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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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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It wasn’t the first time that tragedy befell her family. In 1966, Brown’s 21-year-old sister, Jennie Rowley, died after a grain truck rolled on top of her car at a rural intersection. When rescuers pried open the smashed vehicle, they discovered that her body had shielded her 1½-year-old daughter.

Brown testified at both trials, identifying her family and describing how she found additional bullet casings when the house was cleaned. She said she nearly fainted after she testified at the first trial, but the prosecutor caught her and helped her take a seat.