— The image is forever seared in Ella Ellis’ mind — her husband, a 61-year-old history teacher and martial arts instructor beloved by his students, gasping for air on the floor of their home after being shot by a pair of masked gunmen.
Now, two weeks later, the execution-style slaying that shocked the west Florida community of North Port remains a mystery, and a cloud of suspicion hangs over everyone who knew the slain teacher — including his wife.
“I feel I am a victim in this situation,” Ella Ellis told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview Thursday. “The grieving process is so much harder for me. To know I’m on the list of suspects, even though I did the polygraph test ... makes my life ... difficult.”
The real-life murder mystery began at about 10 on the evening of March 29, authorities say. After a long day at work, Ken Ellis was dozing in front of the television with his wife of two years when their doorbell rang. He got up to answer it, but found no one at the door, Ella Ellis told Vieira. Curious, she joined him.
Thinking that perhaps a neighbor needed assistance, they looked again. Then, just as they began closing the door, two men in black, with only their eyes visible, forced the door open, she said.
“In split seconds they extended their hands and [shot] my husband,” she told Vieira. The gunmen were silent — “no words, nothing” — and in the shock of the moment, she didn’t even notice whether both were armed, she said.
She screamed, she said, loud enough to rouse the neighbors. Her mortally wounded husband’s last request was that she call 911, and she raced into the computer room and dialed, pleading with the dispatcher to hurry.
But it was already too late. Ellis, a father of six and grandfather of 17, affectionately referred to as “Master Ellis” by his students for his martial arts credentials, was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Police have more than 80 leads, and have taken more than 50 items from the Ellis home, including receipt books, prescription drug bottles and a laptop, they say, looking for clues. Yet so far, authorities have no motive for the slaying.
“We don’t know if he was targeted, we don’t know if this was a random act,” said North Port Police Capt. Robert Estrada. “Or a case of mistaken identity.”
What is clear is that Ellis was a man who did not appear to have any enemies. Friends and family members described him as a revered educator and a devoted father, loved and respected by his family and students alike.
One of his students, a girl identified only as “Blossom,” wrote after his death: “I never knew how much your wisdom meant to me. The principles you taught us have enriched my life. You will be dearly missed.”
Also on TODAY Thursday was the slain teacher’s 27-year-old daughter, Debbie. She told Vieira that when she and her family visited a makeshift memorial to Ellis, they were moved by the tributes from his students they found there.
“We were so touched by the impact that he had made,” Debbie Ellis said. “He was our father, but to many of those students as well he was a father figure to them, and he was passionate and happy about that. So we’re grateful as his children that we had a direct relationship with him and were able to have that love, but also that he was able to share that with other children.”
Clouds of suspicion
Because police have not yet pinpointed any suspects, everyone, including co-workers, business associates and even former students, is under suspicion. Ella Ellis said she voluntarily submitted to a polygraph test and insists that the results cleared her, though police have not confirmed that. Authorities have also interviewed Ellis’ first wife and are reexamining a burglary that occurred at the Ellis home in December, trying to determine whether that may be linked to the case.
Ella Ellis has also speculated that perhaps right-to-bear-arms advocates targeted her husband because he was teaching kids to use tae kwon do rather than hardware to settle their disputes, though no evidence has emerged to support that. For now, she says, “nothing is resolved.”
“This is still a mystery,” she said. “We want closure ... we want to know how ... such a wonderful, loving man could be killed in such a horrific situation.
“It’s just incomprehensible for me.”