Headed for Trouble
The boys played together in a punk-rock band, Troublebound. They went to high school together at Highlands Ranch. They worked together at Einstein's bagel shop. And when Nate Ybanez decided to murder his mother, he went to his frontman, Erik Jensen, for help.
On June 5, 1998, Erik got stoned, then picked Nate up at work. Again, Nate was talking about how much he hated his mother. "I'm going to kill that bitch," he'd tell his friends. But this time, he was really going to do it, Nate said. His plan was for Erik to stay in the car for about half an hour while Nate did the dirty work, and then Erik was supposed to come in and help clean up.
They parked outside the apartment building where Nate lived with his mother, Julie Ybanez. Nate went inside. Erik sat in the car, smoking pot and cigarettes.
After about thirty minutes, Erik got out of the car. It seemed like a long walk to the apartment building. He looked up the stairs, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He climbed the three flights and knocked on the apartment door.
Julie answered. Nate had been bullshitting again, Erik thought, relieved.
"Is Nate here?" he asked.
"Yeah, hold on a second."
As Erik stepped through the door, out of the corner of his eye he saw Nate running toward Julie. High overhead, Nate was holding fireplace tongs.
Erik closed the door.
Julie and Roger Ybanez were high school sweethearts in Davenport, Iowa. That's where Nate was born in 1981, before the family moved to Germany, where Roger worked in the insurance business for five years. After that, they bounced back to Iowa for a few more years, then did short stints in Chicago, Virginia Beach and Nebraska, where they owned a bakery.
Finally they landed in Colorado. Nate, an only child, attended a Christian school for a year before enrolling in Highlands Ranch High School, his first public school. A sophomore, he soon met Erik Jensen, a junior. Erik was the bass player and frontman for a band that needed a guitarist; Nate fit the bill. The band, dubbed Troublebound, practiced in the basement of the Jensens' large home in Littleton, where Erik had a floor to himself. Troublebound even played a couple of house parties and got a gig at a bookstore.
The band was doing well, but Nate was not. His grades were bad, and he ran away several times. He was also smoking pot.
His parents sent him to rehab in Boulder. After that, he gave up pot -- but started drinking more (and got a ticket for underage consumption) and ran away more frequently. He spent a night on the streets. He even lived with the Jensens for a few weeks. Erik gave Nate the phone number for a runaway hotline, and Nate himself asked the cops to contact Douglas County Social Services because he was unable to function at home. But whenever the police picked up Nate, they always took him back to the apartment.
By then, Nate's father had moved out. The problems with Nate -- "he was a pain in the butt," Roger remembers -- had created pressure on the marriage, and the couple had separated in the hope that some time apart would improve things.
On June 5, 1998, Roger stopped by the apartment. That surprised Nate, because he didn't see his father much. It turned out that Julie had asked him to come by because she wanted Nate to go to military school in Missouri, and she wanted Roger's support. Nate begged for one more chance. "You're going nowhere but downhill," Roger told him, "running with this group of kids, playing in this band."
While Nate was being lectured, Erik was out with the band's drummer, picking up a quarter-pound of weed. He took the pot home and got stoned. Nate called him from Einstein's, and asked Erik to come down and chat.
Out in the parking lot, Erik listened to Nate's description of another foiled plot by his parents to send him to military school. Nate started talking about killing his mom. He'd talked like that before, but this time he seemed a lot more upset. He sounded like he might be serious.
Nate asked Erik if he'd help kill his mom; Erik refused. Nate asked Erik if he'd help clean up after he killed his mom; Erik agreed. Then he and some friends went back to the Jensen house for another smoke session. That night, he picked Nate up at Einstein's, and Nate again started talking about killing his mom.
"Are you still thinking about doing this?" Erik asked back.
"I have to. I'm going to do it," Nate replied.
"I gave you my word," Erik promised. "I'm going to help clean up."
When Nate hit Julie in the head with the fireplace tongs, Erik freaked out. He'd never really expected Nate to kill his mom, and he sure didn't expect to see Nate blindside her as he walked in.
He fled down the hall to Nate's bedroom, but could hear Julie pleading with Nate.
"Nathan, what the hell are you doing? Stop it."
Erik could hear the struggle as Julie fought for her life. He stood petrified in the hallway, saying "oh, fuck" over and over, staring at a wall that he knew was the only thing between him and a murder in progress.
"Get the Saran Wrap," Nate yelled from behind that wall.
Erik went into the kitchen and saw the wrap sitting out, right on the counter. He grabbed it and went into the living room, where Nate was on top of his mother. Nate reached for the Saran Wrap with one of the hands he was using to pin his mother down -- but Julie hit the box first. Erik saw blood on the wrap, and dropped the box. Freaking out, he started to back away.
"I need help," Nate said.
"Fuck you," Erik replied.
"I've got her wrists, you've got to help," Nate said, handing Erik the tongs. "Here."
Erik let the tongs drop on Julie's head.
In the struggle, Nate had somehow landed with his back on the floor and his mother on top of him, her face toward the ceiling. Julie asked Erik to stop Nate as her son laid the tongs across her neck. He pulled down, strangling her as she muttered one word: "Stop."
A bubble of blood came out of her mouth. Her white sweat suit was stained red.
The murder wasn't like anything you see in the movies. Nate had talked about strangling his mother, or maybe knocking her out and then killing her. But even after a dozen or so blows to her head, Julie had remained conscious.
An autopsy would later reveal that she had been strangled to death.
Once his mother stopped moving, Nate wrapped the cord from a Sega Genesis controller around her neck. He put a plastic bag over her head and taped it down. Then he and Erik wrestled Julie's body into a red sleeping bag and dragged it out onto the balcony. The murder scene was a bloody mess, with stains on the floor, walls and ceiling.
"What the hell did you do!" Erik shouted at Nate.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," he replied. "You weren't supposed to be part of it, but I felt -- I thought I needed help. I didn't think I could do it alone."
And they needed still more help to clean up. They called Brett Baker, Troublebound's other guitarist, who also worked at Einstein's.
"Can you come over?" Nate asked Brett, who was eating Burger King at the time. "Just come over, now." He passed the phone to Erik.
"Brett, just come over, now," Erik repeated.
"Did you guys do it?" Brett asked.
"Just come over," Erik said.
Brett arrived a few minutes later. A wide-eyed Erik answered the door. There were blood splats on his face. Nate was on his knees, scrubbing at the blood on the carpet and walls. "Oh, my God," was all Brett could say.
"Clean," Erik told him.
"No," Brett said. "I don't want to."
"Well, neither do I," Erik said. "But we have to."
The three friends cleaned the apartment. Erik scrubbed the bloodiest wall. Brett cleaned the ceiling and Nate did the floor. Then Erik took a shower and put on some of Nate's clothes. He wanted to get stoned so that he could calm down.
"I guess you can do whatever you want to," Nate said, "because obviously nobody is going to catch you now."
Erik went out on the deck and smoked a bowl.
Then they cleaned up the rest of the evidence. They took the bloody cleaning supplies and threw them into garbage bags. They packed up some of Julie's belongings to ditch, so people would think that she and Nate had just upped and split. Brett and Erik took the garbage and Julie's stuff and drove around Littleton, ditching trash bags in random dumpsters behind strip malls in the area of County Line Road. Erik was still smoking pot as they drove.
They stopped at a gas station, and Erik bought a can of gas. And then they returned to the apartment.
Nate said he wanted to leave Highlands Ranch and find a place in Denver. Erik and Brett thought he should go further away, maybe to Mexico.
Brett and Nate wrapped a rug around the sleeping bag that held Julie's body, and then tied the cord to an electric guitar amplifier around that. The three started carrying the bulky package down the stairs, but it was heavy and the cord snapped by the second flight of stairs. The rug started to unroll, but they managed to get the bag down to the parking lot.
Loading the body into the trunk was another struggle. They maneuvered it various ways. Nate finally had to step on it to get it to fit.
After that, Erik and Brett left. They drove over to Brett's so he could get some work clothes for the next day. Brett told his parents that he was going to stay at Erik's that night.
For a couple of hours, Nate drove his mother's Lexus around town, -- with the body, a shovel and a can of gas inside. He finally pulled into Daniels Park, near Sedalia.
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.
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.
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.
"The fundamental flaw in the defense of Erik's case was nobody took a look at the Nate Ybanez child-abuse issue," says Jeff Pagliuca, Erik's current attorney. "That's what I'm most critical about. It's almost intuitive that kids don't kill their parents, sons don't kill their mothers, unless there's something substantially wrong in the family. That's a defense. That's a good defense for both of these kids to the charge of first-degree murder. Nobody investigated that at all, and that's really tragic because that's really the defense here."
At Erik's trial, his attorney hadn't cross-examined Roger or Julie's mother when they painted a picture of a glowing church girl for the jury. The possibility of child abuse was never mentioned.
Erik should never have been charged with more than second-degree murder, Pagliuca maintains. And if he'd been convicted of that charge, at least he'd have hope of someday being paroled.
"Erik Jensen could live the rest of his life without committing another crime," Pagliuca says. "He a perfectly decent, nice, normal human being who's grown up a lot in prison, so it's a waste for him to be there."
If the current appeal of Erik's case isn't successful, the Jensens plan to file another. And another. And another -- until the case eventually makes its way into federal court, where Erik thinks he might have the best chance. The Jensens won't quit.
Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Springs-based Pendulum Foundation, knows where the Jensens are coming from. "All the white, middle-class people whose kids are serving life," she says, "have told me that they said to their kids, ŒJust trust in the justice system and just do what they tell you to do.'"
Johnson got involved in the issue back in 1992, when one of her daughter's classmates killed his parents. She ended up working for his defense, was devastated when he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, and went on to join Pendulum, a non-profit juvenile-justice advocacy organization. Her group lists 47 people serving life without parole in Colorado who were sentenced for crimes they committed before they turned eighteen (see sidebar).
"I feel that for some reason in America, there is this thing about our darling kids when they become teenagers, especially boys, that there's this primal fear that we have of them," she says. "So when they do wrong, we're going to punish them and punish them hard."
Johnson isn't opposed to life without parole for everyone convicted of murder. She even contends that some of the juveniles sentenced to life need to stay locked up forever. But people like Erik and Nate can be rehabilitated, she insists.
A bill introduced by state Representative Lynn Hefley last session would have given the system more discretion in dealing with juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. "Some people said, 'They made their bed, let them lie in it.' Well, yeah, on the taxpayers' dollar for the rest of their lives," says the Republican from northern El Paso County. "Some of them can be rehabilitated; other states have proven it. In order to right the wrongs, we have to be educated and pass legislation to change these laws. We have to."
Hefley's proposal was reduced to creating a task force to examine the issue of juvenile justice, and report back to lawmakers. That version of the bill passed, but Governor Bill Owens vetoed it.
"I think there would've been some findings," Hefley says, "and some people were afraid of that."
While her legislation was pending, it caught the attention of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Of the 41 states that sentence juveniles to life without parole, 27 have mandatory sentences. Of those 27, Colorado was chosen as the focus of "Thrown Away," a Human Rights Watch report on juvies doing lwop.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently determined it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds because teens do not possess the same mental capability as adults. The ruling has no bearing on juveniles doing life without parole, however.
"The reasoning behind the Supreme Court's decision with respect to the death penalty and juveniles has to do with the ultimate human question of the state taking a human life," says Bob Grant, former Adams County DA and now executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council. "It doesn't have to do with a life sentence -- whether it's ten, twenty, forty or natural life in prison."
Grant believes mandatory life sentencing for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder is in the best interest of society. "It doesn't matter to the victim, to the deceased, whether the one who pulls the trigger is thirteen or thirty," he notes.
Terrence Johnson, Mary Ellen Johnson's son, is now Nate Ybanez's attorney. He says he plans to file a civil suit against Roger for allegedly abusing his son. Terrence is also handling Nate's 35c, which charges that not only did Nate's original attorney fail to appeal his conviction, but the fact that Roger was paying the lawyer's fee constituted a conflict of interest.
Roger has since remarried and works for a mortgage broker in Dallas. He says he wasn't happy with Nate's defense, either. As for the charges of abuse that Nate made in February, "I don't remember any of that."
Instead, Roger says he thinks Julie caught Nate trying to run away from home, and that a confrontation ensued. He believes that Erik was the catalyst for the crime, and that Julie would be alive today had Erik not shown up.
Roger still thinks about Julie every day, and says he wishes that his son showed some remorse for the murder. But when sixteen-year-olds go to a tough place like prison, he adds, it's not likely they'll ever understand the consequences of their actions. "I can see things that most people probably don't think about because it doesn't affect their lives," Roger says. "I'm a victim and a father, so it's a strange situation."
He believes that both Nate and Erik deserve a chance to live as free individuals one day. "It's a hot issue," he says. "But they're juveniles, and they should be treated as juveniles."
Nate checked into prison in November 1999. Though he's had run-ins with "canines" -- prisonspeak for convicts who prey on young inmates -- he says he's never been raped and never had to stab anyone, although he's willing to stand his ground if need be.
Peace doesn't come easy in the joint. He's been busted for tattooing, a prank in which he tried to glue a lock shut, gambling, and creating a disruption to help facilitate an escape. "Nobody here respects the law," he wrote in his diary. "In prison, you learn to hate the law."
He misses the world beyond the barbed wire. "Because I got locked up so young, I didn't get to do hardly any of the big things," he wrote. "I've driven a car less than ten times. Never even had a driver's license. I can count on one hand the number of girlfriends I've had. Only two of them were real. The others just kid crushes. And I never had sex with any of them. Yeah, ha. Ha. Laugh, but I was abused and had a bad childhood so sex was a real issue with me. I was waiting for the right girl. I've never been in a bar. Never been to an art gallery. Never paid taxes. You get the idea, never really did anything."
Erik has also been busted for having tattoos, and for being involved in several fights. He was given punitive segregation in 23-hour-a-day lockdown three times in his first three years. The last offense got him sent to a maximum-security facility for a little more than six months. Now Erik's back in a mid-level security prison, where he spends much of his time painting in the shop.
Erik's now 24; he's spent more than a quarter of his life behind bars. He's a lot bigger and stronger than he was seven years ago; he wasn't done growing when he got locked up. His skin is a chalky white, and his arm inked up with the jailhouse tats that he designed.
He calls home twice weekly, and his parents visit every week. It was hard at first, and they cried all the time. Erik says it sucks that they get to leave and he has to stay, but he still looks forward to their visits rather than wishing away the outside world, as many prisoners do.
Curt and Pat Jensen are as proud as two parents of a convicted murderer can be. They've watched Erik grow through the spiritual and philosophical changes that most parents observe when their kids are in college. He's written five sci-fi books and continues to write music.
"He's turned into the person I hope he would've turned into on the streets," Pat says. "He's a very bright young man, and he's compassionate, which is incredible, given his situation. I will never ever give up on trying to get him out."
Even though Erik's young, he's old-school in the joint.
"Any younger dude that comes in, I try to snatch them up and put them under my wing, if I can, if they show anything," he says. "But I can't just put myself out there for somebody who's not going to reciprocate it. If they're just going to let people roll over them, I just don't have the time for it. If a white dude comes into the pod and there's no dirt on him, then I'll automatically go to him and see if he needs anything. Same as if a Mexican comes into the pod, a Mexican will go to him and see if he needs anything. And so on and so forth.
"That way you're also bringing somebody else into the fold, unless they turn out to be no good, which happens. But as long as they're somebody good, that's somebody else who's standing on your side when a rumble comes."
When Erik was first locked up, he survived because an older white dude looked out for him, he says. And he learned the rules: You have to fight if someone tries to take something from you. Don't snitch, don't mess with fags, lay low, stick to your own. Whenever Erik screwed up, the older guy was there to show him how to better the situation the next time, and to help squash any beef heading his way.
Erik spoke fluent French when he went in, and he has learned a little Spanish since. He's been in about ten fights, mostly with black dudes, a couple with white guys, none with Mexicans.
Erik survived adult prison as a juvie, but he's seen other juvies fall victim.
"They'll come in and they won't fight when they need to fight," he says. "They won't stick up for their own. So they're paying rent, they're getting extorted or now they're gay and they're somebody's punk because they didn't have the heart to stick up for themselves."
There's so much drama in the joint that it's like a soap opera, he says. The majority of the drama comes from drugs, and you can get anything here that you can get on the streets. But he steers clear, he adds.
There's so much violence in the joint that it's like war, he says. Fights break out when issues aren't resolved, and you can be killed anytime. If you can't play politics, he says, you're going to have to fight.
Erik was willing to fight for his friend seven years ago, and he's willing to fight for Nate now. He knows Nate would do it for him, too.
Erik was torn when he took the stand at his trial. He says he wanted the jury to know why Nate had killed his mother, but he went along with the lawyers' strategy. He didn't want to do Nate wrong by violating his privacy, either, spreading the abuse stories that Nate had told him in confidence, stories no teenage boy would want people to know.
"Nate wasn't some cold-blooded dude," Erik says. "He was a good kid. Basically, it seems like society failed him, and I failed him. Almost like he was left with no other option. Because as far as I'm concerned, it was self-defense. He did what he had to do, and I kind of wanted to put all that stuff out there and I just didn't. I had told my lawyer, he had told his lawyer, we had told Social Services and everybody who'd listen, 'Hey, this kid was getting done bad,' and it seemed like the only thing we kept getting back is 'The only bad people here is you.'"
At least he helped his friend get out of the Ybanez home. That was the goal -- to set Nate free.
Prison was never part of the plan. If the jurors had known the whole truth, Erik believes they'd never have voted to convict. But instead, both boys landed behind bars. For life.
And Erik blames no one but himself for that.
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