By the time 14-year-old Nathan Ybanez moved to Highlands Ranch, Colo., in 1996, his family had left a trail of over 30 different addresses. Nate, his strict evangelical Christian mother Julie and his father Roger bounced from Iowa to Germany to Virginia to Illinois, steered by Roger's capricious career ambitions -- insurance salesman, baker, golf pro -- and the volatility of the couple's marriage.
But moving to a new city never fixed the underlying tensions in the Ybanez family. "Both of my parents were unhappy, I think. My father, he was kind of a violent man at times. And my mother, she was unstable," Nate told FRONTLINE. "It was hard to tell what kind of a mood she was going to be in and how she would react to things."
He feared his father's violent temper, but Nate told FRONTLINE that his relationship with his mother was the source of even greater suffering and confusion. Julie was extremely controlling of his behavior -- she was known to tap his phone and follow him when he went out -- and her emotional instability led to a warped and abusive relationship with her son. She would call Nate when he was out with friends, begging him to come home to comfort her, Nate recalled. "A lot of times she would bring that down to the level [of], you know, you don't want to come home because you don't love me, or stuff like that," he told FRONTLINE.
When Roger was away, Julie's neediness grew into sexual abuse. "A lot of times it would happen like this," Nate told FRONTLINE. "She's crying or something's sad, so I don't like to see her cry, so I ask her what's wrong. I try to get her to talk about whatever it was that was making her sad, and a lot of times it would involve me coming and giving her hugs and staying in bed with her and letting her unload. And a few times that evolved into her doing sexual things to me that she shouldn't have been doing."
"I knew that it wasn't right, but I wasn't sure about my place in the whole area of what was going on with my family and the world in general. I'd been kept apart from a lot of outside things," Nate added. "These kind of things [sexual abuse] make me feel like I wish I could cut off my own skin. That's how I feel. Even today. So I don't like talking about them."
Nate had always had difficulty making friends. But working in a Highlands Ranch pizzeria, he met Brett Baker. Brett introduced him to Erik Jensen, and the pair invited Nate to become the new guitarist in their punk rock band, Troublebound.
Erik, the oldest child of a well-to-do venture capitalist, lived in a big house where Troublebound got together to practice. Nate became a regular at Erik's house.
It was not long before and Erik and his parents began to suspect that Nate was having trouble at home. Erik told FRONTLINE that what Nate was experiencing wasn't "normal teen angst, where he's not happy that he didn't get to go to the Homecoming game. He's not happy that something really bad's happening to him."
Nate was reluctant to talk about his home situation with anyone. "With my close friends, they knew that I had a lot of problems in my family," he told FRONTLINE, "but I tried to keep everything away from [them]. I didn't like talking about any of this stuff because it's embarrassing. I just wanted to be seen as a normal person."
But Nate's home situation made normal impossible. Erik and Brett, who were embarrassed to ask Nate about the problems they suspected, asked their parents to try to intervene. The parents were concerned enough to contact a social worker, but no caseworker was ever assigned to investigate. The Jensens say they were told social services didn't have the resources to take care of after teenage boys who should be able to look out for themselves. The agency has denied that that is their policy. "I think he gave up on the system and he gave up on anybody else helping him besides himself," Erik told FRONTLINE.
Nate says his childhood was filled with abuse.
Nate began drinking heavily. "I was into doing some drugs that I shouldn't have been doing. And I was drinking exceptionally a lot," he told FRONTLINE. "For me it was like I felt like I had to drink, like it was the only way to maintain."
On June 5th, 1996, Julie told Nate that she was sending him to a Christian boot camp in Missouri. Nate was terrified by this prospect. "It seemed to me that something had to happen -- had to happen that day," he told FRONTLINE.
That night, Erik, high on marijuana, picked Nate up after his shift at Einsten Bros. Bagels, and the pair drove to Nate's place. Nate went up and told Erik to check on him if he wasn't back in 20 minutes.
No one knows exactly what happened in the Ybanez's apartment that night. When Nate hadn't reappeared 20 minutes later, Erik went up to the apartment, and Julie let him in. Erik says he went to wait in Nate's bedroom, but then began to hear the sounds of an argument -- people "fighting to the death," he later said on the stand -- and came out when Nate called for him to bring some plastic wrap.
Erik walked into a bloody scene -- Nate had beaten his mother over the head with a pair of fireplace tongs and was attempting to strangle her. Stoned and shocked by the gore, Erik says he doesn't clearly know what happened next, but he thinks he collapsed onto the bloody carpet after Nate handed him the tongs.
Julie died from suffocation after Nate choked her with the tongs. Then the boys called Brett Baker to help clean up and help dispose of the evidence in dumpsters. They also threw away some of Julie's things to make it seem like she and Nate had skipped town.
Looking back on that night, Erik told FRONTLINE, "I basically just went along with the flow, and I think Nate did, too. Once the floodgate came down -- and all that stuff that happened to him all came out at once -- he was just rolling along like I was."
The next morning, a police officer on patrol spotted Nate in a public park, standing over his mother's body. "I was kind of blank afterwards," Nate told FRONTLINE about that time. "Not really relief, but just -- I don't know. ... You're just blank. You're just existing." Nate was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.
Erik and Brett were arrested a few days later, charged as accessories in the murder. Both were released on bail.
But nearly two months later, the police re-arrested Erik and charged him as an adult with first-degree murder, based on testimony Brett Baker agreed to give as part of a plea bargain. Brett told prosecutors that Erik knew in advance about the murder and had told him he hit Julie with the tongs three times.
In exchange for this testimony, the prosecution gave Brett total immunity from charges in the murder, shortened the sentence he was serving in a juvenile facility for earlier charges of harassment and reckless endangerment, and agreed not to revoke his probation stemming from other previous charges.
Erik went on trial first, in August 1999. After plea negotiations for second-degree murder fell through in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, Erik's attorney argued that his client was too high to be cognizant of what was going on that night. The jury rejected Erik's marijuana defense and convicted him of first-degree murder, which in Colorado carrie a mandatory sentence of life without parole at that time.
Nate during his televised trial, which lasted two days.
Nate's trial, which commenced in October 1999 and was televised on Court TV, lasted less than three days. In many instances, juveniles charged with serious crimes are assigned a guardian ad litum, an independent legal advisor. But in Nate's case, his father was allowed to advise him and pay for his counsel, despite a clear conflict of interest and allegations of abuse. The tension between father and son was made publicly evident by an audio tape played during a motion to throw out Nate's confession, in which Roger is heard cursing him angrily before storming out of the room.
Nate's attorney called no witnesses during the trial. He based his defense on the argument that Nate's friends had corrupted him into thinking he was being abused and that Erik provided the spark that turned talk about killing Julie into a reality. In his closing arguments, Nate's counsel acknowledged that Nate had killed his mother but asked jurors to find him guilty of second-degree murder. The jury convicted Nate of first-degree murder, carrying a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Nate is currently planning to appeal his conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Erik is currently preparing an appeal to the Colorado supreme court.
In prison, Nate has earned his GED and practices meditation. "I'm better in prison than I was when I was free," Nate told FRONTLINE, comparing prison to his home life. He and Erik have also both developed their writing and visual art talents while serving time.
Erik with his parents, who started the Pendulum Foundation after his conviction.
Erik has begun writing fantasy novels; his parents recently published the first in a trilogy he's completing. He also started a Web site called the Next Day Foundation that counsels abused teens. His parents, who visit every week, formed the Pendulum Foundation to bring attention to juvenile justice issues.
Nate and Erik write each other occasionally. "We write each other about every six months," Erik told FRONTLINE. "[Nate's] really into physics and philosophy and stuff, so we trade back theories here and there and stuff. We don't really talk about prison too much, because there's not a whole lot to say. We do the same thing every day."
Erik and Nate worry that they will not be able to survive forever in prison if all their avenues of appeal should fail. "Slowly and ceaselessly, this prison system is destroying those good, human qualities I still possess," Nate wrote in an excerpt of his journal published by the Rocky Mountain News. "If the truly important parts of myself get taken, I hope I will have awareness enough to kill myself."
Erik echoed this sentiment. "In ten years, I'll either be on the streets or dead," he told FRONTLINE. "It's just not worth it to go on here. It's like a mockery, really. It would make me feel like I've let myself down."