Criminal Justice

Ex-client faces first-degree murder charge in slaying of divorce lawyer

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A former client of a Nebraska lawyer was charged Friday with first-degree murder in Hall County in the fatal shooting of attorney Todd V. Elsbernd, 52, outside his Grand Island law office on Wednesday night.

Authorities said Elsbernd represented defendant Michael Petersen, 58, in a 2005 divorce and the two men were involved in an ongoing dispute about attorney fees, the Associated Press reports. The lawyer was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle.

On Thursday, the body of Petersen’s former wife was found in her home in rural Buffalo County, and the county attorney there said he expects to file a first-degree case against Elsbernd over her death next week. Authorities don’t know whether Nancy Petersen, 58, or Elsbernd died first, and an investigation is continuing.

Hall County Attorney Mark Young said during a Friday court hearing that Elsbernd’s relationship with his former client, Michael Petersen, “did not go well.” Peterson unsuccessfully tried to sue Elsbernd for malpractice in 2009, seeking over $57,000 in attorney fees, according to Young.

Young on Thursday described Elsbernd as a “great opponent” who was both an excellent attorney and a good person, KOLN/KGIN reports.

“I think I speak for every attorney in Central Nebraska when I say that this is a really tragic day and this is a deeply felt loss,” Young said.

Others whose paths crossed with Elsberndt’s also spoke highly of him, an earlier KOLN/KGIN story notes.

“He was a great guy, he was very conscientious, he was a fantastic attorney. I enjoyed working with him. He was very gracious. He’s going to be missed,” said staff attorney Shawn Farritor of Legal Aid Nebraska. About a decade ago, when Farritor dealt with some medical issues, Elsberndt “called me and asked me how I was doing and he showed a graciousness” that was impressive. “He cared about the people who he worked with.”

Elsberndt’s wife said he was a loving husband and father who worked very hard to be supportive of both his family and his clients.

Elsberndt was an active member of his local school board. Grand Island Public Schools Superintendent Robert Winter said in a written statement that Elsberndt cared deeply about students and district staff and would be greatly missed. A chair was left empty in his honor at a Thursday board meeting.

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