How one prankster's ruse detoured massive manhunt
When a man who had nothing to do with the slaying of four Lakewood police officers last November told his friends he had committed the crime, they called 911. It launched a massive police response, which was all for naught. He was charged with obstructing police but acquitted because he wasn't the one who called authorities.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The morning that news of the ambush and murder of four Lakewood police officers gripped the region, Martin Quintero-Lewis decided it would be a good time to play a prank.
He called a friend, a woman he knew to be gullible, and confessed.
I did it, he said. I'm the one they're looking for.
In a series of phone calls with her, Quintero-Lewis gave convincing details. He said he'd "snapped" because he hated Lakewood police. He was still armed and needed a fresh change of clothes.
He said he used a white truck for his getaway and was hiding in woods near the Forza coffee shop where the officers were killed, according to police and court records.
And then he started to cry.
The false confession was a brief but serious diversion in the hunt for the real killer, an Arkansas ex-convict named Maurice Clemmons. The Pierce County sheriff estimated about 100 detectives and officers, SWAT team members and a police helicopter were dispatched to find Quintero-Lewis, contributing to the $209,000 the county spent on overtime during the manhunt.
After a 3 ½-hour search, detectives and SWAT officers arrested Quintero-Lewis at gunpoint at his house. He was remorseful, apologetic and — astonishing as it sounds — apparently unaware his confession had been taken seriously.
Last month, after a two-day trial, a Pierce County jury found Quintero-Lewis not guilty of obstructing the police investigation. The case hinged on whether Quintero-Lewis — who never called 911 himself — "willfully" interfered with the manhunt.
Quintero-Lewis, 26, of Tacoma, said in an interview last week he still feels terrible.
"It wasn't meant to get out of hand," he said. "It was an inside joke, like a black joke or Jewish joke you tell that is not supposed to leave your circle of friends."
How to "build my lie"
The shooting of Lakewood police Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards on Nov. 29, 2009, was the worst act of violence against law enforcement in state history, and it launched Washington's largest-ever manhunt.
Rick Adamson, the Pierce County sheriff's chief of operations and the manhunt incident commander, estimated that 600 people were involved from 16 city, county, state and federal agencies.
The manhunt homed in on Clemmons almost immediately. A Pierce County sheriff's deputy found a white truck at 9:12 a.m. — an hour after the shooting — that matched the description of the getaway vehicle. The truck was registered to Clemmons' business and had blood smeared on the seat.
As police scrambled, Quintero-Lewis watched news coverage and at 10:30 a.m. he called a 33-year-old friend he'd met in church. He included details from the news coverage — including the white truck — to make his "confession" sound believable. "I was trying to build my lie around what those guys were talking about" on TV, he said.
The woman, who testified at the trial, was stunned to hear his story. "I said, 'Oh my God, why did you do that?' "
They talked several more times, and she warned Quintero-Lewis she had to call 911. When she did, the woman sobbed, fearful Quintero-Lewis would be killed.
Because Quintero-Lewis' fake confession matched details from the crime scene, it forced Adamson to open a new line of investigation. Adamson kept detectives pursuing Clemmons, but detectives were also dispatched to talk to the woman. The King County sheriff's helicopter and dozens of patrol officers and SWAT team members were sent to search for Quintero-Lewis in the woods.
"We had to consider him the suspect. It created a very dangerous, intense situation," said Adamson.
The woods were so close to the manhunt's media-briefing area that a second SWAT team surrounded the dozens of journalists at the scene, turning the tip into headline news nationwide.
When Quintero-Lewis' mother learned what her son was saying, she got on the phone with him and "started ranting and cursing and carrying on," she said during the trial.
It took several hours for the prank to unravel. Detectives heard from Quintero-Lewis' ex-wife, who said he had confessed to the prank. By 3 p.m. that day, Quintero-Lewis was on the phone with Pierce County sheriff's Detective Keith Barnes, admitting to the false confession and asking that a SWAT team not be sent to his home.
Unsure if Quintero-Lewis was just a prankster, a SWAT team had rifles trained on him when he walked out of his Tacoma house, his hands in the air.
"He was lucky he didn't get shot," said Pierce County District Court Judge Patrick O'Malley, who presided over Quintero-Lewis' trial.
As the detectives and SWAT team returned to hunting for Clemmons, Quintero-Lewis was charged with obstructing police, a misdemeanor. He was in jail three weeks before making his $25,000 bail.
He has a misdemeanor criminal record, which includes convictions for violating a domestic-violence restraining order and for lying to a Fife police officer in 2007, when he gave a fake name.
Quintero-Lewis did not testify at his trial last month. Even his defense attorney, Marta Medcalf, did not defend his behavior. "What he did was incredibly stupid. The prosecutor said it's beyond tasteless. It's true," she said during the trial.
In denying a request to dismiss the case, O'Malley agreed with Medcalf's description.
"It would be stunningly unbelievable to the court that injecting oneself into a situation of this magnitude, of this emotional intensity, would not have consequences," the judge said.
But the law required the prosecutor to prove a reasonable person would know such a prank would obstruct the investigation, and yet the defendant intentionally carried it out.
Quintero-Lewis did not call 911 himself and didn't know that police were looking for him until he talked with Barnes, Medcalf argued.
The jury deliberated about two hours before acquitting him. Quintero-Lewis, a juror said later, was either too stupid or too naive to be considered "reasonable."
The judge said that as frustrating as the case was, the jury should be praised for separating emotions regarding the officers' deaths from the facts of the case.
Quintero-Lewis, while admitting what he did was in "bad taste," compared his false confession to a prank on the MTV show "Jackass."
"Man, I quit playing practical jokes now," he said.
Asked if he would have called 911 if a friend had played the same prank on him, he said no. "That's not my job to call 911," he said. "Look at [Maurice Clemmons'] friends — they didn't turn him in."
He said he's given up his plan to be a lawyer and now is in training to be an auto mechanic.
"I'm disillusioned by police and the judicial system," he said. "They took me to jail, man."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A previous version of this story published April 24 incorrectly stated the education of Martin Quintero-Lewis. The man said he attended Bates Technical College. The college said on Tuesday, April 27, that he is not and has not been a student. The story was corrected on Wednesday, April 28.