The execution-style murder of the Colorado prisons chief was almost certainly the work of a white supremacist prison gang member. Was he operating on orders?
The killer rang the doorbell.
Tom Clements, 58, head of Colorado’s prison system was shot dead as he opened his front door shortly before 9 P.M. on March 19 in a well-to-do neighborhood near Colorado Springs. He was a husband and father of two, who spent his career in public service overseeing prisons and advocating for their reform in Missouri, and since 2011, Colorado.
The authorities didn’t have much to go on that night as the massive manhunt began. No motive. No suspect. What they did have was a devastated widow and a vague description of what might have been the getaway car. So, it wasn’t long before every cop and deputy sheriff west of the Mississippi was on the lookout for a boxy black car — a Cadillac or a Lincoln — last seen idling on the street where Clements lived and died.
Two days later and about 700 miles away in Texas, the authorities caught a break that cast suspicion, scrutiny and renewed heat on Colorado’s largest extremist group, a violent white supremacist prison gang with up to 1,000 members on both sides of the wall called the 211 Crew.
Soon investigators were trying to determine whether the prison director’s killer was simply a disgruntled ex-con acting alone, or someone following orders, an assassin carrying out a hit. “It’s not uncommon to hear about fantasy hit lists, but it’s extremely rare for prison gangs to act on something like that because they don’t want to draw the heat on themselves,” said Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and an expert on prison gangs. “In my records the highest ranking prison official that an extremist had ever killed before was a warden and that was decades ago by the Black Liberation Army.”
Pitcavage was referring to the 1973 stabbing death of a Pennsylvania warden and deputy warden by two inmates during a meeting in the warden’s office.
“These people are predators,” he added. “But they usually prey on other inmates.”
The break in the Clements’ case came on March 21 when a Montague County Texas sheriff’s deputy pulled over a black Cadillac, a ’99 Deville with Colorado plates. It was about 11 a.m. but instead of producing his license and proof of insurance, the man behind the wheel drew a gun and opened fire, hitting the deputy in the chest twice and also grazing his head. His protective vest saved him.
Then the Caddy took off, flying down the Texas highway at drag race speed. Soon a passel of squad cars was in pursuit, pushing close to 100 mph. The driver stuck his gun out the window and squeezed off several shots before crashing into a gravel-hauling 18-wheeler. The Deville spun out and ended up on the side of the highway, a mangled mess. The driver emerged from the wreckage, blasting away with a 9 mm Smith & Wesson.
He reportedly fired off more than a dozen rounds. The deputies returned fire, striking the driver in the head. Although mortally wounded, the man lingered a few hours on life support. The questions continued to pile up.
The man had no identification on him, but was later identified through fingerprints as Evan Spencer Ebel, 28, a 211 Crew gang member who had been paroled from a Colorado prison after eight years about two months before Clements was killed. As it turns out, Ebel, the son of a Denver-area lawyer, should not have been free. According to media reports, he was paroled four years early, thanks to a mistake in his Colorado prison records.
The Smith & Wesson recovered after the gunfight was later determined through ballistics to have been the same weapon used in Clements’ murder. Ebel is also a suspect in the murder of a pizza deliveryman, Nathan Leon, 27, the hardworking father of three young girls, two days before Clements was gunned down. In the back seat of the Deville, authorities found a pizza delivery box and a Domino’s shirt. Some investigators suspect Ebel used the uniform and pizza box to allay Clements’ suspicions when he rang the prison chief’s front doorbell.
Two weeks or so after the shootout in Texas, police in Colorado picked up two ex-cons who belonged to the 211 Crew for questioning. Authorities said the men had been in contact with Ebel since his release. Before being taken into custody, one of the men, James Lohr, 47, reportedly led police on a brief car and foot chase in the early morning hours of April 5.
The authorities said he also tried to ditch a gun during the chase, but it was eventually recovered and its history is being traced. Lohr was being held on $250,000 bail for eluding police and other charges. Neither, Lohr, nor the second man picked up for questioning, Thomas James Guolee, 31, has been charged with Clements murder
The 211 Crew was started in a Colorado county lockup in 1995, as a kind of jailhouse protective society for white inmates. In its early days, white power and chauvinism were its main recruiting tools. Most of its initial members gave each other Irish-related nicknames. The founder and still undisputed leader, Benjamin Davis, was christened “Leprechaun” or “Lep.”
But it wasn’t long before 211 went the way of most prison gangs. Ideology quickly took a backseat to criminal pursuits — drugs, assaults, prostitution, identity theft, telemarketing scams, credit card fraud and anything else to make a buck.
“They’re very inventive,” Pitcavage said. “The 211 Crew has smuggled a bunch of heroin and meth into the prisons. But they’ve committed a lot of crimes out on the street as well as behind bars.”
In recent years, the gang has been under withering pressure from state and federal authorities. In 2005, 32 of its members were indicted on an array of charges, including robberies, assaults and drug trafficking. Davis, the founder, who was already serving a 30-year term for burglary, was sentenced to another 108 in prison in connection with the case. He appealed and in early April that sentence was affirmed.
“He has developed no respect for the law or for his fellow human beings and has no regard for the sentence he was serving,’’ the presiding judge reportedly said of Davis at his appeal hearing. “Nobody is safe from him, either people in the Department of Corrections or people walking on the street.”
Pitcavage said the 211 Crew is part of what he called “the third wave of racist prison gangs” and “each generation has gotten bigger.”
The first wave crashed ashore in the 1960s with the birth of the Aryan Brotherhood in California. The second wave came in the 1980s with the creation of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the Aryan Warriors. The third wave started in the 1990s and continues to the present day and is characterized by an increased presence of the prison gangs out on the street. “Today,” Pitcavage said, “there are a number of racist prison gangs that have just as many members if not more on the street as behind bars. The 211 Crew has had a street presence for at least a decade or more.”