Gage County completes pay-off of Beatrice Six judgment
BEATRICE – A muted round of applause preceded what's been a historic day for Gage County...capping a tragic case for all involved. In about half the time expected, the Gage County Board Wednesday completed paying off a huge federal civil rights judgment to six people or their estates….in a wrongful conviction case. The board approved the final claims making payments to the so-called Beatrice Six….about $2.09 million in the most recent claims. Board Chairman Erich Tiemann spoke of the total amount and time it took to complete the payments.
"To the nearest that we can find...this is never going to be one-hundred percent correct, with legal fees and everything else...we ended up at a total sum of $30,743,000 and change. Instead of eight to ten years or six to to eight years, this has been paid off in approximately four years. June 7th, '19...to March 8th, '23. If you guys would have said are we going to be able to do this in four years?....well, I said no."
Paying the judgment owed to six people wrongfully convicted in a 1985 murder and rape of a Beatrice woman, had the county using a combination of property tax dollars, insurance settlement money, a $4 million state aid allocation and a special half-cent sales tax allowed by state law….to fulfill the payments.
Board member Emily Haxby read a letter from Senator Myron Dorn, who worked on state solutions to aid the county in covering the judgment.
"So excited for everyone involved to have reached this final payment. It closes a difficult chapter for the Helen Wilson family, the Beatrice six people and the people of Gage County."
Tiemann said the county had to overcome plenty of skepticism about the route taken in the case…which included supervisors who no longer are on the board and legal counsel covering several aspects of the payout. "We stayed the course, kept going like we were...had good news from insurance. We ended up collecting $5.98 million, which everyone said wasn't going to happen...there was no coverage. We argued that there was. That came from boards previous to us, to us, as well....Senator Dorn when he was chairman here...and this board looking ahead and saying we're going to keep fighting this. We put money into that. That wasn't always a popular decision, but it was the right decision."
Passage of a law that allowed the county to enact a half-cent sales tax to help pay off the judgment, kicked in a significant share of funding. "There were rules so that this didn't become a forever sales tax, and the board only wanted it if it was specific for this circumstance. That was lifted on January 1st of 2023. That sales tax ended up raising $5.857 million. That was put in place from January of '20...to December, 2022....so that was a two year sales tax, that half-percent."
During the use of the sales tax, the county was required to be at its 50-cent property tax cap. County Attorney Roger Harris said several people took a lot of flak about decisions made….and often had to take actions without much public disclosure….as the matter was being litigated. Board member Gary Lytle said it is good for the county to put the matter behind it.
"Not sure if we should be celebrating or crying, right now. It's definitely a good time to put behind us. Once we hit the.. pay for the judgment period...the team...lets just say the team...has done about as good as could have been expected." Lytle said gaining nearly $6 million in insurance settlement money through the use of two special counsel attorneys was “remarkable.” He said the decisions made were in the best interests of taxpayers in the county.
County Clerk Dawn Hill….who did considerable background research on boxes of documents…said, “it’s such a great feeling to be done.”