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The day violence came to Highway 81.

Twenty-eight and counting.

That's the number of editorials relating to the September 26, 2002, murder of five people at a Norfolk, Nebraska, bank that since have been published in the Daily News.

Too many? Too few?

The specific number is significant only because I'm not aware of any other single topic that has generated as much attention on the newspaper's Commentary page in such a short time period.

The more important question is whether the quality of what was written justified the quantity.

But first, some background.

The Daily News is a six-day-a-week afternoon newspaper with a circulation of about eighteen thousand in northeast Nebraska. Norfolk is a community of about twenty-one thousand, situated about two hours north of Omaha, the state's metropolitan center.

As editor, I write most of the editorials on the Commentary page. My retired predecessor still contributes on a regular basis. But with a newsroom staff of seventeen, I also am heavily involved in news coverage, especially when a story of any magnitude hits.

The U.S. Bank murders certainly fit that description.

It was a Thursday morning, about 9:30 a.m., when police scanner transmissions first shared the news that shots had been fired at a local bank. A few minutes later, it was reported that there was at least one fatality. Soon after came word of five bodies--four bank employees and one customer--at the U.S. Bank on Highway 81 near the heart of our community.

Four suspects were identified and arrested the same day in O'Neill, Nebraska, a smaller community about seventy-five miles to the north and west.

The shock felt by our community grew the following day. A locally based Nebraska State Patrol trooper killed himself, apparently grief-stricken because he thought he could have prevented the bank killings. It seems he had arrested one of the suspects a few weeks earlier, but a paperwork error caused the man to be released.

If that wasn't enough to deal with, there was an ethnic element. All four of the suspects were Hispanic. Two previous multiple murders in Madison County also involved Hispanic suspects.

This in a county that was almost one hundred percent Caucasian until twenty years ago. The first Hispanic immigrants moved to northeast Nebraska in the late 1980s for jobs at a newly opened meatpacking plant. During the 1990s, Hispanics made up almost all of Madison County's population growth.

With three multiple murders all involving Hispanic suspects in Madison County's recent history, it didn't take a genius--or a newspaper editor--to figure out that there was potential for community unrest. And it certainly didn't help matters when the purported ringleader of the U.S. Bank murders was photographed smirking for the camera shortly after being arrested.

What's a newspaper to do?

From an editorial perspective, I made the decision that we would address but not dwell on the ethnic backgrounds of the suspects. This was a crime of violence, but there were no indications race or ethnicity were a motivating factor.

Our editorials included statements that were obvious but needed to be said nonetheless--urging against stereotyping a racial or ethnic minority group because of the actions of a few.

I sought out and published letters from representatives of the Hispanic community that acknowledged the sorrow and shock being felt by all Norfolkans, not just longtime Caucasians.

Did it help? I'd like to think so. The first few weeks after the murders passed without any overt racial or ethnic incidents. Law enforcement officers said they still could detect some underlying tension, but calmer heads prevailed.

At the Daily News, though, we still had concerns that a high percentage of our coverage of Hispanics--whether in news stories or on the Commentary page--dealt with either police- or court-related matters. As a result, I applied to have the Daily News host a national credibility roundtable through the Associated Press Managing Editors organization that would focus on how the newspaper could be of better service to the Hispanic community.

The roundtable discussion was an unqualified success. About twenty Hispanics attended and provided a wealth of ideas, suggestions, and constructive criticism for the Daily News. I used the Commentary page to share with readers the need for the discussion and how the Daily News would respond. I think it was a key step in fostering a better, more open relationship between the newspaper and the Hispanic community in the Norfolk area.

As the months have passed and the suspects move through the judicial system, a new challenge has presented itself.

There was little, if any question, about the guilt of the suspects. Bank surveillance tapes identified them, witnesses saw them, the murder weapons were found, and footprints and fingerprints matched. Given that, there's considerable sentiment to get them convicted, sentenced, and, possibly, executed.

But first come the court-appointed attorneys seeking additional legal help. Then come the numerous motions and continuances. Even when one of the suspects entered a guilty plea, it led to the hiring of a mitigation specialist, a forensic psychologist, and a neuropsychologist to work on his behalf in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. The county's taxpayers weren't exactly thrilled.

On our Commentary page, the Daily News has found itself in the awkward position of having to explain why these expenses and delays are allowable while also sharing the sentiment felt by many readers.

A recent editorial concluded this way: "We're well aware that a man's life hangs in the balance, but we don't think we're out of line for being a bit frustrated. At what point does the guarantee of a full and vigorous defense cross the line into excessiveness and unjustified expense? We believe it already has been crossed."

As of this writing, three of the four suspects have either pleaded guilty or been found guilty by a jury. The fourth was to go to trial about the time this edition of The Masthead goes to press. But still to come will be their sentencings, challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty in Nebraska, and much more.

The total of twenty-eight editorials is bound to grow.

The first of many Daily News' editorials on the killings

Editor's note:This editorial won first place in the Nebraska Press Association's best editorial contest among member daily newspapers in April 2003.

First comes the shock:

"What happened? Five people were shot? Not in Norfolk, you must have it wrong. How could it happen here? It's not supposed to happen here."

Then comes the fear:

"Have they caught the persons who did it? Do we need to lock our doors? Where are the kids? Are they all right? Is it safe to go outside? Who should we be on the lookout for?"

Soon, grief sets in:

"Think about those poor families of the victims. We can't even imagine what they're going through. We're going to miss them so much. They were such good people. Why did something like this have to happen to them?"

But there's anger, too:

"Did you see the smirk on the face of one of the suspects? It makes you want to ... We should just string them up and be done with it. Their victims didn't get a fair trial, why should they?"

So many questions, so many emotions. That's one of the results when five people are inexplicably murdered. It's so unexpected, so unreal, that it's almost impossible to comprehend.

And just when Norfolkans and area residents were trying to get adjusted to the reality of the armed robbery at the U.S. Bank branch facility, another punch to the stomach came their way. The news of the suicide of a Nebraska State Patrol trooper--apparently grief-stricken over the idea that he might have been able to prevent what occurred--was almost too much to take.

But that's what we must do. In memory of those killed and in support of their loved ones, Norfolkans and area residents must stand up, join together, and deal with the feelings of shock, fear, grief, and anger.

We can do so by becoming resolved in many different ways and in support of many different things. We can be resolved to:

* Comfort and reach out to those most directly impacted by the tragedies.

* Support our law enforcement officers, regardless of the agency they work for.

* Fight political battles for adequate funding for police officers and the tools and manpower they need to make our streets safer once again.

* Demand justice for the five victims of the U.S. Bank robbery and to not stand for legal games or endless court appeals.

* Work to restore the death penalty to Nebraska now that its legality has been questioned by a recent court ruling.

* Find a way for our churches, schools, and families to have more of an impact on young people so they would understand the difference between right and wrong and the sanctity of life.

* Offer prayers for all those in need, for racial and ethnic understanding, for comfort, for peace, for guidance, for the realization that faith and trust in God is the only way to make sense of what happened.

None of us wants to dwell on what happened, but we must not forget. We must allow the horrific reality steel our resolve. There is work to be done. We owe that much to those who died.

Kent Warneke is editor of the Norfolk Daily News in Nebraska. E-mail kwarneke@norfolkdailynews.com
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Author:Warneke, Kent
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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