STANTON — Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger knows what it is like to be despised.
“I realize I am probably the most hated person in Northeast Nebraska because I do my job,” Unger said. “And it’s not a pleasant thing. I have to carry that weight on my shoulders every day, and it’s not easy. And my family suffers every day because of it.”
Responding to questions from the Daily News —which has been contacted by readers and via comments on social media — Unger went into more details about an underage beer party that his deputies encountered early Sunday morning. He also said he wished other law enforcement officers would be more willing to do their job.
The party resulted in more than 60 citations being issued for minor in possession, with the sheriff estimating that “about 50 to 70 minors” got away.
There have since been a few more arrests made since minors or parents have come to pick up their impounded vehicles. About 30 vehicles were impounded early that morning by towing companies from Stanton and Norfolk — using a total of five wreckers.
Unger said the initial call came in about suspicious vehicles in the area of 569th Avenue and 831st Road, which is about 7 miles southeast of Stanton as the crow flies. It is 9 miles southeast of Stanton by roads. The call came in around midnight, early Sunday morning.
“(The caller) said that they had been sitting there with their lights on for a considerable amount of time,” he said.
Deputies responded and had contact with two vehicles on 569th Avenue, and at least one or two of the people had been drinking. Subsequently, one of the vehicles drove down a farm field road, Unger said.
One of the deputies followed the vehicle to see where it was going.
“He (the deputy) came over the hill and observed what he said he thought initially was about 150 people and 50 vehicles,” Unger said. “Obviously, he is by himself and the other deputy is still out on the county road with the other two vehicles.”
‘They got a gun’
As the deputy approached the first vehicle, a male came out with a rifle and began to run with it, Unger said. Then the male stopped, threw the rifle back into the vehicle and ran away, the sheriff said.
Unger said that was the initial contact and the deputy relayed that information over the law enforcement radio. Everyone began to scatter.
“He (the deputy) was there by himself for about four or five minutes. Then we could not find him or contact him for eight or nine minutes.”
Because of the terrain, and a portable radio and an older system, communications were bogged down.
Unger, who was at his home, said he was fearful because he heard about the rifle and had a deputy by himself with a large crowd.
“At first I asked them, ‘Do you need help?’ and they said, ‘Nah,’ because it was just the two vehicles. The next thing I get up and turn the radio on and I hear them say, ‘They got a gun and they’re running.’ ”
Unger said he immediately left wearing the clothes he had on at midnight.
“I went in a pair of Nebraska Cornhusker gym shorts,” Unger said. “I wasn’t even armed. I just took off because one of my guys was in trouble. I’m coming (with full force).”
Minors from 12 towns
Unger said he was on the scene in eight to 10 minutes and saw about 50 vehicles and people running all over. They made contact with as many of the people as they could, telling them to come and get their vehicles or they would be towed.
Most had scattered by that time and those milling around at that time were some over age 21 and a few minors who had their IDs confiscated by two deputies.
The vehicles eventually were towed to a private lot, where they were secured. Vehicles started being returned Monday morning.
The citations went to minors from Clarkson, Columbus, Howells, Oakland, Leigh, Humphrey, David City, Lindsay, St. Paul, Albion, Norfolk and two from Stanton.
There were even three or four minors from Beloit, Kansas, who drove 3½ hours after hearing about the party on social media.
“They were the nicest kids we dealt with,” Unger said. “They gave us no lip. They said, ‘Man, you’re just doing your job.’ ”
So what about claims that deputies let some minors go and drive home drunk?
“We made every effort not to let anyone drive who could be construed as under the influence of alcohol or a DWI,” he said. “That means we physically tested — including giving breath tests to some 18-year-olds — (those) who were cited, but they had less than the legal limit to drive in Nebraska — which is less than .02 of 1%. It’s called zero-tolerance.”
The deputies offered rides to anyone who needed one, including one male who slept for five hours until they were finished and could drive him to Norfolk.
“If you run off, that makes you look like you’re guilty,” Unger said. “If you test negative, this is your lucky day. We kick you out the door. Goodbye. The reason I do that is because I think kids should have a right to be with their friends, but not have to break the law to be with their friends. And I think that’s fair.”
There were parents who drove from Clarkson, Howells and Albion — among other places — to pick up their kids. Other parents lied for their kids, including one who said she drove the vehicle to the party, the sheriff said.
Sheriff, 4 deputies on scene
Unger said some minor could have snuck off and got into a vehicle and drove off after drinking, but it wasn’t intentional that they were let go. Unger said he and four deputies were the only law enforcement officers on the scene trying to control it.
One young woman drove through farm fields, damaging crops and later crashed her vehicle. She apparently was not hurt and left her damaged vehicle on a county road. She will be cited for leaving the scene of a property damage accident, as well as minor in possession and careless driving, the sheriff said. She is not cooperating, he said.
Also regarding the rifle, that male was never located. After running the vehicle, it was towed and the rifle secured. The father came in to get the gun and the vehicle on Monday and declined to give any information other than say he was there to pick up a rifle, the sheriff said.
Unger said he spent more than six hours working on the party. He is a salaried employee and doesn’t make any more money for it. And contrary to what people said on social media, the funds don’t go to the county, they go to the school district.
‘Is that a good mixture?’
There were even some 24- and 25-year-olds at the party.
“I ask people, ‘Is that a good mixture in this day and age?’ Do you know how many sexual assaults get reported after these big beer parties? We’re lucky we didn’t have any of that.”
Unger said breaking up these parties help to prevent drinking and driving, accidents, fights, damage to property and sexual assaults.
An 18-year-old was selling the beer from the kegs for $10 per person and admitted doing so when interviewed, the sheriff said.
“He was even handing out wristbands when they paid, and that's what grabbed my attention — seeing all these minors wearing wristbands. We did seize some wristbands as evidence. You don't see that every day. He told us he was planning the party for six months.”
So what about the claim that the sheriff lets family and friends off?
“Nine years ago to the day, my Father’s Day present was my daughter came home with an MIP,” Unger said. “So don’t come to me and say that my kids get breaks. My oldest daughter got MIPed in Stanton County while I was the sheriff. So I don’t think this argument that people get off (holds water). It doesn’t add up.”