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Hell On Wheels Former wheelchair racer TED ERNST will spend his life in jail because he traded the thrill of sport for the thrill of crime

Jan. 10, 2000
Jan. 10, 2000

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Jan. 10, 2000

Hell On Wheels Former wheelchair racer TED ERNST will spend his life in jail because he traded the thrill of sport for the thrill of crime

Late on Christmas night of 1997, only six months after he had
won two gold and four silver medals at the U.S. junior
wheelchair racing championships, a 19-year-old paraplegic named
Ted Ernst was midway through the latest of some 30 burglaries he
had committed in northwest Montana. Along the winding driveway
in the distance, he saw a pair of headlights coming toward the
car where he sat in the dark in front of a secluded summerhouse.
"Code 666!" Ernst shouted into his two-way radio, sounding the
alarm to his 18-year-old brother, Jesse, who was ransacking the
house. "Someone is coming!"

This is an article from the Jan. 10, 2000 issue Original Layout

Jesse, the legs of Ted's larcenies, raced out of the house,
threw his burglary tools on the floor under the dash of Ted's
Ford Tempo and then, sensing the horror to come, implored Ted to
make up a story and try to get away. Ted grabbed Jesse by the
arm. "No, damn it!" Ted said, as he would later write in a
chilling account of that night of crime. "We work this out the
way we planned. Relax and breathe. We knew this would happen
sometime. Do your part, and I'll do mine."

Jesse grabbed a shotgun and fled into the woods. Terrified, he
crouched among the trees in the snow. Ted stuffed the tools
under the seat and sat squinting through the windshield as the
Chevy pickup nosed to a stop in front of him, its high beams
shining in his eyes. Ted had, he wrote, $3,000 worth of booty in
the trunk; he also had several loaded guns, including a
.22-caliber revolver and two .357 Magnums in the car, and a hard
resolve not to be caught.

Larry Streeter, a Bigfork, Mont., builder and entrepreneur, had
recently sold the summerhouse to pop-psychology author John
Bradshaw--best known for his book Homecoming: Reclaiming and
Championing Your Inner Child--and was watching the place for the
new owner. Coming home late, Streeter had passed the Bradshaw
driveway, noticed that the gate was open (Jesse had snipped the
chain with a bolt cutter) and had seen tire tracks leading in.
He had driven the mile to the house. There, as he sat in his
truck facing Ernst's car, he dialed 911 on his mobile phone, but
he had parked about five feet beyond a live zone for the cell,
and he could not get through.

Ted was talking to Jesse by radio. "Do you have a shot?" Ted
asked. For years he had exercised an enslaving power over Jesse.
The boy worshiped his older brother and would do almost anything
for him, but this time he would not yield his will to Ted's. "I
can't do it," Jesse said. "I'm scared. Let's just give up."

"I'll take care of it," Ted said.

Streeter climbed out of the truck and walked toward the Tempo.
"It's O.K., I'm safe here," Ted said, holding up his hands. The
.22 was at his side.

Of all the 75,000 inhabitants of Flathead County, from Kalispell
to Whitefish to Bigfork on the shores of Flathead Lake, none
seemed less likely to be facing Streeter that night than
Theodore Keener Ernst, a well-liked charity worker, an
accomplished computer programmer and an intensely competitive
wheelchair racer whose robust appetite for training on country
roads had made him as natural a part of the landscape as the
deer that glide like ghosts through the dusk. For seven years,
since he had begun racing at age 12, Ernst had been among the
most promising junior wheelchair racers in his age and class in
the U.S. (Of the four racing classes, Ernst's was T-3, meaning
he has use of his arms and shoulders but not his abdominal or
back extensor muscles.) Four months earlier, as a result of his
performance at the U.S. junior championships in Mesa, Ariz., he
had attended a developmental camp in San Diego for athletes
considered prospects for the U.S. wheelchair teams that will
compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000
and Athens in 2004.

"This is the kind of kid who, if he'd put his mind to it, could
have entered the elite of wheelchair racing," says Olympic chair
racer Scot Hollonbeck, who coached Ernst at the camp. "Bright,
attentive, receptive to new ideas--he had the mix you need." It
was a mix more volatile than anyone knew.

"Do you have any guns?" Streeter asked.

"No, sir," Ernst said.

"Do you understand you are trespassing on private property?"

"Yes, sir."

"What are you guys doing back here?" Streeter asked. He had seen
Ernst talking on the radio.

"Just fooling around."

"Where's the other guy?"

"He's out by the gate."

It was almost 11:50 p.m. Believing he had caught a burglar at
work, Streeter demanded the ignition key to Ernst's car.
Glancing into the back of the Tempo, he saw one of the .357
Magnums on the floor. He opened the door and picked up the gun,
giving Ernst the moment he needed to ready his .22. "Give me
your license," Streeter said.

As Ernst went for his wallet, Streeter pointed the Magnum at
him. Ernst held up his hands again and repeated, "I'm safe." He
handed Streeter the wallet. Streeter put the Magnum under his
arm and started going through the wallet. Ernst put his finger
on the trigger of the .22. "I had 30 seconds to make the
decision to kill or not to kill," he would write.

Streeter told Ernst that he had to turn him in. "Yes, sir,"
Ernst said. Then he raised his pistol and fired point-blank. "I
had four rounds in his chest before he hit the ground," Ernst
would write. "He screamed after the first two rounds and jumped
and stumbled about four feet." Jesse was running out of the
woods when Ted leaned out the car window and shot Streeter twice
more, emptying his revolver. When Ted saw Jesse, he screamed,
"Finish him off!" Streeter was still alive.

The brothers argued. "I'm not going to do it!" Jesse said.
"Let's leave!" Using his manual controls, Ted edged the car
closer to where Streeter had fallen. Jesse yelled, "Don't do
it!" Ted was not listening. He leaned out the window with the
other .357 Magnum and killed Streeter with a shot to the neck
that exited his right ear.

The Christmas carnage was complete. "Even now," Ted wrote two
days later, "I shiver at the thought of being taken captive. I
decided my own sentence when I pulled the trigger. Now I have to
live with the remembrance of Streeter's scream as I plugged him
with the first couple bullets."

The fall that changed Ted Ernst's life happened 11 years ago,
but he remembers it as though it were yesterday. His father, Ed,
was a horse logger, cutting down trees and hauling them out of
the woods by horse-drawn rigs, and Ted recalls, on that August
day in 1989, when he was 11, climbing a tall Douglas fir with
nine-year-old Jesse to see if they could spot their father
driving home. The boys were jumping on branches, trying to break
them off. Jesse jumped on one young branch until he heard it
crack. Then Ted jumped on the same limb until it broke. He
dropped 60 feet, severing his spine when he hit the ground.
"Instantly I knew," he says. "Even before Mom got there. She was
calling, 'Oh, Ted! I told you not to do that!' I could not feel
my legs. They were dead. I knew it would be forever. I just
accepted it right then at the bottom of the tree."

Ted never went through the grieving process that almost always
attends such a devastating loss: the denial, anger, bargaining
and finally acceptance, with bouts of dark depression along the
way. "Never even a down day," says Jeff Moser, one of Ted's
teachers and coaches at the Flathead Valley Christian School in
Kalispell. "And he had every right to be depressed."

That he would plunge into wheelchair racing just months after
the accident surprised no one who had known him when he was a
wisp of 10-year-old smoke on country roads, often running alone
as he trained for the 10-kilometer races he would enter around
the state. ("I loved it--the energy, the speed, the wind through
the hair," Ernst says. "There's nothing like speed. Speed and
heights.") Or when he was striking Ping-Pong balls so deftly at
summer camp that he would one day win medals at the junior
national wheelchair championships and be invited by the American
Wheelchair Table Tennis Association to its developmental camp
for the U.S. Paralympic team.

To everything he did as a young athlete, even rehabilitation,
Ernst brought an uncommon energy and drive that belied his
years. He and his chair became one. "He was exceptional in his
willingness to work," says Knut Skybak, his physical therapist
after the accident. "This was supernatural for any patient,
especially for an 11-year-old. Gung ho."

In his consuming love of racing, of competition and speed, Ernst
would express himself with his hands and arms as he no longer
could with his feet and legs. Within eight months of the
accident, using money donated by the sympathetic Flathead County
community, he bought his first three-wheel racing chair and
began making news with it. On May 6, 1990, the 12-year-old
entered one of the most challenging road races in the Northwest,
the 12-kilometer Bloomsday in Spokane. He was the youngest
wheeler ever allowed in the race. Since the course has two very
steep hills--chairs can reach 40 mph speeding down them--the
wheelchair coordinator for the race, Tom Cameron, allowed the
boy to compete only if he obeyed what is still known at
Bloomsday as the Ted Ernst Rule, a restriction designed to keep
youngsters from traveling at breakneck speeds: "On downhills,
you're not allowed to pass anyone."

Ted's finish made all the papers. Pushing hard up Doomsday Hill,
he caught the oldest wheeler in U.S. racing, 77-year-old Max
Rhodes, and for the final 2 1/2 miles the two went
wheel-to-wheel to the finish, racing the final yards to gusting
cheers, in identical time, and shaking hands at the line. "The
youngest and the oldest crossed the finish line side by side,"
recalls Cameron. "It was beautiful."

That summer, in his first appearance at the junior nationals, at
Fort Collins, Colo., little Teddy Ernst, all 85 pounds of him,
won three gold medals and set two national age-group records,
when he pushed 100 meters in 21.36 seconds and 200 meters in
41.63. For the next seven years he rarely finished worse than
third in the nationals in his four best distances (the 100, 200,
400 and 1,500 meters), and he competed in road races around the
country. He became a minor celebrity around Flathead County, and
the local papers, the Bigfork Eagle and the Daily Inter Lake,
ran news and feature stories on him, often with pictures of him
pushing his chair or holding its 10-pound frame above his head.
"I tell you, people were real supportive and friendly after a
couple of years," Ernst says. "I couldn't have done it alone."

Seeking money to help cover his racing bills, Ted passed out
cards and T-shirts bearing his slogan--IF YOU CAN'T STAND UP,
STAND OUT--and at one point, as he soared through the mid-'90s,
he was sending out a monthly letter about his training and
racing to some 60 sponsors, including PowerBar and Quickie
wheelchairs, and cheerily thanking them for their help.

Through it all he was the quintessential regular guy. "The
nicest guy in the world," says his chief competitor and closest
friend in racing, Nathan Pendell of Sabina, Ohio, whom Ernst
visited for two weeks in 1995. "Really religious. He read the
Bible every night. We went to the mall; we played Nintendo. He
did the greatest card tricks. And we watched a lot of movies:
Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop. He was into cop movies."

For years Ernst never put a wheel wrong. He fought to make his
own way in the world. "After his accident Ted became totally
independent of his father and me in one year," says his mother,
Debby.

"Ted was more of a presence in a wheelchair than anyone who was
standing on two good legs," says Marc Wilson, general manager of
the International Newspaper Network (INN) in Bigfork, where
Ernst went to work as a computer programmer after he finished
high school, in 1996. He was everywhere around town, tipping
back and spinning wheelies, giving slide shows and talks about
his racing exploits to Elks and Shriners, and sensitizing
classrooms of students to the difficulties of living in a chair.
He never stopped. He was the president of the freshman and
sophomore classes at school. He was the president of the 4-H
club. He raised and trained a hog every year, always named Spot,
for the Northwest Montana Fair in Kalispell. He was a regular at
the annual Big Wheels Basketball Tournament at Flathead High to
benefit the Special Friends Advocacy Program for the disabled.

"Watching Ted play basketball in a wheelchair was unbelievable,"
says Gay Moddrell of the Advocacy Program. "He'd go full-bore
down the court and stop on a millimeter and turn and go the
other way. Speed and control. An awesome athlete. He was always
in control."

Never more so than when he was with Jesse, a learning-disabled
child, slow in school, whose healthy legs had allowed him to
serve his brother and thereby assuage the guilt he felt over
Ted's accident. "I think I broke the limb that Ted stepped on
when he broke his back," Jesse told his father. The two boys had
always been inseparable--hiking the woods, fishing the lakes,
climbing the trees--and Ted's paralysis only drew them closer.

"We would spend hours in the woods," says Ted, "blazing trails
with little hatchets, me in my wheelchair. When I'd get stuck,
he'd help me. If we were selling raffle tickets for school, we'd
ride together and I'd hang on to his bicycle seat. We were best
buds. We even told each other that 'we're like connected, man!'
Jesse was my biggest therapist. That kid helped me through the
most difficult time in my life."

Never were they more of a team than in 1997, when the inviolate
geometry of Ted's world--as circumscribed by home and religion,
by training and racing, and by his Olympic dream--vanished as
quietly as the hum of his wheels on Riverside Road. He had his
job at INN, a company that put community newspapers on the
Internet, and he was making money. He buried himself in his
computer work, and his racing life went into a state of drift.
"He was chilling instead of really getting down in training,"
Pendell says, "unsure of what he wanted to do."

Wilson recalls Ernst telling him that a doctor had recently
advised that the stresses of full-bore training and racing were
causing his body to age twice as fast as normal. Ernst was not
only wincing over an aching back, but he was also suffering from
a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, the result of pumping
furiously on his racing wheels day after day and of spending
increasingly long hours programming computers and fingering his
way through the Internet.

His last race as a junior--the 400-meter final in Mesa that
July--represented a kind of symbolic farewell to the sport.
Before the race he suggested to Pendell that they do something
everybody would remember. The boys had first met at the junior
nationals in 1990, and they had been battling each other ever
since. What Pendell remembers most vividly about Ernst is how
willing he was to lead a race so that others could draft behind
him. "He was always the first one to go to the front and make a
draft," Pendell says. "If he saw anyone dying in a headwind, he
would hammer up there and say, 'Get behind me!'"

So now they were about to hammer for the last time as juniors.
"How about if we finish in a tie and shake hands at the finish?"
Ernst said. It would be, Pendell agreed, a fitting end to their
friendly rivalry.

Breaking just outside Ernst, Pendell pushed fast to the front on
the first turn. He sustained the pace on the lead all the way
down the backstretch and into the turn for home, with Ernst just
inside and behind him. They were pushing along at two arm
strokes per second. Off the last turn, Pendell glanced left and
saw Ernst hauling up next to him. "He looked over at me and
smiled," Pendell says. "We got around the corner, and he was
taking his gloves off, and then we sat up and shook hands across
the finish line. They gave us both gold medals."

Meanwhile Ernst had stopped going to church, creating an
irresolvable tension with his father, an assistant pastor at the
First Baptist Church in Bigfork, and his mother, who believed in
the maximum wages of sin. "If I got out of the house, they
wouldn't have control," Ernst says. "I could stay up late. I
could go to the movies I wanted to. I could listen to the music
I wanted to." So in the fall of '97 he moved out of his parents'
place in the country, into a town house closer to INN.

"It was freedom!" he says. "I wanted independence. I thought
that I could handle it."

At first Ted and Jesse committed only petty acts of vandalism,
moving around real estate FOR SALE signs, but that was hardly
challenge or thrill enough. So, in October 1997, they graduated
to burglary, each job more ambitious than the last. Over the
next three months they harvested so much loot--not just money
but cameras, power tools and even a shotgun--that Ted had to
rent a storage unit for it. Ted says the larcenies were all his
idea, and he had to prod a reluctant Jesse into going along.
When Jesse would protest, Ted would ignore him. Or threaten to
withhold his love, admonishing his little brother, "Don't bother
to come over to my place anymore."

Like a Napoleon on wheels, Ted drew up elaborate battle plans
for the burglaries--right down to, on one occasion, a
computer-generated floor plan of an office complex they planned
to knock over, with a timetable Jesse was to follow once he got
inside. Jesse also had a list of 17 orders he was to follow on
the job, including, "Do not shine light on windows." And "Do not
panic. When panic sets in (normal), stop, take deep breath, lick
lips and say to self, O.K., I'm doing fine." And "Do not be
afraid to make mess, but keep in mind we are not vandals, we are
burglars."

"The brothers complemented each other's disabilities," Dr. John
McKinnon would write in a psychiatric evaluation of Jesse. "In
their shared career, Ted became whole again, sharing his
brother's legs, and he became an active, effective senior
partner, the brain directing Jesse's muscle. With his brother on
the team, Ted could go for the gold. Collaboration brought Jesse
a simpler conclusion. Indecisive, unable to argue effectively,
struggling with his intellectual effectiveness, Jesse became
effective, a success, when he joined in tandem with his
computer-whiz brother. With Ted's brains, he could succeed in
pranks that made him feel clever at long last. Jesse, who always
worried that his health had been preserved at his brother's
cost, could expiate his guilt by helping Ted accomplish what his
brother had lost his own capacity to do."

The whole criminal enterprise culminated tragically on that
Christmas night, when Larry Streeter stumbled upon the brothers
in the dark. After killing him, the Ernsts roared off in a
panic, departing from the bloody scene in such a rush that they
left behind a .357 Magnum, a set of car keys (Ted had had a
backup pair) and Ted's wallet and identification.

Over the next 4 1/2 hours Ted twice made Jesse return on foot in
the snow to retrieve incriminating evidence. The first return
left Jesse's size 10 Nike ACG Tumac shoes so covered with blood
and so wet that he put on Ted's size 7 dock shoes before going
back the second time. When Streeter's son-in-law Jim Pierce
found the body at 5:15 a.m. (the family had begun searching for
Streeter when he failed to come home), he stood in the silence
of his headlights and looked around the woods. He felt he was
being watched--and he was. A desperate Jesse was cowering nearby
in the dark. "The hair stood up on the back of my neck," Pierce
says.

Contacted by the ambulance crew, Serena Streeter, Larry's widow
and the mother of their three grown children, arrived shortly
thereafter and wandered the murder scene in shock. She lay down
beside her husband in the red snow. "I just held him," Serena
says. "He was ice cold."

News of Streeter's murder rolled like low thunder across the
valley, where the most formidable menace to public safety is the
occasional grizzly poking around the town dump for last week's
leftovers. "Homicide is pretty rare for us," says Flathead
County sheriff Jim Dupont.

The valley is a tourist mecca--Glacier National Park rises above
the clouds 30 miles to the northeast--but it is also a haven for
retired folks. Over the next few months many of them lived in
terror that two men, armed with guns and crowbars, were just
outside their bedroom windows. Streeter had been a popular
figure around the valley, and a sense of outrage was mixed with
the fear. INN's Wilson had been a friend of Streeter's, and
Serena asked him to help with the funeral arrangements. On the
day of the burial, dressed in his mourning suit, Wilson stopped
by his office. Ted was there. "I hope they catch the dirty
bastards who did this and hang them out to dry," Wilson said to
Ernst.

"Ted never blinked," Wilson says now.

Ernst says he wheeled around, "terrified" of being caught, but
he wore a countenance of calm for Wilson and all others to see.
The following March he played in the Big Wheels basketball
tournament, and between games he rolled up to Detective George
Kimerly in the crowd and said, "How's the Streeter investigation
going?"

"We're stalled," Kimerly replied, "but we're still plugging
along."

Since the Tempo tire prints were identical to those found at the
scene of an earlier burglary, Dupont had surmised, correctly,
that Streeter had been killed when he interrupted the work of
serial burglars. Dupont also knew that Streeter had tried to
call the police. (At the scene Detective Mike Miller had hit the
redial button on Streeter's truck's cell phone: 911.) By taking
tire- and shoe-print photographs to retailers, the detectives
also learned what kind of tires and shoes they were looking for.
What they did not know was that they were looking for the wrong
thing. Since Jesse had walked the murder scene wearing two pairs
of shoes, the detectives were looking everywhere for two
ambulatory outlaws. Detectives fanned out across Flathead County
and beyond, searching for able-bodied burglars who worked
together.

"It was the Casablanca syndrome," recalls county prosecutor Tom
Esch. "Round up the usual suspects."

The cops got nowhere. "The case got me so discouraged," says
Miller. "I interviewed at least 75 possible suspects. We were
hitting dead ends all the time."

In fact, the Streeter murder may never have been solved had it
not been for Jesse. Unlike cool-hand Ted, Jesse had a conscience
and was stricken with remorse. He cried himself to sleep.
Nightmares tossed him in the dark. "I could taste death in my
mouth and couldn't get rid of the smell of blood," he would
eventually tell Dr. McKinnon.

One day in February 1998 Jesse was at a church function with
Charity Hope Beedy, a close friend. Afterward he told her that
something was bothering him and that he wondered whether he
could ever get right again with God. "I saw this horrible
thing," he said. "I was there when Larry Streeter was shot. Do
you understand what it's like [when every time you] close your
eyes [you] see someone's head blown off?"

Though he made her promise not to repeat what he had said, Beedy
grew as conscience-stricken as Jesse. "She was sick, and she was
missing school," says her mother, Lisa. Ten weeks after the
church conversation, Charity finally set the tumblers in motion.
Without naming Jesse, she spun the tale to a friend, Tanya Fox,
whose father, Tod, is a minister. Tod called his lawyer, James
Vidal, and Vidal called the detective in charge of the
investigation, Pat Walsh. "I was thinking this was just another
rumor," Walsh says. On May 18 he heard the story from Fox,
learned Jesse's identity from Beedy and drove out to Ed and
Debby Ernst's place on McCafferey Road outside Bigfork.

"I need to talk to Jesse," Walsh told Ed. "Someone has told me
that he witnessed the shooting of Larry Streeter."

"I'd be very surprised," Ed said.

"What friends does Jesse have?" Walsh asked.

"Very few other than his brother, Ted," said Ed, who then told
Walsh that Ted was a paraplegic who raced wheelchairs and that
Jesse idolized his brother and spent most of his time with him.
With prints from two pairs of shoes in the snow, Walsh did not
consider Ted a suspect. Jesse had been fishing down at the lake,
and he came walking up wearing water shoes, the day's catch
dangling from his hand. When Walsh told him what Charity had
said, Jesse smiled a nervous smile. Walsh said he would drive
him to town for questioning.

"Jesse, you have to put shoes on," Debby said. Walsh asked to
see all of Jesse's shoes. There they were, inside the front
door, a pair of Nike ACG Tumacs. "Oh, those don't fit anymore,"
Jesse said.

"Those are your shoes!" Debby said.

Walsh scooped up the Tumacs. "You tell them the complete truth,
Jesse," said Ed.

On videotape Walsh repeatedly asked Jesse who the shooter was,
and Jesse agonized for more than an hour. "I don't know if I can
say his name," he said. When he finally said, "My bro," the
detectives who were watching the TV monitor let out a gasp. "I
almost fell out of my chair," says Walsh.

The police arrested Ted that afternoon, at the INN office, and
he confessed to Walsh immediately upon being told that Jesse had
named him as the shooter. When the story hit the evening news,
all those who had known Ted, in and out of wheelchair racing,
sat stunned before their TV sets. "That's not the Ted Ernst we
know," Gay Moddrell recalls thinking. "Couldn't be! It's a guy
with the same name."

"The last guy in Flathead County that you would have ever
suspected of killing Larry Streeter," says Dupont. "The last one."

It is Monday afternoon, Oct. 4, 1999, and Theodore Ernst is
sitting in his chair, dressed in prison blue. He has wheeled
himself into the recreation hall in the Montana State Prison at
Deer Lodge, where he's serving a 100-year sentence, with no
chance of parole, after pleading guilty on Dec. 10, 1998, to a
charge of felony murder--that is, of deliberately committing
homicide in the course of carrying out a burglary. Jesse pleaded
to the same charge and was also sentenced to 100 years, with a
chance of parole in 25. (He has appealed the sentence.) He too
is housed in Deer Lodge.

"Therapy is a slow process," says Ted, who is undergoing
psychological counseling. "I'm learning a lot about myself.
There are little things you never notice. Character flaws. I
have a terrible ego. A big ego. Too much pride."

Almost two years have passed since that fateful Christmas night,
since Ernst seemingly acted out the long-suppressed rage at his
fate, at his feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, and killed
a man he did not even know. Ernst is only beginning to come to
terms with what he did and why he did it, from all those
midnight heists to the climactic act. He knows that his family
and former friends would like to have what they call "some
closure" to this matter, some explanation for the stealing and
the killing. "That's what everybody wants," Ernst says. "That's
what I want."

Fact is, he has only the most inchoate notions of why he did
what he did that night. "I wasn't angry at him [Streeter]," he
says. "It just came out this way. Let me put it this way. This
is what I tell people when they ask me why I did it. O.K.? I was
too proud to back down when he came at me. That explains me in a
nutshell. [Burglary] was an escape for me, O.K.? We went there
Christmas night specifically because there wouldn't be anybody
there. I'm very sorry that it happened. I'm not sorry I got
caught. You understand that? Because I don't know where I would
have stopped if I hadn't got caught. What I might have done next."

He turned to crime, he says, for the same reasons that many
other outlaws do. "I burglarized houses for the risk and the
sick thrill in danger," he said at his sentencing hearing. "It
was a terrible addiction that I lost control over."

He suspects he was trying to replace the highs that racing had
given him. The fact that he drew Jesse into his web fills him
with remorse. "I cannot explain to you the sorrow I feel every
day for dragging him into this ugliness," Ted says. "I was wrong
to be in that much control. I've tried to step back from his
life, being conscious of unconsciously having done this to him."

He left much twisted wreckage in his wake. Streeter was a family
man, the doting grandfather of two kids, and his death left those
nearest him floundering in grief. "I'm trying to pick up the
pieces," Serena says. "The hurt does not go away. It gets deeper.
We are learning how to manage the pain, the anger, the emptiness,
the loss. We have to learn how to have Christmas again. I don't
know how anymore."

Ed and Debby Ernst lost two sons to prison. "It was like the
whole world had just ended," says Ed.

At his arrest Ted expressed no heartfelt regret over what he had
done, and at times he has expressed inappropriate humor. Kimerly
was in court one day when Ernst arrived for an appearance,
rolled up next to him and nudged his elbow. "Guess I won't be
playing basketball next year, will I?" Ted said. That left
Kimerly cold. So did sitting behind Ted's cousin Terry Olson,
14, who had been arrested for allegedly shooting to death his
sleeping father, John--Debby Ernst's brother--just two days
after Ted was arrested. Terry had revered Ted, and police
believe the boy was inspired by Ted's killing of Streeter.

Ted is left staring into the emotional void that is his life,
looking for what is missing, the beating of a human heart.
"Trying to say, Hello, where are the emotions?" he says. "That
was one of the first things that came to me in prison. Where,
where have I been? Where have my emotions been? The first
evidence that I cared about people was in jail. Telling my
parents that I loved them, for the first time in my conscious
life, was in jail."

Ted's physical health is less problematic. He has a nickname in
prison: Speedy, for the way he zings around the grounds on his
chair. The former athlete is trying to stay in shape. When he
isn't working on a computer as a billing clerk for the prison or
studying Hebrew or oceanography, he is training to be the
chin-up champion at Deer Lodge. "I do three sets of chins every
other day off the second-tier stairwell of my unit block," he
says.

He daydreams a lot about the old days. About diving for turtles
with Jesse. About windblown training runs in Bigfork. About
pushing and pushing through all those years of racing on roads
and tracks.

He has a lifetime to wonder how and why he went so wrong. And to
remember what he lost.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBIN LOZNAK/DAILY INTERLAKE [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Ernst is just beginning to understand what led him to steal and, ultimately, to kill.TWO COLOR PHOTOS DRIVEN A serious runner at 10, Ernst plunged into wheelchair racing after his paralysis (opposite) and now aims to be prison chin-up champ.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBIN LOZNAK/DAILY INTER LAKE JUDGMENT DAY Unlike Ted, Jesse (far right) did not fire, but the judge (with photos of the victim) sentenced both boys to 100 years.COLOR PHOTO VICTIMIZED Streeter's brutal death shocked Flathead County and devastated Serena (top) and their family.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN OFFTRACK Footprints at the crime scene had Dupont looking for two ambulatory outlaws.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN MISSING LINK Two years after that bloody Christmas, the folks of Flathead County still wonder how Ernst could have gone so wrong.
"THIS IS THE KIND OF KID WHO, IF HE HAD PUT HIS MIND TO IT,
COULD HAVE ENTERED THE ELITE OF WHEELCHAIR RACING," SAYS
HOLLONBECK
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT IT'S LIKE," SAID JESSE, "[WHEN EVERY
TIME YOU] CLOSE YOUR EYES, [YOU] SEE SOMEONE'S HEAD BLOWN OFF?"
"WE ARE LEARNING HOW TO MANAGE THE PAIN, THE ANGER, THE
EMPTINESS, THE LOSS," SAYS SERENA. "WE HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO HAVE
CHRISTMAS AGAIN. I DON'T KNOW HOW ANYMORE"
ON THE DAY OF THE BURIAL WILSON TOLD ERNST, "I HOPE THEY CATCH
THE DIRTY BASTARDS WHO DID THIS AND HANG THEM OUT TO DRY." NOW
HE RECALLS, "TED NEVER BLINKED"
"I'M VERY SORRY THAT IT HAPPENED," ERNST SAYS. "BUT I'M NOT
SORRY I GOT CAUGHT, BECAUSE I DON'T KNOW WHERE I WOULD HAVE
STOPPED"