Estate of Vincent Chin seeks millions from his killer

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Thirty five years after the fatal beating of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American whose slaying launched a civil rights movement, one of the killers is still being sued for $8 million by the estate of Chin.

Helen Zia.

The amount is from a civil suit settlement between the estate of Chin and the two men who admitted to killing him in 1982. But one of those men, Ronald Ebens, has never paid the original $1.5 million that was agreed upon in 1987 , said Helen Zia, executor of Chin’s estate.

“It’s not about the money,” Zia said Saturday during a daylong event in Madison Heights that commemorated the 35th anniversary of Chin’s death. “It’s about him being able to live his life outside of jail for all these years and him never taking full responsibility for what’s he’s done.”

Vincent Chin

Ebens, who now lives in Nevada, couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday.

On June 19, 1982, Chin was a 27-year-old Oak Park resident, a Lawrence Tech student and was getting married the next week. On that Saturday night, Chin was out celebrating his last days as a bachelor at a Highland Park strip club. There Chin encountered two auto industry workers, Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitzl. A brawl ensued.

A witness testified Ebens and Nitz, both white, hurled slurs at Chin- slurs used against both people of Chinese and Japanese heritage. The argument spilled out into the street and it ended brutally: Ebens crushed Chin’s skull with a baseball bat while Nitz held him down, witnesses testified.

Ronald Ebens in 1984.

Ebens and Nitz never denied the brawl, but insist the fight was not racially motivated, nor did they spew racist language. The two plead guilty to manslaughter in 1983. Neither Ebens nor Nitz served time in prison, but were sentenced to three years of probation. Ebens received a fine of $3,000 and $780 in court costs.

Outrage over those sentences lead to criminal charges in federal court. Nitz was acquitted. Ebens was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But that sentence was overturned on appeal.

Chin’s brutal death and the light sentences catalyzed political activity among Asian-Americans, not just in Detroit but nationally.

“It was our wake up call,” said Tina Hwang, a lifelong Metro Detroiter who said she has strong memories of the Chin killing and the court rulings. “It was the first time that different Asian Americans came together to fight for a cause,” Hwang said as she attended Saturday’s ceremony at Chinese Community Center in Madison Heights. “ You have to remember the time Vincent (Chin) was killed, there was so much anti-Japanese sentiment because the Japanese automakers were rising in power.”

Kaikai Chen holds a t-shirt bearing the image of Vincent Chin.

Chin’s death also sparked legal reforms in Michigan, including passage of the Crime Victims Rights Act in 1985 and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

In 1987, Ebens and Nitz settled a civil suit out of court over Chin's death. Nitz paid $50,000 over 10 years. Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 millions. In previous interviews, Ebens has said after the Chin killing, he had trouble finding steady work. Ebens was 42 at the time of the 1982 incident.

Ebens, in an 2012 interview with The Detroit News, described the death of Chin as “an unfortunate incident and should have never happened.” He added: “I’m sorry it happened.”

Ebens statement was criticized by Zia, the executor of Chin’s estate. “All of it was stated in such a passive voice.”

Zia and others at the Saturday event urged that Chin’s death should be considered relevant and a grim lesson of the “fear mongering and scapegoating” that immigrants and people of color face today.


Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN