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In wake of Gardner's suicide, special prosecutor offers new details about events leading up to James Scurlock shooting

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·7-min read

One day before Jake Gardner fatally shot James Scurlock outside his bar in downtown Omaha, President Trump threatened to send the military to Minneapolis in response to violent clashes between police and protesters following the death of George Floyd in police custody, tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The timing of Trump’s tweet, which Twitter has since removed from public view for violating its policy on glorifying violence, “is significant in terms of Jake Gardner’s affinity for the president,” special prosecutor Fredrick Franklin told members of the press in Omaha on Wednesday.

Last Tuesday, Franklin announced that a grand jury had decided to indict Gardner on four felony charges, including manslaughter, in relation to the fatal shooting of Scurlock, a 22-year-old unarmed Black protester, during demonstrations against police violence in Omaha on May 30.

Over the weekend, attorneys representing Gardner confirmed the 38-year-old former Marine had committed suicide the same day he was scheduled to turn himself in to authorities. In addition to manslaughter, Gardner had been charged with felony counts of attempted first-degree assault, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony and making terroristic threats. If convicted, he would have faced up to 95 years in prison.

Franklin said that he was “saddened about Jake Gardner having taken his own life,” and said that “him doing so deprived the community to be able to have this evidence play out at trial.” In what Franklin said would be his “last statement concerning Jake Gardner and James Scurlock,” the special prosecutor offered new details about the events that led up to the fatal shooting.

James Scurlock, left, and Jake Garder
James Scurlock, left, and Jake Garder. (via Facebook, LinkedIn)

Franklin clarified that none of the information revealed at Wednesday’s press conference came from any of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury (whose identities and testimony he swore under oath not to disclose) but rather, had been provided to him by the Omaha Police Department prior to convening the grand jury.

Based on evidence, including video footage as well as text and Facebook messages obtained from Gardner’s phone, Franklin said that “in the lead-up to the confrontation that led to the shooting of James Scurlock,” Gardner and other unidentified individuals had been inside his bar, the Hive, “with firearms including a shotgun and three handguns.” While inside, Franklin said, Gardner “was engaged in text communication” with others who provided him with updates on the situation unfolding downtown, as protesters flowed into the Old Market area and toward his bars, the Gatsby and the Hive.

Franklin said that the texts and Facebook messages sent to and from Gardner’s phone during that time included “multiple references to anticipated looters and how they could be dealt with,” as well as a discussion about “whether or not the field of fire from inside the Hive going outside was clear.”

“That evidence is completely supportive of an intention to use a firearm to either kill or to cause serious bodily injury,” to anyone who might have tried to enter Gardner’s business, Franklin said, suggesting that “Jake Gardner had set up an ambush inside his business waiting on a looter to come in so he could ‘light him up.’”

As the crowd moved closer to Gardner’s businesses, Franklin said that video footage shows the lights inside the Hive were turned off. He described Gardner and the others sitting inside the bar, with the lights turned off, as some people eventually began breaking windows and causing other damage to the exterior of the Hive and Gardner’s neighboring bar, the Gatsby. However, Franklin emphasized that “there was not a single attempt by anyone to go inside of that property.”

Within just 36 hours of the shooting, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine had concluded that Gardner shot Scurlock in self-defense. Gardner, who had an expired concealed carry permit and had posted on Facebook about having to “pull 48 hours of military style firewatch” outside his bars just hours before the confrontation with Scurlock, was taken into police custody for questioning and released the following night without even being booked into the jail.

Amid fierce backlash from Scurlock’s family and the community, Kleine soon agreed to turn the case over to a grand jury. Franklin, a longtime federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha, was appointed as the special prosecutor on the case in June.

In his statement Wednesday, Franklin suggested that video evidence of the moments leading up to the deadly altercation undermined the self-defense case that Kleine suggested and was promoted by Gardner’s attorneys, as well as his friends and supporters.

The shooting took place during a chaotic second night of unrest in Omaha, which, like many cities and towns across the United States, erupted in protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just five days earlier. Back in July, Yahoo News reported that, even after Kleine agreed to convene a grand jury to reconsider the case, his quick decision to apparently side with Gardner had left many in Omaha feeling angry by what they viewed as a failure by local law enforcement to consider all pertinent information relating to the events of that night and Gardner’s background.

In addition to several witnesses who said they made repeated attempts to provide police with crucial information in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Yahoo News spoke to more than half a dozen people, including former employees and patrons of Gardner’s bar, the Hive, who gave firsthand accounts of what they described as Gardner’s racist comments and discriminatory policies. Two family members also offered unique insight into the unabashedly racist culture in which, they said, Gardner was raised.

On Wednesday, Franklin declined to comment on whether his investigation yielded evidence that Gardner had used any racial terms or slurs in the lead-up to shooting Scurlock, stating only that, “What the grand jurors decided didn’t have a thing to do with any ... racial terminology being used by anybody.”

Still, Franklin offered an anecdote from a recent conversation he said he had on Monday with “with two people whose insight and wisdom I greatly appreciate.”

“One of them said to me, ‘You know, this is just a ridiculous tragedy. You have two families devastated by the loss of a son or brother or father. But that’s what hate produces,’” he said. “I share that comment with you because I find it to be profound and apropos as it relates to this entire tragedy.”

Gardner’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment in response to Franklin’s statement, nor did the attorney representing Scurlock’s family.

Gardner’s body was reportedly found on Sunday outside a medical clinic in Hillsboro, Ore., roughly 20 miles west of Portland.

Attorneys representing Gardner confirmed his suicide at a press conference Sunday, telling reporters that Gardner, who’d been living on the West Coast since the Scurlock shooting, had been scheduled to return to Omaha that same evening and turn himself in.

Though they said Gardner did not leave a suicide note, his attorneys stated that the former Marine had suffered two traumatic brain injuries during deployments to Iraq, suggesting that behavioral health issues stemming from those injuries, combined with fears that people were trying to kill him and an “incessant rush to judgment” had driven Gardner to take his own life.

“He was deathly afraid of coming back here because he felt he would not get a fair trial,” said attorney Stu Dornan, who added that his client had fled Omaha for Northern California after the Scurlock shooting due to “numerous death threats.”

Dornan described Gardner as “really shook up” by the grand jury indictment, and Tom Monaghan, another attorney representing Gardner, said he had even hired a bodyguard because of death threats he received.

Still, they said they believed Gardner intended to turn himself in, and stood by the argument that he’d shot Scurlock in self-defense. A number of figures on the far right reiterated this claim, blaming the “leftist mob” and even the special prosecutor for Gardner’s death.

Franklin disputed the suggestion that Gardner would not have been afforded a fair trial, noting that there were multiple witnesses “who appeared before the grand jury who, I can assure you, would’ve been favorable to the cause of Jake Gardner.”

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