John Wizinsky trial

Former inmate John Wizinsky testifies in his suit against the state of Nebraska in Lancaster County District Court on Monday.

The afternoon of the 2015 Mother's Day riot, Crystal Rempel, the yard supervisor at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, remembered calling over her radio for additional staff.

"I had this really bad gut feeling that something was wrong," she testified Thursday in a civil trial brought against the state by John Wizinsky, a former inmate.

Rempel had previously called for inmates from all three housing units to come to the yard for their medication and hadn't had problems. But this time, there were more inmates out than should've been, she said.

Within minutes, inmates had assaulted an officer and a sergeant in the yard, causing Rempel to call over her radio again.

Warning shots rang out from the tower. But some inmates still were refusing orders to get down on the ground.

"They all started running at us," Rempel said.

She and two other employees ran as fast as they could to the medical clinic. Rempel said her husband, Shaun, who also was working, held the door. If he hadn't, she said, they never would have gotten in.

Once out of the yard, shortly after 3 p.m., she got a call from a woman locked in an office. Inmates were pounding on the door and windows trying to get inside. Rempel said the young woman, a recreational specialist, was hysterical.

As soon as she saw someone from one of the prison response teams, Rempel told him they had to go get the young woman.

"I just wanted someone to save her," Rempel said. "She had her whole life ahead of her. I didn't want her to die that day."

By 4:24 p.m., the young woman had been rescued.

Rempel's harrowing testimony came on day 3 of Wizinsky's trial. The Grand Island man was an inmate that day, in protective custody, serving a six- to eight-year sentence for distributing methamphetamine.

When he got out of prison in 2016, he sued the state, alleging he feared for his life, has PTSD from a beating he saw that day and was left without food or diabetes medication for 18 hours after staff left their posts.

In an effort to prove the state was negligent, Wizinsky's attorney, Joy Shiffermiller, has offered into evidence the "Fithian report," which identified a number of causal factors, including a lack of pre-riot intelligence that an incident may be imminent and facility management issues such as staff vacancies, mandatory overtime and issues with recruitment and retention.

Scott Frakes, director of the state's prisons, called for the review, by a former colleague at Washington state's prison department, a day after the destructive, 10-hour uprising left two dead at fellow inmates' hands.

Frakes also sought a review, by Dan Pacholke and Bert Useem, which delved more into causes and came to light in November at Wizinsky's first trial that ended in a mistrial.

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Shiffermiller offered it, too. But Judge Kevin McManaman found it wasn't relevant.

Frakes testified Thursday that he had the report done for his purposes only.

He said there were a couple of areas that supported his beliefs that the prison needed an agency-level investigative and intelligence network and that protests happening in the community at the time were having some influence inside.

The authors of the report concluded that stress on the facility permitted small acts of resistance to spread quickly from the yard into two housing units and the gym.

They pointed to staffing issues, apparent coordination among inmate gangs and a "somewhat disjointed" response, among other factors.

Frakes said when he first got to Nebraska he saw the agency as one that had a long history of successfully managing inmates but that struggled on occasion with the total number of inmates and capacity and that he was beginning to see the same challenges across America with recruiting and retaining staff in corrections.

He said he had a sense that there were "some areas that we needed to focus on." But not that an event like what happened May 10, 2015, was imminent.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.



Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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