Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
In honor of Independence Day, The Grand Island Independent is providing unlimited access to all of our content from June 28th-July 4th! Presented by Tom Dinsdale Automotive
alert top story

Misplaced trust: Tornadoes tore Pilger apart. Betrayal followed

  • Updated
  • 0

Eight years ago, a pair of tornadoes tore through Pilger in northeast Nebraska, taking with them dozens of homes, hundreds of trees and two lives.

Soon after that natural disaster, a man-made disaster befell Pilger. Like the tornadoes, its impact lingers.

Village clerk Kimberly Neiman emerged a hero after the storm. Her own home was leveled, yet she worked to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in recovery grants and donations. She won awards. She basked in the media spotlight.

“I have taken it upon myself to feel like it's … my duty to have the weight of Pilger on me every day when I wake up,” Neiman told the Norfolk Daily News in 2015.

Bank President Gene Willers worked closely with Neiman after the tornado. He saw her knack for securing grants and navigating disaster aid.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Gene Willers stands outside his home near Pilger. Willers, the former president of Pilger’s Midwest Bank, narrowly survived the tornado that tore through the town on June 16, 2014. He then grappled with the aftermath of a massive theft from Pilger village funds. 

He noted her annoyance that many of those dollars went to a special post-tornado committee, not directly into village accounts.

What the bank president didn’t see was that a staggering amount of the money Neiman controlled disappeared to strange places.

Village checks went to apartment buildings in Canada, out-of-state mailrooms, to a mystery man in Cambodia.

It was a giant scam, maybe. Some believe it was payments tied to alleged threats dangling over Neiman’s head. The details and 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.

“Somebody punched you in the gut with the tornado,” Willers said. “And then, they came in with a haymaker a few years later.”

Pilger isn’t the only town to be victimized by its clerk, who often runs the show — and the purse strings — in small Nebraska towns. It’s one of 17 small towns in the state where clerks have reportedly stolen $1.7 million in the past decade alone.

Pilger accounts for 42% of that $1.7 million. For tornado survivors, Neiman's theft delivered a second blow during a time of fraught recovery.

Neiman will walk out of prison in July, one month after the eighth anniversary of the Pilger tornadoes. She and her husband both declined interviews for this story.

“She's about to be released, and I still have no idea where any of the money is,” said Mike Unger, Stanton County sheriff. “I have no idea if she profited. I have no way of knowing. But I have my suspicions.”

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Pilger, a northeast Nebraska village of 276, was severely damaged by two tornadoes, and then damaged again by a mysterious, massive theft from village funds. 

* * *

The volunteer firefighters she trained dubbed her “Momma Kim.”

“You needed something, you went to her,” Unger said.

In 2018, Pilger's auditor noticed checks signed by Neiman that were never approved by the Village Board.

The catch spurred a closer look at the books managed by Neiman, who started as clerk in 1998.

At the auditor’s request, Neiman filed a consumer complaint with the Nebraska attorney general, blaming the transactions on the post-tornado chaos.

She filed another report with the Stanton County sheriff, saying she might have been scammed out of “a couple thousand dollars,” Unger said.

“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 board chair Amber Labenz told auditors that she would sign everything Neiman presented her, including blank checks.

This money often landed in the same spots. One man, Gavin Evento, a resident of Cambodia, received $233,408 in payments over five years. County officials alleged the pair were connected before Neiman moved to Nebraska, the 2020 arrest warrant says.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Fire Chief Kory Koehlmoos pointing in the direction where the tornado came from. Pilger was severely damaged by two tornadoes on June 16, 2014. In the years following the storm, the town faced another disaster, a massive and mysterious theft from village funds.

Evento still calls Pilger claiming he's owed money, Unger said. Evento did not respond to a message requesting an interview.

Neiman had sent the mystery checks for at least eight years before the tornadoes, investigators found.

Then, after the tornadoes — when donations flooded village accounts — the shady transactions skyrocketed.

From $42,199 in 2014, to $241,127 in 2018.

By 2020, Neiman was arrested for 17 alleged crimes, including seven counts of theft.

But proving the theft proved frustrating. The sheriff asked for help from the state attorney general and the federal government — anyone with expertise untangling white-collar crimes.

Neither stepped in, Unger said. Residents felt like the agencies believed it was too small a case. But for Pilger, a village with a budget of roughly $1 million, it was huge.

The money could have gone toward road repairs and other things it takes to keep a village like Pilger running.

“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 post-tornado committee.

Midway through the investigation, Neiman changed her story. She wasn’t being scammed — she was being threatened.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

The remnants of the bank where Gene Willers worked after twin tornadoes tore through Pilger in 2014. Willers locked his staff in the bank vault, thinking it would be the most secure place in the building. He then hid in the basement’s crawlspace. 

“They had threatened me and my family, so I paid them with village funds,” she told the village attorney, the warrant says. But she never revealed the mysterious “they.”

Neiman and prosecutors ended up striking a plea deal. She was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $44,381 in restitution.

Bert Lammli, Stanton County attorney, said the case was “hanging by the thread” of proving Neiman benefited from the unapproved spending. But investigators could never track the money back to 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 never took the stand. Pilger residents never got the answers they craved.

“We were cheated out of a trial,” Willers said.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

An aerial photo of the Pilger water tower. The village of 276 residents has worked to rebuild in the eight years since two tornadoes ripped through the small town. That rebuilding has been hampered by another disaster – a city clerk arrested for stealing more than $700,000 in village funds. 

* * *

In 2015, Angela Denton appeared on The Weather Channel representing Pilger.

“We wouldn't be where we are without Kim,” she said on national TV.

Denton and her husband run a Pilger trucking business. She spent years after the tornadoes rebuilding her hometown.

“You feel like a fool,” she said, looking back on her praise of Neiman.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Second from the right in a yellow safety vest, Kim Neiman poses with other Pilger residents after putting up American flags at the town’s baseball field weeks after the tornadoes. Years later, Neiman would be sentenced to three years in prison for stealing from the town. 

Rumors swirled after Neiman's sentencing.

She was blackmailed and used village funds to cover it, some proposed.

She was getting kickbacks from each check sent, others said.

She had help from others in Pilger.

She did nothing wrong.

“Kim's actions have divided that community,” Unger said. “It caused a lot of pain and suffering to those who still remain there.”

Residents look back on the milestones after the tornado — the community center, a new bank, the money Neiman brought into town — and wonder if she had ulterior motives the whole time.

“You trust word of mouth, you trust a handshake,” said Barb Wolverton, a Pilger resident for 23 years. “It’s supposed to mean something.”

Denton believes the board irresponsibly trusted Neiman — to the point where they signed blank checks and followed her rebuilding decisions.

“She spoonfed a lot to the board,” Denton said.

While the village has fraud insurance, it's unclear if it will ever see the rest of the $718,000. Since the case ended with a plea deal, the money is still in limbo, said Kory Koehlmoos, Village Board co-chair.

A year ago, Neiman wrote a letter to the fire department from prison, saying she holds no grudges, Koehlmoos said. It said she hopes she can one day return to work with the Pilger volunteer fire department.

To do so would require the same interview process as any other applicant, Koehlmoos said.

“We’ve got to treat everybody equally and fairly,” he said.

Even Kim Neiman, who, if she does apply, would need the approval of the fire department that she stole $25,000 from. Then she’d need the ultimate sign off: the Pilger Village Board.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

Pilger tornadoes/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

An aerial photo of the Pilger water tower. The village of 276 residents has worked to rebuild in the eight years since two tornadoes ripped through the small town. That rebuilding has been hampered by another disaster – a city clerk arrested for stealing more than $700,000 in village funds.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org.

0 Comments

Locations

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Recommended for you

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

Daily Alerts