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Originally published December 4, 2009 at 12:09 AM | Page modified December 4, 2009 at 1:31 AM

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Clemmons repeatedly slipped through the cracks

Did Maurice Clemmons, who assassinated four police officers last Sunday, live a crime-free life for the first five years he was in Washington? It's difficult to answer with certainty. But records from police, state corrections and federal law enforcement strongly suggest the answer is no.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Last April, a Department of Corrections officer was watching a television news story about a series of armed robberies around Puget Sound when he saw a Pierce County Crime Stoppers sketch that bore a striking similarity to a man he'd once monitored — Maurice Clemmons.

The officer passed on the tip to Clemmons' current supervising officer, who called Crime Stoppers. Yet, somehow, the tip didn't filter down to all the detectives working the cases.

A Crime Stoppers operator told the officer that they had "received too many tips/leads already," according to the second DOC officer's notes. Crime Stoppers "refused to take any more tips from the DOC."

"That doesn't make any sense," counters Lauren Wallin, a Pierce County Sheriff's analyst who coordinates the Crime Stoppers program. "We take all tips that come in unless a suspect is apprehended."

Whatever happened, it wasn't the only time that Clemmons slipped through the cracks of criminal investigations after moving here from Arkansas in 2004.

Did the man who killed four police officers Sunday live a crime-free life for the five years he was in Washington before he was arrested in May 2009? Records from police, state corrections and federal law enforcement suggest the answer is no.

In addition to the possible connection to the Puget Sound-area robberies, Clemmons was investigated by the U.S. Postal Service and a regional drug task force for drug trafficking. And he was the suspect in an armed robbery in Arkansas just a few months after moving to Washington.

Armed-robbery link?

Earlier this year, detectives started noticing the similarities among 11 armed robberies between April 2008 and April 2009. The robberies were takeover style and professionally executed. Four were at AutoZone stores — in Tacoma, Bremerton, Lakewood and Edgewood, Pierce County.

Witnesses in the Lakewood heist got a good look at one of the two robbers, and helped with details for the sketch.

Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said the robberies remain unsolved.

"It definitely looks like [Clemmons], but that's not enough to say he is a suspect," said Troyer of the sketch. He noted that detectives who searched Clemmons' home this week had not recovered a submachine gun that could be seen in one of the robberies, at Oh Gallagher's Sports Pub in Lakewood on Nov. 14, 2008. A bar patron was shot in the face and grazed during that robbery.

Among the robberies was one at 9 p.m. March 19, when two men armed with a submachine gun robbed a KFC in Shelton, according to police reports.

Shelton Police detective Paul Campbell said there were four employees in the store at the time who were getting ready to close up. The robbers bound some of the employees with duct tape. At least one was ordered to empty the register and a safe. The men had their faces covered and were wearing gloves.

"They weren't amateurs; they knew what they were doing," Campbell said. "They walked in and controlled everybody."

More than eight months after the Shelton robbery, Campbell said he still doesn't have "squat" on the case after eliminating up to a dozen possible suspects. He said he wishes he'd been informed of what the DOC officer noticed — the similarities between the Crime Stoppers sketch and Clemmons.

"I'd have definitely gone down that road if it had been brought to my attention," he said. Campbell said he would have considered Clemmons a "person of interest" in the case, given his history of armed robbery and the sketch.

Drug smuggling

In September 2005, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated Clemmons for a case involving shipments of marijuana between Seattle and South Dakota, said Jerry Styers, a spokesman for the postal inspector's office in Seattle.

Investigators found packages of marijuana shipped out of Seattle, and shipments of cash sent to a Federal Way home Clemmons shared with his wife, Styers said.

One package addressed to the home had about in $5,500 cash, Styers said. At least one man was charged in South Dakota on the case, but he fled to Everett.

It is unclear what happened to Clemmons as a result — neither he nor his wife have been charged, according to federal court documents.

In March 2007, after a meeting of a multiagency drug task force in the Seattle area, the postal inspector's office shipped its records on Clemmons to the task force. Styers said that happened because the postal inspector was told the task force was already investigating Clemmons.

Jodie Underwood, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman, said her agency cannot confirm any previous or ongoing investigation.

Little Rock robbery

Hints that Clemmons might not have been living the straight life can be found soon after he moved to Washington under the supervision of DOC.

Released from Arkansas on parole for aggravated robbery and theft in March 2004, Clemmons moved into an apartment in Seattle's Pioneer Square with his half-brother, Rickey Hinton, who is now charged with aiding Clemmons while he was on the run.

Records indicate that, at times, Clemmons held a number of regular jobs. His first was with Metro Bail Bonds, where he worked for several weeks. He also told DOC, at various times, he was working at a metal recycler and pulling out seats from buses.

He held a job at Nortrak rail supplies in Seattle, where he was "doing well, shows up on time and gets along well with other employees," Nortrak human resources told DOC in 2005, according to records.

Clemmons also registered two businesses in Washington: Sea-Wash Pressure Washing & Landscaping, and Reggiee's Southern Dawgs. And he owned at least three homes in the Tacoma area — telling authorities he was able to collect rental income.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Clemmons caught a break. On July 8, 2004, Little Rock police took a report from a man who claimed he'd been robbed at gunpoint.

The man told police he'd met the suspect in the lobby of a Comfort Inn and struck up a conversation. The suspect invited the man to "hang out" in his room, 212.

Up in his room, according to police records, the suspect pulled out a handgun and stole the victim's gold watch, his gold ring and $1,400 in cash. The suspect then jumped into a car with another man and drove off.

The crime doesn't appear to have been well planned. When police checked with the front desk at the Comfort Inn, employees said a man had paid for Room 212 with cash — but had shown his Washington-state identification.

The name on the ID: Maurice Clemmons, making a visit to his home state.

However, Little Rock police never filed charges. When officers started asking the victim about drugs, he "left the area" soon after, according to the police report.

"The victim was a drug addict and he was not a good witness, and they could not make a case against Clemmons on that one," said Lt. Terry Hastings, a spokesman for the Little Rock Police Department. "The victim was the only witness, and he just wasn't a good enough witness."

Susan Kelleher and staff researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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