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Keadle

The scene Thursday in Joshua Keadle’s preliminary hearing. 

AUBURN — Ty Thomas’ family watched quietly Thursday as a string of investigators laid out their evidence against the man accused of killing her.

A few new details emerged during the day-long hearing, which will help a judge determine whether there's enough evidence to move forward with a first-degree murder charge against Joshua Keadle.

Immediately after Thomas disappeared in the early morning of Dec. 3, 2010, Keadle claimed the last time he'd encountered the 29-year-old Peru State College student was on campus, where he and a few friends saw her drunkenly walking toward her dormitory.

Since then, he has stuck to the story he came forward with four days later: that he left her — alive — near a boat dock along the Missouri River.

Thomas was declared legally dead in 2013. Her body has never been found.

Brandon Sorgenfrei, a former Nebraska State Patrol investigator, testified Thursday that Keadle eventually admitted he saw Thomas by the river when he went there to smoke marijuana. Keadle told investigators she wanted a ride to Omaha, that he drove her to the boat dock, and she became violent after he backed out on giving her a ride.

According to Keadle's version of events, Thomas had gotten violent and threw her phone at him, and he grabbed her arm to keep her from hitting him. Then, Keadle claims, she said she planned to go back to campus and tell people he had raped her. They argued, he said, and when he went to leave, she refused to get in his car.

So, Keadle said, he drove off.

But Sorgenfrei described suspected “drag marks” — with no mention of blood or other forensic evidence to confirm those suspicions — near vehicle tracks by the river.

And, the former investigator said, Keadle told investigators at the time that he had Google-searched different scenarios related to Thomas' death, even raising the questions: "What if her body ends up in a river and my prints are on her because I grabbed her?" and “Like what can I do ... if she comes up f*ing frozen to death?”

Keadle was arrested the next day on suspicion of providing false information and evidence tampering. 

The night before he was arrested, a Nemaha County sheriff’s deputy watched the Auburn hotel room where Keadle was staying.

Sorgenfrei said he assumed it was for safety reasons.

“Whose safety?” asked Matt McDonald, one of Keadle’s attorneys with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy.

“The public’s,” Sorgenfrei said. “From Mr. Keadle.”

Kerry Crosby, an investigator in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, said one of Thomas’ friends told him Keadle creeped Thomas out.

“Tyler could’ve been crawling down the street with two broken legs and would’ve never gotten into his car,” the friend told him.

Crosby also said he interviewed a man who claims that while serving a 30-day jail sentence in late 2010 and early 2011, he heard Keadle say he'd never be convicted, “because they would never find the body.” That informant came forward in October 2017, after Keadle had already been charged with murder.

At the end of Thursday's hearing, another of Keadle's attorneys, Jeff Pickens, said there was circumstantial evidence to believe Thomas is dead: Family and friends haven’t heard from her. Her phone went silent. Her bank account hasn’t been touched since that day.

But, Pickens argued, without a body or a cause of death, there wasn’t even circumstantial evidence to believe she was murdered.

“The most-reasonable inference from the evidence,” he said, "is that she was drunk, she was acting irrationally out of anger, it was dark out there, she was at the river where she’d never been before, and she fell in the river.”

His suggestion led to quiet sneers from Thomas’ family before Pickens continued.

"There’s just as much evidence this death occurred as a result of an accident than because of premeditated murder,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Doug Warner saw it differently.

“What we have is a girl who is a block away from her dorm, walking toward her dorm ... going the right direction, and suddenly she disappears,” he said.

At the same time, her phone goes off the radar. And she’s not found near where she was last seen or in the river, Warner said.

“She just disappears."

He said there is no circumstantial evidence her death was an accident, and called the possibility of suicide ridiculous.

Nemaha County Judge Curtis Maschman gave both sides time to file written briefs before he decides if prosecutors have enough evidence to send the case on to district court, one step closer to trial.

Members of Thomas' family were slow to leave after the full day of testimony. Deputies ushered Keadle, 36, past them and out the courtroom door.

“He doesn’t realize what a beautiful, sweet child he took from us,” Thomas’ great-aunt, Ruth Coleman, said.

Every day, she said, she says good night and good morning to a picture of her grand-niece. Wednesday, she looked long and hard at that photograph, preparing herself for the details she would hear the next day in court.

Coleman said she hopes to see justice one day.

“I hope so, or else I’m going to scream,” she said.

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

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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