With a new judge, and for the first year without the only surviving Kellie family member, it was decided Wednesday that Erwin Charles Simants will remain at the Lincoln Regional Center. Simants killed six members of the Kellie family in Sutherland on Oct. 18, 1975.
Simants, now 72, did not appear at his annual competency evaluation in Lincoln County District Court, where he was tried once for the murders and found guilty, only to appeal, be retried in Lancaster County and found not guilty by reason of insanity. His yearly hearings are required by state statute, and court officials say he’s waived his appearance for years.
On Wednesday, County Attorney Rebecca Harling gave an update.
“Pretty much, we’re at status quo,” she said.
Simants remains in a residential transition unit at the facility Lincoln. He never leaves unless accompanied by a relative or staff members, Harling said.
When Simants does leave, law enforcement is always notified.
“He continues to exhibit exemplary behavior,” said Simants’ defense lawyer, Robert Lindemeier.
District Judge Michael Piccolo said he spent “considerable time” on Tuesday reading Simants’ case. Piccolo replaced Judge Donald Rowlands last week. Rowlands presided over the annual hearings before his retirement in late July.
“The defendant is still mentally ill and dangerous,” Piccolo said.
He ordered that Simants stay in the Lincoln Regional Center unless he leaves for medical reasons, outings with staff at the facility or visits with one niece.
The last surviving Kellie family member, Audrey Brown, had attended almost every one of the annual hearings. When Simants was 29, he killed her parents, Henry and Audrey Marie Kellie; their son David, 32; and the Kellies’ three grandchildren Florence, 10, Deanna, 7, and Daniel, 5, in the Kellies’ home.
Simants was the neighbor’s relative, had done work for the Kellie family and was paying off a debt to Henry Kellie for bail money, Brown’s daughters said. One of the children let him into the home; he was a familiar, trusted face.
Audrey Brown died April 30. Less than two months later, Rowlands — who had said that as long as he was on the bench, Simants would remain in Lincoln — announced his retirement.
But in Audrey’s place on Wednesday came her husband, Melvin Brown, daughters Sylvia Hansen and Karla Downey, and relatives from Colorado. After the hearing, Harling spent time answering the family’s questions.
Downey she was nervous for a new judge, “just because Rowlands had been on the case for so long,” she said.
She added that it’s reasonable that Simants does so well at the Lincoln facility.
“He doesn’t have his triggers in his safe place,” she said. She added that no one knows what could happen if he’s ever near drugs, alcohol, women or girls.
Downey pointed out that Wednesday’s hearing was different from a parole hearing. Letting Simants out of Lincoln Regional Center would not involve parole or any required supervision, she said.
“There may be a few that say, ‘He’s done his time; why don’t you let it go?’” Downey said. “But the fact is, he is still dangerous.”
Melvin said that he fears that as years go by, people will become “farther removed” from the murders and forget the impact on the community. He said that the murders affected Audrey over the years.
“I held her night after night when she cried herself to sleep,” he said.
The trauma also affected the other family members — making Hansen more protective of her children when another local murder was in the news, for example.
“When people are afraid of the boogeyman, the boogeyman doesn’t really have a face,” Downey said. “Our boogeyman has a face. And a name.”
When Melvin wasn’t home at night, Audrey would put furniture in front of the doors, so she could hear if someone got in.
According to an Oct. 18, 2005, Telegraph article about the murders, Simants spent two years on Nebraska’s death row. Appeals for his case were denied.
Then it was learned that Judge Hugh Stuart had visited the murder trial’s jurors while they were sequestered. One of the prosecution’s witnesses, a county sheriff, “had played cards with them,” according to the Telegraph article.
In a second trial, Simants was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The months since Audrey Brown’s death have left a void and come with “all the firsts,” Hansen said. People have requested Audrey’s book, “Alive ... But Alone,” so Melvin wrote another chapter. But he was unable to raise enough money to republish it, he said.
Melvin misses his wife, and his daughters miss their mother.
“But she’s not here, either,” Downey said, referring to the courtroom. “No fear, no anxiety.”
They rely on their Christian faith, which is what Melvin said carried Audrey through all those painful years.
They believe Audrey has been reunited with her relatives in heaven, they say, and she doesn’t care where Simants is.