Thursday, January 14, 2010
Iraq Vet Commits Suicide by Cop
By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
Iraq war veteran Kenneth Ellis called his mother around 9 a.m. Wednesday and told her he was sitting in a car in front of a Northeast Heights convenience store with a gun to his head and 10 police officers surrounding him.
"He said: 'I'm going to kill myself. I'm not going to jail,' " Annelle Wharton said her son told her. "I told him to put the gun down. Then he hung up."
A few seconds later, Ellis was dead.
An APD officer shot Ellis, 25, an undetermined number of times after Ellis stepped from the vehicle, police said. Ellis was talking on a cell phone, holding a handgun and threatening police.
The officer wasn't named, because he had not been interviewed by internal affairs investigators as of late Wednesday, according to a police spokesman.
Ellis had been an infantryman with the U.S. Army, his mother said. He was 21 when he enlisted, and he "wanted to save his country."
In 2007, near the end of his tour in Iraq, Ellis was involved in an explosion, his mother said.
"He was wounded pretty bad, and his best friend was blown up all over him," she said.
Since then, Ellis has endured a long, dark battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Wharton said. He had also struggled with drug addiction and had previous encounters with police, including an incident in which he yelled "shoot me" at officers who were trying to arrest him on a narcotics warrant.
Wharton got one last glimpse into how much pain her son was in on Monday night.
Ellis had been kicked out of an in-patient program at the Albuquerque VA Hospital for missing an appointment, she said. He spent the night at his mother's house, and she woke him up from "another awful nightmare about the war" early Tuesday morning.
Ellis told his mother by telephone on Tuesday evening that he had tried to get back into the program at the VA but that his bed had been given to someone else, she said.
A VA spokesman said Wednesday that he couldn't comment on the case.
The quick and large police response to Wednesday's incident came because officers were running an operation in the area of Eubank and Constitution NE on Wednesday, looking for auto thieves responsible for a recent rash of cars stolen while being warmed up.
Ellis was one of three people in a black Corvette who undercover officers saw driving slowly through the neighborhood, Police Chief Ray Schultz said. The officers thought the vehicle looked suspicious, so they ran a query on its license plate, which they learned belonged to a different vehicle.
When officers stopped the Corvette in the convenience store parking lot, Ellis got out of the car, made comments about "officer-initiated suicide" and brandished the handgun.
"It was a very volatile scene," Schultz said. "There were a lot of people coming and going from the (convenience store), so the officers were very concerned for public safety. There were about 20 people who saw all or part of this incident."
Wednesday wasn't the first time Ellis had tried to commit "suicide by cop," according to police.
In July, narcotics officers were looking for Ellis in connection with a drug dealing operation and had received information that he would be going to his mother's house.
"Kenneth had made several threats to his family that he wanted to commit suicide or force the police to shoot him," according to a police report.
When officers tracked him down near his home, Ellis ran off, the report states. As he fled, he reached into his waistband and a large handgun fell out. He continued to run and was eventually cornered near a brick wall.
Ellis continued to reach into his waistband while yelling: "Shoot me," the report states. Police were able to detain him after using a Taser.
Wharton said her son had been doing well with his PTSD treatments in recent weeks.
"He was just celebrating with his family last week," she said through tears. "No matter what they say, he was a good kid. He had a 4-year-old son, and he tried to be a good dad. He defended our country. Yes, he got into a lot of trouble, but I loved him so much."
Ellis was the second war veteran involved with the VA Hospital in Albuquerque to be shot by police in New Mexico in the past four days.
Luis "Lito" Montoya, 61, was sitting on the porch of his Cordova home with a rifle when police arrived there early Sunday to investigate a report that Montoya had threatened to shoot employees of the Ohkay Casino after he had been thrown out.
Montoya fired at the officers, who were not hit, police said. They returned fire, killing him.
State Department of Public Safety spokesman Peter Olson said Montoya, a Vietnam veteran, had called the VA Hospital the night he was shot. Olson did not know whether Montoya had been a patient there.
Wednesday's shooting was the third officer-involved shooting in Albuquerque in the past two weeks.
Police shot and killed a man who pulled out a weapon during a traffic stop in the Northeast Heights on Saturday. Another man was shot and killed after shooting an officer investigating a domestic dispute on Dec. 30.