Investigation of double homicides is casting wide net - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 4:50 pm
Investigation of double homicides is casting wide net

On its face, the connection is impossible to ignore.

Creighton University pathologist Roger Brumback and his wife are killed in their home. That crime came five years after Brumback's friend and Creighton colleague William Hunter returned home to find his son and house cleaner dead.

Two unsolved, high-profile double homicides, both with ties to a 12 faculty-member department in Creighton's medical school.

But it appears the law enforcement task force formed last week to investigate the Brumback and Hunter slayings will be probing a range of suspects and motives, from the pathology program to Brumback's work on a state medical board to other relationships. Because in criminal investigations, sometimes what seems most obvious on its face doesn't prove key to solving the crime.

“The investigation has to be multidimensional, looking in all different directions,'' said Gregg McCrary, a former FBI criminal profiler. “Obviously there's interest in whether it could be connected to the pathology department. Or it could be just some bizarre coincidence.''

Said Mike Butera, a former Omaha police captain in the criminal investigation bureau who now teaches criminal justice at Bellevue University:

“Looking at it from the outside, it's easy to connect those dots and make assumptions about potential connections to another case. But assumptions are dangerous, because they could lead you to something different than what the facts are showing.''

Police Chief Todd Schmaderer on Monday announced the formation of a task force of Omaha police officers and FBI agents that will work with other local law enforcement agencies to investigate the Brumback and Hunter slayings and their possible links.

Roger and Mary Brumback, both 65, were found dead in their home near 114th and Shirley Streets on May 14. The March 2008 killings of 11-year-old Thomas Hunter and 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman in the Dundee home of the Hunter family remain unsolved.

Police declined Friday to provide any details of the task force's work to date.

But investigators have been actively interviewing members of Creighton's pathology department, asking about students, residents or others associated with the department who might have had a motive to harm either doctor or his family.

Those same ties were probed in the 2008 homicides but are being looked at again in the wake of Roger Brumback's death.

Police, it seems, also have been retracing the Brumbacks' last steps.

On Friday, May 10, Brumback attended a meeting in Lincoln as a member of the Nebraska Board of Medicine and Surgery, the licensing board for physicians in Nebraska.

Brumback was not due to work again at Creighton until the following Tuesday. He didn't show up for work that day, and it was later that morning that the bodies of Brumback and his wife were found. While police have not said when they believe the deaths occurred, it appears in their questioning at one point last week that they were focusing on a time frame between Sunday night and Monday.

It also seems likely that investigators have plans to talk to other members of the licensing board. Such boards decide whether people will be licensed to practice medicine in Nebraska and decide cases of discipline against license holders, decisions with the potential to upset people and create conflict.

Contacted last week by The World-Herald, members of the board referred questions to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which provides staff and support to the citizen licensing board. The department administrator who works with the board declined to be interviewed.

Draft minutes of the latest meeting of the board don't suggest any contentious actions taken on that day. Brumback served as the board's secretary.

Members of Creighton's pathology department last week also declined to comment on the investigation, referring questions to a university spokeswoman.

Beyond the obvious pathology department connection, there are other similarities between the Brumback and Hunter cases.

Both occurred in Omaha neighborhoods where homicides don't typically happen. And unlike most homicides that can be traced to drugs, gangs or domestic disputes, neither case appears to present obvious suspects.

The Hunter case has baffled investigators for more than five years.

On March 13, 2008, William Hunter returned after work to his home near 54th and Davenport Streets and made a horrific discovery: the bodies of his son and Sherman. Both had suffered multiple stab wounds to the neck.

Neighbors later described having earlier seen an olive-skinned stranger driving a silver or gray sport utility vehicle slowly past the Hunter home and then parking a block away. Wearing a dark suit and white shirt and carrying a dark-colored briefcase or satchel, he approached the Hunters' front door and was let inside by Sherman.

A short time later, the man calmly walked back to his car.

Police have told the Hunters the killer left behind little physical evidence beyond bloody knives.

Police pursued hundreds of leads and at least 10 suspects in their investigation.

They initially looked into associates of the house cleaner to see if they had a possible motive to kill her. They identified individuals who played online video games with Thomas Hunter, and they also tracked his bus drivers.

In addition, they looked into a half-dozen former Creighton medical students and residents who may have left the university disgruntled. Bill Hunter directed the residency program in pathology at Creighton, and his wife, Claire, also a physician, is on the faculty at Creighton in the cardiology department.

Police tracked residents to locations as far away as Mexico and Canada. It appears at least one of the interviews took place in 2009, about a year after the killings.

Police also asked for assistance from the FBI in 2008. An FBI criminal profiler at the time said the slayings appeared to be random homicides, possibly committed by a transient serial killer.

Leads didn't pan out, the investigation yielded no arrests and the case went cold.

But those 2008 deaths are getting a fresh focus in the wake of the Brumback killings.

A piano mover arrived at the Brumback home May 14 to find the front door unlocked, a large-caliber gun clip on the threshold and Brumback's body just inside. Police found his wife's body inside, too. They have released no information on how either died.

Brumback, the former head of the pathology department, had been Hunter's boss and would have dealt with many of the same residents and students whom Hunter did.

“The Omaha Police Department is very concerned about these homicides and whether or not they might be related,'' Schmaderer said when announcing the task force of more than a dozen investigators.

If the slayings are linked, it would be quite unusual for someone to commit related killings five years apart, said McCrary, the former FBI profiler who now lives near Washington, D.C. But it can happen, he said, particularly if there's a precipitating event that rekindles an old grudge.

“It sounds to me like they're doing the right thing, looking for commonality and seeing if there are links between the cases,'' he said.

The decision by Omaha police to form a special task force to look into the killings isn't without precedent.

Such task forces in recent decades also investigated the 1992 murder of Kenyatta Bush and 2005 murder of Amber Harris. The two young north Omaha women were abducted and killed. Arrests were made in both cases through investigations that took more than a year.

Butera, the former Omaha detective, and Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska at Omaha criminal justice professor, applauded the formation of the task force. They said it will be particularly helpful to get fresh eyes and ears on the 2008 case. They may find something that was overlooked.

“You have two major incidents, with very strange aspects to them, and you have no hot leads at the moment,'' Walker said. “It's absolutely the right thing to do.''

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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