BEATRICE, Neb. — The special-needs resident kept taking off his shirt one hot day last summer at the Beatrice State Developmental Center.
And that annoyed Cameron Barnes, the man's caregiver.
So when they entered an elevator, Barnes told another employee who was with them, "You might want to turn around for this one." Then Barnes slammed the resident's head into the elevator wall at least six times, eliciting screams of pain, according to an arrest warrant affidavit unsealed Wednesday in Gage County Court.
Moments later, Barnes encouraged the co-worker to feel the bumps on the right side of the resident's head.
It's just one incident of abuse described in affidavits from a Nebraska State Patrol investigation that has produced more than two dozen felony charges against five former staff members at the center.
The court records became available Wednesday after The World-Herald raised a First Amendment challenge to keep an important judicial case open to the public.
Gage County Judge Steven Timm had sealed the affidavits without a hearing last month at the request of Gage County Attorney Roger Harris, who wanted to protect the victims' identities. He also argued that publicity could make it harder to seat a jury if any of the cases goes to trial.
Daniel Fischer with Koley Jessen law firm, representing The World-Herald, argued that sealing the records is tantamount to closure of the proceeding, a violation of the Nebraska Supreme Court's rules on open courts.
"Nebraska has a strong public policy and underpinning in its laws that all courts and court records shall be open to the public," Fischer stated in his motion.
Harris agreed not to fight the motion to unseal on the condition that the names of all residents were removed first.
The newspaper's lawyer reluctantly agreed to the terms, and the judge unsealed the documents at a hearing Wednesday in Beatrice.
Patrol investigator David Heidbrink wrote one affidavit for each of the five former staff members charged with abuse. The documents describe how several residents were put in chokeholds to the point of passing out, how they were struck in the head with walkie-talkies and how they were punched with fists.
The abuse allegations were made by five different staff members and several of the residents themselves. The investigator checked center logs to verify that the witnesses and the accused staff members were working together at times that correspond with the allegations.
Among the allegations released Wednesday:
Carmen Yates, 24, of Beatrice, hit a resident in the head with her fist, yelled at a resident and stole a $50 Walmart gift card sent to one resident by his father. She is charged with one count of abuse and one count of misdemeanor theft.
Cody Creek, 23, of Beatrice, lunged at an agitated resident who had thrown his cowboy boots at Creek. Creek put the resident in a chokehold until he fell unconscious. Creek faces one count of abuse and one count of strangulation.
Matthew Johnson, 28, of Beatrice, choked residents multiple times. On one occasion, as a resident was gasping for air, Johnson joked that the man was "snoring." Johnson faces two counts of abuse and five counts of strangulation.
Matthew Pangborn, 30, of Beatrice, choked residents multiple times. He also punched one resident in the stomach multiple times and was heard discussing with a co-worker how to hit the residents in places where marks wouldn't be highly visible. Pangborn faces six counts of abuse and five counts of strangulation.
Cameron Barnes, 22, of Fairbury, choked and hit residents multiple times in addition to the incident in the elevator. He faces three counts of abuse and six counts of strangulation.
The state investigation began Sept. 1, the day after a former center employee came forward with abuse allegations. The six residents targeted by the abuse were examined by a registered nurse but did not require hospitalization.
All the targeted residents lived on a unit known as 106 Kennedy, although some of the abuse allegedly occurred in two other buildings on the center's campus. Officials quickly closed 106 Kennedy and suspended 16 staff members who worked on the unit.
All the abuse and strangulation charges are felonies that carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Pangborn, Johnson and Barnes have waived preliminary hearings, which are held so a judge can determine whether probable cause exists to allow the cases to proceed. They have been bound over to District Court, where they will enter pleas to the charges.
Creek and Yates have requested preliminary hearings.
The prosecutor has said he is considering filing misdemeanor charges against other staff members who knew about the abuse but failed to report it. As of Wednesday, no such charges had been filed.
Abuse has plagued the center in the past, and in 2009, it lost Medicaid funding after repeated failures to meet federal care standards.
The Beatrice center had regained federal certification for three of the five units before the latest round of abuse allegations surfaced.
Contact the writer: