Systemic Changes Follow Murder of Colorado Prison Director
Systemic Changes Follow Murder of Colorado Prison Director
by John Dannenberg
Just over a year after Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements was killed by former prisoner Evan Ebel, who had been released directly from long-term solitary confinement, there have been significant and far-reaching changes in Colorado’s prison system.
Following a police chase, Ebel, 28, was killed in a shootout with Texas law enforcement officers on March 21, 2013. Autopsy results later obtained by The Denver Post confirmed that he died from a gunshot wound to the forehead. Prior to the chase, Ebel had been stopped in his 1991 black Cadillac DeVille for a traffic offense and shot Texas deputy James Boyd multiple times, hitting him in the shoulder and chest and grazing his head.
Ebel spent nearly all of his eight years in prison in solitary confinement, known in Colorado as administrative segregation (ad-seg). His father, well-known attorney Jack Ebel, who was close to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, had previously said his son suffered from behavioral problems as a child, and that solitary damaged him even more.
“What I have seen over six years is, [Evan] has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious,” Jack Ebel said at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2011, when he testified about the effects of solitary confinement. “He may have had mental conditions going on. But they are exacerbated to the point that I hardly recognize my son sometimes. We are creating mental illness. We are exacerbating mental illness.”
Murders and Aftermath
Colorado authorities said Ebel first lured Domino’s pizza deliveryman Nathan Leon to a truck stop in Denver on March 17, 2013, supposedly to deliver a pizza, then shot him to death. Before killing Leon, Ebel forced him to read a statement into a tape recorder criticizing the prison system’s use of solitary confinement.
“[Y]ou didn’t give two [expletive] about us or our families and you ensured that we were locked behind a door, to disrespect us at every opportunity, so why should we care about you and yours,” a transcript of the recording stated. “In short, you treated us inhumanely, and so we simply seek to do the same, we take [comfort] in the knowledge that we leave your wives without husbands, and your children fatherless. You wanted to play the mad scientist, well they [prisoners held in solitary] will be your Frankenstein.”
Ebel took Leon’s pizza delivery uniform and, two days later, on March 19, wore it to the Clements’ secluded home in Monument, Colorado, about an hour south of Denver. Lisa Clements, director of the Colorado Human Services’ Behavioral Health Office, said she and her husband were watching TV when the doorbell rang. Tom Clements answered the door and Ebel shot him at point-blank range. Lisa said he died in her arms.
Ebel then hid out in Colorado Springs for two days before heading to Texas, where he was killed by officers following his shooting of Deputy Boyd, who survived.
In an August 26, 2013 article, The Denver Post quoted a source who described details of the investigation into Clements’ death, based on sealed court documents. The newspaper said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had “direct access to and knowledge of the documents and the investigation itself.”
The source said investigators traced Ebel to a white supremacist prison gang known as the 211 Crew, and the gang might have orchestrated Clements’ killing. Federal and state authorities thought Ebel may have been recruited by gang founder Benjamin Davis to kill Clements to repay a debt, the source said. Both men had served sentences at the same time at the Sterling prison where Ebel, reportedly a member of 211 Crew, was targeted by a rival gang.
“Ebel had been threatened,” the source told the Post. “Davis stepped in and saved him.”
According to the source, Davis then told Ebel that he expected a favor in return once Ebel was released from prison. Clements had ordered 211 Crew members to be separated and transferred to other facilities, which may have made him a target of the gang.
Another theory considered by investigators was that Clements’ killing might have been linked to his decision to deny a request by a Saudi Arabian prisoner to return to his native country to serve out the remainder of his prison sentence.
Attorneys for Homaidan al-Turki, who was sentenced on charges of sexually assaulting his maid, denied that their client was involved in Clements’ murder, but investigators said they were looking into whether there are any connections, financial or otherwise, between al-Turki and the 211 Crew.
Investigators suspected that Ebel was headed to Texas after the killings, to the home of a paroled 211 Crew member who lived south of Dallas. After Ebel was killed in the Texas police shootout, authorities found his cell phone and tracked calls he had made while on parole. He also had a hit list with the names of 20 other prison and law enforcement officials; the names on the list have not been disclosed.
Phone records confirmed that Ebel frequently contacted other 211 Crew members who had been released from prison, and that he made or received 23 calls in one 24-hour period, including the hours just before and after Clements was murdered, the source said. According to El Paso County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Kramer, Ebel made the calls to fellow gang members.
“There’s a pretty logical chain of evidence in this case,” the source told The Denver Post. “It would be highly coincidental if [Ebel] had done all this on his own and there were 23 calls between him and other gang members around [the time of] Clements’ murder. There is just too much there, and they are all 211 Crew members. It sounds like everything points to 211.”
Then again, it’s equally possible that Ebel was simply contacting people he had known in prison, which included gang members, because he had no one else to reach out to after he was released.
In March 2014, Lisa Clements said she was frustrated at how slowly the investigation into her husband’s murder was progressing. She said she was concerned that the various agencies involved in the investigation were not doing enough to coordinate their efforts: “Each of them have a piece of the picture, but the whole picture is missing.”
She also stated she didn’t want people in Colorado to forget that authorities have not solved the case. “I realize that as impactful as Tom’s life and his death was for our family, that it’s human nature for the public, for us as individuals, to sort of get on with life.”
“Grief takes a while,” she continued. “In the days and months that followed Tom’s murder, we had our hands full with all that we could do to get through days. As we’ve begun to address our trauma from that night, and the grief since, we perhaps in our healing process have more space to recognize anger, as well.”
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said his department is determined to get to the bottom of Clements’ murder.
“I want her to know that we are not going to give up. It would be really easy to say, ‘We know who pulled the gun and shot Dr. Clements,’” Maketa said. “We could easily close out our case and move down the road. But that isn’t the responsible thing to do.”
He added, “It’s just a very slow process. This isn’t Hollywood.”
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency in the investigation, which also involves the Department of Corrections (DOC), the FBI and other law enforcement officials. According to an unnamed source, in August 2013, El Paso County Judge Jonathan L. Walker, who had issued search warrants as part of the investigation into Clements’ death, went into hiding due to allegations that 211 Crew leaders had placed a “hit” on him.
Who Was Evan Ebel?
Ebel had a well-documented history as a violent and troubled individual both before and during his time in prison. According to public records, Ebel went on a crime spree as a teenager, then a second spree which included a carjacking in 2005 that resulted in an eight-year prison sentence. After he was incarcerated his criminal behavior escalated.
On September 17, 2005, Ebel threatened to kill a female prison guard, telling her “that he would kill her if he ever saw her on the streets and that he would make her beg for her life.”
Later in 2005 and again in 2006, Ebel threatened to kill staff members in two different prisons. In another incident, he threatened to beat guards if they didn’t handcuff him. Overall, Ebel received 28 disciplinary charges, including four for assault and three for fighting, as well as two for disobeying direct orders. According to prison reports, he sometimes injured himself and smeared feces on his cell door and the door of another prisoner.
While in solitary, Ebel came to be known by other prisoners as “Evil Ebel.” Prison records showed he was tattooed with Nazi symbols and had the word “hopeless” tattooed across his stomach and “hate” inked on his right hand.
He expressed his frustrations with the prison system through letters and poems sent to his mother and to a project called Incarcerated Voices, which provides “free speech radio by and for prisoners.”
In a June 2012 poem titled “Life,” Ebel wrote: “I’ve looked in the mirror and don’t even recognize / This thing staring back at me / Though I see your death implicit in its eyes / And really that’s all I care to see.”
“It’s clear that solitary changed him. He didn’t recognize himself in the mirror,” noted Dr. Scott Washington, director of advocacy for Incarcerated Voices. “Ideally, somebody would have been working with him to address those problems before he was released.”
Ebel filed several grievances with
prison officials while he was in solitary. “Do you have an obligation to the public to re-
acclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?” he asked. Prison staff responded to his last grievance after he was already out, writing, “you claim that you are just looking for answer [sic] to questions about policy. Grievance Procedures is not the appropriate method for debating policy questions nor is it designed to address the policy questions you have posed.”
Colorado state prisoner Troy Anderson, who served time with Ebel, said Ebel “was consumed by what they did to him.”
“You know, what they do through their solitary policies is akin to rape. They steal such a precious part of our souls, our humanity, our ability to be,” he added. “They committed such hateful acts on us. Through contempt and disdain they breed rage. They stole his chance at any real future.”
Anderson is no stranger to solitary himself. On August 24, 2012, a Colorado federal district court held that Anderson’s long-term confinement in ad-seg violated his constitutional rights. “With the exception of approximately one month in 2001 ... [Anderson] has not been out of doors for 12 years,” the court wrote. Prison officials were ordered to provide him with at least one hour of outside recreation three times a week. The state did not appeal. See: Anderson v. Colorado DOC, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-01005-RBJ-KMT.
Solitary Confinement Connection
Ebel was released from prison directly from solitary confinement when he reached his mandatory parole date on January 28, 2013. A prerelease assessment said he was considered a “very high risk” for recidivism. Two months later, he cut off the ankle monitor he wore as a condition of his parole before killing Nathan Leon and then Tom Clements.
Although the investigation into Clements’ death still remains open, including whether Ebel acted alone, it appears that his murder was not related to the 211 Crew or Saudi prisoner Homaidan al-Turki. Rather, the evidence points to Ebel’s lengthy stay in solitary confinement and its impact on his mental health as the catalyst for Clements’ murder.
According to former prisoner Ryan Pettigrew, who served time with Ebel, “This is what he planned to do as his final get-back at the system.”
Ironically, Tom Clements had pushed hard for reforms during his slightly more than two-year tenure as director of the Colorado DOC. Colleagues said he was especially concerned about finding ways to eliminate the DOC’s reliance on solitary confinement, particularly when it was used to control dangerous and violent prisoners such as Ebel, and to provide prisoners being released from solitary with counseling and therapy to help them successfully transition back into society.
“Evan Ebel was exactly what Tom warned us about every single day,” said Roxane White, chief of staff for Governor Hickenlooper.
Indeed, the damaging effects of solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health are both well-documented and well-known; long-term isolation worsens existing psychological problems and can drive the sane insane. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1].
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado heaped posthumous praise on Clements for his efforts as a reform-minded prison director.
“Mr. Clements never saw a contradiction between protecting human rights, fiscal responsibility and protecting institutional security,” stated ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Wallace. “He thought they all could be met simultaneously. That belief is no more clear than in his work on ad-seg.”
Wallace said the ACLU, which has a history of litigation against the Colorado DOC, “didn’t file a single lawsuit against the Department during Mr. Clements’ tenure.”
Paul Herman, a colleague and longtime friend of Clements, remarked, “Here you had two people [Ebel and Clements], one who suffered significantly from solitary confinement and the other who was trying to do something about it.”
“If what happened to Tom isn’t the ultimate irony,” he said, “I don’t know what is.”
Changes Follow Clements’ Death
There have been several major changes in the Colorado DOC as a result of Clements’ death. As one example, The Denver Post reported on March 16, 2014 that the state’s prison population has been rising due to fewer paroles being granted – an 8% decrease in paroles since before Clements was murdered. Meanwhile, the number of technical parole violations has increased and the Fugitive Apprehension Unit has captured over 400 parolees who had absconded.
Rick Raemisch, who replaced Clements as director of the Colorado DOC, said it was “human nature” that parole officials would be stricter in the wake of Clements’ death. After Ebel removed his ankle monitor and absconded from parole, it took almost a week before officials sought a warrant for his arrest.
“I don’t like it, but I understand it,” stated Michael Dell with Colorado-CURE, a prisoners’ advocacy group. “When parole board members see what happened to Tom Clements, they are not going to take a gamble on someone else.”
State Parole Chief Tim Hand was placed on paid administrative leave following Clements’ murder and later fired.
Further, the investigation into Clements’ death determined that Ebel had been released from prison four years early due to a clerical error. A district court had failed to specify that his four-year sentence for assaulting a prison guard was to be served consecutive to his 8-year sentence for carjacking. As a result the sentences were run concurrently, leading to Ebel’s early release in January 2013. His sentence had also been reduced by about four months under a law, SB11-176 – approved of by Clements – that allowed prisoners to earn good behavior credits during time spent in ad-seg.
However, Clements had opposed provisions in the original bill that would have placed restrictions on the DOC’s ability to hold mentally ill prisoners in solitary.
“[Clements] was concerned about the administrative segregation population, and he asked Sen. Carroll and I to scale the bill back a little because it featured a number of requirements for the DOC to change administrative segregation,” said state Rep. Claire Levy. “The original bill, for example, wanted [the DOC] to have more psychiatric resources available. They would have had to make more checks on mental health. We scaled the bill back at Clements’ request.”
In May 2013, Governor Hickenlooper signed into law legislation that requires the Department of Corrections to seek clarification from the court if a sentencing order does not indicate whether a sentence is to be served concurrently with or consecutive to another sentence. The DOC has two business days to request clarification and the court has two days to respond.
Hickenlooper also ordered an audit to determine whether clerical errors had resulted in other erroneous early releases. By August 2013, judges had reviewed 1,514 cases and corrected the sentences for 267 prisoners. Nine who had already been released were returned to prison to serve out their full terms.
Most notably, there have been changes in the Colorado DOC’s use of ad-seg and the number of prisoners released directly from solitary to the community. According to Raemisch, the DOC’s ad-seg population has declined from 1,511 in 2011 to 590 as of March 2014. The number of prisoners released from prison directly from solitary has dropped from 70 last year to just one or two a month in early 2014.
“We have people that are well trained on how to handle dangerous people, and yet we felt they are too dangerous to be in general population, so we’ll put them in administrative segregation and then, ‘oh by the way,’ release them into the community. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Raemisch said.
In fact, Raemisch spent a day locked in an ad-seg cell at the Colorado State Penitentiary to see what it was like – an experience that led him to curtail the use of solitary confinement, particularly for prisoners with mental health problems. [See article in this issue of PLN, p. 8].
There was still room for improvement, however.
A report issued by the Colorado ACLU in July 2013 found that prison officials continued “to rely on long-term solitary confinement to manage mentally ill prisoners, often for months or even years.” The report, titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” noted that during Tom Clements’ tenure the Colorado DOC started the Residential Treatment Program (RTP) to provide treatment to mentally ill prisoners. However, according to ACLU public policy director Denise Maes, “The information that we’re getting is that RTP looks very much like ad-seg.”
A December 10, 2013 memo issued by the DOC stated that wardens were no longer allowed to place prisoners with a “major mental illnesses” in solitary.
“This is an enormous foundational step toward getting seriously mentally ill prisoners out of solitary confinement and into treatment,” stated ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Wallace. “There is still more important work to be done, but we want to take this moment to recognize something we have been asking the Department of Corrections to do for years.”
Still, the policy change did not apply to prisoners who have mental health problems but have not been diagnosed with a “major” mental illness.
“As an initial matter, we remain concerned that the definition of major mental illness adopted by the [Colorado DOC] is too narrow and that there are still prisoners in administrative segregation who are seriously mentally ill and should not be placed in prolonged solitary confinement,” the ACLU stated.
In April 2014, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill, SB14-064, that would make it more difficult to place mentally ill prisoners in solitary absent exigent circumstances; the bill had passed the senate unanimously.
“Today’s vote moves Colorado one step closer to realizing the former director’s stated desire of bringing greater safety to the public and humanity to the prisons by ending our state’s historic over-reliance on solitary confinement,” the Colorado ACLU said in a statement.
The bill was signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper on June 6, 2014. “[A]s of today, we have no offenders with mental illness in solitary confinement,” said a spokesman for the DOC. Colorado was the second state – after New York – to enact legislation to remove mentally ill prisoners from solitary.
As a postscript to Clements’ murder, authorities investigated where Ebel had obtained the 9mm handgun he used to kill Clements and Leon. They discovered the gun had been purchased by Stevie Marie Anne Vigil, a childhood friend of Ebel’s, who gave it to him shortly before the killings. Vigil pleaded guilty to providing a firearm to a convicted felon, and on March 3, 2014 she was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison. These was no evidence that she knew Ebel had planned to use the gun to commit the murders.
Ultimately, no one escaped the damaging consequences of Ebel’s actions – not Vigil, nor the families of Tom Clements and Nathan Leon, nor Texas deputy James Boyd or the Colorado prisoners who now have a more difficult time making parole, nor Ebel himself and his family members.
“I’m angry at the horrific senselessness,” said Lisa Clements. “I’m angry that it impacted not just one individual [but also] our entire family, our community, our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones.”
While “Evil” Evan Ebel has been vilified for murdering Clements, and an investigation continues into the possible involvement of the 211 Crew prison gang, few have condemned the Colorado DOC’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners and use of long-term ad-seg as factors that directly contributed to Clements’ death. As Ebel himself had said, the prison system creates monsters; thus, society should not be surprised when those monsters are released with predictable results.
“In Colorado, by using solitary confinement as the default for mentally ill prisoners, we’re doing the least safe thing for the most amount of money,” observed state Senator Jessie Ulibarri. “The case of Evan Ebel and Tom Clements is the most extreme example of that.”
Sources: CNN, The Denver Post, Colorado Independent, Associated Press, www.officer.com, www.gazette.com, www.rawstory.com, Huffington Post, www.aclu.org, www.acluco.org, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, www.incarceratedvoices.com