An Omaha bar owner who killed a young Black man during protests this spring has been found dead of suicide days after a grand jury voted to charge him with manslaughter, police said.
Jake Gardner’s attorney said his client had left Nebraska because of death threats but was planning to return to stand trial in the May 30 shooting of James Scurlock, 22.
“The grand jury indictment was a shock to him,” the attorney, Stuart Dorner said at a press conference. “He was really shook up.”
Gardner, an ex-Marine who owned two popular bars, claimed he shot Scurlock in self-defense during a confrontation on a night when anti-racism protests devolved into vandalism and violence.
Video showed Gardner’s father confronting a group of young people, followed by Gardner flashing a gun at one of them. Two in the group tackled Gardner, who fired shots, sending them running. Then Scurlock jumped on Gardner, who fired another shot, killing him.
A local prosecutor quickly declared that the facts supported the self-defense scenario. But as community outrage mounted, a special prosecutor was appointed and a grand jury was convened.
Last week, after reviewing what the special prosecutor said was new evidence—including Gardner’s Facebook messages and cellphone content—charges were announced. “That evidence comes primarily from Jake Gardner himself,” the prosecutor, Fred Franklin, said then, without going into detail.
After the indictment, there were calls for Gardner, 38, to be arrested immediately and questions about his whereabouts when he wasn’t booked.
It turned out that he had left Nebraska after the shooting and gone to the West Coast. On Sunday night, police in Hillsboro, Oregon, confirmed his body had been found outside a medical clinic. No cause of death was provided but the attorney said he died “by his own hand.”
Gardner left no note, his lawyers said, but right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter were quick to blame it on the Black Lives Matter movement—and conspiracy theories that it wasn’t a suicide were taking root on Twitter.
But Dornan said that Gardner had suffered two traumatic brain injuries during his tours in Iraq, and he noted that suicide rates are high among veterans.
His co-counsel, Tom Monaghan, said Gardner was afraid to come back to Nebraska.
“Jake was worried he was going to get shot on the way here,” said Monaghan, who insisted that he could have convinced a jury that Gardner justifiably believed his life was in danger when he shot Scurlock.
Gardner had courted controversy even before Scurlock’s death.
In 2016, he caused a furor when he wrote on Facebook that transgender women should have had their “appendage” removed if they want to use women’s bathrooms.
“I’m asking transgender folk to use the unisex... bathroom,” he told the Omaha World-Herald at the time. “I don’t think it’s a big ask.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741