Clemmons' jail tapes reveal vow to kill
The man who fatally shot four Lakewood police officers described his deadly intentions over and over in conversations with his wife and others.
Seattle Times staff reporter
He stands alone at a jailhouse phone, his only connection to the outside world in early October. Labeled as a dangerous inmate, he spends all but 60 minutes a day in "the Hole."
Maurice Clemmons has a message and a vision he needs to make sure his wife understands. It's a message he will deliver himself once he's out of the Pierce County Jail.
His voice is calm, matter of fact. He tells his wife, Nicole Smith, he'll need a gun.
"I ain't use to pack one, but every day where I go, I'm going to have one right in my front pocket."
And if police cross him?
"It's going to be the last time they (say) 'Hey mister.' Boom. Dead in they forehead."
But on this day, Nicole is distracted, even disinterested in what Maurice has to say — she's heard it all before.
Their Oct. 4 conversation is one of 28 calls the couple shared as Clemmons vowed that he would never again be handcuffed by police, face another judge or be jailed.
Clemmons, 37, knew his every word was being recorded — it's routine at the jail — but it didn't stop him from describing his deadly intentions. During the majority of the calls, he talks of a killing spree, saying it will be retribution for a lifetime of abuse at the hands of law enforcement.
At times the couple spoke of the mundane details of life — his in solitary confinement and hers at their South Tacoma home. But in reality their world was collapsing around them. He feared a life in prison and obsessed about revenge. She feared losing her home, as foreclosure was imminent.
These 20-minute conversations, never heard before by the public, were obtained by The Seattle Times through a records request. In all, more than nine hours of talks Clemmons had with his wife and others were recorded from Oct. 1 to Nov. 17 and turned over to the newspaper several weeks ago. In his own words, Clemmons reveals his state of mind two months before he would carry out the most deadly attack on law enforcement in state history. Within weeks of the calls, four police officers and Clemmons would die.
Clemmons was a public-safety threat, concluded Craig Adams, a Pierce County deputy prosecuting attorney who reviewed the recordings before releasing them to the paper. Law enforcement rarely listens to live jail calls, so Adams believed there was little authorities could have done to prevent the shootings.
"Hindsight is perfect," Adams said. "He was feeling victimized, rightly or wrongly. He felt framed."
Pierce County has held back some recordings as prosecutors work to prove that other family members and friends helped Clemmons hours after his Nov. 29 rampage. That was the day he walked into Forza Coffee Co. and killed Lakewood police Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Ron Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards.
In some calls, yet to be released, Clemmons blatantly tells his friends to post bond and, once he's out, to get him a phone and a gun, Adams said.
When he did get out, he told people on Thanksgiving Day that he planned to kill cops, children and as many people as he could at an intersection, court documents show.
Clemmons eerily predicted nearly two months earlier, when he was in jail, that that day would come.
"It's going to make them cry in the end," Clemmons told his wife. "Sure is, their kids and everybody else."
Stored up anger
The anger building in Clemmons was rooted in his rebellious years as a teen in Arkansas. In a seven-month spree that started when he was 16, he robbed and assaulted a woman, burglarized a home and was caught with a gun at school.
His prison sentence: 108 years.
After Clemmons served 11 of them, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee granted his appeal for clemency. Released in 2000, he went back to prison for more than two years for a home robbery.
His prison stints led Clemmons to believe he, as a poor black man, suffered because of a racist criminal-justice system.
After moving to Washington state in 2004, he ran a landscaping business and bought several homes. But by last May, his behavior had become erratic.
In a span of two days, he vandalized his neighborhood, punched two Pierce County deputies and allegedly raped his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Clemmons was now facing a life sentence if convicted of another felony, his "third strike."
In late September, he was arrested for parole violations. In his first month in jail, he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — the Hole.
Clemmons repeatedly called his wife, insisting that deputies had lied about the assault. It was one of many times he claimed innocence, blaming others and showing no remorse.
It's unclear what Nicole Smith, 38, thought; she wouldn't comment for this story. Investigators do not believe at this time she assisted Clemmons before or after his murderous attack.
In an Oct. 3 phone call, she tries to appeal to his religious beliefs.
Maurice: I'll kiss this bullet. Everywhere I go, I'm going to stay packing, stay ready.
Nicole: You just saying that 'cause you are upset right now.
Maurice: I put that on God. I ain't going no more (back to prison) ...
Nicole: Put your faith in God.
Maurice: I'm going to put my faith in God to kill every last one of them that come up on me. That's going to be my faith — to kill every last one of them devils. There ain't no such thing as justice. If there's no such thing as justice, a brother's gonna go 'wild wild West.' ... They did it to me when I was young and now I'm a grown man and it ain't happening no more.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 19, Clemmons seems buoyant as he strategizes about how he will get out of jail and get even. He rambles, hums and sings to his wife: "Nobody knows the trouble I see. Nobody knows but me. It's going down, down, down (I) never should have been let out of the penitentiary."
No one listening
Clemmons' phone calls were among thousands recorded daily at the Pierce County Jail. It's impossible for personnel to monitor each and every call for 1,400 inmates, said Adams, legal adviser to the jail.
Two years ago, Pierce County started recording inmates' calls after the state Supreme Court determined there's no expectation of privacy when someone is in jail. King County and state prisons also record calls.
Inmates at the Pierce County Jail are alerted at the beginning of the call that they are being taped; however, attorney conversations are privileged and cannot be recorded.
In rare cases, deputies will listen to conversations when they receive a tip that an inmate is selling drugs, tampering with a witness or violating a no-contact order in a domestic-abuse case. Some recordings have resulted in criminal prosecutions, Adams said.
But in this case, they had no reason to listen to Clemmons, especially since no one had identified him as a threat while he was in jail, Adams said.
Clemmons was a "model prisoner" with no behavior problems for the two months he was jailed, Adams said. "He was a routine offender, frankly."
A court-ordered mental-health evaluation on Oct. 19 determined his "thought processes were intact." Clemmons denied thoughts of harming anyone even as he was sharing his plans to those closest to him.
Looking back, Adams said, it would have been impossible to know whom Clemmons was targeting. He didn't differentiate among police, sheriff's deputies and corrections officers.
"The Lakewood officers were at the wrong place at the wrong time — targets of opportunity," Adams said. "Because he lived in the area, he may have known police cars were at Forza (the coffee shop) on any given day."
While Clemmons sat in jail, obsessing about his fate, Smith was struggling on the home front.
Bills were piling up and she was frustrated that some from Clemmons' family were living off them. Worse, her husband had been accused of raping her daughter from a previous relationship. Police described Smith as uncooperative at times with the rape investigation.
For the eight weeks Clemmons was in jail, Smith complied with her husband's instructions. She ran errands and relayed his messages to family. On Clemmons' orders, she also called a New York ministry to seek spiritual guidance for him.
The couple's conversations were devoid of emotion, with few sentimental words spoken. In some calls Clemmons would ask about winning lottery numbers and the weather, then ramble on about seeking his own form of justice.
At times, Clemmons sounded upbeat, promising everything would be all right.
But when Smith realized the bank was ready to foreclose on their home, she was fed up. In a Nov. 12 call, she's frantic about how she and her two children are going to survive.
Nicole: If anyone is about to get screwed it's me. I'm about to be homeless, me and my kids.
Maurice: I'm not going to forsake you. ...
Nicole: I don't know you anymore — I don't.
Head of the family
Clemmons' wife wasn't the only one financially dependent on him.
As his family's patriarch, Clemmons provided relatives and friends with cash, vehicles and a place to live.
His relatives saw him as a success and didn't want to cross him.
Clemmons became irate in an Oct. 6 phone call with friend Eddie Davis and half-brother Rickey Hinton, both of whom were living in Clemmons' homes. While on speaker phone so they could hear, Clemmons told Hinton to beat up Davis if he didn't clean up one of the properties:
"... Take a hammer, a stick, a baseball bat, whatever you got to do and bust him to the fat beat, and then put him on the street."
More than a month later, Clemmons ordered Davis, Hinton and others to come up with $9,500 to bail him out. He posted bond and was released Nov. 23.
Their allegiance to Clemmons allegedly helped him evade capture after the police shootings for almost 48 hours before a Seattle officer gunned him down.
Additional hours of jail phone calls haven't been released yet because of pending charges against Davis, Hinton and four others.
Even a month before Clemmons bailed out, he was plotting revenge, telling Hinton "same thing that make them laugh will make 'em cry.
"I'm telling you, before the month of November is up they are going to have a whole different outlook on everything. ... What they did to me is going to come back and bite them in the ass."
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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