Omaha charity workers recount terror of 'shooter' firing gun; only bosses knew it was a drill | Crime-and-courts |

2022-08-27 03:56:06 By : Mr. JINGGUANG HU

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Catholic Charities’ location at 93rd Street and Bedford Avenue in Omaha, where a pretend gunman ran a drill where employees were not told it was a drill.

It was a Thursday morning in May. Five days after a shooter killed 10 people in a Buffalo grocery store. Five days before a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Tresor Kolimedje, 28, was at work in a state government office across the street from Catholic Charities’ location at 93rd Street and Bedford Avenue in Omaha.

From her desk, she heard gunshots, peered out the window and saw people running from the building, past other people who were lying on the ground. “She believed (they) had been shot,” according to a detective’s affidavit.

She wasn’t the only one. Multiple Catholic Charities employees rushed out of the building — some believing they had seconds to live.

What they knew: A man with a semiautomatic handgun had opened fire. Victims were on the ground, streaked in blood.

What they didn’t know: Their bosses had approved the “drill” — hiring the gunman who, in turn, brought along the “victims” to play dead after he fired off several blank rounds.

Now, the pretend gunman, who at the time described himself to police as an Offutt Air Force Base “citizen police officer,” is in jail — facing five charges of terroristic threats and one charge of weapon use.

John Channels, 27, also is awaiting trial on separate felonies alleging he sexually assaulted a girl and produced child pornography.

Authorities are scratching their heads that any organization would think Channels’ active-shooter drill was kosher.

“Bad, bad idea,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Tuesday. “Bad enough what happened — somebody could have gotten killed. Just think of the potential things that could have happened with this — it’s frightful.

“Thankfully, nobody else got hurt more serious than the mental damage these individuals suffered.”

The World-Herald sent a series of questions to Catholic Charities of Omaha Executive Director Denise Bartels, asking why the agency didn’t warn employees about the drill and what the agency was doing to help those employees in the aftermath.

Bartels declined to answer questions. She had authorized the exercise and agreed to Channels’ request that she shield from employees the fact that it was a drill, according to police.

According to the affidavit, an employee ran out of the office behind Bartels and asked “what was going on numerous times,” but neither Bartels nor anyone else responded.

Bartels issued a statement Tuesday that said: “Catholic Charities has cooperated fully with the Omaha Police Department and continues to do so. This is an ongoing criminal matter and we have no further comment at this time.”

Kleine said it is unclear how many employees were at the Catholic Charities office that morning. But Kleine said he has been informed that some were so shaken up they have yet to return to work, three months after the May 19 drill.

In the nine-page affidavit, Omaha Police Detective Derek Mois detailed what happened:

Catholic Charities’ compliance coordinator, Carrie Walter, and Security Director Mike Welna agreed on April 28 to pay Channels $2,500 to conduct the training. Walter stated the idea of conducting an “active shooter” training “had been discussed for some time ... due to having the new facility open ... which contained a domestic violence shelter.”

Walter said she and Welna had little idea how to go about organizing such training, so they yielded to a security guard’s suggestion of hiring Channels. Channels had claimed to have conducted other active-shooter drills and claimed that law enforcement “would be present during the training event and would even participate and ‘play along’ with the scenario.”

“Walter stated that Channels planned to start by shooting victims outside of the office windows and doors to be viewed by employees, then make his way through the building (with keys provided by staff) hoping to cause employees to flee from the building or hide,” Mois wrote. “Walter stated Channels specifically stated he did not want the Catholic Charities staff to be informed that the scenario was only a drill and wanted (them) to feel as though they were in danger.”

It worked. Several employees interviewed by Omaha police say they showed up May 19 for what they thought would be a normal Thursday.

Walter stated she and other staff were “somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of not fully notifying the staff but trusted Channels’ expertise and counted on his statements that (authorities) would be involved.”

About 9:30 a.m., Sandra Lopez was sitting at her desk, talking with a friend on her cellphone. She had just started working at the Bedford location after working at a South Omaha location for two years. She heard a noise outside her window and saw a Catholic Charities director, Dave Vankat, looking “scared” and screaming, “Run, run, get out,” Lopez told police.

Lopez followed Bartels and others and began asking “what was going on numerous times,” Mois wrote. “No one responded to her.”

Once outside the north entrance of the building, Lopez told Mois that she saw what she thought was a dead woman on the ground. The woman’s eyes were closed and she had blood smeared on her.

She then heard three gunshots behind her. She ran as fast as she could toward a retaining wall, with a dumpster several feet below. Lopez tried to jump into the dumpster to hide. She landed outside the dumpster and curled into the fetal position. Fearing she would be found and killed, Lopez then ran about three blocks to a fast-food restaurant to hide inside.

When she later called her bosses to tell them she was OK, they informed her the events were “part of a scheduled training.”

On the second floor of the building, Amanda Driver, 24, said she knew training was scheduled that day for the on-site classroom and believed it would be a speaker and a PowerPoint presentation. An earlier email made no mention of actors simulating a gunman or his victims.

Then she heard gunshots. “Driver stated she heard Denise Bartels yell her name, which startled her, and she began running toward the north (exit) door,” Mois wrote. There, “she observed a female down on the ground and believed it was a dead coworker.

“Driver stated she ran away from the building harder than she has ever run before because she believed she was about to be shot.”

In another department, one supervisor gathered three women in the cafeteria for what they thought was going to be a security presentation. They sat there for about 45 minutes, waiting for it to begin — no one told them that it was going to be an active-shooter drill.

Then Gloria Kern heard a noise she thought was gunshots — and saw her colleague, Sheila Garland, jump and run out of the room. As they fled, Kern said she saw a gunman “banging on the windows with the gun.”

“Kern said she saw the individual ‘holding the gun then shoot at the window,’” Mois wrote.

Garland told police that she was in a conference room with Kern when she saw a man in “dark colored clothing with a dark colored hoodie” walking by, firing a gun in the air. She said she was “absolutely in shock.”

Garland “stated specifically that she did not believe that any training that would be put on would involve someone firing a gun.”

When they made it outside, they saw a female on the ground with blood on her. Kern believed it was a co-worker. Garland was overcome at the sight.

Soon after, someone approached Garland and told her that she “needed to calm down.” “This was not real,” the person said, according to police.

Employees weren’t the only ones in the dark. Authorities say they weren’t notified of the drill. Dispatchers had no idea that several 911 calls of an active shooter were part of a scheme. And arriving Omaha police officers had no idea what they were encountering. One Omaha police officer had his hand on his gun as he approached co-workers, unsure who the shooter was.

Channels described himself then as an “Offutt Citizen Police Officer.” It is not clear what that title means; Offutt representatives couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Two weeks after the drill, Omaha police issued a statement asking businesses, churches and other organizations to inform them before conducting any live training.

Kleine said it’s hard to conjure all the things that could have gone wrong. One of the employees could have had a heart attack while fleeing. Someone could have taken out a gun and fired at Channels. An officer could have done the same, killing Channels or someone else. Channels himself could have inflicted damage; just a year ago, actor Alec Baldwin fired a gun he thought had blanks in it on the set of a Hollywood movie. A live round instead killed a cinematographer.

Kleine said it’s also hard to imagine what was going through Channels’ mind: Was this some kind of video game cosplay he found exciting? Channels operates the Exousia Protection Agency that, according to its social media posts, specializes in home security and firearms training.

Channels’ arrest affidavit is complete with security stills showing Channels brandishing the gun and employees rushing out.

Authorities said Channels asked employees after the training whether they had guns for protection; he also shared a business card encouraging them to pay for his firearms training class.

“It’s hard to figure out what possibly could have been his intention,” Kleine said. “He obviously wasn’t someone who took into account the issues or problems that could have resulted from doing it in this manner.”

As for Catholic Charities’ managers, Kleine said their decision-making is a civil, not criminal, matter. Two decades ago, the then-chief of police in Schuyler, Nebraska, and an officer, both armed and in disguise, stormed a convenience store as part of a staged robbery. One of the workers, who believed she was going to die, later sued the convenience store chain in federal court. That “drill” took place in the wake of the Norfolk bank robbery that killed five people.

The Catholic Charities drill took place just 2 miles from Westroads Mall, where a gunman killed eight Nebraskans in 2007.

Lopez teared up as she recounted the trauma to police.

“Lopez stated specifically that she believed the victim was a Catholic Charities employee who had been killed,” Mois wrote. “She believed she was involved in a real shooting event with real victims.”

Kern, too. The Omaha woman, who is in her late 60s, told police that she felt helpless as she fled. Her physical state would only get her “so far,” she said.

“I thought, ‘This is it, I’m done.’”

A new employee of the Adult Book and Cinema Store disappeared overnight April 18, 1974, along with 51 bondage-themed adult magazines, a calculator and $30. A cord leading to an extension from a pay phone had been cut and the shop door left unlocked.

Two and a half days later, a man went to feed cattle on a vacant farm he owned east of Hallam and found her bullet-riddled body.

Patricia Carol Webb was nude under the hay, except for a quilted jacket, one of 143 extra-large jackets distributed by a feed mill and given to customers or sold to employees. Webb, 24, had a piece of tape over her mouth.

Thirty-eight years later, her death remains one of Lincoln’s greatest murder mysteries.

“This case has been investigated, reinvestigated, reinvestigated. A lot of effort put into it,” said Lincoln Police Sgt. Larry Barksdale, who was tasked with the investigation since the early 1990s. Barksdale retired in 2012, but the case remains open.

Together, Lincoln police, the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, Nebraska State Patrol and FBI logged nearly 15,000 man hours during the first year alone. They even consulted clairvoyants.

Tina McMenamin, an 18-year-old UNL freshman, was stabbed and sexually assaulted in her apartment on July 25, 1995. 

Gregory Gabel, a mentally ill Lincoln man, was arrested in the homicide and has always been the prime suspect, an investigator said, even after pivotal DNA evidence failed to link him to the crime scene. Gabel has a computerlike memory for numbers and facts and a history of following women at businesses and public events, retired investigator Rich Doetker said in 2005.

McMenamin was killed in the minutes before she was due at work at Godfather's Pizza at 5:30 p.m. that night in 1995. Roommate Sarah Bognich found her friend in a pool of blood that night. 

"The apartment was ransacked. I walked past the bedroom a couple of times before noticing her on the floor. My life changed after that. I tried to go back (to college), and I couldn't ever finish."

A single hair clutched in McMenamin's hand led police to Gabel. It matched his DNA, a one-in-1,049 chance. Circumstantial evidence also linked Gabel to the apartment building. And a man matching Gabel's description was seen fleeing the crime scene, Amberwood Apartments, 4600 Briarpark Drive.

That night, Gabel was a block away at a Sonic Drive-In. He was there every Tuesday night, cleaning up in exchange for food. And Gabel had earlier convictions for third-degree sexual assault and public indecency. Police arrested him a year after the crime.

But two years later, when a different DNA test proved the hair was not Gabel's, he was released. That hair, however, didn't necessarily belong to the killer, Doetker said. The investigator also has suspicions about the validity of the second DNA test, conducted in a Pennsylvania lab.

"There were questions that came up: Was it the right hair? The same hair?" he said.

Murder charges were dropped against Gabel with the hope that additional evidence would be found to re-arrest him, Doetker said. If the case went to trial and Gabel was found innocent, Doetker added, he could not be retried if new evidence came to light.

Mary Hepburn-O'Shea, who has worked in the mental health field in Lincoln for decades and has known Gabel for many of those years, said in 2005 that the man lost two years in jail for something he didn't do.

Hepburn-O'Shea runs downtown O.U.R. Homes, the city's largest provider for developmentally disabled people that also houses people with mental illnesses. Gabel lives and works there. "He's a weird kid," she said. "He's not ever a violent kid."

Then-Assistant Police Chief Jim Peschong, speaking in 2005, added that you can't try a case on personal beliefs and supposition. Peschong said he personally believes there is a suspect in the crime, but he declined naming anyone. 

A 30-year-old Iraqi refugee with a new bride and a new home was slain in 2001 in the city where he came to begin a new life. Ali Saleh Al-Saidi's body was found in June 2001 in Salt Creek, east of the North 70th Street bridge near the Abbott Sports Complex. Then-Police Chief Tom Casady said Al-Saidi suffered "significant traumatic injuries."

Friends and family members said that Al-Saidi moved to Lincoln from Dallas a few months earlier. He had lived five years in Texas and was in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp before his arrival in the United States.

Casady called Al-Saidi a "Gulf War era" refugee and said he had recently married an 18-year-old Lincoln resident and fellow Iraqi exile.

Al-Saidi wed Azher Alghazawi on June 16. She spoke about the husband and friend she lost. "He's a good man," she said. "I love him very much." A welder by trade, Al-Saidi also loved to fix cars. He enjoyed making people laugh with funny faces.

Azher said her husband left their South 18th Street apartment to find an apartment key around 10:45 p.m. the day before his body was found. It was the last time she saw him alive. Just hours earlier, said Saleh Al-Daraji, a longtime friend of Al-Saidi's, he had helped Al-Saidi move some belongings from his old D Street apartment.

Authorities did not know whether the slaying took place near Salt Creek or whether the body was moved. Police found Al-Saidi's 1991 Chevrolet Caprice parked beside a curb at the corner of 21st and Dudley streets, then-Capt. Allen Soukup said.

In September 2001, a Lincoln couple who had been earlier interviewed by police about the slaying were arrested while trying to flee the country, authorities said.

Rabeha Kadhim Zaher  Al -Atbi and her husband, Asaad  Al -Asady, tried to board a flight to Syria from O'Hare International Airport, Lincoln Police Investigator Kathy Phillips said.  "I'm not going to label them suspects," Lincoln Police Capt. Gary Engel said. 

According to the affidavit signed by Phillips seeking the arrest of  Al -Atbi as an accessory to a felony, she lied to police during a July 5 interview about  Al - Saidi 's whereabouts on the night of his slaying and about having had an affair with him. She later admitted to police she had had an affair with  Al - Saidi , according to the affidavit.

The arrest affidavit goes on to describe how interviews with Iraqis in Lincoln have led police to believe  Al - Saidi 's death was a "crime of honor" and that  Al - Saidi  was killed for having brought shame or dishonor to his or another Iraqi family.

Gina Bos disappeared near Duggan's Pub in downtown Lincoln on Oct. 17, 2000, at the end of open mic night. She put her guitar in her trunk and then vanished.

The cold case is classified as a missing persons case, although it’s highly unlikely Bos, 40 when she disappeared, is alive. Koziol declined to detail the leads the department has chased, citing the open investigation.

Bos was a middle child in a large, close-knit family; she was waiting for a Habitat for Humanity house and had begun a new job when she vanished.

Bos’ sister, Jannel Rap, became the family’s spokeswoman early in the search. She started the Squeaky Wheel Tour, traveling the country performing and bringing attention to Gina and others who are missing in the cities she visited. She also started 411 GINA, a website with a hotline for tips about her sister’s whereabouts.

Said Koziol: “Someone knows what happened to her. Hopefully one day they will finally find it in their soul to come forward.”

Law enforcement hoped someone would remember seeing the dated minivan Ann Marie Kelley was driving when she disappeared. Neither has ever been found.  

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Search warrants executed in Cedar County reveal new information regarding a quadruple homicide investigation in Laurel.

The train pushed the vehicle for at least a half mile, nearly to the U.S. 81 bypass.

Authorities responded around 3 p.m. Sunday to a business near 48th and R streets after a passerby noticed the man laying on top of the roof.

After having consensual sex with a woman early Saturday morning, an 18-year-old Lincoln man is accused of leaving his date's room and sexually assaulting her roommate, police said.

"I think every indication shows that he is a predator to the public," Nemaha County prosecutors said before a district judge sentenced a former Lincoln sportswriter to prison. 

The person who called 911 reported a small fire in the living room. Deputies found the woman on the floor with blood around her and a fatal stab wound.

The Nebraska State Fire Marshal Agency reported the fire at a John Deere dealership was caused by arson.

Police began investigating the 36-year-old after his accuser's told authorities the teen was "possibly pregnant" from a sexual relationship with him.

A Norfolk man was sentenced to probation on Tuesday for his role in the improper disposal of a baby’s remains in April.

A Lincoln man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for distributing cocaine and fentanyl. 

Catholic Charities’ location at 93rd Street and Bedford Avenue in Omaha, where a pretend gunman ran a drill where employees were not told it was a drill.

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