The morning a utility vehicle tipped and killed singer Abby Uecker at the Thayer County fairgrounds, 911 callers asked at least three times if sheriff's deputies were going to come investigate.

"Can you send a deputy out to the race track? There are some people who want to talk to law enforcement," a Deshler firefighter told a dispatcher 20 minutes after the crash, according to a dispatch log obtained by the Journal Star.

But deputies didn't respond to the scene until almost two hours after the crash, by which time everyone was gone, authorities said. And almost 12 hours passed before investigators contacted the driver of the utility vehicle.

The delays hindered Thayer County Attorney Dan Werner's ability to determine whether or not the driver was drunk and should be prosecuted, Werner has said.

“I can’t come up with an alcohol level,” he told reporters Oct. 5, announcing no charges would be filed in the case. "Whether I suspect (drunk driving) or not does not influence a criminal proceeding.”

No one has claimed a quicker response by the deputy could have saved Uecker's life. She died at the hospital in Hebron about an hour and a half after the crash.

But the case changed the way the seven-deputy Thayer County Sheriff's Office handles ATV and UTV crashes that happen on private property, Sheriff David Lee said. 

Lee said earlier this month that he doesn't know how soon the deputy who was working that night — on call, but not actively patrolling — knew the severity of Uecker's injury. A Nebraska State Patrol lawyer said last week that 911 audio from that morning wasn't available because the sheriff's office was having problems with its software.

According to the dispatch log, a fairgrounds security guard who was the first person to call from the scene told dispatch it looked like Uecker "has been shot out of a cannon."

Still, the dispatch log doesn't say whether anyone ever told the dispatcher that Uecker was unconscious, and the first explicit indication that she might die apparently came more than an hour after the crash.

Omaha attorney Dave Domina, who represents Uecker's family, didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Private property crashes fall into a legal and procedural gray area for Nebraska law enforcement.

"Whenever you get into the private property (incidents), you create an uncertainty," said Bill Muldoon, director of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island. "If (this) was on a highway, it would be clear-cut."

The fairgrounds are owned by the Thayer County Fair Board, a nonprofit that is separate from county government.

Law enforcement is responsible for investigating crashes that involve serious injuries or deaths on public roads and private drives accessible to those roads, such as frontage roads to malls, Muldoon said.

Private property crashes are mostly handled as civil matters, although Nebraska law requires ATV owners to report to the state's transportation department any serious injury or fatal incidents. Still, Muldoon said, law enforcement can have a role at those scenes.

"You’re never wrong in having law enforcement there to take charge of the scene."

In Thayer County, population 5,100, sheriff's deputies often never hear about ATV and UTV crashes on private land, Lee said.

By contrast, Lancaster County dispatchers often send deputies to ATV or car crashes on private property to render aid and investigate if injuries are severe and/or the circumstances are suspicious, Sheriff Terry Wagner said. His office has deputies working full-time around the clock.

All of Lee's deputies had worked the county fair the day before Uecker's crash. No county law enforcement was on patrol once the festivities ended.

Uecker stayed awake after her band, County Road, tore down its set at the fair following its second performance of the weekend.

Uecker, a band mate and three pit crew members from the racing event that night took a UTV out of a fairgrounds supply garage without permission and began circling the track after 4 a.m., witnesses told investigators.

Based on their accounts, Uecker, 25, was apparently sitting on another passenger's lap while Jason S. Lienemann of North Platte drove.

Witnesses said someone's hat blew off, so Lienemann made a "slow and controlled" turn to pick up the fallen hat from the ground. The Can-Am utility vehicle tipped, and Uecker became trapped beneath the roll bar.

At 4:23 a.m., the fairgrounds security guard called for an ambulance, which arrived about 10 minutes later.

A firefighter soon called from the scene to tell dispatch that witnesses wanted to speak with deputies. Eight minutes later, he called again.

This time, the on-call deputy called back, spoke with the firefighter, then told the dispatcher "it is like an accident that happened in their home, can't do much about it," according to the dispatch log.

The first definitive indication that Uecker's injuries were severe came from a fair board member more than an hour after the crash. "She might not make it," Travis Miller told the dispatcher, according to the log.

There's no indication that message was relayed to the deputy. The dispatcher told Miller the deputy wasn't coming because there was no property or vehicle damage, the log shows. 

Six minutes later, Uecker died at the hospital.

Werner learned of the death around 6 a.m., went to the hospital, then encouraged the deputy to head to the fairgrounds, he said. He characterized the decision not to respond earlier as human error.

Lee's office turned the investigation over to the State Patrol later that morning, which the sheriff said was in the interest of transparency and because the patrol has more resources and statewide jurisdiction.

Uecker's relatives have said they understand and respect Werner's decision not to charge the driver, based on the available evidence, and believe the case might be dealt with better outside of a criminal prosecution.

Lincoln defense attorney Bob Creager, who is not involved in the Uecker case but has successfully defended a client accused in an ATV crash, said even if sheriff's deputies had responded quicker and gathered more evidence in Thayer County, obtaining a conviction would be difficult.

To be guilty of driving under the influence, a person must operate a vehicle on a roadway or drive that is accessible to the public, Creager said.

"It would be hard to argue that those who entered upon the racetrack at 4 in the morning to joyride around the track were doing so at a place open to the public."

Creager said Werner's account of the crash suggests it had nothing to do with illegal driving, a requirement in motor-vehicle homicide cases.

And bringing a manslaughter charge would be difficult, because the Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled the underlying act in that offense must be more than a traffic-related violation, he said. In this case, he doesn't see an identifiable criminal act that could support that prosecution.

"Sometimes accidents happen that are not the result of any criminal conduct," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.



Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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