PALMETTO — Breezes whipped at the American flag as it flew at half staff on Manatee County School for the Arts’ campus Wednesday. It was an indicator of the senseless killing a night earlier of one of the school’s original teachers — William Kenneth Ellis.
Ellis, 61, was shot to death late Tuesday in the doorway of his North Port home. North Port Police say Ellis answered the door about 10 p.m. after hearing the bell ring. No one was seen outside, police said after interviewing Ellis’ wife who was also at home.
However, two people wearing dark clothes and masks ran from the area.
Neighbors told police that a dark-colored four-door sedan was seen leaving the area of Ellis’ home. Police reported to the house on Albren Street at about 10:15 p.m. They said they found Ellis on the ground with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to his upper torso.
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Ellis was rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital in North Port where he was pronounced dead, police say. His death caused mourning at Manatee School for the Arts, the county’s largest charter school. Ellis taught tae kwon do and world history for 13 years.
Principal Bill Jones said Ellis was a stern disciplinarian who used a demerit system. But there was one thing Ellis stressed more than discipline. “He would tell you — students have to know that you love them. And he did,” Jones said Wednesday afternoon at a news conference at the school.
At the news conference, co-workers, students and administrators shared their memories of a man who felt it was important to invest in children.
“He wasn’t just a teacher. He was family,” said 17-year-old student Jason Tidd about his tae kwon do teacher.” He didn’t do it for the money. He didn’t do it just ‘cause it was his job. He loved every single person. He would talk to us as we needed him. He would take time out of his class to talk with us about personal problems."
Jason’s classmate Taylor Lesoine was a second-degree black belt. He said he was Ellis’ student since the seventh grade.
“Being with a master, it changed me for the better,” Taylor said. “I owe almost all I am today to Master Ellis.”
Ellis’ shooting came the same day the school celebrated one of its highest highs. Officials held a ground-breaking ceremony on land planned for an expansion. School administrators held a barbecue to celebrate.
Hours later Ellis was killed.
Ellis’ wife told police that nothing was said between the possible suspects and her husband.
“I heard a pop,” said Hans Smelker, 35, who lives three doors down from Ellis’ home in North Port. “I thought something dropped in the kitchen. Then I went back to watching television. A few minutes later there were police everywhere.
“I was a little freaked out. This is always a such a quiet neighborhood,” he said. “It caught us off guard.”
Smelker said Ellis’ home had been broken into in December.
Other neighbors said they heard a loud bang but didn’t think much of it until police came about three minutes later.
North Port Police Capt. Bob Estrada said investigators are working with authorities in Manatee County and Palmetto on the case.
“Right now we don’t have an age or a race of the suspects,” he said. Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, who worked with Ellis at Manatee School for the Arts, said she was shocked when she heard of his death.
“It’s just unfathomable. You can’t even comprehend something like this happening,” said Groover Bryant. “He’s just the nicest, most gentle person.“He was so nice to work with and the kids just adored him. He had a gift for what he did.” Groover Bryant said she talked with Ellis earlier on Tuesday at the ground breaking. He was excited to see the expansion, she said.
The first school representative to find out about the shooting was assistant principal Terence Devine who lives in Parrish. Devine received a knock on his door at 2:30 a.m., from the North Port police. He later told principal Jones that the “hairs on the back of his neck stood up.”
“We have put grief counselors in place,” Devine said with a shudder. “That’s going as well as it can be expected to go.”
He added that he is advising students to take Ellis’ well-used words to heart: “Keep on keeping on — keep plugging away.”
Staffer Kelly Hillman couldn’t get Ellis image out of her head. During the news conference, she stressed what the long-term educator stood for at the school.
“Every day when he walked down the hallway you knew he was coming to work. He was in dress slacks and a tie, and he showed these kids what it is to be a respectable, smart individual,” Hillman said. ”It’s just horrible that he’s not there.”
Dean of Students Linda Evans said more than 20 former students came by Wednesday morning after hearing the news. They just wanted to sit in the tae kwon do room.
“He would be able to tell you every student’s name and some personal information,” Evans said. ”That’s the kind of teacher he was. He expected excellence from his students, and he got it.”
Perhaps it was student Taylor Lesoine who best summarized the students’ pain.
“A lot of the kids in tae kwon do always joked around that ... you can’t beat Master Ellis ... nothing could get him. But we were proven wrong, I guess,” Taylor said with his head bowed.
Anyone with information about the shooting can call North Port police at (941) 429-7382 or (941) 429-7300.
Bradenton Herald staff writer Paradise Afshar and the North Port Sun contributed to this story.