It was shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday morning. Our hearts were still heavy thinking about the Blue Hill bus tragedy in south-central Nebraska. We were also concerned about the water levels in area lakes, as a front-page story described how the current low levels will continue through next summer and may become even lower due to the drought.
Most of the front page was already put together, along with many of the inside pages. Associate Editor Dawn Cribbs was cross-training other staff members so that they could fill in for her. You see, she was selected to be on the jury-pool for the Stathis Kirkpatrick first-degree murder trial, and she was scheduled to report to the Red Willow County District Court on Monday morning.
We were already short-handed in the newsroom as the result of a motorcycle accident involving Editor Bruce Crosby on Aug. 18. Bruce broke his leg and pelvic bone, and had surgery in Kearney on Tuesday to pin his mangled leg back together, so we were also awaiting word that he was being released from the hospital to come home and finish healing.
With Dawn and Bruce both being gone, the third string was going to try and step in to put the pages together next week. Some of us, who normally do not leave home when the stars are still shining brightly in the morning sky, came in early to have time for the training session.
We were hoping that Dawn would not be selected as a juror, because we needed her at the office. However, we also knew that it was a duty she was obliged and honored to perform, in order to make our American justice system work the way it was designed to work. And besides, having duties spread out, just in case, is never a bad idea.
Suddenly, we heard a few uncharacteristic words coming from the northwest corner of the newsroom where Dawn sits. Not really swearing, just regular words uttered with a tone of dismay.
As she was checking the Associated Press wire for an update to the Blue Hill story, the news item came across that Attorney General Jon Bruning had announced that Kirkpatrick had pleaded no-contest to first-degree murder for the 2011 death of 14-year-old Kailee Clapp of McCook.
"This horrifying crime rocked the town of McCook. Under the guise of friendship, Mr. Kirkpatrick lured Kailee from her home, murdered her and burned her body. Today's plea ensures he will face justice and will never again be allowed to terrorize this community," Bruning was quoted in the release.
The plea also ensures that Gazette staff will not have to report on every horrendous detail of a crime that took the life of one of our own. It will save the Clapp family from having to relive the tragic events leading up to Jan. 21, 2011, the night that Kirkpatrick murdered Kailee; as well as the days following as the reality of their loss began to register.
Law enforcement, who performed a heroic effort in the search for the missing girl, as well as the investigation following, will know that their performance led to justice for Kailee.
The McCook High School Junior Class, of which Kailee would have been a member, will now be able to focus on the memory of the special girl who loved to dance, loved to sing, and was known for running around in her pj's; rather than focusing on the details surrounding her terrible death.
The past 17 months have found this community asking itself how anyone could do such a terrible thing to a young woman who had not even been given a chance to earn a driver's license or attend a high school prom. The reality is that there will never be a satisfactory answer to that question, and now we will not be forced to listen to a defense try to explain it to us.
Page one was totally rebuilt after the announcement. We moved the Blue Hill bus collision story to an inside page, not because the loss of those precious lives were any less a news story, but rather because the closure to this awful saga in the history of our community is so important.
Our hearts are still heavy -- for the suffering of the Clapp family, for the community of Blue Hill, for the rehabilitation Bruce will be facing. But intermingled with the sadness, is a tremendous sense of relief.
Kirkpatrick faces a life sentence for the first-degree murder charge, and sentencing is set for Nov. 20.