It’s not every day that Morley Safer of CBS’ “60 Minutes” knocks on the door for an interview. Or Geraldo Rivera calls.

But in the months and even years after Jill Cutshall’s disappearance, Norfolk was in the spotlight, caught in the crosshairs of national media attention that pitted Cutshall’s mother against the ongoing police investigation.

Enter a chatty private investigator named Roy Stephens, who utilized an Omaha TV station to help garner a “confession” and you’ve got the makings of a sensational story.

 

Taped ‘confession’

Coming in as Norfolk’s police chief, Bill Mizner had a good working relationship with media. He worked as the operations captain at the Kearney Police Department before landing the job in Norfolk.

“I’ve always believed the media has a role and you work with the media,” he said. “And you work together trying to help each other achieve your goals.”

But he knew it was going to be challenging coming into the job 11 days after the disappearance of 9-year-old Jill Cutshall.

Cutshall’s mother, Joyce, wanted to be involved in the day-to-day workings of the investigation, Mizner said. And at first, the police department provided her with information. However, they found that some of that information was subsequently being made public.

A tighter lid on information led to a strained relationship between parent and police, he said.

“Any parent in that situation is going to have an active interest,” Mizner said. “They’re going to want to know what’s happening. . . . But this is the first time I encountered where you had a parent who now disagreed with the investigation and was going to utilize other resources to try to develop and go a different way in the investigation.”

A different way for sure — meaning the involvement of private investigator Roy Stephens. Add that Stephens worked the case in the media and it made the case much more public and high-profile than it already was, Mizner said.

“It continued to create more of a focus on the conflict between Stephens and Joyce and the police department as opposed to the actual investigation and trying to determine what happened to Jill,” he said.

 Did Stephens ultimately help or hurt the investigation? There’s no easy way to tell. But then there was Jan. 4, 1989.

That’s when Stephens transported Phelps to Wood Duck Wildlife Area near Stanton, where Jill’s clothing had been more discovered more than a year earlier.

Stephens handed Phelps a shovel and told him to find Jill. He also shot a firearm during the incident.

Phelps then told Stephens that Kermit Baumgartner had Jill in the car when he rode with them to Wood Duck. He said it was Baumgartner who started molesting Jill, and he got scared and left them there.

An Omaha TV station then taped an interview with Phelps where he repeated the story.

Once in police custody, Phelps recanted those statements, saying he was threatened by Stephens. The police let him go.  

When the police found out about the tape and the alleged confession on it, the TV station told them it was proprietary information. Eventually, the two came to an agreement that Mizner signed but not before the station got criticized by other media sources for interfering with an active investigation.

Mizner said the station’s reporter on the story was also adversarial at times. At one point, Mizner said he felt this station was in the business of creating news instead of simply reporting it.

“In our opinion, they had crossed the line,” he said. “The primary goal was to inform the public, but there were certain boundaries that had to be maintained.”

Networks came calling

The national news media seemed to focus on if the police were really doing everything they could.

Geraldo Rivera had Joyce Cutshall on his television show, and Mizner agreed to answer questions by phone. Producers had given Mizner a list of discussion points and he felt as if he was prepared.

“The first question that Geraldo gave me was totally and completely away from that and boom, it was just a gotcha-type thing. They were basically setting me up, which really bothered me,” Mizner said.

Needless to say, Mizner was a little jaded when a producer from “A Current Affair Extra” called a few weeks later. But he ended up doing that interview and was pleased with the results.

But “60 Minutes” had an agenda when it came in to do its piece, Mizner said. Both Mizner and then-county attorney Richard Krepela were interviewed.

Phelps’ lawyer, David Domina, now of Omaha, said CBS’ Morley Safer showed up outside Phelps’ door. Phelps handed the phone through the door and let Domina talk to him.

“I quizzed him to see if he was really Morley Safer and he passed my quiz,” Domina said. “And then there was a negotiation about me not allowing him to talk to Phelps.”

Part of that negotiation was for Domina to review the “confession” tape.

“That’s the only reason I consented to an interview. I wanted to see the  tape,” Domina said. “At that point, I didn’t even know what my side was.”

Steve Hecker, a Norfolk investigator in Jill’s case 25 years ago, said “60 Minutes” answered a lot of questions and confirmed that the police department had made a good decision in not arresting Phelps after his confrontation with Stephens at Wood Duck.

That was the first time Stephens admitted that he shot a gun before Phelps’ alleged confession.

Since Phelps had been outed on “60 Minutes” as a suspect, there was a considerable amount of pressure to get him arrested, but the investigation continued.

“Just because that’s his picture, that doesn’t mean we have what we’ve got to prosecute the case,” Hecker said.

Media and public opinion

A few days after the “60 Minutes” episode was broadcast, Jill’s mother started a petition drive to form a grand jury to investigate the disappearance.

“It was a product of the media attention and not the other way around,” Domina said. “He would’ve never been charged with a crime if the media hadn’t gotten their hands on that tape.”

But Jim Smith, the special prosecutor in the case, didn’t see that as the ultimate piece of evidence that convicted Phelps.

Because with it came the baggage of Stephens, who not only shot a gun at the time of the “confession” but also was found to have lied to obtain his private investigator’s license. He also had a felony record and was not to be in the possession of a firearm.

“Even if you believe his (Phelps’) statement, his statement was, ‘I didn’t do it. I saw someone else do it and when I saw him do it, I got scared and left,’ ” Smith said.

But it wasn’t just the confession tape. It was the national media attention overall that fueled “hysterics” that ultimately convicted Phelps — with the focus on someone to blame and not what actually happened to Jill, Domina said.

There’s only one way that people could refuse to sign a petition against an investigation into a child disappearance and that is by expressing enough confidence in law enforcement, Domina said.

He said the investigation was working in measured steps — until the hysteria of the situation set in.

“The court system slows things down for a very good reason, by design,” Domina said. “If you let everybody decide on guilt or innocence based on tweets, what do you think you have?”

But Mizner said Phelps wasn’t convicted by the media attention. The justice system went through the proper steps, including an indictment out of a grand jury, a conviction at trial and a conviction upheld on appeal.

“I have to believe that he’s not someone who just happened to be an unfortunate individual in the wrong place at the wrong time and got nabbed,” Mizner said. “I don’t buy the idea that he’s just a fall guy that was handy and tossed in there.”

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