Clubbing suspect pleads not guilty
Civil-rights group alleges racism
A young Vallejo man who police say bludgeoned a neighbor to death with a baseball bat at a campus area apartment complex in early February pleaded not guilty to murder charges in an arraignment held at Butte County Superior Court Tuesday.
Reigh C. Ellis Jr., 21, of Vallejo, a Butte College student, appeared slightly nervous in court, biting his lower lip and speaking in a low, soft tone when addressing the judge. Ellis had previously entered an identical plea to assault charges in the case, before the alleged victim, Randal Clark, 20, also a Butte College student, died from head trauma.
Police say Ellis had been involved in an altercation earlier on the night of Clark’s death and may have erroneously believed that Clark was involved. In fact, police say, Clark was an innocent bystander who, in response to a commotion outside, had merely stepped from his apartment to see what was going on when he was confronted and attacked by Ellis.
Now, in a case already fraught with racial overtones (Ellis is black and Clark was white), a local civil-rights group is coming to Ellis’ defense. Willie J. Hyman, president of the Butte County Coalition for Human Rights, says the accused told him in a letter written from jail that he acted in self-defense after Clark called him a “nigger” and attacked him.
“They’re trying to skip race, but this is a race trial,” Hyman said, accusing the district attorney and police of ignoring potential witnesses because they are black.
District Attorney Mike Ramsey said there was no racial component to the slaying and that witnesses—not all of them white—would testify to that effect in court.
“People are being too quick to play the race card in this case,” Ramsey said, calling the incident “alcohol-fueled” and “testosterone-driven” rather than racially motivated.
Ellis’ attorney was unreachable for comment, but he has made statements in the past that suggested the conflict that ended with Clark’s death was racial in nature.
Friends of Clark contacted by the News & Review said provoking a fight, racial or not, would have been completely out of character for a young man whom one friend called “the coolest guy in the world.”
“He was not someone to get in a fight,” said Megan Brown, who attended Butte College agriculture classes with Clark. “I’ve never seen him get violent or get in a fight. It’s not in his nature at all. He’s the type to defuse a situation. I’ve seen him do that before.”
Brown said she was disturbed and saddened by the notion that racism was somehow a factor in Clark’s death. Indeed, Brown said that Clark’s open-mindedness sometimes set him apart from the rest of his classmates, some of whom Brown characterized as holding “redneck” views.
“This is not a racial issue,” Brown said. “Randy’s not like that at all. He always tried to make people feel good about themselves.”
According to police, the trouble apparently began at a party somewhere in “The Zoo,” a nickname for the sprawling Campus Gardens apartment complex that takes up the entire block of Oak Street between West Fifth and West Sixth streets. Famous for hosting the kind of bacchanalias that Chico State University students seem to have a taste for, the complex is well-known by police, who say they respond to calls from there just about every weekend.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 9, a fight broke out at a Zoo party in which a man’s jaw was broken. Ellis was said to be involved, according to CPD detective Sgt. Dave Barrow, who also said there was nothing in the report to suggest that the original fight was racially motivated. Nevertheless, when a posse of eight of the injured man’s friends gathered for retaliation in front of the nearby Oak Street apartment where Ellis was staying, at least one of the men was heard to use a racial epithet.
“The most we developed on that was one utterance, something to the extent of, ‘This is where the ‘n’s live,’ using the slang term,” Barrow said.
The group besieged the apartment and began banging on the door, demanding that the occupants, including Ellis, come outside. The occupants declined. A window was broken, at which point the gang of eight allegedly fled the scene. According to Barrow, the police had not yet been summoned. There was no 911 call from the apartment. Though police have identified some of the members of the posse, none of them has yet been charged with a crime.
As soon as the group fled, four men allegedly emerged from the apartment. Three of them, including Ellis, armed themselves with bats and walked through an alley to West Fifth Street. Neighbors and police say that’s when Ellis came upon Randal Clark.
What happened at that point—whether words were exchanged or fighting stances adopted—will be up to a jury to decide. The police and district attorney contend that Ellis demanded Clark tell him where he could find the people who had broken his window, whereupon Clark protested that he wasn’t involved. At some point immediately following, Ellis allegedly swung his bat, and Clark fell to the pavement, never to regain consciousness. He died a week later at Enloe Hospital.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 15. If Ellis is convicted by a jury, he could face more than 25 years in prison. Until then, he will remain in custody on $1 million bond.