The man convicted of a 2018 killing was being investigated by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the time he was arrested and charged with murder, Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene said Thursday at the sentencing hearing for Aaron Michael Eby.
Eby, of Arbela Township, pleaded no contest on Aug. 14 to second-degree murder in connection with the stabbing death of 33-year-old Neal James Ellis of Millington. On Wednesday, Tuscola County Circuit Court Judge Amy Grace Gierhart sentenced the 24-year-old Eby to 375 months (31¼ years) to 100 years in prison.
Reene said that after Eby had been arrested, the lead investigative entity in the homicide – the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office – was contacted by the FBI and ATF.
“They informed (the sheriff’s department) that the defendant had been under investigation by both agencies up until the day of the defendant’s arrest,” Reene said Thursday. “The ATF informed them that the defendant was selling firearms without a permit, and had arranged to make several undercover purchases from the defendant in March of 2018, which included pistols and assault rifles.”
The FBI had been investigating Eby since February 2018 and were acting on a tip, about Eby’s “anti-government beliefs, the fact that he had mass explosives, and plans that were made for a possible bank robbery,” Reene said. “Based on all of this, the FBI had ascertained the defendant was exhibiting signs of violent (behavior consistent) with potential mass-casualty attacks.”
Reene said at the Aug. 14 plea hearing that Eby and Ellis were roommates in a home at 3257 Willard Road, which has a Clio mailing address but is in Arbela Township on Tuscola County’s southern border with Genesee County. He added that Ellis was a tenant in the home and paid rent to Eby, the property owner.
Ellis was last seen on April 24, 2018. His remains were discovered April 28, 2018, in a shallow grave on property at 3782 Hanes Road in Vassar Township, which also is owned by Eby, according to Tuscola County treasury records. The following day, Eby was arrested.
More than $5,000 in cash was found during a search of the Willard Road home, Reene previously had said.
While Reene was offering his allocution statement to the court, he said a search of Eby’s electronic devices showed Eby had tried to sell some of Ellis’ personal belongings on the website Craig’s List the same day he was murdered.
“The search of the defendant’s electronics also showed that after killing Neal he did a search on ‘How deep do you have to bury a body to prevent it from being detected?’” Reene said. “He also did a search about the penalties associated with manslaughter.”
Eby originally was charged with open murder which, if the case had gone to trial, could have resulted in a conviction of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or manslaughter. He also was charged with 11 counts of possession of a dangerous weapon and four counts of lying to a peace officer investigating a violent crime.
He also pleaded no contest to one count each of possession of a dangerous weapon and lying to a peace officer. A no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt, but is used as such for sentencing purposes.
As part of the plea agreement, all remaining counts in connection with Ellis’ death – as well as all counts in a separate file in connection with Eby’s assault of a Tuscola County Jail guard – were dismissed.
On Dec. 21, Eby racked up additional charges when he allegedly attacked a guard at the Tuscola County Jail.
According to the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office, Eby attacked corrections Deputy Cody Neuville at around 5:30 a.m. while Neuville was giving medications to the inmate. When other deputies arrived, Eby was on top of Neuville and still assaulting him. A taser was used in an attempt to subdue Eby, but had little effect. He eventually was subdued and Neuville was taken to a local hospital for treatment of his injuries.
Reene said Thursday he believed the attack was an “ill-fated attempt to escape.”
Because of Eby’s past violent actions, nine local police officers were in the courtroom during the sentencing.
Ellis’ mother delivered a short-and-to-the-point victim impact statement prior to the sentencing.
“You’ve taken my son’s life over stupid things,” she said. “You’ve taken your family’s life; you’ve taken my family’s life – my grandchildren’s father – all over something stupid. And I don’t think you have any remorse whatsoever.
“In my eyes, you deserve life (in prison). You should never get out.”
Ellis is survived by four children – three daughters and a son. The mother of his three oldest children also delivered an impact statement.
She wept as she talked about telling her three children their father was dead.
“I watched as my youngest two children literally crumbled before my eyes,” she said. “They cried so hard they could barely breathe. I had to tell my babies all of this while I myself had already fallen apart.
“I think of him every second of every minute of every day.”
Eby was defended by Flint-area attorney Jeffrey Clothier.
“Every time I went to see him, he is respectful. He is appreciative. He is remorseful – despite what the court will hear later in this sentencing hearing – and I do believe he has regret,” Clothier told the court. “It makes absolutely no sense why Neal James Ellis’ life was taken.”
Clothier asked Gierhart to take into consideration that Eby had no prior record, no juvenile record and was a high school graduate before rendering her sentence.
Reene disagreed with Clothier’s assessment.
“The defendant has no remorse for what he did,” Reene said during his allocution. “He is the most dangerous kind of person. The lives of others literally mean nothing to him. After he killed, he buried the body on another property he owned and tried to act like nothing happened.
“But for the extraordinary work of law enforcement, Neal’s family may have never known what had happened.”
To further show that Eby was not remorseful for the killing, Reene played an audio recording taken days earlier of Eby talking with a man identified by the prosecution as Eby’s father on the telephone from the Tuscola County Jail.
Eby’s father tells his son that impact statements from Ellis’ family members will be read at the sentencing, and that he should try to act remorseful, like he’s at a funeral.
Eby assures his father that he’ll have his “eyes on the prize.”
Investigators had said the murder was the result of a dispute over rent money and personal property.
“(There is a phrase that states) that is life is cheap,” Reene said. “And that captures the mindset and perspective of the defendant to a T. The problem is that life is never, ever cheap.”
Gierhart spoke harshly to Eby before the sentencing, saying court records “paint a very disturbing portrait” of him, calling him, “A ticking timebomb, from the anti-government and anti-authority philosophy to amassing an arsenal of assault rifles and narcotics. His own family was justifiably terrified of him.”
Gierhart said that violent behavior often can be traced to traumatic events in a person’s life.
“What’s disturbing here, Mr. Eby, is that there is no such explanation in your case,” she said. “You grew up in a loving household, with loving parents where all your needs were met. You are a very dangerous person; you unfortunately have no redeeming qualities.
“You are someone that needs to be locked up.”
Gierhart also sentenced Eby to 40 to 60 months in prison on the possession of a dangerous weapon charge and 32 to 48 months on the lying to a peace officer count. All sentences are to be served concurrently.
John Schneider is editor of The Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.