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� 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.