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Welcome to the crew
USS Sioux City crew visits namesake city

SIOUX CITY | Thursday morning's chilly breeze and temperatures in the 20s were certainly a little cooler than what future USS Sioux City crew members based in Jacksonville, Florida, are used to.

But they didn't let that chill their enthusiasm while helping Sioux City cemetery workers unpack and set up 163 American flags along South Lakeport Street for the Veterans Day Avenue of Flags.

"We're here to honor veterans who have gone before us. We're here to honor them and assist the community to pay tribute to their heritage," said Executive Officer Chavius Lewis, one of six crew members helping with the flags.

They are among 10 future members of the USS Sioux City's crew who arrived in Sioux City Wednesday night to learn more about the ship's namesake city and meet the people who live here. They'll also meet with local members of the USS Sioux City Commissioning Committee that is raising $800,000 to $1 million for the ship's commissioning, which will take place next spring or summer in Annapolis, Maryland. The Navy has yet to announce the commissioning date, but officials are reportedly considering mid-May.

While in Sioux City, crew members are visiting schools, meeting veterans and the media and will serve at the color guard at a Musketeers hockey game. It's a unique chance to learn about Sioux City and the people the crew will be serving, said Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Lane, a Deerlodge, Tennessee, native.

"It's definitely an exciting experience. It's something we don't always get to do," Lane said. "We heard a lot about Sgt. Floyd (a member of the Lewis and Clark exploration party who died in the area while on the expedition), so I'm interested in going over and seeing the monument."

Lewis, a Sylvester, Georgia, native, said the crew got a local history lesson while eating breakfast with veterans Thursday morning. Connecting with local veterans and residents is an important part of the crew's visit, which ends Sunday.

"We came to Sioux City to interact with the local community on Veterans Day," Lewis said. "It's important to establish a bond and build a relationship not only with the commissioning committee and the city, but the city's residents."

Fundraising for next year's commissioning was boosted Thursday, when Beef Products Inc. owner Eldon Roth announced the company's $100,000 pledge to the commissioning committee, which is raising the money locally and in the Annapolis area to pay for the commissioning festivities and establishing a legacy fund to pay for educational opportunities for the ship's crew members and their families.

The USS Sioux City, which was christened and launched at a Wisconsin shipyard in January 2016, remains in Wisconsin, where it is undergoing sea trials on Lake Michigan. Lewis said he and other crew members will travel there later this month to observe Navy inspectors test the ship's systems.

Lewis and others who will make up the USS Sioux City's first crew are currently assigned to the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 2 in Jacksonville. Many have trained on other ships in the USS Sioux City's class in preparation for the ship's first mission after its commissioning.

The ship is the 11th in the class of littoral combat ships, which are designed to operate in shallower water close to shorelines. The USS Sioux City will have a 98-person crew and be used for maritime security throughout the world.

Once commissioned in Maryland, the USS Sioux City will travel to its home base in Mayport, Florida, before it's deployed. Lewis said it's not yet known where the ship and its crew will be deployed.

GALLAGHER: For 66 years, he's been 'on the clock' in Mapleton

MAPLETON, Iowa | Vernis Phillips clocked-in on Main Street in Mapleton, sight-unseen, 66 years ago.

"I didn't know anyone in town," Phillips says.

The year was 1951. Phillips, a World War II veteran from Lake View, Iowa, had just completed two years of work for a watchmaker in nearby Sac City. When a traveling salesman stopped through Sac City, he suggested that Vernis, if he wanted to branch out on his own, take a look at Mapleton.

"The man said it was a good town for business," Vernis recalls.

The watchmaker/jeweler agrees. Mapleton has been a good place for Phillips Jewelry, a "mom-and-pop shop" that has kept folks here running on time for 66 years.

After wrapping up a different interview in Mapleton on Wednesday, I check the clock and find myself with a few extra minutes. I saunter into Phillips Jewelry to meet Vernis, who sits at his bench, surrounded by tools as tiny as a centipede's legs.

"I grew up in Lake View," Vernis says. "My dad was a machinist and my mother, a housewife. Dad had a heart attack and died when he was 58. It happened in 1944, my senior year in high school."

Vernis, who had worked on the railroad and in gravel pits during the summers of his youth, was drafted by the U.S. Army after high school, shortly after World War II ended. Months later, he was destined for Korea, about to step on a ship when orders for him and 16 fellow soldiers changed.

"I had my duffel bag on the ship already," he says. "But my orders were changed and I was sent to Texas, where I joined an outfit that worked on closing bases."

Then, while traveling with fellow soldiers from California to Texas, their train wrecked, killing nine, injuring 109. Vernis escaped injury. "Our car did not upset, although it went off the tracks," he says.

Vernis completed his tour, a veteran of World War II. He returned to Lake View and secured a job with a contractor. He was a bricklayer tender for one year before heading to the Kansas City School of Watchmaking, joining a pal from Lake View who was already enrolled.

"We did watchmaking and jewelry repair," he says of his two-year course of study, a regimen that preceded a one-year apprenticeship in Sac City that expanded into a full-time job one year later.

Vernis was at work in Sac City when the salesman suggested he look at Mapleton. Vernis did and set up shop in a building where Hoffman Insurance Agency stands now. There was one other jeweler in town at the time. For decades, there's just been Mr. Phillips.

"My first shop location had been a restaurant, but it had closed," he recalls. "I took roughly half the area of the building and a harness maker had the other half."

Vernis put up a sign in 1951 and placed ads in the newspaper, a lone proprietor hoping to make ends meet in a new community. He stayed at that site for three months, then moved west down Main Street, next door to where his shop has been since the mid-1960s, on the 400 block, in a building he purchased when he relocated.

Vernis's family suffered a tragedy when his wife, LaDonna, died in 1960, leaving him alone with their two young children. The family, though, expanded in June 1962, when Vernis and Marlene Carstens, who had come to Mapleton from Fremont, Nebraska, to teach high school home economics, exchanged marital vows. The couple would add a third child to their family and now boast of having five grandchildren.

Two of their children, Marlene says with a laugh, have clocked-out on their respective careers, beating their dad to retirement.

Marlene quit teaching after she and Vernis married. She raised their children, then joined him at Phillips Jewelry years ago. On this afternoon, she counts back a customer's change before reminding the patron to register for a free Thanksgiving turkey. As the clocks chime in unison at the top of the hour, Vernis tends to the exacting details of watchmaking at his space in the back.

"This watch takes a certain sized battery," he says, reciting the number 3-7-1 on the back. He opens a drawer, finds the right battery, one-third the size of a baby aspirin, then turns back to his work.

The watch-repair pro shrugs off my questions about retirement and, like a world-famous brand, keeps on ticking.

"I work because I enjoy it," he says. "I like the repair end of this and the joy of solving problems. My eyesight is good -- 20/20 in the left eye, 20/25 in the right -- and my hands are still steady."

And while he's not relishing the day when Father Time asks him to set down his tools, Vernis says he eagerly anticipates the clock striking 12 on Dec. 6, his 90th birthday. The people -- his gifts, you might say -- mean more than any number.

"For me, turning 90 will be special because the kids are coming back," he says.

UPDATED: Nebraska moving forward with execution plans for Norfolk killer Jose Sandoval

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's attorney general has chosen Norfolk killer Jose Sandoval as the next condemned prisoner to die, after a 20-year hiatus in executions in this state.

No request to the Nebraska Supreme Court for an execution warrant has been made, but Corrections Director Scott Frakes served notice to Sandoval Thursday of the lethal injection drugs that would be administered to cause his death if an execution takes place.

State regulations require the prisons chief to notify condemned inmates 60 days prior to the attorney general requesting an execution warrant.

Attorney General Doug Peterson said he is prepared to request the Supreme Court issue Sandoval's execution warrant after at least 60 days have elapsed from the notice.

Corrections officials have chosen a new protocol for administering lethal injection drugs and have purchased diazepam, fentanyl citrate, cisatracuriam besylate and potassium chloride.

The drugs were purchased in the United States and received into the department's inventory Oct. 10, said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

She would not name the company or suppliers from which they were purchased, or say whether the supplier was local or a compounding company. The Journal Star is pursuing the answers to those and other questions.

Nevada has a similar drug protocol, but uses three drugs: fentanyl, diazepam and cisatracurium. That protocol is in question after a judge said Wednesday she may cut a paralytic (cisatracurium) from the state’s previously untried lethal injection plan, after hearing that it could mask movements reflecting awareness and pain, according to The Associated Press.

The Nebraska department has tested its drugs for quality, according to a Corrections news release.

Sandoval, 38, is housed on death row at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. He was convicted and sentenced to death 13 years ago for killing five people at the U.S. Bank branch in September 2002.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, said in spite of the notice he doubted an execution was going to be carried out any time soon.

He and others need to know where the drugs came from, and whether there was a private compounding company manufacturing them, he said.

Other issues that have to be resolved, he said, include whether or not this combination of drugs has been used anywhere else, even though that would not bind Nebraska; whether or not the combination of drugs would be effective in accomplishing an execution; and whether they were designed to be used to take someone's life.

The Associated Press reported in April that a German pharmaceutical company spokesman said potassium chloride the Nebraska Corrections Department had purchased in 2015 was not intended to be sold to a state corrections department. A distributor had tried unsuccessfully to get the department to return the drugs.

The fact that the department is withholding certain information, Chambers said, indicates it is not fully transparent and may feel there are weaknesses in what they are doing.

Chambers charged that the notice of intended execution drugs is timed to coincide with Gov. Pete Ricketts re-election campaign.

Ricketts responded saying: "Last year the people of Nebraska reaffirmed that the death penalty remains an important part of protecting public safety in our state."

Thursday's announcement is the next step to carrying out the sentences ordered by the court, he said.

ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said the organization was “horrified" that the department planned to use Sandoval as a "test subject for an untested and experimental lethal injection cocktail."

"This rash decision will not fix the problems with Nebraska’s broken death penalty and are a distraction from the real issues impacting Nebraska’s Department of Corrections: an overcrowded, crisis-riddled system," she said.

America is a nation turning away from the death penalty, Conrad said, with more and more states seeing that ending capital punishment means improving public safety. Fiscal conservatives, faith leaders and public safety officials are increasingly leading efforts to replace the death penalty.

“The ACLU will continue to discuss the state’s misguided plan with experts locally and nationally and evaluate the grave constitutional, legal and policy questions associated with this untested protocol,” she said.

The attorney general said in a statement he agrees with the notice that was given to Sandoval.

"Sandoval planned the Sept. 26, 2002, Norfolk bank robbery when, in less than a minute, five innocent people were brutally shot and killed," Peterson said in a news release.

The dead included bank employees and customers. Sandoval personally killed three people, two more people were killed, and three more were in the midst of the gunfire that day. Sandoval’s crimes were captured on video.

The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Sandoval’s convictions and death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court then denied further review of the sentence. Sandoval never filed any challenges to the Supreme Court decisions, Peterson said.

The last execution in Nebraska was Robert Williams in December 1997. It was carried out with an electric chair.