A hard fall from grace
BY COLLEEN KENNEY / Lincoln Journal Star
Originally published June 22, 2003.
As a star athlete and later as UNL's police chief, Ken Cauble was a big man on campus. Alcoholism and depression left
him jobless and homeless.
He walked the streets like a cop on a beat. He walked east on O Street, over the tracks, past a corner bar where he used
to drink with his buddies.
He walked north to the campus, past the coliseum where he played forward for the Huskers and Coach Joe Cipriano.
Around Memorial Stadium, where he used to protect Osborne and Solich from the happy mob.
By the time Ken Cauble reached Morrill Hall that night three weeks ago, his 55-year-old bones were aching.
Playing 49 games for the Phoenix Suns ruined his knees, he tells people. So did crashing in a helicopter in Vietnam when
he was a sniper for the CIA.
He was tired. But he knew better than to rest in that dark spot near the museum, under that tree. That's where the homeless
used to hide. And where he used to find them when he was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's chief of police.
"Wake up," the chief would say. "It's time to move on."
He moved on.
His long legs led him back to O Street, then up and down the streets of this new beat, the one he began to walk after
he was asked to resign 2 and 1/2 years ago.
He made $72,000 a year and led a department of 21 officers. He lived in a $145,000 ranch home in Colonial Hills. He drove
a Lincoln Mark VIII with a sunroof. He had a good-looking, younger wife.
Chief from 1989 to January of 2001, he traveled with the Huskers on road games and to bowls, standing on the sidelines
for the past three national championships.
He makes nothing now. He's divorced, and said he owes $9,000 in child support.
For a few weeks last November he slept in his Lincoln, finding the best spots to park to avoid the cops, until the car
The old cop wears a different uniform now: a black stocking cap, blue jeans with food stains and a gray letterman's coat
with Mickey Mouse on the back.
A NIGHT IN EARLY JUNE
People at The Coffee House downtown looked up from their cups at the 6-foot-6 man with the Fu Manchu.
"How things going?" asked a season ticket-holder who used to small-talk with Cauble on game days at Memorial
"Not too well right now. They threw me out of the hotel today."
He asked for a dollar to make some calls. The man gave him three.
From a pay phone near the restrooms, he left a message for his ex-wife, saying he wanted to tell his two little ones goodnight.
Then he phoned his grown kids.
Jeff Cauble had promised to come down from Omaha that day to help him find a job, but he hadn't called. No one answered
at the Kansas home of daughter Gina Hill.
Cauble pulled the want ads from inside his coat.
"This one," he said, pointing to a job ad for a domestic-abuse counselor in Columbus. "I thought I might
fit in there."
Columbus wouldn't be too far, would it? Not too far from the 7-year-old daughter he calls Possum and his 3-year-old son?
They are the reason he gave up drinking a year ago last March, he said. They are why he earned the coin from Alcoholics
Anonymous that he pulls out of his jeans when he gets thirsty.
He pulls out another coin, the Sacagawea dollar he said his little girl gave him for losing one of his front lower teeth,
the second to fall out in recent weeks.
Most of the others are loose. There's a whistle through the gap when he talks.
He talks slowly. When he wants to make a point, he lowers his head and his blue eyes peer over the top of his glasses.
"At night, I look at a picture of them. I tell them to keep on loving me."
He pulls out a poem he says his little girl wrote for him.
When I am at school, or when we're far apart, you may get a little sad, but you're always in my heart ...
"Possum always loved me in my uniform."
Cauble had been locked out of the Great Plains Budget Host Inn that afternoon. They had allowed him to stay a couple
of days for free and were letting him keep his belongings - a gym bag, three plastic grocery sacks of clothes, a box of papers
- in a storage room.
Two weeks earlier, he'd been locked out of the Airport Inn, where he'd lived on money from a sister for about five months.
He left another message for his ex-wife.
Earlier that night, he had walked by her church. He thought she might be at choir practice.
"I came home one night and the wife had just changed all the locks. She still doesn't believe that I've stopped drinking."
After he resigned as chief, he sat at home and watched TV in their master bedroom for about five months, drank a case
of Old Milwaukee a day. Lisa asked him to leave that September.
He did some stupid things after she changed the locks, he said, like shoplifting two packs of USA Gold cigarettes and
some Oreo cookies.
The university won't say why Cauble was asked to resign. He says it was because, after 18 years with the university, a
new administrator came in who didn't like him.
He had a mental breakdown after that, he said, and now no one will give him a job.
He shoplifted, he said, because he was hungry.
"I love Oreo cookies. The chocolate helps keep me off the other stuff."
So do cigarettes. He switched to Kool Milds, he said, because he wants to be there to walk his little girl down the aisle
Walking his new beat later that night, around 2 a.m., Cauble picked up a cigarette butt from the sidewalk near 13th and
O - "rejects" he calls them.
A black SUV pulled up.
"I'm sure you'll find something in that one," a young man yelled.
He moved on.
He had slept on friends' floors. He had slept in his car. He had slept at the mission and in cheap hotels.
But this was the first night he had nowhere to go but the street.
TROUBLE IN MID-MAY
Cauble's former Husker teammate, Clifford Moller, was annoyed with Jeff and Gina.
He shouldn't be the one driving their dad around town to pick up job applications. He shouldn't be the one giving him
clothes, shoes, cigarette money.
Or this pep talk:
"Hard times is really a coward," he told his old friend, watching him fill out job applications with a wobbly
hand. "It only picks on you because it knows it can. When it knows it can't pick on you, it backs off real quick.
"You just got to be tougher, man."
He had almost said no when Cauble called him May 18 looking for a place to stay. Moller had just gotten his master's degree
and was about to leave town.
But Moller had been there himself back in the mid-'80s, drunk, barely getting by. So he let Cauble sleep in the attic
a few days, on a mattress next to some spare storm windows.
Tom Osborne never started the season with Oklahoma, he told Cauble. He started with Troy State.
Forget about those $70,000 jobs. Start with carpet cleaner, line cook, dishwasher.
"Man, you need some small wins. Small wins lead to big wins."
Cauble, who played for the Huskers from 1967 to 1970, was one of the few white guys back then who would hang out with
the black players, Moller said. He'd been a great basketball player, too.
"Remember how confident we were? We had no fear - you couldn't - playing defense like we did."
Moller said he would lob the ball and Cauble would rise above everyone else to dunk it.
Few people on the planet could jump as high as Cauble, a high jumper for the Husker track team and a Texas high school
Not long before being asked to resign, Cauble was elected president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement
Moller used to see his old friend walking around campus in his chief's uniform. He was proud to know him.
But this is not the same guy.
Earlier that day, Moller had driven Cauble to some downtown restaurants to get new job applications. He had wrinkled the
And he had put down "UNL Chief of Police" for his previous job, "$72,000" for his pay and "asked
to resign" as his reason for leaving.
"Just say you were an officer," Moller said. "And just say you left for personal reasons. You gave too
Take "Frank Solich, head football coach," off the list of references, Moller said. He's from the old life.
Cauble circled "line cook" and "server," but balked at "dishwasher." And he talked about
a coaching job at Lincoln Pius. A police chief job at the University of Minnesota. An insurance sales job.
"Look at you, Ken," Moller said. "Nobody's going to want you to coach their kids. Nobody is going to want
you to represent them. Not today, Ken. Maybe tomorrow. But not today.
"You're talking to me like you don't really want a job."
Moller made him circle dishwasher.
"You ain't showin' me no fire, Ken. If you still had it, you'd be up every morning looking for something to do instead
of sitting here smoking cigarettes.
"Right now, you've got to be cleaning carpets or putting your head in the toilet bowl at some bar, cleaning out the
shit and vomit.
"You was the chief. But you ain't the chief no more."
PLAYING FOR THE SUNS
The Phoenix Suns have not heard of Ken Cauble.
He's not on the team's all-time roster. Anyone who played even one game for the Suns, a spokeswoman said, would be there.
THE KIDS COME TO TOWN
For weeks, Gina Hill avoided her father's phone calls.
The last time they talked, she told him she wouldn't send any more money for cigarettes because he wasn't doing enough
to get a job.
He hung up on her.
He hung up on his older brother, too, after Fred said he'd give him more money only if he got a job. So Gina and Jeff
and their uncle decided to let him hit rock bottom. No more care packages of nutritious food, money and his favorite, Oreo
Gina's and Jeff's mom was the first of Cauble's three wives, a tall, beautiful blonde who was Miss Nebraska 1967. They
divorced when the kids were little. He hadn't treated their mother well, Gina and Jeff said, but they loved him. They always
knew he loved them, too.
And they wanted to help him so the two little ones he had with Lisa, his third wife, would not grow up without a dad like
"My brother and I have mixed emotions," Gina said. "What is our responsibility to him? Is God going to
strike us down for not helping?"
Moller called, and they decided to try one more time.
Jeff came from Omaha. Gina came from Olathe, Kan.
"I cried the whole drive to Lincoln," she said. "I was scared of what I'd see."
For hours, they tried to talk their dad into going to the hospital, getting on an antidepressant.
He said no.
For hours, they drove around in Jeff's PT Cruiser. They took their dad to buy a gift for his 3-year-old and gave him the
money, then told him they wouldn't give him any more unless he got help.
He said he didn't need help.
Finally, sitting in the car outside Moller's house with her dad, Gina said she'd give him $180 for a week at a hotel.
But that was it.
"Dad," she recalled saying. "What's going to happen now? You're going to get help, right?"
"Really? You're going to take medication?"
"You mean if we ... drive to a hospital right now and get you help, you'll take medicine?"
"Jeff, get in the car right now!" she shouted. She hugged her dad.
Moller gave a thumb's up as the car drove away.
At the hospital, a woman asked Cauble why he was there. He said it was because his kids thought he was depressed.
Nope, he said. The only thing depressing him was not seeing his little kids as much as he'd like.
Then he said he wouldn't take medication, not even an aspirin.
Gina drove home in tears.
NO VIETNAM, NO CIA
Ken Cauble did not fight in Vietnam. He was not a sniper in the CIA.
He did serve seven years in the Nebraska Army National Guard.
"If he was (in the CIA), it was a secret to me and my father," said Fred, an architect in Fort Worth, Texas.
"That's his imagination."
THAT NIGHT IN EARLY JUNE
It was almost closing time at The Coffee House.
"Jeff. This is your dad. Can you call me back? I'll be around here for awhile."
He refilled his mug and went back to the want ads.
He was still talking about coaching at Pius and the police chief job at Minnesota. He'd make some calls, send out some
He hadn't heard from Buzzard Billy's or Ruby Tuesday's or any of the other places Moller had taken him to.
"Clifford doesn't know it," he said, smiling. "But I went back and crossed off 'dishwasher.'"
No one called back with a credit card number so he could get a room.
He walked around, downtown and up through campus, past the old coliseum, Memorial Stadium, that dark spot under the tree
He didn't sleep that night, just kept walking, stopping to pick up the "rejects."
The next few nights, he slept in a drainage tube at Trago Park. The next few on a couch in a crack house, invited by a
guy he met on the street.
One night, Cauble said, he woke up when a man and a woman came in and sat on the couch, lit up a crack pipe and fought.
The man offered crack. The woman offered whiskey.
He told them no. He won't even take an aspirin.
Living on the street doesn't scare him, he said. He used to be a cop. He knows how to take care of himself.
"I got to take care of myself, right? If I don't take care of myself, then how can I take care of my kids?"
DENYING THE TRUTH
He was a helicopter pilot, Cauble said, a CIA sniper trained to shoot and kill American officers, those who knew too much.
His family didn't know. He wasn't supposed to talk about it. CIA agents even came to Lincoln years ago to question friends
and co-workers, make sure he was keeping the secret.
"That's the way they do things."
And he did play for Phoenix, from 1966 to 1970. He couldn't see why he wasn't on the all-time roster.
Reminded he was playing for Nebraska those years, he paused.
"Let's change that to '1970 to 1971.'"
'LET'S GET REAL'
He needed a cigarette.
He walked over to a young man he knew from the City Mission who was smoking at The Coffee House. The young man gave him
a cigarette. Cauble sat down.
"You need to heal your mind, Ken," said Matthew Meinhardt, a head-shaved 27-year-old who described himself as
a former pot-smoking, guitar-playing, suicidal homeless man who lived in chaos until he found God. Now he's a disciple at
"Ever reach a point where you just gave up?"
"Nope. But when the wife divorced me, that hurt. She threw me out of the house and changed the locks."
"Let's get real, Ken. What was it on your part that made her do that?"
"Well, I was drinking too much."
Cauble told the young man about being asked to resign.
"How long's that been, Ken?"
"A long time."
"If you can leave it in the past, that allows you to get up in the morning and face new challenges. Do you know what
the idea of forgiveness is? It has everything to do with letting go of all the baggage."
Something good can come out of the pain, Meinhardt said. Cauble could pass on what he's learned, become an alcohol counselor.
"Ever considered suicide?"
Nope, Cauble said. He pulled out a photo of him with his little girl. He looked fit and happy. His head was shaved, he
explained, because he'd lost a bet with the Husker football team - he'd told the players he'd go bald if they won the Big
"It looks good, dude."
Cauble told him about the poem. When he starts to feel real bad, he said, he reads it.
When I am at school, or when we're far apart, you may get a little sad, but you're always in my heart ...
But Cauble's ex-wife, Lisa, said their little girl didn't write the poem.
She didn't give her dad the Sacagawea coin, either, Lisa Cauble said.
BUSTING ONE OF YOUR OWN
He walks into Matt Talbot Kitchen early each day, under a sign that says "Peace to All Who Enter Here."
Hungry and homeless people can get two squares a day there. Cauble likes to arrive early to set up the chairs and place
the salt and pepper shakers on the tables.
The other day, he ate a lunch of sloppy Joes, then went back for seconds on dessert. He grabbed a pecan sandy and the
"A lot of people here, they don't know I used to be a cop."
The place is just east of campus, an easy walk from Memorial Stadium and the old coliseum.
In late March, two UNL cops saw him walking to lunch at the kitchen. They arrested him on outstanding warrants. He spent
three weeks at the county jail.
One of those officers, Cauble said, he'd promoted to sergeant.
Cauble was arrested again, on Father's Day this time, on outstanding county bench warrants for driving with a suspended
license, improper registration, no proof of financial responsibility and failure to appear in court.
Jeff Cauble heard about it Monday. A couple days later, a psychologist told him what he and the rest of the family suspected:
Ken Cauble is suffering from acute depression, delusions and malnutrition.
After a mental health hearing Thursday, Jeff asked his dad to commit himself to the county's crisis center for treatment.
He likely will be there for several weeks.
"It was either that or go back to jail," he said. "It was the hardest day of my life. I've never seen my
dad like that before, not wanting to face reality, acting like a child.
"But I'm very proud of him for deciding to go through with it. If he had chosen to go back to jail, then we'd be
right back where we used to be."
He thought about his dad all day last Sunday, he said. He watched the U.S. Open and thought about how they loved to golf
together. They'd walk and talk about sports and anything else.
Now all his dad talks about is how Lisa did him wrong, how the university did him wrong, how bad he needs a cigarette.
Where was his dad?
Probably walking around somewhere in his own world.
Jeff walked outside his Omaha home and looked toward Lincoln.
"Happy Father's Day, Dad," he said into the air.
"I hope you hear this."
Reach Colleen Kenney at 473-2655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.