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The Lost Sons of Omaha
Two Young Men in an American Tragedy
Table of Contents
About The Book
“A monumental study of violence and grief...one of the most superb testaments about the confusion, despair, and—hopefully—humility that frames our century that one could ever hope to read." —Hilton Als
On May 30, 2020, in Omaha, Nebraska, amid the protests that rocked our nation after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, thirty-eight-year-old white bar owner and Marine veteran Jake Gardner fatally shot James Scurlock, a twenty-two-year-old Black protestor and young father. What followed were two investigations of Scurlock’s death, one conducted by the white district attorney Don Kleine, who concluded that Gardner had legally acted in self-defense and released him without a trial, and a second grand jury inquiry conducted by African American special prosecutor Fred Franklin that indicted Gardner for manslaughter and demanded he face trial. Days after the indictment, Gardner killed himself with a single bullet to the head.
The deaths of both Scurlock and Gardner gave rise to a toxic brew of misinformation, false claims, and competing political agendas. The two men, each with their own complicated backgrounds, were turned into grotesque caricatures. The twin tragedies amounted to an ugly and heartbreaking reflection of a painfully divided country. Here, Joe Sexton masterfully unpacks the whole twisting, nearly unbelievable chronicle into a meticulously reported and nuanced account of the two deaths, explaining which claims were true and which distorted or simply false. The Lost Sons of Omaha involves some of the most pressing issues facing America today, including our country’s dire need for gun control and mental health reform; the dangerous spread of fake news, particularly on social media; and the urgent call to band together in the collective pursuit of truth, fairness, and healing.
“A bracing, rigorously reported story—told with grace and nuance—that takes readers deep into the fault lines of today’s America.” —Andrea Elliott, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Invisible Child
BY NIGHTFALL ON MAY 30, 2020, Jake Gardner was inside his nightclub in Omaha’s Old Market district. He had two pistols and a shotgun. One of his regular bartenders soon joined him.
The night before, a Black Lives Matter protest in the streets of Omaha had turned ugly. Police and protesters had skirmished, and there’d been arrests. Some businesses had been damaged. Now a second night of unrest had exploded, and the crowds of protesters were descending on Omaha’s downtown. Bricks and Molotov cocktails were being heaved at buildings and at police, and officers in riot gear had responded with tear gas.
Gardner, thirty-eight, had moved to Omaha with his family when he was in middle school. He’d enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school, and won a fistful of medals and combat ribbons as part of one of the very first U.S. Marine Corps units to invade Iraq in 2003.
Gardner had returned from the war to Omaha and made a success of himself running one of the city’s more popular downtown nightclubs. For years, the club had been known as The Hive, named after a song by a popular band out of Omaha, 311. The bar was located on the northern edge of the Old Market, a historic district of cobblestone streets and converted warehouses that had been transformed into a revitalized neighborhood of clubs and restaurants, carriage rides and street performers.
In the last year, though, Gardner had reinvented The Hive, turning it and an adjacent space on Harney Street into The Gatsby, a cocktail bar tricked out to evoke the Roaring Twenties. But the swank of The Gatsby hid what amounted to serious financial troubles for Gardner: he’d been involved in a dispute stemming from a bid to expand into a nearby property and his legal bills were bleeding money from The Gatsby. Worse, the club had been shuttered for weeks amid the global coronavirus pandemic, compounding Gardner’s troubles.
With a reopening scheduled for the following week, Gardner by May 30 had stocked his bar full of high-end liquor, some $90,000 in prospective gross profits. The liquor was, in truth, his single most important financial asset.
The protests in Omaha had been ignited by a harrowing national scandal that had been captured on video and broadcast to the world—the killing days earlier of a Black man, George Floyd, by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With Floyd on the ground during an attempted arrest, the cop had kneeled on the Black man’s neck for close to ten minutes, slowly asphyxiating him. The killing, caught on video by a bystander, triggered nationwide fury, as cities from Atlanta to Portland were convulsed by protests and vandalism.
Omaha, a city of half a million people on the Missouri River, is the hometown of both Warren Buffett and Malcolm X. It is a place of deep-pocketed philanthropy and entrenched segregation in its schools and in its neighborhoods. The Catholic priest Father Edward Flanagan in 1917 founded the famous Boys Town orphanage in Omaha, and fifty years later the Black Panthers set up an office in town, as well. Known as America’s biggest small town, Omaha also has an overlooked history of lynchings and race riots. But in a reliably red state, whose Republican Party would pledge its allegiance to Donald Trump, Omaha has come to beat with a faint but durable blue Democratic heart. Both the Jesuit school Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Omaha help give the city a liberal character. Omaha went for Barack Obama in 2008, and again for Joe Biden in 2020.
Gardner—barely five seven with brown eyes, his brown hair worn to his shoulders and a showman’s smile on his face—had for years been something of a known personality in Omaha. The local papers had done feature stories on him and his rise as a nightclub owner in the ever-more-popular Old Market. The Hive had hosted reggae and salsa nights, and Gardner had once attracted notice for an inspired election day promotion: Show you voted, and you got a free drink. Didn’t matter who you pulled the lever for.
But Gardner had also been a lightning rod on matters of race and gender. He’d provoked a public outcry over crude remarks he’d made concerning the issue of his bar’s bathroom facilities, and whether they adequately served the city’s transgender community. Some of the city’s LGBTQ advocates never forgave him. The Hive’s strict door policy—no hats, no baggy pants, no facial tattoos—had come to be regarded by some as transparently racist. Gardner had also worked on Donald Trump’s surprising run for president, and for a while he’d had a cardboard cutout of Trump set up inside his nightclub.
Gardner was no fan of the Black Lives Matter movement. Online, he’d once called it a terrorist organization, one he thought regarded all whites as racists and that was more interested in creating mayhem in America’s streets than seeing bad cops punished or real criminal justice reforms instituted. The remark had provoked plenty of blowback, cementing in some people’s minds the sense that Gardner’s establishments were unwelcoming places for people of color.
On the night of May 30, Omaha Scanner, an online breaking-news outlet, allowed Gardner, holed up inside The Gatsby, to monitor the events unfolding on the streets of Omaha. By 9:00 p.m., protesters were abandoning the scene of the night’s initial standoff with police—the intersection of Dodge Street and 72nd Street, Omaha’s informal public square—and had made it downtown. Windows at the Douglas County Courthouse, where a Black man named Will Brown had been infamously lynched one hundred years earlier, had been busted out and graffiti painted on the building’s walls. The city’s cherished Orpheum Theater, just blocks away from Gardner’s nightclub, was under assault, as well.
Gardner used his cell phone to text a former Marine and one of his best friends.
“I know this may come as a surprise, but I fucking hated fire watch,” Gardner wrote. “Irony is getting out of the Marines to start a company so you are your own boss, then sitting on fire watch all night. Fuck me.”
“Fire watch” is a military term for guard duty. Marines eager for combat and adventure tend to hate it—forced to log long hours at night doing something that, while essential to one’s unit’s safety, most often feels like killing time. Still, the Marine Corps takes the duty dead seriously, and spells out the dozen or so requirements for performing fire watch properly:
When on duty as a guard or sentry, you are in charge of your area and have the authority to stop and question any rank who seeks to pass your area; Walk your post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing; Stay observant with keen attention to details; It is easy to get complacent after many hours on duty—especially if you have not had many people to deal with; But your ability to pay attention to your surroundings will save your life and others; Report all violations of orders you have been instructed to enforce; Be especially watchful at night; Challenge all persons on or near your post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority. Stay vigilant; Quit your post only when properly relieved.
Harney Street, where Gardner’s club was located, is a wide boulevard, with three lanes for cars and another for bikes. When Gardner was first scouting locations to open his place in the Old Market, he had walked the district’s streets with a hand clicker, determining and recording the spots with the greatest foot traffic. Harney Street had won out.
Nearing 10:00 p.m., Gardner got a text from a Marine buddy in town who had been following Omaha Scanner, too. The ex-Marine had been a recruiter in Omaha, and Gardner, once enlisted himself, had been one of the recruiter’s best advocates for identifying new prospects. Gardner struck him as both a natural patriot and a persuasive pitchman. The former recruiter and his wife had patronized Gardner’s bars over the years, and they were looking forward to going again to The Gatsby when it reopened in the coming days. Now he wrote to Gardner, saying things on the streets were looking “squirrelly.” And he fell back on Marine lingo to ask if Gardner wanted him to come get him.
“I asked if he wanted a hot extract,” the Marine said.
“No,” Gardner wrote back. “I’m good.”
The protests ignited by George Floyd’s killing grew to be more than just the latest angry reaction to an outrageous police killing. It felt more like a genuine moment of national reckoning. Donald Trump, who had all but sided with white supremacists after the infamous and deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was seeking a second term. The COVID pandemic had already begun to take a disproportionate toll among the nation’s people of color. Much of the country, then, was out of patience, and motivated like rarely before to take a stand. The notion of defunding the nation’s police departments, once a fringe idea, now seemed to many necessary and overdue.
In the days after Floyd’s death, hundreds of cities across the country erupted in anger and violence. Curfews were imposed in two hundred of those cities; thousands of arrests were made; some estimates of the damage to property ran to $2 billion.
One of the young protesters making his way along Harney Street was a twenty-two-year-old African American man, James Scurlock. Named for his father, Scurlock was one of more than two dozen siblings, including stepbrothers and stepsisters, blood siblings and informally adopted others, who spent all or parts of their upbringing in North Omaha, the Black and mostly poor corner of Omaha.
“Our own little Detroit,” said A. D. Swolley, one of Scurlock’s older brothers.
Scurlock had been born in the ambulance racing his mother to the delivery room at the hospital, what would become a funny story about a boy later known for his zest for life and appetite for adventure.
James H. Scurlock Sr. said life for the family could at times be hard.
“Poverty? Yes,” he said. “Did my kids miss a meal? No.”
The sprawling family had maintained an extraordinary bond over many years. They were fiercely loyal to one another, whether they shared the same set of parents or not.
“Most of us didn’t need to have friends,” said one of Scurlock’s sisters, Qwenyona Evans. “We had each other.”
There had, however, been a nomadic quality to Scurlock’s childhood. For a while, he and a number of his siblings lived with their grandmother in Denver. He spent time in a homeless shelter with his mother in Norfolk, Nebraska, which once upon a time had been a thriving meatpacking town two hours outside Omaha. When in Omaha, Scurlock attended local schools, at least one of them a magnet school for kids interested in science, and he stayed with a shifting set of mixed households. Family and teachers thought Scurlock had the makings of a promising student—naturally bright, creative, taken with music.
Scurlock had kept an end-of-school-year note from his fourth-grade teacher.
“I will truly miss that cute little smile of yours,” the teacher wrote. “I admire your mathematical ability. Don’t forget to read this summer. Smile. Never give up.”
“Grades were never a problem,” Swolley said of James. “The neighborhood was the problem.”
At sixteen, Scurlock’s father said, James had rebelled against his father’s strictness and run off to Norfolk. Swolley said he and others were concerned about James, but they did not think he was in danger.
They were wrong. James would get locked up, and sentenced to three to five years in a juvenile correctional facility. Two other arrests would follow after his release.
“He had a good, good heart,” Marissa Mitchell, a sister, said of James. “But that good heart found itself in some bad places.”
On the night of May 30, Scurlock eventually found himself inside the offices of an architecture firm on Harney Street. The windows had been shattered, and Scurlock and a friend, Tucker Randall, were trashing the desks and chairs and computers on the office’s ground floor. Just past 10:30, Scurlock and his friend emerged from the office, and darted off down Harney Street.
They were exactly one block from Jake Gardner’s club, The Gatsby.
- Publisher: Scribner (May 9, 2023)
- Length: 384 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982198343
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Raves and Reviews
“The Lost Sons of Omaha [is a] brilliant and nuanced new work of investigative journalism. . . . A book of immense moral weight and integrity.” —Washington Post
"Through dogged reporting and clear prose, The Lost Sons of Omaha elevates a made-for-social-media tragedy into a kaleidoscopic account of race, justice and urban politics, the legacy of our forever wars and the flaws of our legal system. . . . a searing reminder that reality can’t be reduced to a hashtag or a sound bite. . . . By telling their stories in the fullest way possible, Sexton does justice to James Scurlock and Jake Gardner in a way no court of law or court of public opinion ever could." —The New York Times Book Review
"Sexton has crafted a meticulously researched and briskly written account that deftly weaves the influences of racial injustice, economic disparity, incendiary social media and guns." —Associated Press
“Sexton has been widely recognized for seeing America’s problems with sharp-eyed clarity. . . . [In Lost Sons of Omaha] he explores the redlining and other causes of segregation and racial strife in Omaha and the U.S. . . . and recounts what he calls a spectacularly unfortunate and humanly understandable' dual tragedy sparked during the 2020 George Floyd protests.” —Los Angeles Times
"Sexton pushes readers to look beyond the 'grotesque caricatures' of Scurlock and Gardner presented on social media and in competing political narratives. Instead, Sexton explores the killing through the notion of a 'pure tragedy:' A situation in which there are no heroes or villains, only flawed human beings." —Omaha World-Herald
“Joe Sexton is one of the truly great reporters working today.” —Bob Woodward
“Joe Sexton's monumental study of violence and grief is one of the most superb testaments about the confusion, despair, and—hopefully—humility that frames our century that one could ever hope to read. His care as a reporter and humanist informs every page of this heart wrenching story of loss; his writing is not only passionate and informed, it shines with tenderness, and redemption." —Hilton Als, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism
“This searing account is a true tragedy, in that there are no clear villains and no happy endings. Sexton does a remarkable job of capturing both stories with nuanced thoroughness and empathy.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Carefully written account of a tragic encounter during a Black Lives Matter protest. . . . Sexton does exemplary journalistic work not just in digging up the facts and interviewing family members and eyewitnesses, but also in exposing how the whirlwind of opinionating works against finding the truth on all sides. A well-reported, somber, troubling look at crime and punishment without justice.” —Kirkus
"With The Lost Sons of Omaha, Joe Sexton has written a compassionate yet objective account of two deaths: that of a young Black man shot dead during the heat of a post George Floyd protest march, and the subsequent suicide of the white bar owner who pulled the trigger. It’s a telling that gives equal voice to both sides of a bitterly divided city, capturing both the cynicism and the righteousness, the personal heartbreak and the political maneuvering that is presently eating away at the soul of America in the 21st century. A crushing read." —Richard Price, author of Clockers and Lush Life
“A bracing, rigorously reported story—told with grace and nuance—that takes readers deep into the fault lines of today’s America.” —Andrea Elliott, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Invisible Child
“In The Lost Sons of Omaha, Joe Sexton unleashes with disciplined fury a gripping tale of multiple tragedies that reveal layers of prejudice, sadness, loss, and denial. It is a feat of relentless reporting.” —Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School, author of Race, Crime, and the Law
“In an era of instant news, semi-informed social media commentary, and crime-as-entertainment, Joe Sexton has gone in the opposite direction. He’s crafted a superb book—both sweeping in scale and incredibly detailed—from years of thoughtful, meticulous reporting. It’s a profoundly empathetic endeavor that ranks with the best works of narrative journalism.” —A.C. Thompson, Emmy Award winner for Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, PBS Frontline correspondent, and ProPublica reporter
“Joe Sexton, an old-school reporter, conducts a masterful probe of a heartland tragedy with what is best described as investigative empathy. Gripping. Passionate.” —Errol Louis, Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York
“It took a brave person to write The Lost Sons of Omaha. I sincerely hope that people will take the time to read it. Even if all we do is to absorb the meaning of the book’s title, it could add a lot to reduce the toxic nature of America’s debate.” —Bob Kerrey, former governor and US senator from Nebraska
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