Tag Archives: Vincent Chin

30 years after: My interview with Vincent Chin’s killer, Ronald Ebens

When I first posted the  interview I did with Vincent Chin’s killer,  Ronald Ebens, my purpose was to use talking to the killer as my own personal way to commemorate the 30th anniversary. I am a journalist. I wanted to hear from the killer. If I could get him to talk, it could be news.

But the personal motive was the main driver to this story. Back in 1982,  I was just a young reporter, working my way through journalism having worked in broadcasting in Boston, Houston, St.Louis, San Francisco, Reno, Dallas, then San Francisco again  at KRON-TV (when it was the NBC affiliate). I was as mainstream as it got. I didn’t see myself as an Asian American journalist. 

But Vincent Chin changed all that for me.

(Originally posted on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund site).

After 30 years, the killer of Asian American icon Vincent Chin told me in an exclusive interview that the murder known as a hate crime, wasn’t about race, nor does he ever even remember hitting Chin with a baseball bat.
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 of the 30th anniversary this month–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, okay? 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 if he could “a thousand times,” 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, 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 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 said he made a mistake 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 3 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 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 to be Japanese. And then when Chin got into a shoving match, Ebens threw a chair at him but struck Nitz instead.

But Ebens’ version 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 that included Chin throwing a chair and injuring Nitz.

What about the baseball bat and how Ebens and Nitz followed Chin to a nearby McDonald’s?

Ebens said 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.

Then 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 sadly admitted. “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.”

At the McDonald’s where the blow that led to Chin’s death actually occurred, Ebens’ memory is more selective. To this day, he even wonders about hitting 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.”
Another time in the interview, he admitted 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 if 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 I wouldn’t judge. I would just listen, and use his words. I told him 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 that we’ve heard what Ebens has to say 30 years later. I don’t know from a phone conversation 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 that it never happens again.

For more information, read the pivotal 6th Circuit federal appeals court decision, which sent the case back for a new trial.

Ronald Ebens, Vincent Chin’s murderer apologizes in an exclusive interview with Emil Guillermo

Ronald Ebens says he’s sorry for the beating death of Vincent Chin on June 19, 1982, 30 years ago in Detroit. But for many Asian Americans, he can’t say sorry enough.

For the 30th anniversary, after writing and thinking about the case for years, I was hoping for some closure. I just wanted to hear him express his regret with my own ears, so that I could move forward and put the story behind me.

 So I called him up. And he talked to me.

 In an exclusive telephone interview, 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, okay? You just never get over it. . .Anybody who hurts somebody else, if you’re a human being, you’re sorry, you know.”


Can we all get along? Recalling injustice from Rodney King to Vincent Chin (with new info on the man who beat Chin to death, Ronald Ebens)

 (Originally posted on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blog)

Call it a cosmic coincidence that Rodney King–a victim of the most infamous police beating caught on video tape–died on Sunday. His death comes just a few months after the 20th anniversary of one of the main outcomes of his case–the six-day people’s uprising in Los Angeles, one the worst race riots in U.S. history. King’s death is also just days before the 30th anniversary of the horrific beating death of Asian American Vincent Chin.

That’s a lot of social injustice to recall in one paragraph, let alone one week.

Bad enough that some still ask Vincent Who? Perhaps more distressing is how many people, both young and old, are beginning to ask Rodney Who?

It was before Twitter. Pre-iPhone. Pre-UFC levels of violence. March 3,1991. VHS times. The police were attempting to stop King who had been driving on an LA freeway. A high-speed chase ensued. When he got out of his car, King resisted arrest. The officers used a stun gun and then wailed away with their batons until a bloodied King was left with multiple fractures. Seeing the video again in news reports, I had forgotten the level of brutality used. The video allowed everyone to witness how people of color, but blacks in particular, could be dealt with by law enforcement.

So damning was the video that when the four officers, Sgt. Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind, and Laurence Powell, were acquitted a year later of the state’s charges, the outrage was such that six days of rioting ensued. King would come forward and publicly utter, “Can we all get along?” But the violence and looting even turned against innocent Asian Americans, when Korean Americans were forced to take arms to defend their stores and businesses.

Koon and Powell were ultimately convicted of federal civil rights charges and served more than two years in prison. King did receive a $3.8 million dollar payout from the city of Los Angeles and its police department. But money isn’t everything, as King found out. Nothing can alleviate the sadness and pain brought on by the revelatory videotape of King’s beating.

Nothing short of a transformation of law enforcement and society.

But can anyone honestly say of the King incident that it could never happen again?


If only the Vincent Chin beating had the benefit of video, maybe the anniversary date of his brutal killing this week wouldn’t be so sad. At least in King’s case, the video led to two officers imprisoned and a multi-million dollar civil case settlement.

In the Chin matter, no one served any time. Nor was there a penny paid out to Chin’s surviving family.

Those facts always stun any audience that hears a simple re-telling of the case. It always elicits people’s stunned gasps.

But the Chin case didn’t involve police, just normal citizens.

On June 19, 1982, Ronald Madis Ebens, a then 42-year-old white Chrysler autoworker, along  with his stepson accomplice Michael Nitz, then 23, took a baseball bat and bludgeoned Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, to death on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.

The crisis actually began in the Fancy Pants strip club where Chin was attending his own bachelor party. Ebens and Nitz were there as patrons and commented on Chin and his friends. Ebens reportedly told a stripper, “Don’t pay any attention to those little fuckers, they wouldn’t know a good dancer if they’d seen one.”

Ebens claimed Chin then threw a punch at him. But another witness testified that Ebens got up and said, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.”  

They saw Chin, a Chinese American, and thought he was Japanese.

Chin and his friends prevailed inside the club and then left. Ebens, bloodied, left with Nitz, retrieved a baseball bat and continued pursuing Chin. They found Chin in a McDonald’s parking lot.

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 with a baseball bat to the head, leaving Chin unconscious.

For their admitted role in Chin’s death, they served no time.

Ebens is now 72. His accomplice Nitz is 53.   

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.

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. He’s remarried and lives in Nevada.

He’s lucky that he’s generally far less remembered than Vincent Chin himself, because how Ebens got justice only adds salt to the wound.

By plea bargaining in the original case, Ebens’ 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 to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for a new trial. 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.

Thirty years later, sorry still isn’t enough. We mourn an anniversary, but celebrate little change.  

As in the King case, do we really believe another Vincent Chin couldn’t happen again?

The anniversary also comes at a time when Asian Americans seem to lose sight of what brings our disparate group of ethnicities together in America. On issues like affirmative action, the political umbrella under which we stand can at times seem shaky and frayed.

Vincent Chin reminds us that more often than not, our community has a common face.

(See also my post on the 29th Anniversary, where I attempted numerous times by phone to contact Ronald Ebens. He never answered).

This week, Ebens finally answered an interview request by the Detroit News

On Chin’s murder, Ebens said “it was an unfortunate incident and should never have happened.”  

Somehow Ebens saying he’s “sorry it happened,”  still doesn’t seem to add up to justice.