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Hell On Wheels
William Nack
January 10, 2000
Former wheelchair racer TED ERNST will spend his life in jail because he traded the thrill of sport for the thrill of crime
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January 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

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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 summer-house. "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!"

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.

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