LAST OF A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: The Levering family has struggled through generations of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and crime.
Part 2: Two Levering success stories — a young man who perseveres despite overwhelming odds, and a woman who is finding success in life far from her Omaha family.
Part 3: The Leverings' criminal activity creates problems for the entire community.
Nikko Jenkins is charged with killing four people in Omaha this year, but criminal activity in his family began decades ago. An investigation into the family's history revealed patterns of violence, child neglect and drug and alcohol abuse. The behavior has escalated from generation to generation, making the Leverings one of the city's most notorious crime families.
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The two most notorious members of the Levering family are off the streets of Omaha.
Jimmy Levering is dead.
Nikko Jenkins is in jail, charged with killing four people in August.
But the two men have left behind a troublesome combination of fear in the community and loyalty — even reverence — in and around the extended Levering family.
Such loyalty and fear are a double frustration for law enforcement and for community anti-violence efforts, creating a domino effect of retaliatory violence and the silencing of witnesses. That, in turn, makes arrests and successful prosecutions more difficult.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, because of his role as chief prosecutor, spoke about the issue in general, declining to comment specifically on the Levering family or Jenkins.
“Gang members think they have some power or ability to keep people from testifying,” he said. “We need to stand together to not let intimidation happen.”
Jenkins and Levering are part of a larger family that has committed at least 633 crimes in Omaha since 1979, according to a World-Herald investigation.
Not all members of the extended family have criminal records. Most of the Leverings are not gang members, and the bulk of their convictions are nonviolent crimes. But the violence among the Levering clan has snowballed in Nikko Jenkins' generation — a generation that grew up in the 1990s as gangs gripped Omaha.
Consider the case of Jimmy Levering, who by age 17 in 2007 was one of Omaha's most feared gang members.
Police tried hard to arrest Levering because they suspected that he was a prominent, frequent shooter in his gang, said John Wells, president of the Omaha police union.
“You go get somebody like Jimmy Levering off of the street, and suddenly things get quiet,” Wells said.
In 2007, prosecutors charged Levering with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Kenny Miller.
The night of Levering's arrest, “There were people coming to the fugitive squad, thanking them, because there were so many people frightened,” said Bruce Ferrell, a former Omaha gang unit officer.
“Not only of him,” Ferrell said, “but the retaliation he brought back to the neighborhood.”
In the end, two key witnesses refused to testify against Levering, saying they feared retaliation. Prosecutors said they had no choice but to drop the charge.
“If you get someone who has a fear factor, like Jimmy did, very few people are going to stand up,” said Ferrell, who is now chairman of Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
Police suspected Levering of committing other crimes but lacked enough evidence to arrest him for a felony until officers found him with ammunition in a pat-down. He was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for being a felon in possession of ammunition. He was killed in 2011, soon after he was released.
Police say Jenkins created a fear factor, too.
When announcing Jenkins' arrest in September in connection with four homicides, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said Jenkins used “fear, intimidation and violence to get what he wanted.”
Five family members are charged with crimes, as well, accused of helping Jenkins before or during the slayings or covering up evidence.
Jenkins is also charged with making terroristic threats in connection with an incident after he was released from prison on July 30.
One of his girlfriends had picked him up from prison and set him up in a motel. The woman later filed a police report saying that after she refused to give Jenkins money, he had threatened to send “demonic forces” to kill her and her family.
His mother and one of his sisters were charged with witness tampering. Police allege they tried to intimidate the woman Aug. 29 so she would withdraw her complaint. They haven't entered pleas on the charge yet.
“It's almost like they're the Jesse James clan,” said a relative of the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
When witnesses won't testify out of fear of retaliation, it's hard to convict violent offenders, Kleine said.
The Douglas County Attorney's Office tries to offer protection to people who agree to testify. In some cases, Kleine's office has even offered to move key witnesses. But witnesses often decide to stay silent rather than move away from family and friends.
When a community is intimidated into silence, more violence follows, he said.
“It does create an environment where people are bolder about what they do because people won't come forward and testify,” Kleine said. “Gang members want to have people be afraid of them.”
Community groups and law enforcement have started a grass-roots movement to change how people view “snitching.”
That's important, said Janee Pannkuk, the executive director of Impact One Community Connection, which does gang intervention work.
Police can't solve crimes if people don't tell investigators what they witnessed, Pannkuk said.
“Gangs are protected by the community's silence,” she said. “If you want your community to become safer, you need to say something.”
Police encourage people to call Crime Stoppers anonymously to report information about crimes without facing retribution.
Chief Schmaderer said Crime Stoppers tips helped authorities connect the four August homicides to Jenkins.
Under Schmaderer, the Police Department has expanded a push toward community policing by becoming more active in community groups and building closer relationships with members of the public.
The department has also targeted violent offenders through “high-level policing tactics,” Schmaderer said. But he stressed that community groups and others must be part of the solution.
Impact One is trying to change the behavior of violent offenders and help them leave the gang lifestyle.
Just this month, the group gathered 22 people from eight gangs in a room and persuaded them to pledge to stop attacking one another.
It was uncomfortable at first, Pannkuk said. But they realized, she said, that they all wanted to break free from the gang lifestyle.
“They were literally trying to kill each other on the streets months ago,” Pannkuk said. “Now they help each other break away from the cycle.”
They are a part of a new program called Game Changers, which aims to pull high-profile gang members off the streets. Participants range in age from 18 to 29.
“We contact them and say, 'If you want to change the way you are doing things and the violence in the community, we will help you go down that path,' ” Pannkuk said.
While Game Changers represents only a small step to ending the cycle of violence, Pannkuk said, the community has to start somewhere.
“My goal,” she said, “is to impact their children and grandchildren.”
Impact One offers to pay gang members minimum wage to participate in programming that the group has developed to help them lead lives free of crime. It also provides educational and employment training and helps its recruits find stable jobs and housing.
Game Changers hasn't had universal success. Two participants went back to gangs, saying that they liked the notoriety and that it's an easier way to make money, Pannkuk said.
Another participant, 19-year-old Julius Vaughn, was arrested in June for possessing a stolen firearm and obstructing an officer.
After spending 45 days in jail, Pannkuk said, Vaughn returned to Impact One.
But his past caught up with him. He was fatally shot in October.
“Just because they want to change their life doesn't mean that people aren't upset by their previous actions,” she said.
Jimmy Levering was also trying to get out of gangs, family members said. He took small steps away from gang life. For example, he stopped wearing red, the color of the 29th Street Bloods. He began making plans to move to another state with his girlfriend and two children. But he didn't escape the cycle of violence.
Levering was shot to death outside Club Seville at 30th and Pratt Streets in 2011. Police said he had a gun on him, although family members think that could have been for protection.
His legacy is still causing violence.
Kleine pointed to a killing that he said was most likely committed in Levering's name.
“These people have these extreme loyalties to Jimmy,” Kleine said. “He has a lot of people who were like his soldiers.”
Matthew Voss, a cousin of the man Levering was accused of killing, reportedly stabbed Levering in federal prison. A buddy of Levering's, Tillman Henderson, shot Voss near 16th and Harney Streets in 2012, about nine months after Levering died.
In that case, prosecutors got a conviction. Henderson was sentenced in June to life in prison.
Retaliatory violence is exactly what Impact One is trying to cut down on. Making the decision to put what is right before pride is tough for people who are used to taking justice into their own hands, Pannkuk said.
“We are asking people to really start their life anew,” she said.
Omaha is on its third generation of gang members, and almost all of the Game Changers participants have children.
“How many more generations are we going to go through,” Pannkuk asked, “before we do something different?”