“If You Died, No One Would Blink An Eye”

On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, I called for murder charges against Jake Gardner, my racist former high school classmate, for shooting and killing a 22-year-old unarmed black man named James Scurlock during a May 30 Black Lives Matter protest in Omaha, Nebraska. My post went Facebook-viral, and at 12:15 a.m. that night I received a text from an unknown number. It was a long-time Gardner family member I’ll call “Taylor,” and it caught my attention: “This has been tearing me apart ever since James Scurlock was murdered by Jake, and I use that term because I have no doubt that both Jake and his father went downtown looking for trouble. From my experience with the family, they would love nothing more than to have an excuse to use their guns against any minority. They’ve been looking for this chance.”

What follows is a damning, evidence-based account of deeply entrenched family racism, unabashed white-supremacy allegiances embedded in the shooter’s business enterprises, and the haphazard initial investigation that cleared the shooter of any criminal charges.

Taylor’s account, detailed to me over the course of days, was credible, specific, and stunning: Dave Gardner, Jake’s father, is a former drug-trafficker. He sold large quantities of marijuana from El Paso, Texas for years, sending some to Omaha for distribution — even by family members. It was a full-scale operation that Taylor regularly witnessed: “Weed, scales, bags, deseeding trays — it was just a fact of life.”

In the early-80s, Dave got busted and did time in a Texas prison. Among the family, it became common knowledge that his racist views were reinforced behind bars, where he rubbed shoulders with white supremacists. “At family events like holidays, conversations were common about how ‘those n-words’ would have killed Dave without those white brothers,” Taylor said. “This story was told and retold so many times, openly. It was always ‘those n-words’ or ‘those dirty Mexicans’ or some hateful term for anybody non-white or non-Christian. That’s just how this family operates — hate is their reality. They had no shame in it, and to them white supremacy was just fact.”

According to open family conversation, Dave eventually returned to trafficking after he was released from prison — first out of El Paso, then back in Omaha. It was apparent to all that Dave had kept his white-supremacist prison ties. He inherited a job trucking large loads of marijuana into Omaha along the I-80 corridor from Humboldt County, California— the crown jewel of the “Emerald Triangle,” the largest cannibis-producing region in the United States, and a known bastion of white supremacy.

When Jake was still in high school, he sometimes joined his father on I-80 drug runs between Humboldt and Omaha. “I remember this was big gossip in the family,” Taylor said. “Not if it was wrong to be a drug dealer, but if Jake wasn’t too young to be involved.” Dave was “always a really intense father,” and he pushed Jake to join the Marines. “He wanted Jake to be cut from the same mold as himself — and he really wanted him to have that weapons training,” Taylor recalled. After leaving the Marines, Jake moved to Humboldt County — where Dave continued to pick up drug hauls — and attended school at Humboldt State University. “Coincidence?,” Taylor asked, rhetorically.

When I asked Taylor to describe Dave, she said “seething.” “He tries to maintain an outside image of being quiet and calm,” she explained. “But you scratch the surface or bring up race issues, and that crumbles quickly. The family overall is very angry and hot-headed, always looking for a fight. But that guy was a true believer. He raised his kids that way, too.”

“I have heard horrendous things from family members about what should happen to minorities, or what they would do during a race riot. Maybe for some it was drunk, angry talk. But for Dave, it wasn’t just talk. It was deep hatred.” When Taylor saw the video of Jake’s shooting of James Scurlock, she “knew in an instant” that he and Dave had inserted themselves into the Black Lives Matter protest “to antagonize people and push a fight.” “He was there to do all the things he had long threatened to do,” Taylor said. “It was horrifying, but no surprise to me after watching and listening to him for years.”

“I never would have worked there had I known that,” said Robert Bradshaw, a 29-year-old black man, former National Guard member, and one-time employee at The Hive — the Omaha bar owned by Jake Gardner.

Bradshaw always sensed he was hired for “PR reasons” — to bring back black clientele and counter prolific Yelp reviews accusing The Hive and its owner of open racism. But in Spring 2019, Bradshaw was cued-in on something much more sinister.

He sat at the bar alongside two white coworkers, tinkering with a new marketing tool — an “LED fan” that would vividly display an in-motion, 3D-holographic image of The Hive’s logo to patrons. “Oh, that’s funny man. You don’t even know what you’re doing, do you?!” laughed the white bartender. “There’s a hidden message in there...” Abruptly, the other white employee cut him off — “Stop talking.”

A year later, as Bradshaw recalled this incident, he asked me: “So you know about the 1488?”

1488. The rebel yell for militant white supremacy.

The number “14” pays tribute to the bedrock “Fourteen Words” coined by criminal white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

The “88” pays homage to Lane’s “88 Precepts,” where he argued for the securement of an all-white state. (The 8s represent the eighth letter of the English alphabet, with “HH” standing for “Heil Hitler.”)

1488. A number deeply, violently carved into white-supremacist lore.

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The Hive’s logo.

It’s also carved into the logo of The Hive.

Once identified, it cannot be unseen: The harsh, industrial, serifed numerals “1” and “4” embedded in the “H” — at odds with the curvy, playful, sans-serif font completing the word. The overlapping “8s” vertically honeycombed to complete the white supremacist’s rally cry. (With a friend’s help, I tracked down a local designer who featured The Hive’s logo in his online portfolio. He explained he did not create the design — he merely “vectorized,” or digitally traced, the already-drawn image. Since then, he’s seen “pretty believable” evidence of the logo’s racist intent. “I actually felt sick to my stomach being involved with the logo in any capacity,” he said.)

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Four iterations of The Hive’s logo, colored-in for clarity (otherwise unaltered).

Looking back, Bradshaw now knows the dark, ironic, inside joke to which he was not-yet-privy: A black man, unknowingly waving racist code, working to elevate the logo’s visibility at his white-supremacist boss’s bar.

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The Gatsby’s logo.

“The Gatsby one is even more convincing in my mind,” an estranged Gardner family member told me when I brought this up to her.

The Gatsby is the adjacent brother bar to The Hive — and also owned by Jake Gardner.

Zooming in on the odd, gratuitous, key-like emblem appended to the the drooping “G,” you’ll notice a black cross.

Three of Jake’s former friends from different stages of his life independently confirmed to me that it was well-known in their circles that Jake has a swastika tattoo. (One of them learned this from Jake’s brother and said it was common knowledge among their friend group that Jews were not allowed in the Gardner home.)

Blown-up and side-by-side, the similarities between The Gatsby’s black cross (left) and variations of the Nazi swastika (middle) and the German Iron Cross (right), another symbol sometimes associated with white-supremacy, are striking:

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“And you know about the ‘IE’?,” Robert Bradshaw asked me.

Now ignore The Gatsby logo’s black cross and look past it, focusing on the key’s white space: An unmistakable, capitalized “I” and “E.”

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The Gatsby logo’s “key” (red-colored for clarity).

Identity Evropa, or “IE,” is the white-nationalist group that led chants of “You will not replace us” — alternatively, “Jews will not replace us” — during violent 2017 rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Its founder, Nathan Damigo, is an ex-Marine who served in Iraq — just like Jake Gardner.

In fact, Jake’s LinkedIn profile shows he was a recruiter for the Marines through November 2004. That’s the same year IE founder Nathan Damigo enlisted, according to an in-depth profile by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Screenshots from Jake Gardner’s LinkedIn profile, before he deactivated it.

Jake’s LinkedIn profile identifies him as the founder and CEO of “EON Hospitality Management, Inc.” I could not find any explanation for what the EON acronym stands for, and Nebraska’s Secretary of State does not list it as a registered entity.

But “Ethniki Organosis Neolaias,” or EON, was a Greek Nazi-era fascism-promoting group designed to indoctrinate impressionable children. It was modeled after Hitler Youth and rolled out after Greece’s dictator hosted Nazi Germany’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

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The evidence suggesting Jake Gardner descended on Omaha’s BLM protest intending to kill is substantial. Jake’s hatred for BLM was notorious; he openly referred to the movement as “a terrorist organization.” He and his father, Dave, both brought concealed firearms— Jake, illegally (his permit was expired). Just before the shooting, Jake took to Facebook declaring himself ready “to pull 48 hours of military style firewatch.”

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According to witnesses, Dave and Jake initially provoked conflict by hurling racially incendiary language into the already-charged, race-sensitive crowd. Derek Stephens, a local bartender, said Dave started “dropping multiple hard N-bombs,” then called Derek and other white protesters “n ***** lovers.” Jake taunted another protester, inviting him to “kiss my WHITE ass.” Shortly before the shooting, Whitney Ledenbach saw “Jake and his father and friends laughing and smiling at all of us walking by. Definitely not in a friendly manner. More in a ‘I can’t wait for an excuse to fuck one of these people up’ kind of manner.”

Dave Gardner started the fight that Jake ended with a gun. For no clear reason, Dave strode away from The Hive, confronted a young woman, and pushed her twice before another protester pushed him back, knocking Dave to the ground. That, apparently, was all the spark Jake needed.

According to Robert Fuller, who posted a detailed eyewitness account the day after the shooting, Jake “got in the face of a couple of young Black men” who were not close to Dave, falsely accusing them of vandalizing The Hive. Fuller was struck by the fact that Jake “bypassed several white people to pick that fight with these 2 Black men.” When they denied wrongdoing, Jake “stayed in their faces, yelling at them,” and Fuller stepped in between them, hoping to deescalate. Instead, Jake “lifted his shirt to reveal the gun in his pants waist,” and then pulled it out, moving “erratically and aggressively” — “He seemed very eager for a reason to use it.”

When Jake briefly tucked his gun back into his waistband, Alayna Melendez saw her opportunity to disarm or disable him. Melendez, a 19-year-old woman, was downtown photographing the BLM protests when she saw the steely glint of Jake’s gun as he waved it in James Scurlock’s face. She was well-versed in gun safety — during childhood days on her grandfather’s acreage, she had graduated from a BB gun, to a handgun, to a shotgun, always respecting the rule that you never point a firearm where you don’t intend to shoot. Everything from Jake’s jerky movements to the pitch in his voice told her “this was not deescalating, it was escalating,” Melendez told me. “I could tell something was going to happen no matter what.” Recognizing that Jake was “100-percent focused on James,” Melendez approached and engaged Jake from behind, tackling the armed, 38-year-old ex-Marine to the ground.

“I didn’t see them throw a single punch or otherwise attack [Jake] directly,” Fuller wrote of Melendez and the second intervenor, who joined her. “They were simply attempting to restrain a man who had just threatened their lives and the lives of the rest of us there.” In a fast, chaotic scuffle, Jake fired two shots, and protesters scattered as Jake regained his balance and started to stand, gun in hand. Scurlock jumped on his back and knocked Jake down, his arms wrapped around Jake’s shoulders, before Jake delivered the fatal gunshot to his neck.

When Nurse Aide Janee’ Hooks arrived several minutes later, an EMT was on the scene, but no one was giving Scurlock obviously necessary chest compressions. Finally, “after me intervening — begging and begging and begging and begging and begging— they started compressions on him,” Hooks said on her live-streamed Facebook feed. Scurlock’s cousin was there, too, and highly emotional. According to Hooks, officers arrested him — “as a suspect, not a witness, but a suspect” — and would only let him join his dying cousin on the ride to the hospital in handcuffs.

In a separate, later video (shortly after the 13-minute mark), Hooks captured Dave Gardner — the “n-bomb”-dropping, protester-pushing, gun-bearing instigator of the altercation — speeding away in his Silver Jeep Cherokee, on his own volition.

Jake was never arrested, and never charged — with anything. He was home in less than 24 hours.

“Irresponsible, reckless . . . It’s not accurate, not true,” said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, criticizing public leaders who had used the word “murder” to describe Jake’s killing of Scurlock. His words were projections — more fairly pointed at his office’s fast, shoddy investigation and shooing-away of critical, easily-discoverable facts and testimony.

During his June 1 press conference announcing his decision to release Jake with no charges, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine made the case for self-defense in remarks more closely resembling a defense-side closing argument than anything I’ve ever seen from a prosecutor. He mispronounced the deceased’s name (“Spurlock”) eight times in the first fifteen minutes. His presentation-of-evidence consisted almost entirely of a narrated video play-by-play, rewound and re-reviewed for good measure, of the altercation itself and the two minutes preceding it.

Three times, Kleine went out of his way to offer that “other video evidence” showed Scurlock “damaging some property” that night — even though he readily acknowledged it was irrelevant, because such evidence is legally inadmissible, Jake had no knowledge of Scurlock’s earlier activity, and in any case unrelated vandalism is no defense to murder. But when a reporter asked about Gardner’s criminal history, Kleine scoffed, calling it “a loaded question” before claiming he was “not aware that the owner of the bar had any criminal history whatsoever.” (In fact, Gardner had at least four prior arrests, including multiple charges of battery, assault, and concealed-weapon violations.)

Kleine may have seen self-defense in his limited video-review, but none of the actual witnesses did. In fact, every single witness I’ve spoken with disagrees with Kleine’s decision. “I was there,” wrote Alicia Wolford, who saw key events unfold from fifteen feet away. “There was NO NEED for [Jake] to shoot James Scurlock.” Wolford sees Scurlock as a hero: “James was trying to protect all the people around from an active shooter.” Robert Fuller agreed: “James Scurlock did not pick that fight. Jake Gardner picked that fight. James was trying to disarm a man who was angrily threatening people. He died trying to protect others.” In a recent interview with The Guardian, Fuller added: “They’re talking about how it was self-defense, because Gardner was scared for his life. They never once mentioned the fact that James was scared for his life. Everyone around us was scared for our lives. The only two people there with no reason to be scared for their lives were named Gardner.”

In response to a reporter’s direct question, Kleine denied he was aware of any evidence suggesting racism motivated the shooting. But you won’t find the evidence if you’re not looking for it. Immediately after the shooting, Derek Stephens — who heard Dave Gardner spewing the n-word just before shots were fired — tearfully lobbied police to take his Gardner-incriminating statement. Instead, he and others were met with threats of pepper balls and arrest. “There must have been 75 police officers there,” said Stephens. “Not a single one gave a single damn about what we had to say.”

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The stonewalling didn’t stop there. The next morning, while police and media shared phone numbers ostensibly available to any witness with information, Stephens called those numbers and every other local-government hotline he could find, reaching no one. “Every single one of those numbers was disconnected, had its mailbox full, or just hung up on me,” Stephens said. So he took to Facebook, publicly posting that he had heard Dave Gardner using racial slurs and emphasizing, “I WAS PERSONALLY AROUND THIS CORNER WHEN IT HAPPENED IF YOU WANT TO ASK ME MORE QUESTIONS…. THIS WAS ALL PREVENTABLE BUT [JAKE] MADE THE DECISION TO ENGAGE AND MURDER AN UNARMED 22 YEAR OLD LAST NIGHT.” Despite being widely shared, no one contacted Stephens.

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The next morning, Stephens woke up with even-greater conviction and urgency. He repeatedly emailed Don Kleine directly, called the official reporting hotline and other logical numbers for three-straight hours, and continued posting to Facebook. Crickets. Stephens learned Jake was released with no charges during Kleine’s press conference.

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Among eyewitnesses, this was a disturbing theme. Robert Fuller posted: “I’ve talked to dozens of different police officers trying to give a statement as an eye witness to the murder of James Scurlock. I’ve gotten just as many different excuses about why they weren’t taking a statement from me or helping me find someone who could take my statement…. After waiting around for hours on Saturday night, I finally got one officer to take my name and phone number. He typed it into a note on his phone and said someone would call me. No one has called me.” Fuller was finally contacted for a statement on June 1 — shortly before Kleine’s press conference, and after Gardner was released.

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Alicia Wolford watched Kleine’s live-streamed June 1 press conference on Facebook. Despite leaving her name and number with an officer on the night of the shooting, no one had contacted her. “I have still not been called,” she wrote in the scrolling comments. She and Stephens finally gave their statements on June 3, three days after Jake’s release. An extended family member — whose May 31 tweet outing Jake as a “white supremacist” was retweeted more than 7,500 times — was not contacted by police until June 10, the morning after my original post charging Jake with racism went viral.

As of June 1, the day of Kleine’s press conference — according to multiple accounts, including an individual who saw Jake Gardner and what appeared to be multiple security guards escorting him at Omaha’s Eppley Airport — Gardner was already in California.

Taylor, the longtime Gardner family member, has heard the same — she assumes Jake is back in Humboldt. “I believe because that’s where his best protection and support is,” she said.

Robert Bradshaw, the former employee at The Hive, is moving forward. He’s teamed up with Scurlock’s siblings on a GoFundMe campaign to reclaim, rejuvenate, and run a business in the space where he lost his job and James lost his life. “James and I and our friends were kicked out of The Hive so many times,” said A.D. Swolley, Scurlock’s brother, referencing the bar’s racist, selectively applied, pretextual standards. “We just want to create a positive, inclusive space where people can have fun — that’s what my brother was about, and I think that’s what he would want.”

As we wrapped up our call, Bradshaw reflected on what he described as one of the worst nights of his life. After a jam-packed Thursday at The Hive in which he worked “bar back” — taking out trash, cleaning and restocking bathrooms, washing hundreds of drinking cups, etc. — Jake doled him out just $20 in tips to go with his $5.25 hourly wage. For weeks, Bradshaw had suspected Jake was purposely pushing him to quit by stiffing him on tips.

It was after 4 a.m., and Bradshaw was visibly tired and frustrated. Jake eyed him down, then instructed Bradshaw to re-clean and re-dry the bar’s plastic cups. The command made no sense — the cups were pristine. And when Bradshaw nonetheless started to comply, Jake angrily smacked the cup rack onto the floor and said “You’re done here.”

Bradshaw asked for clarification: “Am I fired? Should I come in tomorrow?” At first Jake ignored him, then he pushed Bradshaw toward the door. Stepping outside, Jake thrust the door into Bradshaw, prompting him to ask, almost unconsciously: “Are you racist?”

Jake stopped, stared, chuckled, and then turned away — into The Hive.

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“Then he stopped and turned back toward me. He was smiling,” Bradshaw told me. “Jake held up his thumb and pointer finger, and he started laughing and nodding his head, wildly — saying, ‘yeah, I might be racist. Just a bit. Just a bit.’” Then he added, “You know what? I am racist. I am, and I don’t care.”

In Bradshaw’s eyes, Jake had it all — a “local celebrity,” owning some of Omaha’s most-popular bars — but he was small and empty on the inside, full of hate, and he took out his anger and insecurities on others. Bradshaw paused, recalling a drunken, cutting, ominous remark Jake once made to express his dominance over him.

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James “Juju” Scurlock: Feb. 15, 1998 — May 30, 2020

If you died, no one would blink an eye.”

Written by

Husband to Jenny, Dad to Poppy and Nina, biotech attorney, author of Realer Than Real, lover of Huskers and Cardinals, backwards-talker. (.ekoj oN)

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