DENVER (AP) — From a young age, no one could tame Evan Spencer Ebel.
His parents sent him to special camps in Utah, Jamaica and Samoa for children with behavioral problems. Neighbors in the middle-class suburbs west of Denver shied away from a kid they described as “a handful.”
By age 20, state prison had become Ebel’s home. There, he joined a white supremacist gang and ended up in solitary confinement, a place his parents believe soon began to eat away at his already troubled mind.
On Jan. 28, when his term was up, Ebel was set free.
Two months later, he is dead after a shootout with Texas authorities and is a suspect in the death of Colorado’s state prisons chief, who was gunned down when he answered the front door of his house. Investigators have said the gun used to in the Texas shootout was the same weapon used to kill Colorado’s prisons chief.
Now investigators are trying to piece together whether the final actions of the 28-year-old sprung from his own ideas or came at the direction of a prison gang — an idea some close to him reject.
His mother, Jody Mangue, says her son was more complicated than news media stories imply.
“He was not a follower by any means,” she posted in an online memorial site, suggesting that white inmates are often labeled members of such gangs even if they don’t join.
The Colorado Independent website quoted a former inmate and member of the prison gang who said Ebel had left the group and was having a hard time integrating back into society.
“He told me that he needed to release some anxiety,” the former inmate, Ryan Pettigrew, told the website, adding the killing did not seem like a gang hit. “He needed that violence as a release so he could calm down. He didn’t know any other way.”
Ebel’s parents haven’t returned calls to The Associated Press for comment. But stories from both can be found in an online blog that those close to the family have confirmed the mother wrote, and legislative testimony from the father, who had begged the state to change its solitary confinement rules.
Mangue wrote that her son was an energetic child who accompanied his mother to hand out food and clothes to homeless people in Denver. That energy also was a problem, though. In an earlier online essay, written after visiting her son in prison, Mangue noted that she and Ebel’s father began sending their son to camps for troubled youth when he was 12.
“Some people may blame us for what has happened to Evan,” she wrote then. “I can only say that his dad and I had to make hard decisions when he was younger hoping to avoid where he is now.”
On Jan. 31, 2004, Ebel’s younger sister died in a traffic accident, devastating him.
“He was the protective big brother and in this case, was unable to protect her,” Mangue wrote. “His life deteriorated after that and he just became numb and lost his direction altogether, between using drugs and committing crimes.”
Court records show that Ebel pleaded guilty a few months after his sister’s death — in July 2004 — to holding a semi-automatic pistol to an acquaintance’s head and stealing his wallet while they watched a Denver Broncos game on television. He was first sent to a halfway house. But after being linked to two other armed robberies, he went to state prison.
Corrections officials won’t release detailed information about Ebel’s prison time, saying the case remains under investigation. But court records show that in 2006, he punched a prison guard in the nose and was convicted of assaulting a corrections official. He was sent to solitary confinement, where he did “Navy Seal type exercises” and read obsessively — including “War and Peace” several times over, Mangue wrote. Disgusted by prison chow, Ebel became a vegetarian.
Jack Ebel testified before Colorado’s Legislature about how solitary confinement changed his son.
“He’ll rant a little bit,” the elder Ebel told legislators. “He’ll stammer. He’ll be frustrated that he can’t find the words. And I let him get it out, and eventually, because I’m his father, he will talk to me. And I’m convinced, if any of the rest of you were to go talk to him, he wouldn’t be able to talk to you.”
Jack Ebel also mentioned his son’s suffering to Gov. John Hickenlooper, whom he first met when both men worked at an oil and gas firm 30 years ago. They’d stayed in touch even as Hickenlooper launched a career in politics and won the governor’s office in 2010.
As he assembled his cabinet, Hickenlooper wooed a deeply religious, data-driven Missouri corrections official to run Colorado’s state prisons system. During Hickenlooper’s interview with Tom Clements, the Missouri official mentioned his concerns about solitary confinement.
Since Clements came to Colorado in 2011, the number of inmates in solitary confinement has nearly been halved.
“The irony is incredible,” Hickenlooper said. “One of the things Tom fought for, we have too many people in solitary confinement with mental disorders, like Evan Ebel.”
In January, Ebel was released on mandatory parole — meaning that even though he’d completed his sentence, he still had to abide by a parole agreement or be thrown back in prison. Corrections spokeswoman Alison Morgan said she couldn’t discuss the terms of Ebel’s release but that every parolee has to comply with certain personalized requirements, like attending anger management or substance abuse counseling. She said the state also offers parolees help with housing and job placement.
Little is known about Ebel’s final two months. However investigators have offered a hint of how he might have gotten the gun used in Texas, even though he was a convicted felon who couldn’t legally have one. Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents on Wednesday arrested a suburban Denver woman suspected of legally purchasing a gun and then transferring it to Ebel. Records related to the arrest of Stevie Marie Vigil, 22, were sealed.
It’s unclear whether he knew of Clements’ reformist goals or just viewed him like many other inmates, as “The Man,” as they called whoever ran the prisons agency. It’s also unclear if he remained a member of the 211s white supremacist gang that law enforcement officials say he had joined in prison.
On Sunday, March 17, police found the body of Nathan Leon, a father of three who worked as a Domino’s deliveryman and had vanished after answering an order that day. Days later, Clements answered the doorbell at his house and was shot in the chest.
Authorities asked people to look out for a dark, late-model car that had been spotted idling outside Clements’ house shortly before the shooting. Two days later, a sheriff’s deputy in an empty stretch of North Texas pulled Ebel over. Ebel shot and wounded him, and sped off.
Authorities gave chase. Ebel peppered them with gunfire before crashing his 1991 Cadillac into an 18-wheeler hauling gravel near the town of Decatur.
Three deputies surrounded him, but he left his wrecked vehicle and opened fire. The deputies shot back. Ebel was hit in the head and died at a Fort Worth hospital. He had bomb-making equipment, instructions and other plans in his car, but it’s not clear where he was going.
One thing was clear, said Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins: “He wasn’t planning on being taken alive.”
By Nicholas Riccardi, P. Solomon Banda, AP Writers, Thomas Peipert, Colleen Slevin and Catherine Tsai in Denver and Angela K. Brown in Decatur, Texas contributed to this report (© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)