SUTHERLAND, Neb. — Pamela Stryker has kept one vivid memory from the day she buried her children 38 years ago. Before opening the Sutherland High School auditorium to nearly 1,000 mourners, the family said goodbye to the six loved ones shot to death Oct. 18, 1975, by a next-door neighbor. After the caskets were opened, Stryker kissed her ex-husband, David Kellie, on the forehead. Then she kissed her 7-year-old daughter, Deanna, and her 5-year-old son, Danny. “I told them I loved them and I would see them again someday,” she said last week through tears, telling her story publicly for the first time.
She remembers nothing else of the funerals. She stepped into a fog that day, one she wouldn’t emerge from for years. Until recently, the mass murder in Sutherland represented a sad but almost forgotten chapter of Nebraska history. The case made front-page news again because the man responsible, Erwin Charles Simants, now 68, is awaiting a legal decision that could free him from a state mental hospital. But some had their lives forever altered by Simants on that pitch-black October night so long ago. For them, the case never faded far into the background. One is Stryker, the mother of two of the three children who were slain that night. Another is Audrey Brown, a blood relative to all six victims, who included her parents. A third is Terry Livengood, a former State Patrol trooper who spent hours collecting evidence from the crime scene. A mother, a daughter, an investigator. All three say Simants should never be given an opportunity to do to others what he has done to them.
The investigator Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Terry Livengood was relaxing at home in North Platte the night of Oct. 18, 1975. On the television was a movie about the 1966 shootings of 17 people by a former Marine perched on an observation tower at the University of Texas. So when the trooper’s supervising officer called and said multiple people had been shot to death in Sutherland, Livengood asked if his boss was pulling a prank. “He said, ‘No, now get your butt to Sutherland!’”
After a 20-mile drive west, Livengood walked into Henry Kellie’s little house on the north edge of town. He would never again see anything comparable during a 29-year law enforcement career. Just steps inside the living room, the bodies of an older woman, a young girl and a little boy were spread on the floor. All lay on their backs, blood-soaked carpet beneath their heads. The trooper walked toward the kitchen and found the body of an older man. Near his head were bloodstained newspapers, an apparent effort by the killer to wipe up the kitchen floor. A few more steps, and the trooper reached one of two bedrooms. There, on the bed, he saw another young girl’s body. From deputies who had arrived earlier, Livengood learned that a 32-year-old man — found still alive in the house — had died on his way to the hospital.
Every victim had been shot in the head. “It was horrific,” Livengood said. In the living room were Marie Kellie, 57, and two of her grandchildren, Deanna and Daniel Kellie. In the kitchen was Marie’s husband, Henry Kellie, 66. In the bedroom was a third grandchild, Florence Kellie, 10. As Livengood stepped outside to get something from his cruiser, the trooper was approached by a man who lived next door. The neighbor said his brother-in-law, Simants, may have been the gunman. Most people who knew him used his nickname, “Herb,” others just “Charles.” Since the start of summer, Simants, 29, had been staying in the house with his sister, brother-in-law and their children. He slept in a basement bedroom, but he didn’t do much else besides get drunk. Odd jobs at area farms never lasted long before he was back to drinking. Henry Kellie had taken pity on Simants. He hired him to help care for the modest herd of cattle that Kellie kept on a nearby pasture. Once, when Simants was arrested on an alcohol-related offense, Kellie paid the fine. On the night of the slayings, Simants’ sister and brother-in-law were out, but their children were at home. Their oldest, a 13-year-old boy, told the trooper that Simants came into the house about 8:15 p.m. The boy described Simants pulling a .22-caliber rifle from a bedroom closet and loading it from ammunition boxes stored in the kitchen. “Don’t let the kids go out,” Simants told the boy as he left. About 9:30 p.m., Simants returned, unloaded the gun and put it away. He went downstairs for a few minutes, came back up and told his nephew that he had killed the Kellie family. Then he left. The trooper confiscated the rifle and the bullets. The boy also handed the investigator a scrap of paper he had found near the bed where Simants had been sleeping. Other investigators soon learned that Simants had walked to the Rodeo Bar, where he drank one beer. On the way out, he confessed to the bartender. He also stopped at his parents’ home, again confessing. That was the last he was seen that night. Meanwhile, Livengood and his partner were assigned to the crime scene. For more than five hours, they took photographs and measurements. They collected and bagged nine spent bullet casings, hair and blood samples. The troopers discussed a forensic class they had taken months earlier, where an instructor said the rule about killers returning to the scene of the crime often proves true. “We were saying, ‘You suppose he’s out there watching us,’” Livengood said.
Sure enough, Simants was out there. He showed himself sometime after dawn and was arrested by the Lincoln County sheriff. Livengood said Simants quickly told officers what happened: Henry and Marie Kellie had left Florence at home while they drove into North Platte to shop. Simants told the deputy that he raped the girl and decided to kill her after she threatened to tell. He held her on the bed and shot her in the forehead. But he didn’t leave the house. Upon the Kellies’ return from North Platte, Henry was the first to come inside. Simants sneaked up on him and shot Henry in the back of the head. When Marie came in, another shot to the head. The Kellies’ son, David, and his children arrived last, for an evening visit. Simants shot all three in the living room. Autopsies revealed gunpowder stippling around the wounds, indicating some of the victims had been shot at close range. The pathologist also determined that Simants raped both Florence and her grandmother after they died. The sexual assaults help explain why he was in the house for so long. Because he knew the physical evidence so thoroughly, Livengood assisted chief prosecutor Marvin Holscher at the first trial. Simants claimed insanity, but the jury deliberated for less than five hours before finding him guilty of six counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair.
But during the trial, Lincoln County Sheriff Gordon “Hop” Gilster played cards with jurors while they were sequestered at a North Platte motel. Because Gilster was a witness for the prosecution, the Nebraska Supreme Court deemed the contact inappropriate and ordered a new trial. Livengood said he was friends with the sheriff, who is now deceased. Gilster told him that he never discussed anything about the case with the jurors. The second trial, in October 1979, was moved from North Platte to Lincoln at Simants’ request. He also got a new public defender, who once again used an insanity defense. Two psychiatrists for the defense testified that Simants was legally insane. One of the psychiatrists told the jury that Simants was schizophrenic, suffered from delusions and did not know right from wrong when he killed the Kellies, according to newspaper accounts of the trial testimony. Simants seemed embarrassed by his actions and claimed he didn’t know why he killed the family, the doctor said. At the time, the law required the prosecution to prove that Simants was sane. After nearly 20 hours of deliberations, the second jury decided that the prosecution failed to meet its burden. It found Simants not guilty by reason of insanity. Livengood called the verdict “devastating.” “I think at that time, people started to change their attitudes about responsibility,” the retired trooper said. “… Instead of holding people responsible, they were giving them excuses.” Days later, Simants was ruled mentally ill and dangerous and was committed to the locked forensic unit at the Lincoln Regional Center. He has remained there for 34 years. Under the law, he must continue to be both mentally ill and dangerous to remain in confinement. He receives annual review hearings to evaluate his mental health. At his most recent hearing, in September, four psychiatric professionals said his mental illness is in remission. Regional Center doctors have long said he is a model patient.
Livengood has already passed judgment. No one who kills six people — including three children — should ever walk free. Plus, he said, Simants should be considered a pedophile, a disorder that many believe can’t be cured. The Simants case doesn’t rob his sleep, he said. But in the most unexpected moments, what he saw that night in Sutherland flashes into his consciousness. He agreed to talk publicly about the case for the first time because he wants people to know there is evil in the world. Unexplainable, unpredictable evil. As for those who want Simants released, Livengood posed a question: Would you want him living in your neighborhood? “Because that’s how this started. He was a next-door neighbor.”
The daughter She held her father’s only suit and tried not to think about what she had just seen. It was two days after the killings. Audrey Brown had come to her parents’ house for the clothing that her father, mother and niece would be buried in. Henry Kellie, a farm laborer who had to quit school after the fourth grade to help support his brothers and sisters, bought the house in 1955. He and his wife were tired of moving their son and two daughters from job to job, from rental to rental. They made Sutherland home. He was a serious man, made that way by hard times and hard work. But he loved his family and was generous to a fault. Not infrequently, he brought home down-on-their-luck strangers for a plate of his wife’s cooking. Brown, his older daughter, once told him the practice wasn’t prudent. “But you’ve never gone hungry,” he told her.