Heartland Town Rocked by Sex, Lies and Murder
On the last night of his life, Scott Catenacci left his job at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, climbed into his car and drove through the darkness toward the Iowa border.
He was heading to meet some friends in a park, intent on selling his laptop computer. Those friends, authorities say, were waiting to murder him.
One week earlier, Catenacci and three of those friends had experimented with partner-swapping sex--"basically a group orgy,” one later recalled. There was a problem: One of the two girls involved, 18-year-old Nicci Wetherell, had spurned Catenacci.
The 19-year-old became angry and allegedly roughed her up. Nicci and four friends spent the next week planning payback. On the night of Sept. 29, police believe, they exacted it.
Catenacci, a burly 6-foot-1-inch, 250-pounder, was surprised by knife-wielding attackers beneath the two-lane Bellevue Bridge. In the dim glow of the span’s sparse red, white and green warning lights, he fought desperately for his life.
Catenacci’s body, dumped in a tree-lined ditch on the outskirts of town, was discovered early the next morning by a man collecting recyclable cans.
Within 16 hours, Nicci Wetherell and four friends--two of them juveniles charged as adults--were arrested for killing their sometime friend and lover.
None of the suspects, ages 16 to 19, has expressed remorse, Sarpy County Sheriff Pat Thomas says. All five could face the death penalty if convicted in this tale that begins like a letter to Penthouse and finishes like a Stephen King novel.
Bellevue, with its adjoining Air Force base, has suffered its share of recent atrocities--a 1996 drive-by killing, the 1994 murder of a 7-Eleven clerk, the 1983 abduction and murder of two children by a serviceman.
But this homicide felt different.
This was not the work of outsiders. This was home-grown kids turning on one of their own-- Catenacci literally grew up on Main Street, less than a mile from the park where he died.
“It’s like, ‘Damn! This doesn’t happen here,’ ” said Bob Williams, a retired Air Force officer who settled here in 1985. “This is a quiet type of town. . . . They sound like a bad bunch.”
Scott Catenacci and his crowd were certainly not among Bellevue’s best and brightest. One mother grounded her daughter just for allowing the clique into their home this past summer.
Brandi Glynn, 19, a teen mother who dated Catenacci when her marriage began to disintegrate, was sexually abused by her father, state records say. Nicci Wetherell faced a pending assault charge. Daniel Jones, 16, had a criminal record dating back to age 10.
Those three, along with high school dropouts Patrick Burden, 16, and 19-year-old James Hargett, were ordered held without bail for the murder. Brandi’s estranged husband, Christopher Glynn, allegedly knew of the plot but did not alert authorities; his bail was set at $1 million, and the state took custody of the Glynns’ son.
Burden’s attorney, well-known local defense lawyer James Martin Davis, condemns the police version of the slaying as “presented in Jerry Springer terms--'rough sex,’ ‘a group encounter.’ ”
Against the unassuming backdrop of Bellevue, those terms seem all the more unlikely.
Named for its scenic view of the Missouri River, Bellevue was a fur post established in 1822 to trade with the local tribes. The First Presbyterian Church, erected in 1854, still stands in its Olde Towne section.
The town’s population, 1,200 before World War II, soared to its current 40,000 when the Offutt Air Force Base opened.
It has maintained a small-town feel, though. Mayor Inez Boyd arrived in 1968 and still considers herself an outsider. It’s a town where Friday night football is a major social event, complete with a performance by the Bellevue East Chieftains band.
It’s where Catenacci, Hargett, Jones and Wetherell went to high school. But they shunned the school’s organized activities; in their yearbook, seniors Catenacci and Wetherell each merit just a single mention.
In her senior photo, Wetherell is smiling like a starlet in a Hollywood publicity shot. It contrasts starkly with the wan, sad-eyed mug shot issued by the Sarpy County sheriff after her arrest.
The Tuesday night of Catenacci’s death was a typical weeknight in town: “A Chorus Line” was playing at the Bellevue Little Theater, and local librarians prepared to celebrate “Teen Read Week.”
Typical turned terrible once Catenacci pulled his car beneath the bridge linking Nebraska and Iowa, lured by a promise of $400 for his laptop computer. His killers set upon the overmatched teen like buzzards on carrion, the sheriff says.
One of the alleged attackers, his hands covered in Catenacci’s blood, hugged and kissed his accused co-conspirator Brandi Glynn after the murder, she said.
“He said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you,’ ” Glynn later said in a jailhouse TV interview.
Burden commandeered his slain friend’s blue 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity and drove into Omaha, authorities say. Police stopped the car; once Catenacci’s body turned up, Thomas says, attention focused instantly on his friends.
Glynn, in her phone call to the local TV station, said the killers carried four knives. Thomas, a 25-year law enforcement veteran, said the brutality of the killing left him stunned.
“We have never had this type of homicide,” he says. “You like to think of kids as normal, law-abiding citizens.”
The teen murder suspects already appear to be angling for a deal to testify against one another. Some have acknowledged being at the murder scene, but none has admitted participating.
Brandi Glynn said she was sitting in a car when the stabbing occurred, and Nicci Wetherell said she has no memory of the incident. Burden claimed to have only met the Catenacci crew a month before the slaying.
“He was present,” Davis says of his client, Burden. “But he played no part in any premeditation or planning.”
The sobering mutation of its children into killers dominated talk in town, although some, like the head of the 144-year-old Presbyterian church, would rather not discuss it with outsiders.
But a message board at the nearby Bellevue Christian Center offered a clear message that combined old-time religion with Nebraska’s other passion--big-time college football.
“All Time Top Ten,” the sign read. “No. 7--You Shall Not Murder.”
One week after Scott Catenacci’s body was found, the morning sun reflected off the Missouri River into Haworth Park. It was eerily quiet, with the wind rustling a few tree limbs and the river rolling slowly past.
The ravine where Scott Catenacci died is a nondescript stretch of Nebraska parkland. Just a few feet away stands a humble warning that a town’s young are not necessarily its future.
A small wooden stake was driven into the ground; scrawled on it with a black felt-tip pen was “SCOTT” and a crudely drawn heart. Alongside it stood a simple plastic flower pinwheel, its petals a bright green.
The wind blew. The petals spun madly. And Scott Catenacci’s alleged killers, the children of Bellevue, waited in their jail cells.