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Nebraska Death Row

Nebraska's lethal injection chamber at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

For years, Tom Rinabarger wore a thick, handlebar mustache just like his dad's.

Eventually he cut it off, but the 58-year-old Omaha man said he's thought of his dad — Reuel Van Ness Jr. — daily since he was murdered Aug. 22, 1979.

“He taught me a lot of good values in life," said Rinabarger, one of Van Ness' 10 children and step-children. “Every day I think of something he’s taught me.”

Put 110 percent into everything you do. Build a better mousetrap.

“He always used to say the phrase, ‘Build a better mousetrap,’” Rinabarger said. “I never knew what that meant. ... It wasn’t until he died that it clicked what he meant: Build something someone else wants.”

In 1979, the 47-year-old Van Ness worked several construction jobs and drove a cab. On Aug. 22, he picked up Carey Dean Moore and his 14-year-old brother. Moore shot him three times and robbed him. Five days later, Moore murdered another cab driver, Maynard Helgeland.

And 38 years later Moore — the longest-serving inmate on Nebraska's death row — is less than a week away from becoming the first person in the state to be executed in 21 years.

Rinabarger said it’s long past time.

“In 38 years, I’m reminded every year about this. Now he’s going to be executed. He should have been executed a long time ago,” Rinabarger said. “All I know is for 38 years we’ve been feeding this guy.”

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by an Illinois-based pharmaceutical company to prevent Nebraska from using lethal injection drugs it alleges it manufactured could delay the execution once again. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Moore’s execution date — the eighth time his execution has been scheduled -- is Tuesday. He has stopped fighting it. 

Rinabarger said he doesn’t want to witness the execution, and in the end it won’t change anything.

The anniversary of his dad's death will always be hard, he said.

Rinabarger was 6 when his mom married Van Ness.

“I didn’t know no other dad,” he said. “Reuel will always be my dad.”

Van Ness met Rinabarger’s mom because he delivered milk to her house, Rinabarger said. He remembers sneaking ice cream bars from the truck with one of his sisters.

His dad was a hard worker, and had gotten a couple of patents, he said. He also loved cars, and had a garage full of them.

On Aug. 22, 1979, Rinabarger and his mom woke up at the same time. He looked at the clock and it read 4:21 a.m. He thought it odd at the time, he said. Later he saw his dad’s death certificate, which listed the time of death at 4:19 a.m.

One of Van Ness’ sons and a son-in-law also drove cabs, Rinabarger said, and he’d let his son-in-law take the Council Bluffs route that night.

He learned Van Ness had called the dispatcher several times after picking up Moore, asking for directions. Rinabarger is convinced he was nervous about the Moore brothers and was trying to let dispatchers know his location.

“He didn’t need directions,” he said.

Rinabarger was 19 when Van Ness died, and already had begun using drugs and alcohol, which took him down some dark paths for the coming years, including jail and prison, he said.

He got sober in 2004 and now works construction like his dad.

“It’s kind of strange how my life has taken a turn from the worst to the best,” he said. “God’s been with me all the time.”

Rinabarger's sister, Richelle Van Ness-Doran, agreed it's been too long.

"I'm not going to celebrate. There's no point of celebrating," Van Ness-Doran said. "I just want the thought that he is not living there ... and hope to God that no one takes his spot."

If Moore is executed Tuesday, it will be on Rinabarger’s mind, but he’s not sure how he’ll feel -- and it won’t ease the pain he feels each Aug. 22.

“Am I supposed to be happy or sad when they execute him? I don’t know. It won’t change anything.”

Profiles of Nebraska death row prisoners' victims

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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