Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Books: "The Lost Sons Of Omaha" By Joe Sexton, On An American Tragedy


The Lost Sons Of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy

By Joe Sexton

Scribner; hardcover, $30.00; available today, Tuesday, May 9th

Joe Sexton is a former senior editor at ProPublica who spent twenty-five years at the New York Times. As a reporter, he covered sports, politics, crime, and the historic overhaul of the country's welfare legislation. While he served as Metropolitan editor of the Times, his staff won two Pulitzer Prizes, including for breaking news for its coverage of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's downfall in 2008.

In the engrossing new book, The Lost Sons of Omaha, Sexton traveled uncovers the real story behind the tragic deaths of James Scurlock and Jake Gardner during the protests and unrest after the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.

Sexton tells this delicate story with an empathy that will have you feel sympathy for both of these men, no matter which side of the political divide you are on.

Jake Gardner was a veteran who enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school, and earned a fistful of medals and combat ribbons as part of one of the first units that invaded Iraq in March of 2003. When he returned to Omaha, he ran one of the city's more popular downtown nightclubs, The Hive.

Though Gardner was a Marine through and through, he faced a lot of troubles after war, as Sexton writes, "It took years for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fully diagnose and acknowledge Gardner's injuries and resulting disability, and so Gardner himself had acquired a service dog to help with his life after combat. It was part Czech border patrol shepherd, part Belgian Malinois shepherd, and Gardner named him LeBron, after LeBron James, the NBA superstar and Gardner's favorite athlete. Gardner took the dog, complete with a LeBron James jersey, to a handful of Cleveland Cavaliers games. Gardner created an Instagram page for his dog, and LeBron even became something of a celebrity one year in Omaha, when he was named 'Bouncer of the Year' for his work at his owner's establishments."

In 2019, Gardner reinvented The Hive, with the addition of an adjacent space, into The Gatsby. At this time, he had just restocked his bar full of high-end liquor, with a reopening from Covid lockdowns scheduled the following week. 

James Scurlock had become a father in the months ahead of the protests. The family hoped that the birth of the baby girl, Jewels, would give him purpose, but his relationship with the girl's mother, Mari Agosta, was tumultuous. There was a violent incident between them in February of 2020, and he ended up in jail before being released in the third week of May.

Sexton interviewed Mari and wrote, "Scurlock, she said, did not hide his record from her. He'd been arrested for the first time at eleven. He'd pleaded guilty for his role in an armed robbery at sixteen. But neither could Scurlock hide what seemed to her to be clear evidence of trauma, the anger and insecurities and suspicions born of poverty, family chaos, and years of his childhood spent behind bars."

On Scurlock's family, Sexton writes, "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...

"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 foe life and appetite for adventure."

When the protests over George Floyd's murder exploded in Omaha, Gardner was defending The Gatsby with two pistols and a shotgun, and on the third night of unrest, May 30, it reached his doorstep. Scurlock was one of the protesters making his way along Harney Street, and he eventually ended up as part of the group outside The Gatsby, which by that point was in ruins, and he was pressed to fight Gardner, which he did, with deadly consequences. 

What followed was calls for vengeance for the death of Scurlock, who was just 22 years old. Initially, Gardner was not charged by white district attorney Don Kleine, but the pressure on him in the town led him and his family to flee to Portland. In September of 2020, a black special prosecutor, Fred Franklin, was appointed and he conducted another grand jury that resulted in four charges for Gardner. As he was facing the prospect of heading back to Omaha to accept the charges, which included manslaughter, Gardner killed himself. 

Sexton looks at this at all angles, including a secret grand jury inquiry, revelatory cellphone texts, letters between lovers, nasty confrontations between investigators and witnesses, trail transcripts, autopsy results, multiple video recordings, privately recorded conversations, police investigation reports, and many on-the-record interviews.

One overriding theme is how misinformation affected the aftermath of this tragedy. These two men were made into grotesque characters - one a violent white racist, the other a Black thug - with their histories cherry-picked to fit competing political agendas. 

This story encompasses many of the pressing issues America faces today, from gun control to mental heatlh reform, and the part it played in this painful moment in the country. It is also an emotional story that will leave you, at times, in tears reading it.

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