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Editor's Note: This is the final story in a three-part series about inmate rehabilitation and the criminal justice system.
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It was midnight at the Antelope County Law Enforcement Center, but Cory Romej was wide awake on that Saturday night. Inside his cell, the 41-year-old Elgin man was giving his 19-year-old cellmate a pep talk about how to get his life together – not knowing his own life was about to be turned upside down.
Sheriff Bob Moore led Romej from his cell to the jail library and told him that his wife, 29-year-old Courtney Romej, had just died in a tragic vehicle accident in Kansas. On her way home from building turbines, she decided to surprise their four kids for Thanksgiving.
But she missed her exit and rolled their crew cab pickup 14 times and flipped it several more times end over end. She was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene.
“I had just talked to her two or three hours earlier on the phone from jail,” Romej said. “It didn’t seem real to me.”
But it was real, and the sheriff had some decisions to make. Who was going to tell the four kids — ages 3 to 17 — that their mom was dead since their dad was in jail?
History of Incarceration
Sitting in the same library the horrible news had been delivered, Romej folded his hands in front of him on Monday evening, lacing his fingers as he described the worst night of his life — November 17, 2018.
Romej had been in jail for a week after violating his probation by driving under suspension. It was a minor infraction — no assault or drug use this time. Romej was clean for more than two years and decided to use this jail time as an opportunity to mentor other inmates.
After all, he knew about poor decisions. Romej spent about 15 years off and on in an Arizona prison. He had a temper and his two-year sentence quickly added another seven after several assaults, including one against a correctional officer.
“In every other jail I was in, I got into trouble left and right,” Romej said. “But here, never. I never wanted to. Everyone has always been so nice.”
That wasn’t actually true, though. Moore clarified that Romej was involved in one fight while incarcerated in Neligh, “but it’s not the fight you would think,” he said.
“There were some inmates saying bad things about a couple of our female jailers, and he was upset about how they were going on about them,” Moore said. “We talked about what was happening, and he was upset about the comments toward our staff, and he had enough. It was going to stop.”
Although Romej had a history of incarceration, thanks to violence and drug use, he actually cleaned up his act when he left the Arizona prison. He had two sons – Cory Jr., now 17, and River, 15, with his ex-wife. Even while in prison, they lived in his house with his mother.
“I used drugs, and I was in and out of prison,” Romej said. “But one day, when the kids came to visit me, I decided I was done. I had went to prison for two years but did seven more years after picking up more assaults. When the kids came to visit, something clicked. I was done, moved out of Arizona and got a real job.”
He eventually landed in Elgin, Nebraska, building turbines. He liked the small community and decided to make it home for the family, where he and Courtney, his new wife, had two children. Cara is now 7 and Case is 3.
Romej spent the next eight years “feeling like a man, going to work and watching my kids grow.” Despite years of being clean, Romej said he slipped up after his wife began using drugs. He was on the road often and didn’t realize she was using. But within a matter of months, Romej went back to using meth and saw his life spiral again.
Romej said he swore he had kicked meth. But in 2017, it regained control of his life. With both of them now using, he and his wife were like mixing fire and gasoline. During a five-day period — from June 15 to June 19, 2017 — Romej was arrested three times, including twice on the same day. Romej said that was his rock bottom.
“In 2017, that was the only time I’d been in trouble since I left prison,” he said. “It was a really bad couple of weeks, and I nipped it in the bud. That was it, but I couldn’t get her away from all the non-sense.”
The couple’s relationship was volatile. After a domestic incident, Romej was arrested again in Colorado and brought back to Antelope County on the parole violation. Romej admitted he struck his wife and lost his temper, which is why he was the one who called the police this time.
“I lost control, so I called the police,” he said. “I told them I had hit my wife. I didn’t want to hit her, but I did. I had to call the police and tell them.”
That’s what landed Romej back on probation, which is why he found himself back in jail in November 2018. He’d been housed for a week and knew his wife was still using but couldn’t get her to stop. She was working with a wind tower company while his mother took care of the four children.
“We had been talking on the phone every day. She was still my wife and still the mother of my kids. I just had to accept the fact that she wasn’t doing right when she was out there,” he said. “I could tell she wasn’t right by the sound of her voice.”
A state trooper in Colby, Kansas, called Moore about a fatality of an Antelope County resident, but the officer understandingly mispronounced Courtney Romej’s last name.
“I didn’t know who he was talking about until he finally gave the address — Beach Street. I had been there; I had been to that house several times,” Moore said. “I was in Clearwater, and as I drove back to the jail, I tried to figure out what we were going to do.”
Moore said he didn’t know how Romej would react to being told his wife was dead, so he and Chief Deputy Dan Hallock led Romej into the jail library. He was shocked and heartbroken, but Romej wasn’t the violent man he had once been. Romej was worried about his four children.
That’s when Moore did something Romej said he can never repay — he allowed Romej to replace his orange jumpsuit with “real clothes” and drove him to Beach Street in Elgin, where he told his children face to face that their mother had died. Romej said Moore helped him find the right words to explain what had happened.
“I can’t imagine what I would have done if we hadn’t have had that conversation,” Romej said. “That was the turning point for me. I always got along with Bob, but when he supported me that day in the library and sat beside me in my living room with my kids, that meant more to me than anything ever before.”
While it was the first time Moore had ever told an inmate that their spouse had died, it wasn’t the first time Romej had been given bad news while incarcerated. He was in prison in Arizona when his grandmother died.
Romej said he reacted with violence and quickly was in a fight. But that didn’t happen in Antelope County. Romej credits Moore and the Antelope County staff for knowing how to handle the situation and allow him privacy from other inmates when he returned from telling his kids.
But the compassionate treatment didn’t end there. Romej was allowed to see his children face to face just hours later inside the jail. The next day, Antelope County Attorney Joe Abler began working with Romej’s attorney, Brad Montag, and Judge James Kube for an emergency bond.
“Between Sheriff Moore, Mr. Alber, Judge Kube and Mr. Montag, they got me out of here in a couple of days. They didn’t have to do that,” Romej said. “They went out of their way to get me home to my family, so I gave Bob my word I’d do right.”
Driving home around 4 a.m. Nov. 18, Moore and Romej talked candidly. It’s a conversation neither will ever forget.
“I told him, ‘Now you have to be mom and dad,’ ” Moore said. “Courtney was gone, his mom’s heath was fragile, and there he sat in the balance of wondering how to get ahead of this monster. He was now mom and dad – a double role.”
Being A Good Dad
Moore, who serves as pastor of the Brunswick Congregational Church, shared the horrific situation with his congregation later that morning. Immediately, they offered to help the Romej family. Private donations took care of the cremation. At Christmas, the church provided his family with gifts for the children.
Being a single parent, Romej couldn’t travel with the wind towers any longer and raise a family, so Moore talked to Steve Rutjens about hiring Romej at Elkhorn Valley Equipment, and he started on January 2.
The community of Elgin also rallied around the family, especially as they witnessed Romej become an engaged father, attending parent-teacher conferences and other school events. Moore said the community has embraced the Romej family.
“There was a time the Elgin community wanted Cory Romej to move away, but that’s not the case today. They’re tickled to have him and to have those kids in school. He can walk into any business in Elgin, and no one thinks twice about him being there,” Moore said.
Like most fathers, Romej’s eyes quickly light up when talking about his children, whether it’s school or sports.
“I’m proud of my kids,” he said. “They don’t get into a lick of trouble, and they help me out a lot. By the time I get home, the dishes are done and yard is done.”
While Moore’s support provided the turning point, Romej’s life now revolves around his four children, and he knows exactly why he’s on an entirely different road.
“It’s my kids. One thousand percent because of my kids,” he said. “I was a disappointment for a little bit. They weren’t directly involved in what I was doing, but I could see it was affecting them. I saw how people were looking at them because of me, and I didn’t want that. I want them to go to school and be proud of their dad.”
Judge Kube has also recognized a difference in Romej. During court last March, Kube said he wa pleased to hear that Romej was working hard and providing for his children.
“You’ve had a tragedy in your life, but you haven’t let that get the best of you,” the judge said. “You’ve made the decision to be a responsible parent, a responsible adult. That’s really all society wants from you.”
Kube added, “Finish up your program. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep being a good dad.”