AUBURN – After about seven hours of testimony in Nemaha County Court Thursday, Judge Curtis Maschman has taken under advisement a decision about whether to proceed with a murder trial even though the body of a former Peru State College student has never been found.
Joshua Keadle, 36, is charged with the first degree murder of Ty Thomas on Dec. 3, 2010, but defense attorneys said Thursday there is no more evidence to suggest foul play than there is evidence to suggest that she accidentally fell into the Missouri River.
The courthouse gallery, filled mostly by Thomas’ family, reacted with sighs to the idea that she fell victim to an accident.
Attorney General prosecutor Douglas Warner told the judge that Keadle is responsible for her death.
Warner: “She is almost to her dorm room, walking, going in the right direction and suddenly she disappears … that is circumstantial evidence that it’s not a suicide and it’s not an accident.
She disappears from the route and, at the same time, her phone goes off the radar screen. She’s not found. She’s not found anywhere near where she disappeared. She’s not found anywhere in the river. She just disappeared.”
The state introduced seven witnesses, many who described the hours and then days of searching for Thomas. It was not until the fourth day, they said, that Keadle changed his story and told investigators he had driven Thomas to the boat dock.
He told investigators he offered her a ride to Omaha in exchange for sexual contact and said she got angry when he broke his end of the deal. Keadle told investigators she was alive when he left her near the river.
Defense Attorney Jeffrey Pickens said the case should not proceed because the state has not met its burden of proof to show there has been a murder when the body has not been found.
Pickens: “There is certain circumstantial evidence that Ms. Thomas is dead, but there is no circumstantial evidence to believe that she was murdered. The most reasonable inference from the evidence is that she was drunk, she was acting irrationally out of anger. It was dark out there. She was at the river, where she had never been before, and she fell into the river.”
The hearing started Thursday with a defense motion to remove the shackles from Keadle’s right hand so he could takes notes.
Local law enforcement notified officers in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Deputies and state troopers were joined by dozens of volunteers who walked wooded areas. College security searched buildings on campus.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was notified. Dog teams from Kansas City and Des Moines were deployed. The Nebraska State Patrol provided aerial search, the FBI sent criminal profilers and the Missouri Water Patrol was activated.
Warner said no one could find Tyler Thomas, but the one person who saw her last was keeping it a secret.
She had gone to a party at the “Baseball House” and the birthday party of Shyriah Marshall, both off campus. When news spread that police would bust up the party at the Baseball House, many of the students walked across the block to Marshall’s party.
Thomas was angry when she arrived at the Marshall’s residence, saying her friends had ditched her.
Crosby said witnesses told him Thomas kicked a hole in the dry wall and left the house. She was seen walking toward campus.
Crosby testified about her cell phone records. He said she received numerous calls, but they went directly to voice mail because the phone was shut off or was inoperable.
A text message from Thomas’ phone to Chloe Courtier at 1:25 a.m. said she was lost and needed help.
Jerica Benavides told investigators that she had attended a Harry Potter movie in Nebraska City with Joshua Keadle and they saw Thomas when they returned to Peru. She said she and Keadle saw Thomas without a coat walking toward the dorm complex.
Courtier later told investigators she thought it was odd, that moments after she received the text message from Thomas’ phone, Keadle was knocking on her door. Crosby said Courtier told him that she did not talk to Keadle previously and never before at her dorm room.
In cross examination, defense attorneys mentioned Thomas’ Facebook posts. They said days before her disappearance she posted that “what had happened to her was a crime “and said “we have opened a cold case love.”
Attorneys said Thomas posted that she thinks she needs rehab and was worried about her grandmother in the hospital.
“Friends say she had a quick temper,” Crosby said.
Benavides said she saw Thomas at 1 a.m., a few minutes walk from the dorm complex.
About two hours later, Deputies Casey Moyer and Matthew Kadavy said student Jade Gordon dialed 911 after her in-town search yielded no sign and she drove “the seven-mile stretch” to Highway75.
Keadle called Gordon around 4 a.m. saying he heard voices in Thomas’s room, but Gordon found only her roommate Whitney Medlock.
At 5:30 in the morning, Gordon returned to the dorm complex where Keadle told her he had seen Thomas walking to the complex.
Sattlefield said there were many students gathered Dec. 4 at the student center and he asked generally for students to tell him where they had already searched and what they knew about Thomas disappearance.
Sattlefield: “Josh Keadle stepped out.”
He said Keadle described Thomas as looking intoxicated when he saw her. He said he went to his dorm room, which was on the same floor as Thomas’ room.
The weather was getting colder and Sattlefield said searchers had run out of ideas where to look, but Keadle did not tell him he had taken Thomas to the boat dock.
Investigator Monty Lovelace said a member of Team Adam from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was asked to aid in the search.
Investigator Brandon Sorgenfrei said it was not until Dec. 6, that a member of the State Patrol technical crimes Unit told Keadle he could track cellular devices.
Keadle said credits of the Harry Potter movie started at 12:13 a.m. He stopped at both Burger King and McDonalds in Nebraska City, made some stops in Peru. He said he unlocked the door to his dorm building, went to his room and stayed inside.
When investigators told him a camera at the building would show if he left, Keadle said he went to his car to get some change.
Keadle, who attended Thursday’s court hearing, waived and shook his pen, when Lovelace said there had been trouble between Keadle and Thomas regarding what happened to a person named Lesley.
Lovelace then said Keadle told investigators he had gone to the river around 2:30 a.m. to smoke marijuana.
He said Keadle reported returning from the river and taking a shower.
Lovelace said Keadle reported he did not see Thomas.
Lovelace: “He posed a question to us. Would he have picked her up? Probably not, as the two of them didn’t kick it.”
FBI investigator Michael Maseth was the ninth to testify. He said Keadle’s roommate, Seth Sejkora, told him that Keadle had suggested he would be an alibi regarding Keadle’s whereabouts.
He said Dana Dormer was among those that received text messages from
Thomas’s phone, but Dormer told the FBI she thought the text was strange because it said “who is this.”
He said an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, John Swensen, told him in 2012 that he was incarcerated with Keadle.
He said Keadle listed the evidence the state had against him. Swensen said Keadle said he had admitted to investigators that Thomas got angry at the river when he told her he would not give her a ride to Omaha.
“Things happen really quick,” Swensen said Keadle added.
Investigator Brandon Sorgenfrei related how he discussed with Keadle about his childhood and his relationship with his father. On Dec. 7, he said, Keadle told him that Thomas became physically violent with him at the river. Sorgenfrei said Keadle told him he had to subdue Thomas by holding her wrists or forearms.
He said she threw her phone in his direction and refused to get back into his vehicle.
He said he left her by the river and made a return trip to find her, but did not see her.
Sorgenfrei said, Keadle posed a question about whether he would be held responsible if her body ended up in the river or if she was found frozen.
Crosby returned to the stand to say an Omaha man called the Nemaha County Attorney’s office to say he had a conversation with Keadle while both were held at the county jail.
Crosby said Corey Pfeifer told the Attorney Louie Ligouri that Keadle said he would never be convicted because “They would never find her body.”
Judge Maschman said he expected to have a decision within 16 days regarding whether the absence of a body will bring the charges against Keadle to an end.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Harold Silvey as a state patrol investigator. Silvey is a deputy with the Nemaha County Sheriff’s Office.
Courtroom photos by Lori Pilger, Lincoln-Journal