Headed for Trouble

Erik wanted to help his friend get out of the house. He succeeded -- they're both in prison for life.

Early on the morning of June 6, a Douglas County sheriff's deputy was getting ready for a shift change and decided to take a final cruise through Daniels Park. On the far side of the parking lot his headlights illuminated a Lexus with its trunk open. Behind the car stood Nate, wearing blood-stained white gloves. Beside the car was a red sleeping bag, with human feet protruding from the end.

Nate was booked immediately. The cops traced Erik's involvement through the gas can purchase -- but in the meantime, Erik and Brett fled to Mexico. They were too young to get past highway checkpoints just south of the border, though, and they called their fathers, who flew down and then drove the boys back to face charges.

Mary Ellen Johnson follows the cases of juveniles 
serving life in jail, including that of Nate Ybanez.
Anthony Camera
Mary Ellen Johnson follows the cases of juveniles serving life in jail, including that of Nate Ybanez.
Nate Ybanez with his mother, Julie.
Nate Ybanez with his mother, Julie.

Sixteen-year-old Brett copped a deal in which he got immunity on the murder case in exchange for his testimony. Sixteen-year-old Nate and seventeen-year-old Erik were both charged as adults with first-degree murder.

In Colorado, a first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole, or lwop.

Before 1977, a life sentence carried the possibility of parole after ten years; that year, however, the Colorado Legislature upped it to twenty. In 1985, before Erik turned five, the legislature upped it again, to forty. In 1990, before he turned ten, the legislature determined that life meant life, with no possibility of parole.

Prosecutors decide whether to "direct file" juvies into adult court for class 1 or 2 felonies in Colorado. As they deliberate first-degree murder cases, jurors don't know that the only possible punishment is life in prison with no possibility of parole. If the defendant is convicted, the judge has no discretion in sentencing.

Although the DA never formally offered Erik a deal, the Jensens and Erik's former attorney both claim there were discussions of a plea bargain so that Erik could avoid a first-degree murder charge. But those discussions ended after April 1999, they say, when another white kid in Littleton, one also named Eric, shot people at Columbine High School.

The district attorney's office denies that.

"It was a horrible ambush," says Derry Rice, deputy district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, who prosecuted Erik and Nate. "It was the most impactful case I've had in my eighteen-year career. It was just a deeply disturbing, very brutal slaying. There's no way it went quick; Julie Ybanez suffered a very slow and painful death."

Erik went on trial first, in August 1999. On the stand, he told the story of a dumb, teenage pothead in the wrong place at the wrong time who was incapable of making a rational decision as Julie's killing unfolded. He testified that he was holding the tongs, his eyes closed, and that he "dropped" his arm.

"Did you hit her or not?" his attorney asked.

"Yes," Erik answered. He said he hit her just once, and not hard.

But Brett testified that Erik had told him he'd hit Julie with the fireplace tongs three times, once so hard that the tool got stuck in her head and he had to rip it out, which is how blood got on the ceiling. He also said that Erik had told him he'd put a plastic bag over Julie's mouth to smother her, to help put her out of her misery and make it less "torturous," but that she kept moving.

Nate didn't testify. He didn't testify in his own trial two months later, either.

Both Nate and Erik were convicted of first-degree murder, and sent to prison for life.

Nate finally told his story in court this past February, at a hearing to consider a 35c motion challenging Erik's initial legal representation.

Erik sat in the Douglas County courtroom, listening to Nate's testimony. Although they'd kept in touch through letters, before they were moved to the county jail for the hearing they hadn't seen each other in more than six years, since the day Julie Ybanez was murdered.

Nate now told the judge that his parents had threatened him and beaten him. When he was a boy, he said, his father had forced Nate to put his mouth on his penis in the shower. His mother had rubbed him into an erection; she'd been wearing a big T-shirt but no underwear, and she forced him to have sex with her.

On the stand, Nate said he'd feared for his life in that household. Once he'd run away and roamed the streets, holding a piece of broken concrete in his hand in case his father found him. His father had threatened to have him raped by a Mexican who'd just gotten out of prison. His mother was so controlling, Nate told the judge, that her constant phone calls had cost him a job at a pizza shop. Once she even bugged his phone.

On June 5, 1998, he said, his parents had ordered him to quit his job, that he'd fucked up good and they weren't playing around anymore. They said they were sorry he'd ever been born. He was afraid of what they were going to do, he told the judge.

That's when he decided to murder his mother, Nate said. Erik hadn't been involved in the murder, he added, or even in its planning.

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