Uecker family.
Thayer County Sheriff David Lee said his seven-deputy department had only one officer available that night because others had helped patrol the fair that day. That deputy was on-call, not actively patrolling, Lee said.
A 911 dispatcher told the deputy an ambulance was headed to the fairgrounds because someone had fallen off a utility vehicle, but the deputy wasn't informed of the severity, the sheriff said.
That deputy made a phone call and decided not to respond, Lee said. When the sheriff's office learned Uecker had died, it turned the investigation over to the State Patrol because it has more resources and statewide jurisdiction.
Utility vehicle crashes aren't uncommon in the rural county that's home to 5,100 people, Lee said, and many aren't even reported to his office. But going forward, his deputies will respond to similar emergency service calls and determine if an investigation is warranted.
"I think many, many people wish we could go back and turn the clock around," the sheriff said.
Uecker and her band, County Road, performed at the fair the two nights before her death.
No one gave Lienemann, two other members of a auto racing team's pit crew, Uecker and one of her bandmates permission to ride the utility vehicle, which was loaned to the fair by a private business, said Bob Dankenbring, the fair board president.
The utility vehicle had been parked inside an open supply garage near the fair's grandstands.
A fair board member and security officers remained at the fairgrounds after County Road's performance, as members of the band took down their equipment. The fair board member wasn't in the area when the group took the utility vehicle onto the track, Dankenbring said.
"For some reason they felt they had the liberty to use it,” he said.
Uecker, a 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, had been a performer since age 4. She joined County Road in college and co-wrote songs with writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 2014, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor after experiencing severe headaches and underwent surgery. She returned to school in 2015 and started singing again.
She released her first single, "Cool," last year.