When Tom Clements, the head of Colorado’s prison system, was shot to death at his front door last month, the killing seemed a planned assassination by a white supremacist gang.
Authorities in Texas say they are looking into the possibility that Evan S. Ebel, the man suspected of shooting Clements, might also have been involved in the fatal shooting of a Kaufman County prosecutor in January. Reports linked Ebel, who according to prison records had a swastika tattoo on his abdomen and ‘‘White Pride’’ inked on his arms, to the 211 Crew, a white supremacist gang that has about 1,000 members in Colorado’s prisons.
But weeks after Clements’s killing, investigators are still trying to sort out whether the death was in fact a gang-ordered hit or the act of a lone gunman, whose years in solitary confinement may have nurtured paranoia and hatred of prison officials.
James F. Austin, a consultant who helped Clements in efforts to make significant changes in Colorado’s prisons, including reducing the use of solitary confinement, said it was unprecedented for a prison gang to take aim at a public official.
He added that the gangs ‘‘like to do their thing without much attention, especially with a director who is doing everything he could to make the prison safer and more comfortable.’’
Austin said that Ebel, whom he described as kind of a lone wolf, had been released directly to the streets after spending almost six years in solitary confinement. Clements had been trying to introduce transitional programs for inmates who had been held in isolation for long periods.
From the beginning, untangling the motives behind Clements’s killing has been laced with complexities.
Experts on hate groups who track the activities of prison gangs said the 211 Crew was not known to have any connections to the Aryan Brotherhood or other white supremacist groups in other states.
Ebel, who was serving an eight-year sentence for robbery and assault, had showed himself capable of violence unrelated to gangs and was placed in solitary confinement because of his violent behavior, Austin said, not because he was a gang member.
In 2007, he was given an additional four-year sentence for assaulting a corrections officer. But because of a court clerical error, Ebel served that time concurrently, instead of consecutively as the sentence was intended. He was released on mandatory parole on Jan. 28.
On Thursday, Governor John W. Hickenlooper ordered the Corrections Department to audit its records to ensure that offenders were serving appropriate sentences.
According to prison records, Ebel fought with other inmates in prison and smeared feces on cell doors. In one instance, he assaulted a guard, threatening to kill him and his family. In another, he threatened to kill a female corrections officer, telling her he would ‘‘kill her if he ever saw her on the streets and that he would make her beg for her life.’’
Ebel’s father, Jack, an oil and gas lawyer in Denver and a friend of Hickenlooper’s, testified at a 2011 hearing on solitary confinement before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee that his son had suffered mentally in the years he had spent in solitary confinement.
‘‘He has a high level of paranoia; he’s extremely anxious,’’ Jack Ebel said of his son.
Clements had embarked on an ambitious program to change solitary confinement policies, reducing the number of inmates sent to isolation and putting programs in place to reduce recidivism once prisoners were released.
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