Tracking Danger: Colorado's Failing Parole System

DENVER - The failings of an underequipped and overtaxed Parole Division led to two high profile murders and repercussions that are still reshaping the Colorado Department of Corrections.

In recent weeks, following a series of CALL7 investigations, the DOC has fired their parole chief and pledged to purchase new equipment for parole officers. The Denver Post also plans to publish an investigation Thursday revealing the DOC will be requesting funding for a unit focused on hunting parole absconders.

Still, questions about permanent leadership and follow-through remain.

 

-- How the investigation began --

CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta began to examine Colorado's parole policies after the death of Evan Ebel in March. Ebel was a Colorado parole absconder who engaged Texas police and deputies in a chase and shootout.

After Ebel was shot in the head in Texas, the evidence linking him to two high profile murders began to quickly pile up.

When Ebel was released from prison on January 28, 2013, he was put in a special supervision program for the most dangerous parolees. Ebel cut off his ankle monitor on March 14, but it took five days for officers to request an arrest warrant.

On March 17, Nate Leon was gunned down while working his part-time job as a pizza delivery driver. It was a job he did one day a week to earn extra money for his family.

"I want in big letters, Nathan Collin Leon, the loving husband and father; the 27-year-old man that got murdered for a t-shirt," Leon's wife Katie told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta during an exclusive interview.

Leon's Dominos Pizza gear was found in Ebel's car after the Texas shootout, leading to the theory that Ebel wore it during March 19 murder of DOC Director Tom Clements.

Clements was killed while answering the door at his home in Monument.

"That horrific night, you know the sound of that doorbell and all that happened: it was just unmentionable darkness. But I trust that people will see light come through, that they'll see that he lived a good life and people's lives were impacted by that," Clements' widow Lisa told CNN.

Hours before that murder, and five days Ebel's ankle monitor sounded a tamper alarm, parole officers spent a grand total of five minutes searching Ebel's apartment. The search lasted from 4:20 p.m. to 4:25 p.m.

Now fired Parole Director Tim Hand told the Denver Post that Ebel was working off a hit list.

"Evan Ebel killed Clements and (Denver tech professional Nate Leon), but there were a lot of other people who had their fingerprints all over this," said Hand.

Letters from other 211 Crew members, the white supremacist gang to which Ebel belonged, included additional names of potential targets, Hand said.

 

-- Changes in DOC management --

After the murder of DOC chief Tom Clements, Governor John Hickenlooper named a retired Kansas Department of Corrections to temporarily fill the role. Roger Werholtz took the lead of Colorado's prison system on April 22.

“I look forward to continuing the work begun by Tom Clements, who had set a course for the Department of Corrections that focused on the latest corrections research and practices,” Werholtz said after the announcement of his new role.

During his first day, Werholtz pledged to reporters that he'd spend time talking with employees to find out what needs to be fixed.

"Each person who talks to me about their issues, that is important to them. What I've gotta do is hear from everybody and try to sort those out," he said.

Later that day he admitted the parole division would be part of his focus, but he declined to provide details at that time.

Werholtz's impact on the parole division didn't stay secret for long.

CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta obtained an email from Werholtz on May 22 that said, "after careful thought and discussion over the past several days, I am ready to advise you that Mr. Hand will be away on a temporary leave of absence. In his absence, I have requested Steve Hager to assume leadership of the Division of Adult Parole, Community Corrections and the Youthful Offender System."

The leave of absence lasted until June 14, when Marchetta confirmed with multiple sources that Werholtz decided to fire Hand and keep Hager as the interim director of the parole division.

 

-- Parole officers getting new equipment --

In May, the CALL7 Investigators exposed officers were issued bullet proof vests that expired five years ago.

A community parole officer told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta in an exclusive interview officers were often issued non-working radios and lacked appropriate safety gear.

On Monday, June 3, Steve Hager sent an email out to his staff stating the department would now be purchasing new equipment, but stopped short of promising new bullet proof vests to replace the expired ones.

Hager told parole officers the DOC would purchase 76 new stun guns, 25 additional radios and 160 holsters. He didn’t say if or when new bullet proof vests would be purchased, writing only, "The discussion surrounding tactical/ballistic vests is and has been at the fore front of our discussions, and there appears to be many moving parts that must be taken into consideration as we move forward in developing a pland [sic] to address this issue."

The CALL7 Investigators learned about the safety issue though a parole officer, whose identity we are protecting because he said employees have been warned they will be fired for talking to reporters.

When asked in May if the DOC is purchasing newer vests for officers, spokeswoman Alison Morgan said, "With the hiring of new officers, the Division was allocated, by the General Assembly, for start-up funds for bullet proof vests. The Division will pay for half and the officer will be responsible for the remainder."

It is unclear if officers will have to pay half the costs of the new vests Hager wrote about in the email.

 

-- Conclusion –

The CALL7 Investigators have exposed a lack of accountability in the DOC parole that has lead to meaningful changes in the division, but it is still not clear what if any consequences those involved with the Ebel case will face.

State administrators say an audit of the parole division by the National Institute of Corrections currently underway will be a determining factor for the division going forward.