Prosecutor: Bar owner wanted to 'ambush' people stealing

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A white Nebraska bar owner who killed himself after being charged with manslaughter for fatally shooting a Black man during May protests had been waiting to “ambush” people who were breaking into businesses and stealing, a special prosecutor said Wednesday.

Special Prosecutor Frederick Franklin detailed more of the evidence against Jake Gardner three days after Gardner killed himself and more than a week after a grand jury indicted him in the May 30 death of 22-year-old James Scurlock. The evidence included text messages and videos of the encounter that Franklin said undermined Gardner's claim that he acted in self-defense.

Authorities say Gardner shot Scurlock outside Gardner's bar during a scuffle after the windows of the business were smashed amid a protest against police brutality and racial injustice. Omaha, like many cities around the world, saw protests, sometimes violent, after the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee onto the handcuffed Black man's neck for several minutes.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine initially declined to file charges against Gardner. After Kleine’s decision was criticized by Scurlock’s family and led to additional protests, Kleine agreed to have a grand jury review the case. Franklin was appointed as special prosecutor and presented evidence to the grand jury, which also charged Gardner with attempted assault, making terroristic threats and using a gun to commit a felony.

Franklin said Gardner should not have been able to claim self-defense because he initiated the confrontation. One of the things Franklin noted to explain Gardner's mindset was that Gardner was a fan of President Donald Trump and that two days before the Omaha shooting, the president had tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Gardner's attorney, Stu Dornan, didn’t immediately respond to a message Wednesday. Earlier this week, he said he was angry that he won’t have a chance to defend Gardner in court in what he called a clear case of self-defense.

Franklin said Gardner had been monitoring the progress of the unrest through text messages as people approached his bar, The Hive, and Gardner had a shotgun and three handguns with him. Before protesters arrived, the lights were turned off inside the bar, where Gardner was waiting with his father and at least one bouncer.

Franklin said Gardner asked in one of his messages whether the “field of fire 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 whatever looter might have decided this was a good idea,” Franklin said.

Franklin said Gardner’s plan was thwarted by the fact that no one tried to enter the bar even after someone smashed the windows.

“To the extent that Jake Gardner had set up an ambush inside his business waiting on a looter to come in so he could light him up, and that particular objective was thwarted by individuals not coming in — It would be understandable that Mr. Gardner would have had some frustration about sitting back and watching the place that he was renting be destroyed like it was being destroyed,” he said.

In June, officials played surveillance video that showed words exchanged between Gardner, his father and protesters after the windows of his bar were broken. Gardner flashed a gun, then backed away. Gardner was shoved to the ground by two people before firing two shots, sending people scrambling. Scurlock then jumped on Gardner’s back and was shot by Gardner.

Kleine said Gardner warned Scurlock to get off of him several times before he fired the fatal shot.

Franklin said that some of the video investigators found showed that Gardner provoked the confrontation with Scurlock during their initial exchange.

Gardner was found dead outside a medical clinic in Hillsboro, Oregon, on Sunday, the same day he was scheduled to return to Omaha to face the charges, according to his attorney.

Franklin said he was saddened by Gardner’s death, and that it “deprived the community to be able to have this evidence play out at trial.”

Scurlock’s family declined to comment on the case Wednesday after Franklin described the evidence, but they told KETV Tuesday they were frustrated there will never be a trial.

“I feel like there was lack of closure. You can’t close a case,” said Scurlock’s father, James Scurlock II. “You can’t orchestrate a murder and then take your own life.”