Erik Jensen on Juvie Murder, Release Odds and How Prison Saved Him

Erik Jensen at the Douglas County Justice Center on May 23.
Erik Jensen at the Douglas County Justice Center on May 23. Michael Roberts
On May 22, in Douglas County court, Erik Jensen's sentence for failing to intervene in a 1998 murder at age seventeen was changed from life without parole to his being parole-eligible after forty years. As a result, he's currently scheduled to remain incarcerated for much longer than the actual killer, Nate Ybanez, who's likely to be set free next year after having his own life sentence commuted by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper this past December, a few weeks before Hickenlooper left office.

That decision, which allows the state parole board to consider Ybanez's release in 2020, was made in large part because Julie Ybanez, his mother, whom he killed with fireplace tongs when he was just sixteen, had allegedly been physically and sexually abusing him prior to the attack. But Hickenlooper took no action regarding the punishment meted out to Jensen. His sentence was altered to give him a chance at parole after four decades because of a Colorado law necessitated by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders unconstitutional.

After the hearing, Jensen was taken to a cell in Castle Rock's Douglas County Justice Center to await transport back to the Limon Correctional Facility, his current home — and he was still at the facility the next day when he consented to a wide-ranging interview with Westword.

Given the events that preceded the conversation, Jensen might have been expected to be angry, frustrated or depressed. Instead, he came across as practically zen, even though he admitted that he still hadn't fully processed the turn of events that began with Hickenlooper's commutation for Nate but not him.

"It was a hard shot," he said, "and when it happened, I was almost in disbelief. Nate's my friend, and I'm glad he's going to be free. But at the same time, how do you reconcile being the accessory in a crime and still be doing a million years when the principal is getting out? I thought it would at least give the DA an opportunity to look at this where it wouldn't have anything to do with politics — where it would just be the right thing to do. But I guess the DA doesn't think it's the right thing to do."

The district attorney in question, the 18th Judicial District's George Brauchler, has been less loquacious than usual on the subject. He didn't attend the hearing, and afterward, he authorized a statement reiterating that he "has respectfully declined to comment" on the new sentence, which was "mandated by state law, not a request of our office or the decision of the judge." But the inclusion in his email to press of a partial transcript from testimony in Jensen's 1999 trial was clearly intended to emphasize that the then-teen wasn't wholly innocent of wrongdoing even though Ybanez struck the fatal blow.

Of course, Jensen long ago took responsibility for helping Ybanez clean up the crime scene and associated activities that made him legally complicit in the slaying. Likewise, he's owned up to bad behavior before and after his arrest, prior to making a commitment to change that's led to a remarkable personal transformation.

Today, Jensen is an active Christian who helped create two successful programs at Limon. The first, formed in conjunction with Trevor Jones, who was also convicted as an adult in a killing at age seventeen, is devoted to helping addicts move beyond their habits through the combined power of faith and CrossFit; Jensen is a fully accredited trainer, and the project has earned praise from Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. In the second, Jensen, Jones and Jonathan Willis, convicted of felony murder, and other participating inmates serve as assistant pastors to supplement the work of Howie Close, a reformed offender (he was given a 75-year sentence for an early 1990s hate-crime assault on several Japanese students at the former Teikyo Loretto Heights University) now in charge of Woodman Valley Chapel's prison ministry.

The booking photos of seventeen-year-old Erik Jensen taken after his 1998 arrest. - DOUGLAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE VIA TRUE CRIME DAILY
The booking photos of seventeen-year-old Erik Jensen taken after his 1998 arrest.
Douglas County Sheriff's Office via True Crime Daily
Jensen has come a long way from his teenage years, when, he admitted, "I thought my parents were idiots — that they were just trying to hold me back." Since his arrest, he's learned differently: Curt and Pat Jensen have become tireless advocates for juvenile-sentencing reform even as they've visited him in assorted jails every week for 21 years, weather or bureaucracy permitting. "Knowing they're behind me, and so many other people are, really keeps me going," he stressed. "I'm so grateful."

He feels the same way, strangely enough, about his extended incarceration. When asked if he should have been prosecuted in the juvenile system, he acknowledged, "It's hard for me to go back to that now, because I feel like I've become exactly who I wanted to be in prison. So I'm thankful I came to prison. I don't know if I would have gotten that in juvie, because it took me a while to grow up, like it does everybody. I did a little bit of juvie before I was put into adult jail, and it was crazy. There was no structure to it — just children going 'Ahhhhhh!'"

At first it looked as if Jensen's stint wouldn't be nearly as long as it's proven to be. In early 1999, as his trial approached, "I was told I could get manslaughter if I postponed the case. They thought Jim Peters [the late prosecutor at the time] would do that. At the most, that would have been ten to 32 years, and I would be out by now. But then Columbine happened, and after that, they pulled the plea bargain off the table. That was such a huge deal, and they [the Columbine killers] were juveniles my age who lived in the same kind of neighborhood [Jensen is from Highlands Ranch]. That changed the way a lot of people thought about juveniles and crime forever."

After his conviction, Jensen landed at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, in a part of the facility that inmates refer to as "gladiator school" — meaning that inmate-on-inmate violence is a well-established part of the culture. To make matters worse, he recalled, "I was assigned to the most serious unit, the one called Thunderdome. And I was like a kamikaze. For basically my first year, if you wanted something I had, it was on. I was running with a bad crowd, with other kids doing that same stuff."

When he was in his early twenties, he went on, his group "ended up getting into a fight with some other kids who happened to look a little different, and I got put in isolation in CSP [Colorado State Penitentiary]. It was 23 and one [23 hours in solitary per day], with no human contact, no sunlight." For a while, this seemed like an improvement, "because I wasn't in gladiator school anymore. I was like, 'I'm through with that.' I didn't want to have to fight all the time. I felt like I'd proven myself by then and I shouldn't have to do it anymore. It sucked. But once I was in there, I realized it sucked, too, but in a completely different way. Before that, I was like an exposed nerve, and then it was nothing — nothing at all."

The setting led to madness for some of Jensen's fellow inmates. "Some of them would go off and never come back. You could hear them through the walls talking to the TV like it was a real person. It's one thing to talk to the TV when you're watching a sports game or something like that, but it's another to act like you just got a response back from Rachel on Friends."

click to enlarge Erik Jensen was housed at the Douglas County Justice Center before and after his resentencing hearing. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
Erik Jensen was housed at the Douglas County Justice Center before and after his resentencing hearing.
Michael Roberts
This fate could have been his, too. He remembered times when his folks had to reassure him that paranoid delusions he was experiencing weren't genuine. "I was terrified about what was going to happen to me, because I value my faculties almost more than anything else," he explained. "I was like, I've got to figure this out. So I started really looking into it, and I realized these dudes are trapped in a room with somebody they hate, and that's what eventually gets them. I had to say to myself, 'Am I trapped in a room with somebody I hate? Yeah.' And that's when I started going down the road to full introspection: Admit for real what you did. Don't just say what you didn't do. Say what you did do. And then look at who you are and who you want to be, and figure out how to make those things line up."

By the time he was released from isolation, around two and a half years later, "I was like sharpened steel, because I'd done nothing but introspective self-study work," he recalled. "I'd become an adult in isolation; I turned 22, 23 and 24 in there. And I didn't want to go back to what I was doing. I was like a rock star when I came out of CSP because I'd done so much nonsense, and when I told the kids I'd been hanging out with, 'I'm not going to do that anymore,' they were like, 'What? You've got to do that stuff! You're so good at it!' And I was like, 'No, I'm terrible at it, and if I'm good at it, I shouldn't be.' It was hard for me to do, but that was when I started on my path."

Over the years that followed, Jensen completed a college degree, began writing in a serious way, and even got into a relationship with a woman that lasted seven years. The pairing fell apart after a 2015 ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court about the juvenile lifer law "that made it seem like I was going to die in here" convinced him the romance had no future. But he eventually found light in the darkness.

"Before, I'd been messing around with Christianity," he noted. "And when all of that happened, I was like, 'I'm going to kill myself unless You can give me something else.' After that, it was instantaneous. That was a super-low, and I've had a couple of those in my time. But from every super-low I've had, I've come out of it so much better. At the time, it didn't feel good, and I even attribute the actual crime to that kind of thing. Obviously, I would take it back in a second if I could. There's not really a good set of words to describe my remorse level. But that being said, I'm pretty stoked about who I've become."

This month's resentencing hearing was originally supposed to take place last September, but it was canceled at the last minute, after Jensen had already been moved from Limon to Douglas County. "Being in county sucks," he confessed. "It's worse than prison. I hadn't been in handcuffs or belly chains or anything like that for fifteen years. I work in a parking lot at the prison where I'm at. I was helping deliver groceries the week before, and then all of a sudden I was in a belly chain — and it was for nothing."

Erik Jensen speaking at the May 22 hearing. - JESSICA PECK
Erik Jensen speaking at the May 22 hearing.
Jessica Peck
When the hearing actually happened, no members of the Ybanez family showed up, despite efforts by Jensen's attorney, Lisa Polansky, to track them down in the hopes of finding out their views about his release prospects. The family also chose not to get involved with the hearing via the 18th Judicial District DA's Office, and Roger Ybanez, Julie's husband, who's denied having abused Nate, didn't respond to Westword's request for an interview. Jensen, for his part, hasn't heard of anyone related to Julie, or anyone else, who actively opposes him being given a sentence more in line with Nate's — other than Brauchler, presumably.

In his own remarks at the hearing, Jensen shared his philosophy about the life he didn't save. He has no doubt that Julie Ybanez was sexually abusing her son. "I heard conversations where I knew that's what was going on," he divulged in his Westword interview. "There's only one person who talks to you like that — your girlfriend. Your mom isn't supposed to talk to you like that."

But he still he doesn't see her as having been beyond redemption.

"Probably the strongest argument against a life sentence or the death penalty is that the person never got a chance to change," he went on. "Maybe she would have changed — but obviously, she didn't get the chance. So what I can do, I think, is increase the value of her life with my own life, and make it as if she did change. And that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. I believe every human on the planet is a sinner, and I believe there's only one saving grace: God's grace. It's not given through any work of our own. It's a free gift. We don't deserve it, but we get it. So she was a sinner, and so was I. But I was given grace."

At some point, he continued, "I hope she was given grace, too. I don't know. But in reality, all of us have done things we're ashamed of. We've all done things we hope nobody ever finds out about. But I feel a responsibility to use my gift to help people get better. When I'm asked why I paid $1,000 of my family's money to get CrossFit trained, to get the certification to go train seven days a week for no money, I tell them I know it's what I should be doing. I love it, and I'd be doing it anyhow. But I also want to help people increase their own value."

While many of these efforts were launched after Ybanez's commutation, Jensen said he isn't participating simply to give Hickenlooper's successor, Governor Jared Polis, or members of the state legislature more reasons to address his circumstances. Still, he encourages such folks to "look at my record over the past seventeen years and compare it with any other person who got clemency and see how it stacks up."

Whether he's given a reprieve or not, "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," he concluded. "One of the things I say pretty often is that the first thing I'm going to do when I get out is complete my paperwork so I can come back in — so I can keep caring for the exact same people. I want to be available to help make the world a better place. My world is small right now, so I'm trying to make the small world better. And if I get out, I'll try to make the larger world better."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts