Opinion | A Tragedy in Omaha

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By Joe Sexton

Mr. Sexton is the author of the forthcoming book “The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy,” from which this essay is adapted.

OMAHA — By nightfall on May 30, 2020, Jake Gardner was inside his nightclub in Omaha’s Old Market district. He had handguns and a shotgun.

Crowds were descending on the city’s downtown during a third consecutive night of Black Lives Matter protests. Bricks and Molotov cocktails were being heaved at buildings and at the police, and officers in riot gear had responded with tear gas.

Mr. Gardner, a white 38-year-old, had been part of a unit that received a presidential award after being of one of the very first U.S. Marine Corps battalions to invade Iraq in 2003. After service, he eventually returned to Omaha and ran one of the city’s popular downtown bars. It had been closed for weeks amid the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and Mr. Gardner had been bleeding losses. With a reopening imminent, he’d stocked the bar full of liquor, some $90,000 in prospective gross income.

James Scurlock, 22, was one of the protesters out that night. He was one of two dozen siblings, raised in North Omaha, a largely Black and poor corner of the city. He had endured bouts of homelessness as a child and was put behind bars at 16, denied the chance at any kind of diversion program that might have offered mental health support or educational help. He had a talent for songwriting, and having just become a father for the first time months earlier, he planned on enrolling in community college.

Video footage shows that Mr. Scurlock and a friend had trashed the ground-floor office of an architecture firm near Mr. Gardner’s bar. Then video footage appears to show them helping smash the bar’s windows and heaving debris inside while Mr. Gardner and his bartender, who’d joined him, had hidden behind a wall and called 911.

Witnesses described what happened next, parts of which were captured in security camera and cellphone videos that I have seen. Some of the recordings have audio, others don’t; some are grainy, others are clearer.

Shortly before 11 p.m. Mr. Gardner, the bartender and Mr. Gardner’s father, who had just arrived, stood outside the bar. When Mr. Gardner’s father saw a business nearby being vandalized, he pushed a white protester who was filming the scene. Then Mr. Scurlock’s friend raced across the street and crashed into Mr. Gardner’s father, who was 69 years old, sending him flying backward and landing on the pavement. Mr. Gardner, a gun in his waistband, went to see who had flattened his father.

Mr. Scurlock hurried through the mayhem and, along with others, wound up in front of Mr. Gardner.

Mr. Gardner told those in front of him that if they hadn’t knocked his father to the ground they should move on.

Mr. Scurlock and others advanced. Mr. Gardner flashed the gun in his pants, then held it at his side, then put it back, all the while telling people to stay away from him. Suddenly, Mr. Gardner was jumped from behind by a young woman and taken to the ground. He fired two shots and tried to get to his feet. Mr. Scurlock jumped on Mr. Gardner’s back. Mr. Gardner pleaded with Mr. Scurlock to get off him. He then got the gun in his left hand and fired a single bullet over his shoulder. Mr. Scurlock was shot and pronounced dead shortly afterward.

Mr. Gardner was detained by police officers, interrogated, and then released. The county attorney in Omaha determined that the bar owner had a legitimate claim of self-defense.

In my 40-year career as a journalist, I’ve always been drawn to heartbreak: the Catholic bishop who died of AIDS, in secret and in shame; the Brooklyn girl on her roller skates killed by a stray bullet. I’d found that in diving into stories of devastating loss, I almost always discovered people of remarkable grace, moments of acceptance and forgiveness.

What happened in Omaha was, of course, far more complicated than a child accidentally slain in the street. Mr. Scurlock’s death occurred as the country had reached a breaking point. In 2020, whether it was the men who chased Ahmaud Arbery through their neighborhood before one of them shot him at close range or a police officer slowly asphyxiating George Floyd in front of onlookers in Minneapolis, Black men dying at the hands of white men was a raw and explosive issue in America.

Yet the events in Omaha seemed to me to amount to a certain kind of tragedy — and an important one in an angry and divided nation. Not the straightforward tragedy of great loss resulting from bad luck. Not the Shakespearean variety involving the noble person with a tragic flaw. Rather, the sort in which two characters, both with stakes in their community, maybe one Black and the other white, take matters into their own hands and produce an awful outcome — a tragic result for which there are no outright villains, a horror in which the specifics of the individuals and their fateful circumstances aren’t swept up by larger agendas or longstanding grievances, however real and true.

Maybe Mr. Gardner shouldn’t have been out there with a gun that night. Maybe he should have grabbed his father and gotten away from everyone as quickly as he could. But maybe he had, in several critical seconds, legitimately feared for his life. Maybe Mr. Scurlock should not have been vandalizing businesses, but maybe he, in the same critical seconds, legitimately wanted to prevent more gunfire and had jumped on the man with the weapon.

Such tragedies, it seemed to me, could offer the families and communities that suffered grievous pain the chance to heal together.

That’s not how things played out in Omaha.

Almost instantly, explosive information spread online. People posted that Mr. Gardner had targeted Mr. Scurlock, and that Mr. Gardner had used racial slurs — both of which are unproven. And that Mr. Gardner had shot Mr. Scurlock twice from behind, which is false.

There were also true facts that added fuel to the fire: Several old Yelp reviews surfaced alleging that Mr. Gardner’s bar had a racist door policy. He was a Trump supporter, which some took to mean he was a fascist. A screenshot of a Facebook post where he called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization was publicized and cited as evidence of his murderous intent.

Mr. Scurlock was initially lionized online. He’d gone to protest white violence and paid with his life, people wrote. But then video emerged that showed him vandalizing the business near Mr. Gardner’s bar and his criminal record appeared online. A new portrayal took hold in certain corners. In far-right circles, Mr. Scurlock was lampooned as a thug who got what he deserved.

And there it was: Today’s America acting true to form, insisting on a culprit in every tragedy, digging for clues and motives and easy answers to try to push an agenda rather than accept facts — even misrepresenting or inventing details in the absence of a clear good-versus-evil narrative. The vigilantes on social media and the partisans in the culture wars need, even lust for, pure villains. Pressure can consequently be brought to bear to bend justice one way or another. And so the people of Omaha found themselves with a fatal tragedy that quickly turned into something else: competing campaigns of misinformation or oversimplification, which became mean and, in the end, dangerous, too.

It all seemed to leave precious little room to contemplate what happened that May night in Omaha as a tragedy without culprits.

The ultimate decision whether to charge Mr. Gardner had fallen to Don Kleine, the longtime county attorney in Omaha.

Mr. Kleine was a Democrat with some genuine progressive credentials. After an investigation, his office concluded that Mr. Gardner hadn’t gone out looking to shoot Mr. Scurlock. Witnesses, including Mr. Scurlock’s friend, said they did not hear Mr. Gardner use racial slurs. Mr. Gardner may not have had any idea if Mr. Scurlock was white or Black. Mr. Scurlock’s death was crushing, Mr. Kleine determined, but it wasn’t a crime.

Mr. Scurlock’s sprawling family was a mixed but distinctive clan — talented, hardworking, wayward, committed, loyal. His older brother had done years in prison; another brother served in the military and became an accomplished artist; a few siblings were activists with the Revolutionary Action Party in North Omaha. They were torn apart by Mr. Scurlock’s death.

In the end, though, Mr. Scurlock’s father wasn’t interested in establishing Mr. Gardner as a racist. He just wanted a better investigation into how his son had died. Witnesses had complained that police officers had been uninterested in hearing their accounts. Hadn’t bringing a gun out into the chaotic streets been reckless, maybe criminally so? He made the point that if the races of the two men were reversed, there’s no way Mr. Scurlock would not have been charged. That Mr. Kleine was white was another fact that made Mr. Scurlock’s father wonder about the outcome.

It was a local lawyer, though, who made a citizen’s case that helped to shape the inflammatory narrative of Mr. Gardner’s character and motivations. The lawyer, Ryan Wilkins, a white man born and raised in Omaha, confessed that he wanted to be better at calling out racism. For weeks that summer he produced a series of posts on Medium and shared them through his Facebook account, making claims: Mr. Gardner’s father had been indoctrinated into white supremacy while behind bars in Texas for drug running; Mr. Gardner himself had a swastika tattoo; white supremacist symbology could be found in the bar’s logo.

I looked up prison records and there was nothing about the older Mr. Gardner having spent time locked up in Texas. Jake Gardner’s medical records contained no references to a swastika tattoo. An Anti-Defamation League expert on white supremacy debunked the idea that Mr. Gardner’s bar held secret white supremacist codes. (Mr. Wilkins has since deleted the first two allegations and told The Times that he stands by the accuracy of his blog posts.) Some of the lawyer’s posts went viral.

Megan Hunt, a white state senator, lamented that the decision not to charge Mr. Gardner would embolden other white supremacists like him. “White supremacist groups, including ones Jake Gardner was in communication with, rely on you thinking that none of this is a big deal so they can organize their support,” she wrote on Twitter.

It has become common for everyday people to insert themselves into contentious criminal cases and local issues over the last decade. There have been benefits: Videos shot on smartphones by bystanders to police killings have brought some real accountability. But there’s also a danger in regular people taking on the role of freelance investigators or self-deputized prosecutors — and spreading misinformation in the process. Sometimes, actors — driven by a sense of righteousness or maybe a hunger for a hero’s turn — don’t have much taste for nuanced tragedy.

A few days after the shooting, the white prosecutor gave way to community pressure. A special prosecutor was appointed to re-examine the case. The newly named prosecutor was Fred Franklin, a Black former federal prosecutor who had spent his career in Omaha. Months later, a grand jury returned a manslaughter indictment. In the following days, Mr. Franklin asserted that Mr. Gardner may have wanted to ambush looters; possibly frustrated that he hadn’t been able to shoot anyone coming into his bar, he went after Mr. Scurlock. He was the first aggressor in the episode and thus he could not claim self-defense.

Mr. Franklin’s theory of the case found support among many in Omaha’s Black community who felt he’d delivered justice at last. The Gardner family was livid. Mr. Kleine said he thought that Mr. Franklin had “his mind made up before he went in there.”

Mr. Gardner had fled Omaha just days after he’d shot Mr. Scurlock. He bunked for months with a Marine buddy in Portland, Ore. On the morning he was to board a flight to surrender in Omaha, he shot himself dead, blood from the wound to his head staining his old U.S.M.C. sweatshirt.

Two sons of Omaha, dead by the same hand before they were 40.

Even with Mr. Gardner’s death, Omaha did not go quiet. Conspiracy theories were floated that he was still alive; Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter suggested that a leftist mob was to be blamed for his suicide. All suicides are complex human losses. Research has demonstrated that veterans like Mr. Gardner who suffered brain injuries are more likely to die by suicide. He told his parents he feared he would not survive behind bars and that his legal defense would bankrupt his family.

It turned out he had left something for the world before his suicide: a quotation. It was a saying from the Black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had been wrongly convicted of murder in 1967: “To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.”

I would wind up spending two and a half years examining the deaths of Mr. Scurlock and Mr. Gardner. I’d gone to Omaha because I was drawn to heartbreak, and I found a world of that. And I’d gone wondering about the nature of tragedy in America, and found no shortage of the ills that afflict the country: a mistrust in the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system; the lasting harm shouldered by the men and women who fight our wars; a consuming and destabilizing anger that could see Jake Gardner call the Black Lives Matter movement a terrorist organization and James Scurlock vandalize the businesses of his hometown.

But it might have been the fear the people of Omaha felt that registered as most truly tragic. Fear of one another, fear that the truth of what happened might be more nuanced than they suspected, fear of simply being honest in public. Marines who had fought with Mr. Gardner did not want their friendship made public, and worried that their families would be harmed. A close family friend of the Scurlocks said she was fired from her job at a nursing home after other staffers said the memorial pin she wore would upset patients.

It was a Black former Marine who captured that tragedy of Omaha most powerfully. He had served with Mr. Gardner, gone to his bar, appeared on a news segment with him to talk about their service. Mr. Gardner, he said, had treated him like a brother throughout.

“The Black man in me wonders what the hell Jake was doing with a gun out there that night,” he told me. “But the Marine in me is open to the idea I might have done the same thing Jake did in firing that gun.”

It felt complicated but candid, conflicted but genuine. It felt empathetic and true. Yet the Marine told me he would not be named. He said he might lose his job if he were. He told me he was sorry but felt he was without a choice.

With a sadness hard to measure, I said I understood.

Joe Sexton, a former reporter and editor at The Times, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy,” from which this essay is adapted.

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