PILGER, Neb. (Flatwater Free Press) — As twin tornadoes barreled toward the village of Pilger, Gene Willers hurried his employees into the bank vault.
The bank president knew the wind speed and suction of the cyclone would pull everyone out if the vault wasn’t secured.
But it could only be locked from the outside.
Willers locked everyone else in. He then went to the building's crawl space of a basement, expecting to die, and prayed.
On June 16, 2014, a pair of tornadoes tore through Pilger in northeast Nebraska, taking with them dozens of homes, hundreds of trees and two lives.
In the years following that natural disaster, another disaster emerged. This was one man made. Like the tornadoes, its impact lingers in the tiny Nebraska village to this day.
Village clerk Kimberly Neiman emerged a hero in the aftermath of the storm. She worked tirelessly even though her own home had been leveled. She helped bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in recovery grants and donations. She won awards. She basked in the spotlight of glowing news stories heralding her work.
“I have taken it upon myself to feel like it's my job and my duty to have the weight of Pilger on me every day when I wake up,” Neiman told the Norfolk Daily News in 2015.
Willers, who survived the storm – the bank crumbled around him – ended up working closely with Neiman on village projects after the tornado. He could see her knack for securing grants and navigating federal disaster aid.
And he noted her annoyance that many of those grants and donations went to a special post-tornado committee, not directly into village accounts.
But what the bank president could not see – at least not at first – was that a staggering amount of the money Neiman controlled was disappearing to strange places.
For years, village checks went to apartment buildings in Canada, out-of-state mailrooms, even to a mystery man in Cambodia who might have ties to Neiman – or might not. It was a giant scam, or payments tied to alleged threats dangling over Neiman’s head, or something else entirely. The details, and the motive, remain elusive.
This much is clear: In 2021, Neiman was sentenced to three years in prison, after officials discovered more than $700,000 in misspent funds from Pilger accounts, all with her signature.
Pilger had survived a tornado. Now it had to somehow survive this.
“Somebody punched you in the gut with the tornado,” Willers said. “And then, they came in with a haymaker a few years later.”
Pilger is far from the only town to be victimized by its clerk, who often runs the show – and controls the purse strings – in small Nebraska towns. It’s one of 17 small towns in the state where clerks have reportedly stolen a total of $1.7 million in the past decade.
But Pilger stands out. The massive dollar amount accounts for 42% of that $1.7 million. For those who lived through the tornado, Neiman's theft delivered a second emotional blow during a time of fraught recovery.
Years later, those who investigated the crime and those who were affected by it say the tangled web of a case has yet to be fully explained – and likely never will be.
Neiman will walk out of prison in July, one month after the eighth anniversary of the Pilger tornadoes. She did not respond to a letter requesting an interview, and her husband declined to comment.
“She's about to be released, and I still have no idea where any of the money is at,” said Mike Unger, Stanton County Sheriff. The aftermath of the tornadoes remains the most devastating thing he's seen in 41 years in law enforcement. “I have no idea if she profited. I have no way of knowing. But I have my suspicions.”
The volunteer firefighters she trained dubbed her “Momma Kim.”
Neiman had been village clerk since 1998. She sang in the church choir. Unger and deputies saw her at countless crash sites working as an EMT.
“You needed something, you went to her,” he said.
In 2018, Pilger's auditor noticed checks signed by Neiman but never approved by the village board.
The catch spurred a closer look at the years of village books managed by Neiman.
At the request of the auditor, Neiman filed a consumer complaint with the state attorney general, blaming the suspicious transactions on the chaos following the tornadoes.
She filed another report with Unger's office, saying she might have been scammed out of “a couple thousand dollars,” Unger said. He wasn't too worried. That sort of thing isn't unusual.
“But within a couple weeks, it started mushrooming,” he said.
By March 2019, a state audit found $718,000 in checks and credit card transactions sent by Neiman to possible scammers.
These payments never received board approval. But the board chair Amber Labenz admitted to auditors that she would sign everything presented to her by Neiman, including blank checks.
The money was sent to addresses like out-of-state UPS stores and mailrooms, apartment buildings in Canada, and questionable storefronts.
It often went to the same businesses and people. One man, Gavin Evento, received $233,408 in payments over five years. County officials alleged the pair were connected before Neiman moved to Nebraska, according to the arrest warrant. At the time, Evento told reporters he had never met Neiman.
Evento, who now lives in Cambodia, threatened to sue the sheriff's department, Unger said.
“Sue us for what? Doing our job?” Unger said. “He's declined any of our requests to come back to the United States to be interviewed. For him to sue us, he would have to come back. So I don't foresee that happening.”
Neiman had been quietly sending the mysterious checks for at least eight years before the tornadoes ripped through Pilger, investigators found.
Then, in the years after – a time when donations flooded into the village's accounts – the shady transactions skyrocketed.
From $42,199 in 2014 to $118,612 in 2015.
$141,239 in 2016.
And peaking at $241,127 in 2018.
By 2020, Neiman was arrested for 17 alleged criminal acts, including seven counts of theft.
But proving the theft in court made for a frustrating case, especially for a small department like Unger's.
The Stanton County Sheriff's Department asked for help from the state attorney general and the federal government – anyone with expertise untangling white collar crimes.
Neither stepped in to help, Unger said. To residents, it felt like the agencies washed their hands of the 267-resident village. Like it was too small of a case to be worth their time.
But for Pilger, a village with an annual budget of roughly $1 million, the case was huge.
The money stolen over 12 years could have gone toward things like road repairs and operating expenses. The things it takes to keep a small town like Pilger running, said Kory Koehlmoos, co-chair of the village board. Also the fire chief, he was the one to turn on Pilger's sole siren the day of the tornadoes. Within a minute, it was ripped down by a twister.
“For years, it had always been, ‘Can we fix the roads?’ ‘We don't have the money.’ ‘Can we build a community center?’ ‘We don't have the money,’” said LeeAnn Westerhaus, a member of the committee with Willers who still lives in the village.
Midway through the investigation, Neiman changed her story to police. She wasn't being scammed, she said. She was being threatened.
“They had threatened me and my family, so I paid them with village funds,” she told the village attorney, according to the 2020 arrest warrant. But the mysterious “they” was never revealed.
“I considered her a friend,” Unger said. “She never reached out to me to let me know this was going on. Her story is just a little hard-pressed to believe.”
Neiman and prosecutors ended up striking a plea deal. Seventeen charges turned to one, and she was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $44,381 in restitution.
Bert Lammli, the Stanton County Attorney who prosecuted the case, said he agreed to the plea because the case was “hanging by the thread” of proving Neiman benefitted from the unapproved spending. But investigators could never track the money back to any of her accounts.
“What do you think?” Lammli said. “Would the jury have brought back a guilty verdict when we could not prove that the defendant got any of the money?”
No trial meant Neiman was never put on the witness stand. Subpoenaed witnesses were never publicly questioned. Pilger residents never got the answers they craved.
“We were cheated out of a trial,” Willers said.
In 2015, a year after the tornadoes, Angela Denton appeared on The Weather Channel representing her hometown.
“We wouldn't be where we are without Kim,” she said on national TV.
Denton and her husband run a trucking business in Pilger. She spent years after the tornadoes trying to rebuild her hometown for future generations.
“You feel like a fool,” she said, looking back on her national TV appearance, and the laudatory things she said about Neiman.
Rumors swirled in the aftermath of Neiman's sentencing.
Neiman was being blackmailed, using village funds to cover the demands, some proposed.
She was getting kickbacks from each check sent, others said.
She had help from someone else in the village.
She did nothing wrong.
“I can honestly say that Kim's actions have divided that community,” Unger said. “It caused a lot of pain and suffering to those who still remain there.”
Years later, residents as well as those who left Pilger after the storm still fall into the same spiral of conversation, performing mental gymnastics to figure out what happened, and why, and how.
They look back on the milestones after the tornado – building a community center, a new bank, the money Neiman helped bring into the town – and wonder if she had ulterior motives the whole time.
Denton thinks of the people from all over who put their trust and money into helping Pilger recover, and whether they wonder if their donations went to the right place.
“You trust everybody, because that's just how you're raised,” said Barb Wolverton, a Pilger resident for 23 years. “You trust word of mouth, you trust a handshake. It's supposed to mean something.”
When the tornadoes hit Pilger, Jodi Slonecker pulled blankets over her two children, laid on top of them, and held onto the posts of the bunk bed in their basement. Above them, the tornado ripped their home’s roof, walls and belongings into the sky.
Months later, she visited the village office to ask Neiman a question about her address, should she decide to rebuild her home.
“That is not for anybody else to decide but me, because I run this town,” Slonecker remembers Neiman saying. “Everything goes my way.”
Like in most small villages, the residents of Pilger wear multiple civic hats. Along with his board responsibilities, Koehlmoos farms, runs the volunteer fire department and coaches youth baseball.
The multiple roles come with a lot of trust, he said. Trust that people aren’t taking advantage of you when your knowledge runs out and theirs begins.
But Denton thinks the board put an irresponsible amount of trust in Neiman – to the point where they saw no problem signing blank checks and blindly following her judgment when it came to rebuilding decisions.
“She spoonfed a lot to the board,” Denton said.
That level of trust isn’t uncommon in small towns, Willers said.
“These village clerks end up being kind of the dictator of the community,” he said. “And this was no exception.”
While the village has fraud insurance, it's still not clear if it will get the rest of the $718,000 back. Since the case ended with a plea deal and not a full guilty verdict, the money is still in limbo as the village goes back and forth with its insurance company, Koehlmoos said.
Evento, the mystery Cambodia resident, still sometimes calls the village claiming he's owed money, Unger and Koehlmoos said. He did not respond to a Facebook message requesting an interview.
Come July, Neiman will be released from the Lincoln Community Corrections Center.
About a year ago, she wrote a letter to the fire department, saying she holds no grudges toward anyone in town, and that she hopes she can one day return to the department, Koehlmoos said.
To do so would require the same interview and application process as any other applicant, the fire chief said.
“We’ve got to treat everybody equally and fairly,” the fire chief said.
Even Kim Neiman, who, if she does apply, would need the approval of the fire department that she stole $25,000 from. And then she’d need the ultimate sign off: The Pilger Village Board.
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