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Originally published November 30, 2009 at 10:48 PM | Page modified December 1, 2009 at 6:57 AM

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Four days in May set stage for Sunday's tragedy

Over four days in May, Maurice Clemmons' behavior and mental state deteriorated. Family members worried he had gone crazy, that he was verging on collapse. His conduct became so erratic — punching a sheriff's deputy, forcing relatives to strip naked, according to police reports — that authorities eventually charged him with eight felonies, including one count of child rape.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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A path to murder: The story of Maurice Clemmons

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Maurice Clemmons clemency and parole documents (PDF)

Statement from Mayor Douglas Richardson and City Manager Andrew Neiditz (PDF)

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Related links

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NewsTribune.com | Eyewitness accounts

Video | Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer discusses Lakewood slaying

Over four days in May, Maurice Clemmons' behavior and mental state deteriorated. Family members worried he had gone crazy, that he was verging on collapse. His conduct became so erratic — punching a sheriff's deputy, forcing relatives to strip naked, according to police reports — that authorities eventually charged him with eight felonies, including one count of child rape.

Still, at the end of those four days, Clemmons wound up on the loose — a delusional man with a propensity for violence, who had managed to escape the grip of authorities.

What happened in those four days — and in the months that followed — reflects a system governed by formula and misguided incentives.

That legal system, both in Arkansas and Washington, failed to account for the entirety of Clemmons' violence and his disdain for the law. Individual crimes, viewed in isolation, trumped a long and disturbing pattern of warning signs.

As a result, Clemmons walked out of jail Nov. 23. A week later, he was on the run again — this time accused of shooting and killing four Lakewood police officers in a Parkland coffee shop, in one of the most horrific crimes in Puget Sound history.

May 9

It may have been an argument — precipitated by his wife's discovery that he had a child with another woman — that set Clemmons off.

Whatever it was, Clemmons took his rage out on his Parkland neighborhood, throwing rocks at houses, cars and people, according to police records.

A woman who was visiting family that day says she was leaving the neighborhood when a man hurled a landscaping brick through the driver-side window of her SUV.

"I was just in shock," said the woman, who asked not to be identified because Clemmons remains at large. "The look in his eyes is something I will not forget."

The woman called 911 only after rounding a corner a safe distance away.

A Pierce County sheriff's deputy responded to the disturbance at 12:45 p.m. Outside Clemmons' home, the deputy encountered two of Clemmons' cousins.

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When the deputy tried going into the house in search of Clemmons, one cousin grabbed the deputy's wrist. A struggle followed, during which Clemmons emerged from the house and punched the deputy in the face. Clemmons also assaulted a second deputy who arrived to help, according to court records.

Ultimately, all three men were arrested and taken to jail. When being booked, Clemmons refused to cooperate and said, "I'll kill all you bitches," according to a psychological evaluation obtained by The News Tribune.

The two cousins pleaded guilty to felony assault and were sentenced to several months in jail.

But the charges against Clemmons would defy such easy resolution.

May 10

After spending one night in jail, Clemmons caught a break.

May 10 was a Sunday, Mother's Day. Judges rarely work Sundays — but bail-bond agents do.

Pierce County has devised a system that allows people to post bond without ever facing a judge, if it happens to be a holiday or a weekend.

Called "booking bail," this system works according to a hard-and-fast formula. Clemmons was booked on four felony charges — two for assault, two for malicious mischief — and, by schedule, his booking bail was set at $10,000 per charge, for a total of $40,000.

"If you post booking bail, you can walk out without seeing a judge. And that appears to be exactly what he did," said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist. "When it's booking bail, it doesn't take into account particular details like somebody's history. And that's problematic ... it's one of the dangers of booking bail."

If his history had been taken into account, Clemmons would have fared poorly. He had a criminal record dating to his teen years, with at least five prior felony convictions in Arkansas.

Aladdin Bail Bonds posted Clemmons' bond on Mother's Day, and Clemmons walked free. Defendants typically pay 10 percent of the bond, with the bonding company on the hook for the rest.

Stephen Kreimer, executive director of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, said he doesn't think "booking bail" is common nationwide. In most states, he said, defendants must wait until they've seen a magistrate or court representative before being released on bail.

May 11

After his release on May 10, Clemmons' mental state degenerated, with his wife saying he was acting "crazy," according to a Pierce County sheriff's report.

At about 1 a.m. May 11, Clemmons appeared naked in his living room and demanded that two young female relatives — ages 11 and 12 — sit on an ottoman and fondle him, one of the girls later told police. They obeyed, the girl said, because they were "scared." The 11-year-old soon fled, and wasn't seen for days.

But Clemmons continued to assault the 12-year-old until she cried herself to sleep, police records say. Clemmons, still naked, soon woke her and demanded she join him and his wife, Nicole Smith, in their bedroom. Clemmons referred to himself as Jesus and Smith, naked and wrapped in a bedsheet, as Eve. Smith begged her husband to let the girl go, and Clemmons complied, the girl later told police.

But Clemmons wasn't finished. At about 4 a.m., he assembled his family back in the living room and demanded they strip naked. He talked about how "beautiful it was that they were sharing the moment."

Pierce County sheriff's deputies arrived at about 5:30 a.m. after a family member called 911. With Clemmons now gone from the house, the family described his recent erratic behavior, including his statements that the world was coming to an end and he was "going to fly to heaven."

Acting on a tip from Smith, deputies saw Clemmons nearby, at a second house he was building. But Clemmons ran away before deputies could stop him, and a K-9 unit could not pick up his trail.

Child Protective Services (CPS), alerted by deputies, also investigated the incident and substantiated the sexual-abuse complaint. A CPS spokeswoman said the agency closed the case in October because Smith and the young relative went to counseling and Clemmons was in jail.

May 12

Clemmons was supposed to show up in Pierce County Superior Court May 12, to be arraigned on charges stemming from the rocks and punches he was accused of throwing three days before.

By now, prosecutors had filed a formal set of charges accusing Clemmons with two counts of assault and five for felony malicious mischief.

But at 1:30 p.m., when a court official polled the courtroom gallery to see who was there, Clemmons was a no show. Three hours later, at the close of the court's day, he still was nowhere to be found.

A judge later issued a bench warrant, calling for Clemmons' arrest for failure to appear.

Clemmons was on the run — with seven felony charges already filed against him and another on the way, given what had happened in his house just one day before.

July 1

Clemmons wound up being arrested seven weeks later, on July 1, when he showed up in court, in apparent hopes of having the bench warrant thrown out.

The next day, prosecutors charged him with second-degree rape of a child, accusing him of molesting his 12-year-old relative in May.

Prosecutors also filed a separate charge on July 2 — this one accusing Clemmons of being a fugitive from Arkansas. They cited the chain of events involving the alleged assault on the deputies as evidence that Clemmons had violated his parole in Arkansas. If sent back, he faced the prospect of being returned to prison for years.

But July 22, the Arkansas Department of Community Correction notified Pierce County, by letter, that Arkansas had no interest in taking Clemmons back.

"Arkansas is releasing its hold on the offender and will not extradite at this time," the letter said. "The subject has pending charges in the state of Washington and appropriate action will be taken once the charges have been adjudicated."

Arkansas rescinded its warrant. Had Arkansas not done so, Clemmons would have been held without bail on the alleged parole violation.

Stephen Penner, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Pierce County, said he sees Arkansas' decision to leave Clemmons to Washington this way: "There's a built-in incentive to not following through. In a way, the more violent they are, the less you want them in your community."

Lindquist, Pierce County's chief prosecutor, was asked Monday if he believes Arkansas dumped Clemmons on Washington.

Only Arkansas can answer that question, Lindquist said, but he added: "You could draw that inference."

A spokeswoman for the Arkansas prison system told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the state issued a second warrant in October that would have allowed Clemmons to be held without bail.

Penner said if a second warrant was issued, no one told him.

Nov. 23

In Washington, the courts had to determine bail for the two sets of charges Clemmons faced.

Phil Sorensen, a deputy prosecutor in Pierce County, said his office asked for $100,000 bail in the assault case — an amount higher than normal for such charges — based on Clemmons' history. The judge, John McCarthy, set the bail at $40,000, Sorensen said.

In the child-rape case, prosecutors wanted $200,000 bail, Lindquist said. The judge, Thomas Felnagle, set bail at $150,000.

Lindquist said he thought both judges set bail too low.

"As prosecutors, we face an uphill battle walking into court," he said. "We have to show that the defendant is a danger to the community and a flight risk."

Neither judge could be reached for comment Monday.

In the end, Clemmons needed to come up with $190,000 bail.

Penner, the deputy prosecuting attorney, said Clemmons was turned away by two bail-bond agencies, based on his history of failing to appear in court. But then Clemmons found a taker: Jail Sucks Bail Bonds, based in Chehalis.

At 8:20 p.m. Nov. 23, bond was posted for Clemmons. That same night he walked out of the Pierce County Jail.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com; Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com.

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