After 30 years the killer of Vincent Chin told me in an exclusive interview that the murder, known as a hate crime, wasn't about race, and that he doesn't even remember hitting Chin with a baseball bat.
As incredible as that sounds, there is one thing Ronald Ebens is clear about.
Ebens, who was convicted of second-degree murder but spent no time in prison for the act, is sorry for the beating death of Vincent Chin on June 19, 1982, in Detroit -- even though for many Asian Americans, he can't say sorry enough.
For years, Ebens has been allowed to live his life quietly as a free man.
With the arrival this month of the 30th anniversary of the murder -- and after writing about the case for years -- I felt the need to hear Ebens express his sorrow with my own ears, so that I could put the case behind me.
So I called him up, and he talked to me.
On the phone, Ebens, a retired auto worker, said killing Chin was "the only wrong thing I ever done in my life."
Though he received probation and a fine and never served any time for the murder, Ebens says he's prayed many times for forgiveness over the years. His contrition sounded genuine over the phone.
"It's absolutely true, I'm sorry it happened, and if there's any way to undo it, I'd do it," said Ebens, 72. "Nobody feels good about somebody's life being taken, OK? You just never get over it. ... Anybody who hurts somebody else, if you're a human being, you're sorry, you know."
Ebens said he'd take back that night "a thousand times" if he could, and that after all these years he can't put the memory out of his mind. "Are you kidding? It changed my whole life," said Ebens. "It's something you never get rid of. When something like that happens, if you're any kind of a person at all, you never get over it. Never."
Ebens' life has indeed changed. As a consequence of the Chin murder, Ebens said he lost his job and his family and has scraped by from one low-wage job to the next to make ends meet. Ultimately, he remarried and sought refuge in Nevada, where he's been retired eight years, owns a home, and lives paycheck to paycheck on Social Security. His current living situation makes recovery of any part of the millions of dollars awarded to Chin's heirs in civil proceedings highly unlikely.
The civil award, with interest, has grown to around $8 million.
"It was ridiculous then; it's ridiculous now," Ebens said with defiance.
His life hasn't been easy the last 30 years. But at least he's alive. He watches a lot of TV, he said, like America's Got Talent.
"They've got good judges," he said.
Sort of like the judges he got in his case? Like Judge Charles Kaufman, the Michigan judge who sentenced him to probation without notifying Chin's attorneys, virtually assuring that Ebens would never serve time for the murder?
Ebens didn't want to comment on that.
For all the time he spends in front of the television, Ebens said he has never seen either of the two documentaries that have been made on the case, and he said he made a mistake in speaking to one of the filmmakers. Even for this column, Ebens showed his reluctance to be interviewed.
But he finally consented to let me use all his statements, because I told him I would be fair. I'm not interested in further demonizing Ronald Ebens. I just wanted to hear how he deals with being the killer of Vincent Chin.
For three decades the Chin case has been a driving force that has informed the passion among activists for Asian-American civil rights. Some still feel there was no justice even after the long legal ordeal that included 1) the state murder prosecution, where Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were allowed to plea bargain to second-degree murder, given three years' probation, and fined $3,720; 2) the first federal prosecution on civil-rights charges that ended in a 25-year sentence for Ebens; 3) the subsequent appeal by Ebens to the Sixth Circuit, which was granted; 4) the second federal trial that was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati and ended in Ebens' acquittal.
Add it all up, and it seems a far cry from justice. One man dead. Perps go free. I thought that maybe Ebens could help me understand how he got justice and not Vincent Chin.
I asked him about his side of the story, which was a key dispute in the court testimony about how it all started at the Fancy Pants strip club.
"It should never have happened," said Ebens. "[And] it had nothing to do with the auto industry or Asians or anything else. Never did, never will. I could [not] have cared less about that. That's the biggest fallacy of the whole thing."
That night at the club, after some harsh words were exchanged, Ebens said Chin stood up and came around to the other side of the stage. "He sucker-punched me and knocked me off my chair. That's how it started. I didn't even know he was coming," Ebens said.
Chin's friends testified that Ebens made racial remarks, mistaking Chin for Japanese, and that when Chin and Ebens then got into a shoving match, Ebens threw a chair at him but struck Nitz instead.
But Ebens' assertion that there was no racial animosity or epithets is actually supported by testimony from Chin's friend, Jimmy Choi, who apologized to Ebens for Chin's behavior, which he said included Chin throwing the chair that injured Nitz.
What about the baseball bat and the fact that Ebens and Nitz followed Chin to a nearby McDonald's?
Ebens said that when all parties were asked to leave the strip club, they were out in the street. It's undisputed that Chin egged Ebens to fight on.
"The first thing he said to me is, 'You want to fight some more?'" Ebens recalled. "Five against two is not good odds," said Ebens, who declined to fight.
Later, when Chin and his friends left, Ebens' stepson went to get a baseball bat from his car. (Ironically, it was a Jackie Robinson model.) Ebens said he took it away from Nitz because he didn't want anyone taking it from him and using it on them.
But then Ebens said his anger got the best of him, and he drove with Nitz to find Chin, finally spotting him at the nearby McDonald's.
"That's how it went down," Ebens said. "If he hadn't sucker-punched me in the bar ... nothing would have ever happened. They forced the issue. And from there, after the anger built up, that's where things went to hell."
Ebens calls it "the gospel truth."
But he says he's cautious speaking now, because he doesn't want to be seen as shifting the blame. "I'm as much to blame," he admitted with sadness. "I should've been smart enough to just call it a day. After they started to disperse, [it was time to] get in the car and go home."
Regarding what happened at the McDonald's, where the blow that led to Chin's death actually occurred, Ebens' memory is more selective. To this day, he has doubts about having hit Chin with the bat. "I went over that a hundred, maybe 1,000 times in my mind the last 30 years. It doesn't make sense of any kind that I would swing a bat at his head when my stepson is right behind him. That makes no sense at all."
And then he quickly added, almost wistfully, "I don't know what happened."
At another point in the interview, he admitted that his memory may be deficient. "That was really a traumatic thing," he told me about his testimony. "I hardly remember even being on the stand."
He admitted that everyone had too much to drink that night. But he's not claiming innocence.
"No," Ebens said. "I took my shot in court. I pleaded guilty to what I did, regardless of how it occurred or whatever. A kid died, OK? And I feel bad about it. I still do."
Ebens told me he has Asian friends where he lives, though he didn't indicate whether he shares his past with them. When he thinks about Chin, he said no images come to mind.
"It just makes me sick to my stomach, that's all," he said, thinking about all the lives that were wrecked, both Chin's and his own.
By the end of our conversation, Ebens still wasn't sure he wanted me to tell his story. "It will only alienate people," he said. "Why bother? I just want to be left alone and live my life."
But I told him that I wouldn't judge, that I would just listen and use his words. I told him that it was important in the Asian-American community's healing process to hear a little more from him than a one-line, "I'm sorry."
He ultimately agreed. One line doesn't adequately explain another human being's feelings and actions. I told him I would paint a fuller picture.
So now we've heard what Ebens has to say 30 years later. From a phone conversation, I don't know if he's telling me the truth, nor do I know if I'm ready to forgive him, but I heard from him, and now that I have, I can deal with how the justice system failed Vincent Chin and continue to help in the fight to ensure that it never happens again.
This piece originally appeared on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blog.
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