How the state lost track of Maurice Clemmons
A review of records shows the state Department of Corrections didn't even know Maurice Clemmons was out of jail until it was too late. He killed four Lakewood police officers on Nov. 29.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Coverage from the days following the Lakewood shootings
It was after 10 p.m. on Nov. 23 when Maurice Clemmons walked out of the Pierce County Jail with $3.39 in his pocket and a brewing sense of injustice.
Clemmons had just posted bail on felony assault and sex-crime charges, and he was supposed to report to a state Department of Corrections (DOC) field office within 24 hours.
Instead, Clemmons dropped off the agency's radar. The DOC didn't even know Clemmons was out of jail until it was too late.
Six days after making bail, on the morning of Nov. 29, Clemmons killed four Lakewood police officers in a Parkland, Pierce County, coffee shop. Two days later, Clemmons was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer, ending a massive manhunt.
The six days after Clemmons' release from jail represent a missed opportunity to avert tragedy, one in which he benefited from a critical lapse in DOC's oversight.
A review of records obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request shows that Clemmons' community-corrections officer, who was new to the case, lost track of him. The Pierce County Jail didn't tell him Clemmons had been released. And an internal DOC computer system, set up to alert DOC officers when offenders under their watch get into trouble, doesn't track releases from county jails.
Before Nov. 23, the DOC spent a great deal of energy last spring and summer trying to keep Clemmons behind bars and to send him back to Arkansas, where he was under parole for theft and burglary convictions.
The DOC is in the final stages of an internal review that will recommend systemic changes to close any loopholes in how it tracks those under its watch. But DOC Secretary Eldon Vail acknowledged the missed opportunity in the Clemmons' case.
"I would have liked to know he'd gotten out of jail. There might have been a warrant if so. That's unfortunate," he said.
A tangled legal history
Clemmons, who moved to Washington in 2004, was arrested May 9 for allegedly assaulting a Pierce County sheriff's deputy during a wild rock-throwing spree in his neighborhood.
He bailed out of the Pierce County Jail on May 10, and allegedly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old relative that night. He disappeared for the rest of May and June, prompting Arkansas to issue a fugitive warrant because of his parole in that state.
On July 1, he was arrested on the child-rape charge. If convicted of that charge, Clemmons potentially faced a life sentence under Washington's "three strikes" law.
He also would have been denied bail under the Arkansas warrant.
But in mid-July, Arkansas rescinded its hold on Clemmons after a North Little Rock attorney, hired by Clemmons' wife, lobbied corrections officials in that state to drop the warrant, according to records released by Arkansas.
As a result, Clemmons was able to bail out of jail again, on July 24.
Frustrated with Arkansas and eager to have him back behind bars, the DOC in Washington obtained a special "Secretary's warrant" on Aug. 19 against Clemmons for violating his Arkansas parole during the assault on the deputy. Within 22 hours of the warrant's issue, Clemmons was arrested while walking his German shepherd puppy, Diamond, near his house.
A DOC hearing officer found Clemmons guilty of violating the terms of his Arkansas parole and ordered that he serve 120 days in jail regardless of whether he made bail. The hearing officer also ordered tightened supervision of Clemmons in the event of his release, requiring that he report to a community corrections officer within 24 hours and check in weekly.
The DOC sanction infuriated Clemmons. He appealed to another DOC hearing officer, calling the sanction an "injustice." He claimed he was being "railroaded" by the Pierce County sheriff's deputies who had arrested him, and noted that a co-defendant in the May 9 incident had pleaded guilty and taken sole responsibility, according to DOC records.
"I hope who ever reads this appeal is honest," Clemmons wrote.
Clemmons served the DOC sanction, which was cut by one-third — 40 days — for good behavior. Still facing the assault and child-rape charges, he was eligible for bail, which was set at $190,000.
A missed opportunity
As Clemmons' case ground through the courts, his DOC case file bounced among corrections officers. On Oct. 12, it was handed to John Hinson in the DOC's Parkland office.
Hinson asked staff in DOC's headquarters for help understanding the confusion about the Arkansas warrant and direction on how to proceed. On Nov. 10, Marjorie Owens, a DOC administrator who dealt with Arkansas on the Clemmons case, gave a clear direction, according to records recently released by Gov. Chris Gregoire's office.
If Clemmons remained behind bars and was ultimately convicted of the assault and child-rape charges, he would be sent to prison, presumably for a long time. But if Clemmons made bail before going to trial, Owens instructed Hinson to "keep close tabs on him."
If Clemmons failed to report, Owens told Hinson, he should tell Arkansas that Clemmons was on the run again. That would likely lead to Arkansas issuing a new no-bail arrest warrant that would keep Clemmons behind bars until the pending charges in Washington were resolved.
"We cannot continue to supervise an offender who absconds," Owens wrote. "This is a very ugly case."
That put the burden on Hinson to find out if — or when — Clemmons made bail. The DOC's internal software system, Offender Management Network Information (OMNI), issues automated alerts for offenders' contacts with law enforcement.
But no such alert exists when an offender is released from jail. Anmarie Aylward, head of DOC's community-corrections division, said creating such an alert system would be complicated, given that there are 39 counties with their own software systems.
DOC has an officer assigned to the Pierce County Jail, responsible for keeping track of inmates on the DOC caseload. The officer, who works part-time, has access to release records. But a jail staff member said Wednesday she did not know if the officer was specifically notified of Clemmons' release.
Community corrections officers also typically check online jail registries, said Aylward.
"Certainly there could be improvements," Aylward said. "It wouldn't be surprising if this becomes an issue" in the internal DOC review, set to be released next month.
In a note in the OMNI system, Hinson says he checked on Nov. 23 and found Clemmons still in jail. That note, however, was entered on Nov. 29, after Clemmons was the prime suspect in the officers' deaths. It is one of only two notes — among more than five dozen entries — that were backdated since Clemmons' arrest six months earlier, when his supervision was tightened.
Hinson did not respond to a request for an interview.
If Hinson had known Clemmons had bailed out, the DOC could have sought an arrest warrant, similar to the one issued Aug. 19 which resulted in Clemmons' quick arrest.
But Aylward says Clemmons still might have eluded arrest. Clemmons told relatives on Thanksgiving — three days before the police shootings — that he was planning to kill officers.
"We could have known [about the bail], we could have had a 'Secretary's warrant,' we could have had crews out looking for him, and it may not have made a difference," she said.
While the DOC didn't know Clemmons had left jail, another branch of state government did.
A psychologist for Western State Hospital called Clemmons' defense attorney on Nov. 24, seeking to schedule an interview with Clemmons as part of a court-ordered psychological evaluation for the pending charges.
Clemmons, the attorney said, had posted bail and been released. But that information wasn't relayed to the DOC, the agency's records show.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com