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Originally published December 1, 2009 at 10:14 PM | Page modified December 2, 2009 at 2:18 PM

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E-mails show Washington state battled to keep Clemmons in custody

Documents released Tuesday show that a wide variety of state and local officials viewed Maurice Clemmons as a dangerous man, and wanted desperately to keep him in custody. But Washington officials encountered resistance from an unlikely source — their correctional colleagues in Arkansas.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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When Maurice Clemmons, the man suspected of killing four Lakewood police officers, walked free from a Pierce County jail last week, it wasn't for lack of effort on the part of Washington officials to keep him behind bars.

Documents released Tuesday show that a wide variety of state and local officials — everyone from prosecutors to sheriff's deputies to corrections officers — viewed Clemmons as a dangerous man, and wanted desperately to keep him in custody.

But Washington officials encountered resistance from an unlikely source — their correctional colleagues in Arkansas. The acrimony has since become so intense, according to Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer, that if the two states were adjacent a "border war" would break out.

The dispute now centers on whether a warrant issued by Arkansas in October would have allowed Washington authorities to prevent Clemmons' release from the Pierce County Jail six days before the shootings occurred. Arkansas says yes. Washington says no.

Clemmons, 37, was accused of killing the four police officers Sunday. On Tuesday, a Seattle police officer encountered and killed Clemmons.

The tension between the two states started in July and is captured in a round of e-mail exchanges that show just how frustrated Washington officials became with their Arkansas counterparts.

Clemmons was arrested in Washington on July 1. The following day he was formally charged with second-degree rape of a child — the eighth felony charge filed against him in Washington this year alone. All eight of those charges traced to a spree of violence in May and were still pending against Clemmons while the two states tangled over how to deal with him.

Arkansas had an interest in Clemmons because he remained on parole in that state. Convicted of at least five felony charges, Clemmons served more than 10 years in Arkansas' prison system before being released in 2004 and moving to Washington.

When Clemmons landed in trouble in May 2009, Arkansas issued a warrant for violating the conditions of his parole. This warrant, if enforced, would have allowed Washington to keep Clemmons in jail without chance of posting bond.

But on July 16, an Arkansas official notified the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) that Arkansas was rescinding its warrant.

Marjorie Owens, a Washington DOC administrator, wrote a blistering response on July 23, saying Arkansas' decision appeared to violate the Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision (ICAOS), an agreement governing how states treat one another's offenders who are on supervision.

"I'm concerned that you have no problem releasing your offender into our community, based on his behavior," she wrote. "I thought ICAOS was all about community safety."

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Owens also wrote: "Hopefully the offender will not get out on bail."

On Aug. 5, an Arkansas parole official named Linda Strong sent a terse reply: "The warrant was rescinded. When the pending charges are adjudicated we will reconsider the case."

A document released by Arkansas Tuesday says the warrant "was recalled at the request of [Arkansas Department of Community Correction] director G. David Guntharp after conversations he had with the offender's wife and mother." But Guntharp, in an interview, said he does not recall discussing the matter with Clemmons' family. Clemmons' mother died years ago.

Rhonda Sharp, a spokeswoman for Guntharp, said Arkansas retracted the warrant because the warrant labeled Clemmons an "absconder" — meaning he had fled or was avoiding supervision. But Arkansas received a letter from Clemmons' defense attorney contradicting that and claiming the Pierce County charges "may be dropped."

Arkansas' decision baffled Washington officials. Seeking help, they consulted the Washington State Attorney General's Office and the national office that oversees the interstate compact. The latter office said Arkansas "should not have quashed their warrant," an internal e-mail between Washington DOC employees says. One administrator for the Washington DOC called the case a "major malfunction" and suggested ways "to work 'around' Arkansas on this one."

Washington's alarm could be traced, in part, to concerns about the danger Clemmons posed. A Pierce County prosecutor worried Clemmons "might continue to make contact" with children he was accused of molesting.

A Pierce County sheriff's detective told a corrections officer "it would not be easy" if DOC officers or sheriff's deputies had to arrest Clemmons again. "She said Mr. Clemmons did not like them," an e-mail says.

The records released Tuesday show that from July until November, Clemmons was in and out of jail. At one point, a DOC employee wrote an e-mail saying: "I was going to serve Offender today only to find out he bailed out!"

On Tuesday, Washington's top prison official blasted Arkansas.

When the Washington DOC initially asked for — and got — a nationwide fugitive warrant from Arkansas in May, the Washington DOC closed the case, ending its oversight of Clemmons. The DOC believed Clemmons would now be Arkansas' responsibility.

"At that point, he's a problem for the state of Arkansas," Washington DOC Secretary Eldon Vail said. "If he's picked up, he's going back."

But when Arkansas rescinded its warrant, that left DOC temporarily without supervision on a man it considered dangerous. Vail said if the Washington and Arkansas positions were reversed, Washington would have taken Clemmons back. Last year, Washington retook 986 felons from other states, Vail said.

"We do this every day," he said.

Vail said the Clemmons case was his worst experience with another state in his 33 years with the Washington DOC: "[Gov. Chris Gregoire's] question to me about this case is a good one: 'Why would we ever take anyone from Arkansas in the future?' I haven't gotten back to her."

On Oct. 2, after Washington DOC officials pleaded anew with Arkansas, Arkansas issued a second warrant. But the two states differ on whether the warrant could be enforced in Washington state. Arkansas says the second warrant was just as good as the first.

"It is a valid warrant," Sharp said. "It is a warrant that differs little, if at all, from the first."

But Scott Blonien, an in-house attorney for Washington DOC, said two elements show Arkansas did not intend to enforce the Oct. 2 warrant. A cover sheet attached to it left unchecked a box that reads: "Warrant issued. Keep us apprised of offender's availability for retaking," a term that means sending an offender home. The May 28 warrant had that box checked.

And, unlike the May 28 warrant, the second warrant was not entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a law-enforcement database. Interstate compact guidelines appear to require that the state issuing a warrant — Arkansas, in this case — must enter the warrant into NCIC in order to make it enforceable.

Pierce County employees checked the NCIC twice and found no warrants for Clemmons, a county official said.

Clemmons posted $190,000 bail on Nov. 23 and walked out of the Pierce County Jail.

Staff writers Christine Clarridge, Susan Kelleher and Maureen O'Hagan contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com; Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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