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Clements case: A tragic tale of crossed paths

March 29, 2013
photo - The front door where Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements was shot to death on March 19. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette
The front door where Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements was shot to death on March 19. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette 

At the doorstep of his tree-shrouded home in tony northern El Paso County, the prison reformer met the parolee.

News of the execution-style slaying this month of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements — gunned down March 19 as he answered the front door at his Monument-area home — unleashed numerous theories about who could have pulled the trigger.

The truth may be stranger than any of them.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said last week that forensic testing linked the murder weapon to Evan Spencer Ebel, a recent parolee with a history of violent outbursts and ties to a Colorado-based white-supremacist prison gang called the 211 Crew.

Ebel, also a suspect in the March 17 shooting death of a Denver pizza delivery driver, died March 21 in a shootout with Texas authorities.

Called “Evil Ebel” for his unpredictable behavior in prison, investigators said he shot a Montague County, Texas, sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop before leading authorities on a high-speed chase that whipsawed into Decatur, Texas.

The chase ended with Ebel crashing into a rock hauler, bailing from the wrecked 1991 Cadillac he was driving and advancing on officers with his gun blazing until he was shot in the head.

According to James Boyd, the wounded Montague County deputy, Ebel offered no warning after being pulled over for an improper lane change.

“All I saw was a gun,” Boyd told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in an interview at a Fort Worth hospital, describing how Ebel opened fire from the driver’s seat as the deputy approached. He saw a muzzle flash and felt blood trickle down his forehead — then lost consciousness.

Twice shot in a bullet-resistant vest and grazed in the head, Boyd is expected to recover.

“I just got lucky,” Boyd said, his partially-shaved head revealing a thick scab where a 9 mm bullet fired by Ebel traced his scalp for the length of a pinky finger.

Prison gang ties

Ebel, 28, was released from prison Jan. 28 on mandatory parole after completing an eight-year sentence for robbery, menacing and other crimes.

Authorities haven’t disclosed a motive in the slayings that touched off the rampage.

According to widely cited press accounts quoting anonymous Colorado prisons officials, investigators may be exploring whether Clements’s death was ordered by the 211 Crew in reprisal for a recent DOC crackdown that sought to limit its influence.

The 211 Crew, also called the Aryan Alliance, survives by robbery and extortion and has a public track record of violent encounters with law enforcement, the Anti-Defamation League said in a news release.

Members released from prison remain bound to the gang and are forced to make money for the organization, gang experts say.

The gang was started in 1995 in the Denver County Jail by Benjamin Davis, who was convicted in 2007 for running a criminal enterprise from prison “that sold drugs and ordered attacks on inmates and others outside prison,” the ADL said.

Clements was involved in decisions to shuffle gang members from one prison to another to disrupt their networks, the Denver Post reported, citing unnamed officials.

Reputedly a low-ranking soldier, Ebel is the second 211 Crew member killed by police in just over a year, the ADL said, citing the February 2012 shooting of Jeremiah Barnum of Englewood after he went for a gun during an confrontation with officers.

Whether he acted alone — or on somebody’s orders — are questions that El Paso County sheriff’s investigators have declined to address, citing their ongoing investigation.

A Commerce City woman, Stevie Lee Vigil, 22, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of providing Ebel with the 9 mm pistol he used in the shootings — potentially solving the mystery of how the felon managed to obtain the weapon.

Vigil purchased the gun in early March from a licensed firearms dealer, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said, without specifying how she knew the parolee. The Associated Press reported they had known each other since childhood, citing a family member.

The prison reformer

For friends and relatives of Clements, news of involvement by Ebel brought the cruel twist of irony to their shock and grief.

Clements, a 31-year Missouri prisons veteran, deferred retirement in 2011 and moved to Colorado with his wife, Lisa, to become the Colorado Department of Corrections executive director, where he developed a reputation as a reform advocate.

Widely described as friendly and genuine, Clements believed in the power and possibility of redemption, according to mourners at a public memorial service.

The evidence suggests Clements was slain by a man who suffered while in solitary confinement, a practice Clements sought to reduce.

Ebel served six years of his eight-year sentence in solitary because of violent outbursts, including assaulting a prison guard in 2008.

Family members say he was damaged by his isolation inside the prison walls.

Jack Ebel, a Denver oil and gas lawyer who became a critic of solitary confinement as a result of his son’s experiences, testified in March 2011 before a state legislative committee about a proposal that would place limits on the practice, saying his son had become increasingly paranoid and anxious in solitary captivity.

“So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-a-half before we can actually talk,” Jack Ebel told lawmakers, as quoted by 7 News in Denver.

Jack Ebel described how an otherwise articulate son would mumble and stammer through their visits, as if losing the ability to communicate.

It’s the kind of tale that would have troubled Clements, Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters after the shooting, citing personal knowledge.

In another twist to the story, Hickenlooper is personal friends with Ebel’s father. The two worked together during Hickenlooper’s previous career as a geologist and remained close.

In a conversation with Clements, the governor said he once mentioned a friend’s concerns over a son who was psychologically damaged by his time in solitary confinement, but didn’t identify Ebel as the inmate.

Clements responded with empathy, the governor said, affirming an interest in reviewing the practice.

Ebel was a source of concern for his parents, Hickenlooper said, and they worked to get him help beginning in his teens, even sending him at the age of 15 to a rehabilitative program in Samoa where, according to CNN, a person who knew him there recalled him as a dangerous and unpredictable person who once beat another resident with a broom stick.

“He just had a bad, bad streak,” Hickenlooper told CNN news.

The encounter

On the day of the shooting, the respected prisons chief worked a day like any other at the Department of Corrections’ Colorado Springs headquarters on South Circle Drive.

“I can only say it was a typical work day for Tom filled with meetings and business on behalf of the department,” said Adrienne Jacobson, a state prisons spokeswoman.

After work, the avid cyclist went home and placed an ad on Craigslist offering a bike for sale.

He and his wife were watching television about 8:30 p.m. in their brick-face home nestled in the rolling hills of an upscale subdivision east of Monument when, as Lisa Clements told mourners at a televised memorial service, the doorbell rang and “my life changed forever.”

Authorities said she was on the stairs near their front door with her wounded husband when emergency crews arrived.

Clements was pronounced dead at a Colorado Springs hospital; he is survived by his wife, Lisa, and two grown daughters.

When crime scene tape came down a day later, it happened in view of national news crews, and dried blood still marred the couple’s gleaming hardwood floor.

Relatives of Nathan Leon, the Denver pizza delivery driver whose March 17 slaying also was linked to Ebel, suggested a possible tie between the cases, telling a Denver television news station they believe Ebel used the delivery man’s stolen uniform as a disguise to lure Clements to his front door.

A uniform, a pizza delivery bag and a pizza box were found in the trunk of Ebel’s crashed Cadillac, along with bomb-making materials and a surveillance system, according to court papers filed in Texas.

In the wake of Clements’ shooting, security was beefed up for state government officials while investigators began looking for possible links to Clements’ position. Media accounts quickly focused on a decision by Clements a week earlier to deny a request from a well-born Saudi Arabian man imprisoned for rape in Colorado to be transferred to his native country to serve the remainder of a life sentence.

Other reports focused on if the killer learned Clements’ address through the Craigslist posting he had made that night, or on earlier occasions.

But when evidence pointed to Ebel, the parolee with an incurable mean streak, a picture emerged that was more tragic than any of them: That Clements, a reformer with an unshakeable belief in renewal, was slain by a former inmate who gave up on everything but violence.

In her comments at the memorial service, Clements’ widow asked for compassion only moments after describing the horror of her husband’s cold-blooded murder.

“Tom believed in redemption, in the ability of the human heart to be changed,” she told the crowd. “We pray for forgiveness and peace for the family of the man suspected of taking Tom’s life, and we pray every day for forgiveness and peace in our own hearts.”

Gazette reporter Andrea Sinclair contributed to this story.

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