Vincent Chin? Remembering Ronald Ebens-the guy who got away with murder

June 13, 2011 8:10 AM

I've got my call into Ronald Madis Ebens. I've found him, heard his voice, and left my message on his answering machine. And when he calls me back, maybe he'll say something to make us all feel better.

I'm not holding my breath.

It will be 29 years on June 19th.  On that day in 1982, Ebens, a then 42-year-old white Chrysler autoworker, along side with his stepson accomplice Michael Nitz, then 23, took a baseball bat and bludgeoned Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, to death on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.

While people always seem to ask about Vincent Chin, I prefer to dwell on the perps, Ebens and Nitz.

In a case too easily forgotten by the mainstream, the two men don't deserve to be beneficiaries of our collective memory loss.

How can they? The facts are indisputable. Some witnesses say Nitz held down Chin. Some say he didn't. Everyone says he was there and did nothing to stop Ebens, who ferociously struck and beat Chin repeatedly, with two savage blows to the head leaving Chin unconscious.

For their admitted role in Chin's death, here's the amount of time Ebens and Nitz served for the crime they committed: zero.

Ebens is now 71. His accomplice Nitz is 52.  They are the only real beneficiaries of the injustice that is the Chin case.

After 29 years, it's tempting to say, Vincent Chin, old hat, old hate. Move on.

Yet recently I sat in on a re-telling of the Chin story and noticed how the recounting of facts is still breathtakingly horrific. From the altercation in the Fancy Pants Strip Club, to Ebens' and Nitz's search and destroy mission.

And then comes the punchline.

Ebens and Nitz were allowed to plea bargain in a Michigan court to escape mandatory jail time for second degree murder.  Ebens pleaded guilty; Nitz pleaded nolo contendere. Both men got this sentence: three years' probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs.

It never fails to make a crowd gasp in disbelief.

The crowd I was in happened to be a diverse audience of ethnically aware educators. Twenty-nine years later, and there's a new generation waiting to be given the reality check that is the Chin story. In America, it's still very possible to engage in a racially motivated crime--the murder of an Asian American--and get away with it.

While three-strike felons are doing life in California for non-violent crimes, Ebens, who has admitted to his role in the killing of Chin, is living a life in the sunshine. I actually found him far from the Detroit area and gave him a call this week. He's remarried and lives in a state with a huge Asian American population.

He's lucky he's generally far less remembered than Vincent Chin himself.

But here's how justice played out for Ebens. By plea bargaining in the original case, his sentencing hearing was seen as little more than a formality. No one representing Chin was notified or even showed up. So no one could object when the judge unexpectedly granted both Ebens and Nitz 3 years' probation.

The light sentence set off such a response that a second trial, on civil rights charges in federal district court, was inevitable. But it was an angry, strident affair with a conclusion to match. Nitz was acquitted, but  Ebens was convicted to 25 years in prison.

Ebens always called the federal trial a "frame-up" and appealed for a new trial to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court saw the failure to change venues and the coaching of witnesses by a community activist as reason enough for a new trial.

At that point, the new case was put in Cincinnati, Ohio, far removed from Detroit, its media, the auto industry, and five years after the night of the attack. It was advantage Ebens, who on May 2, 1987 was found not guilty on the federal civil rights charges.

Wrote the Associated Press, Ebens "broke into tears at the verdict."

"I'm still very sorry about the death that occurred, but I'm very relieved it is over after four years," he said back then.

When I placed a call to him this week, I didn't think he'd want to wait for the 30th anniversary.

After 29 years, the case is still so unsettling. I figured Ebens' perspective could be useful in understanding how the justice system worked fine for someone like him, but not for Vincent Chin.

***

 


Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.

27 comments

1. Can't sleep after reading your blog. Too many memories of moms warning me to keep my sons close and closer. One mom who lost her oldest son after being beaten to death by a racist mob once told me that it could happen to anyone. Followed by a lifetime of heartbreak... Too much hate. Too much violence. And too many murders: Navroze Mody 1987 Hoboken NJ // Jim Loo 1989 Carey, NC // Luyen Phan Nguyen 1992 Coral Springs, FL // Kao Kuan Chung 1997 San Francisco, CA // Joseph Ileto 1999 Granada Hills, CA // Balbir Singh Sodhi 2001 Mesa, AZ // Divyendu Sinha 2010 Old Bridge, NJ. And too many others. But.. not enough Justice........ yet.
Posted by: sjx | Jun 15, 2011 5:07 AM

2. Thanks for re-telling the story, Emil. Check out our documentary, if you can. It's called, "Vincent Who?" vincentwhomovie.com and it looks at the case and the current status of Asian American political empowerment. I have gone to over 200 colleges in the past 2 years to speak on it!
Posted by: Curtis | Jun 15, 2011 4:04 PM

3. Doesn't he still owe the Chin family the amount of the settlement (which he never paid)? And hadn't he been living off the grid to avoid paying taxes and to avoid having to pay the settlement? Throw his ass bum in jail for that at least.
Posted by: Eugenia | Jun 15, 201110:49 PM

4. Thank you for reminding young APAs of past battles that contines to today. Another interesting article is Christine Ho's views on Vincent Chin that can be read at http://us_asians.tripod.com/articles-vincentchin.html
Posted by: US Asians | Jun 16, 201112:48 AM

5. Someone should beat down Eben's offspring and claim they were looking for a Jew, then fly to Japan and work for Honda.
Posted by: Wics2 | Jun 16, 201112:53 AM

6. I found this due to a longstanding google alert. I remember watching the documentary many years ago and the horror of it has stuck with me. One note: Nitz cannot be only 42 years old.
Posted by: Onepostonly | Jun 17, 201112:19 AM

7. Sometimes the Justice system speaks a millions words, in this particular incident it is encouraging vigilantism. If we can't rely on the justice system who do we turn to?
Posted by: V | Jun 17, 201112:32 AM

8. I grew up in Detroit and I remember the whole trial going on when I was just a small kid. My parents to this day will always say (in broken English), "Your not REALLY American... just look at what happened to Vincent Chin."
Posted by: Mike S. | Jun 20, 2011 4:59 PM

9. Thank you for writing this and keeping the story alive. It is appalling and deeply saddening that the justice system we are supposed to have faith in can let us down in such a dramatic and inhumane way.
Posted by: Jenny Phung | Jun 20, 2011 6:17 PM

10. I am half-Japanese. I remember reading the original story in Rolling Stone. It broke my heart. There was always hatred in Detroit towards the Japanese for their cars and it culminated with Vincent Chin being beaten to death. It was considered OK by everyone, the auto industry, Detroit, the criminal justice system, society, that Vincent Chin was beaten to death for being Asian. I refuse to buy a car made by GM. Driving a Toyota is my way of saying FU.
Posted by: Emily Booth | Jun 20, 201110:09 PM

11. I remember being a kid and my father showing me the article about this in the newspaper. A NY paper. Small article. Smaller picture. Still I remembered Vincent Chin's face & my father's words: "where are the protests? where are the cries for justice? Where's Jesse Jackson?" It was then he told me not think like a black american, or an american for that matter, but as an individual. Wrong is wrong. Period. It was criminal that the traditional civil rights leadership didn't show up for this. If not for the fact that his human rights were violated, for the simple fact that the perps, 2 white men, were completely exonerated. (I have no doubt if they were black they would have been in jail.) Not only did Vincent Chin die because he was Asian, but his murderers got off because they were white. And isn't that the same institutional racism they railed against in their glorified movement for justice & equality?
Posted by: Yvette F. | Jun 23, 2011 1:45 PM

12. I am Hmong, and the first time that I have heard this was at Asian & Pacific Islander Vote. The first time I read the whole story was now. For the first time in a long time, have I felt proud. Have I felt included. For so many years, there has been so many hate crimes against our race, and because we weren't educated enough in that moment in time, we didnot have a voice. Well now we do! Because we weren't educated didn't mean that we were stupid. We are very smart and for that reason, I urge you to look up (APIA). We have leaders out there that listen and at the same time speak for us. For the Asian & Pacific Americans! Thank you for the story.
Posted by: Vahoua Cheng | Jun 25, 2011 9:43 AM

13. Thank you for posting this blog. I went through this kind of hatred at Regent University School of Law, and it is still going on at my school, work, and wherever I stay. Please hit google.com under Regent University School of Law and rip-off or you can look at in my facebook under warning (watchdog) post. Thanks.
Posted by: Kai Mong | Aug 20, 201111:53 AM

14. This is something we should never forget, but as I read more about the case, it is also not as shocking as I once believed that the men were acquitted of the more serious charges. Vincent Chin threw the first punch and then won that fight, then after a first fight was over and saw the men again, challenged the men who eventually killed him to keep fighting. He was not smart. When faced with an insult, he should have been proud and stood up for himself, but he should not have been violent. Nonviolence and forgiveness would go a long way in making this world a better place. Of course he didn't "deserve" to die, and his killers should have served jail time, but I now believe his killers were not as "evil" as I had been led to believe.
Posted by: Jim Fung | Sep 16, 2011 2:47 PM

15. I went to elementary school with his daughter from 1978 - 1983, which is when this happened. It's hard to believe he got away with it, but he was a *expleteive deleted* all the way around, at home as well. This whole thing never should have happened, and despite the fact that Mr. Chin "started it" or whatever, a fist fight is one thing. Being a sissy, picking up a bat, and beating another (unarmed and held down) guy to death warrants jail time. And, the auto industry in Detroit had it coming too. Promoting a guy like Ebens to foreman is all the evidence one needs of that.
Posted by: Dirk Zander | Oct 3, 2011 4:27 PM

16. What state does Ebens live in and wouldn't the large Asian American community there want to stage a protest in his hometown? We need to speak out for justice!
Posted by: L.Chin | Mar 22, 2012 8:04 PM

17. Jim, his killers provoked the fight with a racist taunt, and clearly had racist motivations to their crime. When the federal government tried to give them the punishment they deserved, they had the audacity to complain that THEY were being persecuted, apparently because they thought that probation and a few thousand dollars was already much more than ample compensation than the value of an Asian's life. To this day, Ebens has changed his entire life to make sure he never has to pay a penny to his victim's family. Tell me again about how they're not all that evil.
Posted by: I Love Dirk | Mar 24, 2012 6:01 PM

18. I did not know Vincent Chin, but having lived near Detroit @ the time I certainly recall the incident. Yes, there was injustice. Ebens should have served some time. I feel Nitz was more of a "tag-a-long". Both should pay at least some restitution. Now that we have that over with, there are some interesting comments I have heard from a bar-owner I know. This fellow owned a bar in Berkley, Michigan and knew Vincent Chin well as Chin frequented his bar. The bar owner said Vincent Chin was a trouble-maker & bully character who agitated customers and was an all around azzhole. He had nothing good to say about Vincent Chin. Nothing. Incidentally, I recall something to the effect of Vincent Chin, after punching out Michael Nitz asked Nitz: "Why don't you learn how to fight?" Kind of sounds like an attempt at mockery and agitation to me." I suspect that Vincent Chin was the type who would not back down, which is admireable in some situations. There was no real evidence that Nitz or Ebens uttered racial slurs, though I suspect someone in the bar *DID* which escalated the quarrel by such remarks. But I also suspect Chin was a bit of a hotheaded type prone to fight first and ask questions later (or not ask at all). This type of character is often the type to end up in trouble. And yes, I believe Ronald Ebens is much the same way. When 2 such personalities come into contact - watch out! And I feel that is what occured here. In summary: Vincent Chin did not deserve to die, though he probably did agitate the situation (i.e. waiting in the parking lot and wanting to continue to fight). Ronald Ebens should have simply walked away in the parking lot and let the matter drop. Ebens should have served some time. Michael Nitz should have served some time as well, but less time than Ebens. And more restitution should be paid. The whole mess was due to anger, refusal to walk away from trouble, and pride. Sad. STEELWOLVES
Posted by: STEELWOLVES | Jun 14, 201212:34 PM

19. Thanks for the story Emil. For those of you who say, "Move on," there's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." So you left a message w/Ebens who now lives in Las Vegas. Please follow up with him if he doesn't respond. (Ebens' contact info can be readily available via various information search services btw people.) Didn't realize there were that many Asian Americans in Nevada but I guess 7.2% of the (NV) population is somewhat significant. And this case of injustice shouldn't be any different if Chin were a black man or a blonde white female, but of course he wasn't and the case's outcome is what it was -- unjust. Never forget.
Posted by: likestripclubs&whitepeople | Jun 18, 2012 2:51 PM

20. Thank you for the post Emil. The responses are interesting. I have difficulty looking at this as a bar room brawl gone too far, or two hot heads who didn't know when to let up, or an unfortunate drunken rage. People have gone to prison and served serious time for assault causing injury, or killing someone while driving drunk. A man was murdered. Probation? I can only hope that those who try to justify Ronald Ebens' overturned conviction aren't the same people who whine and complain about the lack of "personal responsibility" in this country.
Posted by: ldm | Jun 21, 2012 8:34 AM

21. Wow! Back up. For 30 years I've been missing a fact. Yes, there was an initial altercation and a fight which Chin won. That, Gentlemen, should have ended it. But, when Chin went back for Seconds? That was on him. HOWEVER. He didn't deserve to die. Because he did, and the way he did, time ought to have been served by both Ebens and Nitz, and, the damage awards ought to have paid. Shame on Chin, for re-starting the fight. Shame on Ebens and Nitz, for not paying the damages. And, because there WAS the original issue of Ebend/nNitz thinking Chin was Japanese...Shame on the Courts for denying the Racial motive, for tossing the Federal Civil Rights case. Never forget: #2 - THE WHOLE THING STARTED because vincent was trying to be a Gentleman, to defend/protect the dancer whose talent Ebens was bad-mouthing. Eben's response to Chin's defense statement, was to refer to the (wrong) Ethnicity. THERE, was where the Civil Rights case started. BUT, BUT, BUT..."Bad guy#1?" Chin? Ebens? Nitz? The Judges? The APA? NO, NONE OF THOSE PERSONS. THE WHOLE THING WAS STARTED BY BAD GUY #1...Alcohol. And, they were all drinking, weren't they?! So, I agree with Jim and the other gentleman, who said much the same as I have. Chin won a fight, then started a second, which they finished and him, with it. It was over kill...prison was called for, and, certainly damages are due. Is there no way, no one, to make that Collection??
Posted by: Grace | Jun 25, 2012 6:41 PM

22. Still... to take a bat to someone's head twice while he's being held down? It doesn't matter who started it. You don't take a bat to someone's head. Period. Lethal weapon. Murder. Period. People who are found with marijuana go to jail. C'mon. No excuses for a lousy racist justice system.
Posted by: Nancy Wanag | Jun 26, 201211:58 AM

23. Emily Booth (6/20), if you're been boycotting GMC products for thirty years because former employee Ronald Ebens used to work there, you've been boycotting the wrong auto maker! Ronald Ebens did not work for GMC; he worked for Dodge Chrysler, now known as Chrysler Group, LLC. Besides Chrysler, the corporation has produced Dodge, Plymouth, Jeep, Ram, DeSoto, Mopar, and ???. Ever purchase any of these?
Posted by: Lana Galyean | Jun 29, 2012 2:10 PM

24. The two men got into a car and chased Chin down at a McDonalds. They got into a car, drove around, got out, took out the bat, held him down, and swung. That is premeditated and the fault of the individuals who went hunting for Chin. So don't blame alcohol and don't blame the victim, Vincent (Grace, comment 21), for being an ass (Steelwolves, comment 18). This was someone's child and someone's fiancee and you shouldn't judge who he was but the actions that were taken against him. He did not go looking for that second fight. Read, watch the documentaries, learn the facts before you comment and spread misinformation. THAT is an even further injustice to this case and what it represents.
Posted by: Susan | Jul 17, 201211:55 PM

25. I think two much has been made of the racial angle. This case was really testerone mixed with alcohol, and a certain degree of recklessness by both parties. However, Ebens and Nitz turned it to murder by premeditatedly hunting Chin down, instead of going home, and then assaulting him when he was unarmed and they had a baseball bat. If the judge had imposed a sentence that was adequate for willfully crushing someone's head in with a baseball bat, there never would have been a racial issue. The sentence was based on a plea bargain to 3rd degree manslaughter. The judge justified his decision in non-racial terms, but one wonders if perhaps the race of the victims/perps entered into it. He did say these were not the "type of people" who should be sent to jail, but that could be a reference to their lower/middle class, noncriminal history. In any event, the racial angle really became important, and was hyped, because a racial motive was needed to justify federal civil rights charges (which did not win convictions anyway). What should have happened is that Ebens and Nitz should have served, say 15 to 20 years, and this case would have remained anonymous. The lesson here is NOT that we should have civil rights laws to address these kinds of cases. This was really an individual crime not a group crime. The REAL lesson is that when someone murders another person, there needs to be justice for the victim, irrespective of race. If someone bashes in another person's head with a baseball bat, there should be consequences - decades behind bars, at least. That is what is so outrageous about this case.
Posted by: Jeff Shapiro | Jul 31, 2013 4:36 PM

26. Just watched the documentary about the dastardly murder of Vincent Chin by a sick, racist, KKK, evil maniac - Ronald Eben. It's just unbelievable how the much bragged about great American justice system works. Too many sins and injustices in this country especially against minorities. Reminds me of TRAYVON MARTIN whose life cut short by a brutal rogue - George Zimmerman and indeed walked away a free man. May God's wrath come heavily upon these evil maniacs who are literally protected by a bias American justice system.
Posted by: Kenday Kamara | Sep 19, 2013 3:19 PM

27. I remember this case from years ago, but revisited it last night on "Fatal Encounters". I am an African American and for those of you in the Asian community who think we lack compassion, don't care or that we are all criminals, that is wrong. I was raised by parents who instilled to me the importance of treating everyone equal and with respect. ANY decent person with morals and a conscious should be outraged not only at this crime, but the lack of punishment for the offenders. Mr Chin's family not receiving any form of justice is a travesty, pure and simple. Mr Shapiro, respectfully, you are WRONG. This was a racially motivated attack, pure and simple. Mr Chin just happened to be a scapegoat for these cowards and he paid with his life. Your dismissive stance only adds salt to the gaping wound. Ebens lost his job and blamed it indirectly on Mr. Chin whom he mistook for being Japanese. The rationale that Ebens was "not the type" is immaterial. He bashed this man's head in because he was Asian. I hope Eben has not slept peacefully or enjoyed a meal for the last 30-plus years. What really sickens me is that Mr. Chin would have been a contributing and productive member of society. He was robbed of his future, as weere his finance, mother and friends. We were all robbed by this man's death in some form or fashion even if we didn't know Mr. Chin personally. The same applies when any good, decent person in society is taken from us in this butal manner. I will continue to write and rally against racially motivated violence, no matter WHO is the perp or victim for as long as I live.
Posted by: Gil | Sep 20, 201311:18 AM


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