Lax bail system helped Clemmons get out of jail
In the wake of the Maurice Clemmons case, state legislators, prosecutors and even bail-bond owners are demanding changes to the largely unregulated bail-bond business.
Seattle Times staff reporter
While he sat in the Pierce County Jail last year, Maurice Clemmons was obsessed with two things — getting bailed out, then killing as many cops as possible.
With more than a decade behind bars in Arkansas and having worked briefly for a bail-bond company himself, 37-year-old Clemmons knew how to manipulate the judicial system.
With incessant phone calls, he cajoled friends, family and bail agents to orchestrate his release — three times in seven months, making small down payments while offering shaky collateral.
Despite the customary 10 percent down, Clemmons got out one time on a $40,000 bond by making only a $1,700 payment. Another time, facing a $190,000 bond for a rash of felonies, including rape and assault, he won freedom with $8,000.
Six days later, he assassinated four Lakewood police officers at a Parkland coffee shop.
In the wake of the Clemmons case, state legislators, prosecutors and even bail-bond owners are demanding changes to the largely unregulated bail-bond business.
"There's no truth in bail," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said. When defendants like Clemmons can bail out of jail with little upfront money, he said, "that forces us to guess what amount of bail will keep them in jail and keep them from escaping the system or committing further crimes. When we guess wrong, bad things can happen."
Competition among bail-bond companies is driving some to charge much less than the typical 10 percent of the bond, accept shaky collateral and credit-card payments, and allow suspects to pay their way to freedom through installment plans.
Some in the bail industry believe it's in dire need of standards.
"You can find a surety company and basically do business out of the back seat of a car [with] a cellphone," said Denny Behrend, co-owner of Lacey OMalley Bail Bonds in Seattle. "This is a business that requires regulation."
Getting a discount
On May 9, 2009, not long after a fight with his wife over his infidelity, Clemmons was in a fury — hurling rocks at neighboring houses and cars, then punching two deputies who came to investigate.
When he was arrested, Clemmons was fortunate it was the weekend; that meant he went through Pierce County's "booking bail," a system in which a defendant doesn't appear before a judge and instead the bond is set by a formula.
For the four felony charges — two for assault, two for malicious mischief — Clemmons had booking bail set at $40,000. His extensive criminal history, including five felony convictions from Arkansas, wasn't considered.
Desperate to get out, Clemmons turned to one of the largest bail companies in the West, Aladdin Bail Bonds, with offices throughout the state.
In Washington, anyone who's arrested — unless accused of aggravated murder — by law is eligible for bail. Once bail is set by a judge, a defendant can pay a bail-bond company a nonrefundable premium to be released from jail. The company may require collateral such as a car or house to make certain the defendant shows up in court.
If the defendant flees or fails to appear in court, the bail company tries to track the person down. If it fails, it must pay the court the total bail amount, but can keep the client's collateral.
Other states handle it differently. Oregon doesn't have bail-bond companies; it requires a defendant to pay 10 percent of the bond with cash or a credit card, collected by the county sheriff.
Bail-bond companies are a vital part of Washington's justice system. They help keep jail populations down and allow the accused to return to their jobs and families while awaiting trial.
Some are long-established and respected, said Satterberg, but "others are fledgling companies willing to take risks, and those risks translate to a public-safety risk."
While some companies charge 10 percent of the total bail as a premium, Aladdin, in Clemmons' case, offered a discount, charging 8 percent because he showed proof he had hired his own lawyer, said CEO Rob Hayes.
Aladdin didn't require Clemmons to put up any collateral, in part because he had a good credit rating and no known criminal history, Hayes said. Aladdin checked his history in Washington only, and it came up clean, Hayes said.
Clemmons got out of jail with a $1,700 payment on the $3,340 premium and fees. His wife, Nicole Smith, gave Aladdin a check and promised to pay installments of $820 in June and July.
The day after Clemmons was freed, according to police reports, he sexually molested a 12-year-old relative. He then failed to show up at the bail company for a required meeting, photograph and paperwork.
When he missed a court appearance a couple of days later, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
He finally appeared in court and was arrested July 1. Aladdin removed itself from the bond, and Clemmons was back in custody.
"It's a one-in-a-million rarity — who would have predicted this guy would have killed four police officers?" Hayes asked.
Clemmons faced charges of second-degree rape of a child, two counts of assault and five counts of malicious mischief. Pierce County Superior Court Judge John McCarthy set bail at $190,000.
Clemmons knew the harsh reality: He faced a potential "third strike" — meaning life in prison if convicted of any of these felonies. He had no intention of returning to prison; his animosity toward law enforcement only grew stronger.
His thinking and his conversations with family members and friends are revealed in more than 300 recorded jailhouse phone calls The Times obtained by a public-records request.
On the jail phone, Clemmons told his wife to use one of their credit cards for bail, and if that didn't work, see if a bail agent would accept a postdated check and "just do it for the lowest amount of money."
If there weren't any takers, Clemmons told her to offer up his collector cars and "a house as collateral — that's probably as good as gold."
"I need to be hearing I'm getting out tomorrow," he told Smith on July 8. "We in danger of losing everything we got. ... We looking for that miracle."
If those tactics didn't work, Clemmons told her, find a Christian bail-bond company and share her religious beliefs to garner sympathy. "Tell them you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you are looking for some compassion," he instructed.
Compassion came from Seattle Bonding and its 80-year-old owner, Lucille Fisher, a God-fearing woman originally from Texas. Fisher would later say she was comforted by talks with Clemmons' family members who said he was the rock of the family, having supported them emotionally and financially.
On July 24, with help from Clemmons' family and friends, Smith raised about 5 percent of the bond, approximately $9,000 in cash, with the rest, as much as $10,000, to be paid to Fisher in installments. As collateral, the couple put up two houses in the Tacoma area that they owned and one in Arkansas.
Fisher wouldn't comment on the financial arrangements.
One day after being released, Clemmons and his wife showed up at Fisher's office to complete paperwork. He was clean-shaven and in a suit. Fisher was impressed.
"I felt he was a young man that had made a mistake and had gone to prison and served his time," she said. "And now he's out this time and ... trying to make a new start."
But Clemmons' life was falling apart. His marriage to Smith was deteriorating after she discovered he had gotten another woman pregnant, and at least one mortgage was heading to foreclosure. Other bills were piling up.
"I'm ashamed I ever wrote his bail," Fisher now says. "That one was a disaster, not because of the financial part, but for having a part in ever putting his feet on the ground."
Just a few weeks after he bailed out this time, Clemmons was arrested in mid-August for violating state Department of Corrections' supervision rules stemming from the rock-throwing incident in May. As he sat in jail — and days turned into weeks, then months — his hatred for law enforcement brewed and he plotted revenge.
"They've unleashed a beast," Clemmons said to half-brother Rickey Hinton on the phone. "This slave here is going to fight back. Nothing weak about me. Woe to the one that sees me first. Once I get through demonstrating it will be on the front page and all across the news."
"You got my word"
Because his wife had distanced herself from him, that fall Clemmons ordered friend Eddie Davis to go to the Yellow Pages and call bail companies.
Several companies turned him down, saying Clemmons did not have enough collateral in his houses and cars.
Clemmons also called Fisher of Seattle Bonding, but he was skeptical a deal would go through. He told a friend over the jail phone: "Nah, that bitch don't want to do it. ... I'm gonna whoop her (expletive) ass. I don't give a damn how old she is."
In a Nov. 23 jail phone call, Fisher told Clemmons she was reluctant to post a new bond for him, saying his collateral was "shaky," that his houses had little equity and she was concerned about him paying her back.
Fisher: "I want you to make money."
Clemmons: "It ain't gonna be no problem for me to make money. You know it's ways that I can do things without talking about it on the phone."
Fisher: "But see, the other time you didn't pay me like you promised me. ... I have your word that you will take care of your court matters and that you will work on paying me once you get out and get your business organized?"
Clemmons, politely: "Yup, yup, you got my word on it."
Fisher told The Times she believed Clemmons was supporting his family by operating a janitorial and landscaping business.
They agreed on a down payment of about 5 percent for the new bond, again set at $190,000.
What Clemmons didn't know was that his wife also called Fisher that day.
" 'If he's getting out, I got to get my family out of here,' " Fisher recalled Smith telling her. "She was concerned and frightened."
That's when Fisher pulled out of the deal.
Clemmons got lucky. Using the Yellow Pages, he found a company to bail him out — Jail Sucks Bail Bonds of Chehalis.
It wanted $8,000 as a down payment and one of his houses as collateral for the $190,000 bond. It also put a GPS ankle bracelet on him, charging $240 a month.
Jail Sucks owner John Wickert, a former reserve police officer in Lewis County, said the bond was the biggest his 2-year-old company had posted. He said he had felt secure in that decision because a commercial backgrounding service he used said Clemmons had no criminal history.
After Clemmons bartered his deal with Jail Sucks, he became nervous about handing over the cash. In his eyes, he had been burned by bond companies. He told Davis to check out Jail Sucks.
"Call the Better Business Bureau — make sure everything is legit," Clemmons told him. "We got no room for error. You feel me? You find out if they do good business."
When Davis called the BBB, an employee had no detailed information about the company, jail calls show.
In the end, Clemmons called in several favors and persuaded his family and friends from the Tacoma area and Arkansas to foot the $8,000 bill.
At 8 p.m. Nov. 23, he bonded out. Six days later he gunned down four police officers and fled. He was killed during the manhunt.
Some criticize Jail Sucks for writing the bond that put Clemmons back on the street. "In my opinion they wrote a bad bond," said Behrend, of Lacey OMalley Bail Bonds. "Here is a guy with a huge criminal history, not good collateral and a house under water."
Others say no one could have predicted Clemmons' reign of terror. Wickert said he never would have posted the bond if he had known of Clemmons' criminal history and that he faced a potential life sentence.
In reviewing the case, the Washington Department of Licensing determined Jail Sucks did nothing inappropriate when it bonded Clemmons out. There are almost no regulations of the private transactions between a bail-bond company and a defendant.
Judge McCarthy, who set Clemmons' second bail, said he didn't even know that defendants could cut deals with bail companies to gain their freedom through payment plans and paying premiums lower than the customary 10 percent.
The judge has changed Pierce County's weekend booking-bail system. Bail amounts are now three to five times greater.
The Clemmons case has sparked at least one statewide proposal, a constitutional amendment known as the Lakewood Law Enforcement Memorial Act.
If passed by voters in November, the act will give judges the discretion to deny bail to defendants who pose a danger to the community and face life in prison.
In addition, the Legislature formed a work group to look into the inconsistencies among bail companies and to recommend changes.
"There's no consistency in bail — this isn't something new," said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist.
He, Satterberg and other prosecutors want uniform and transparent bail amounts across the board. Satterberg also opposes installment plans and credit-card payments for bail.
Some bail-bond owners like Fisher are concerned that new regulations could crowd jails and punish poor people who haven't been convicted of a crime.
"Our country lives on credit," she said. "Why can't a lowly American who needs to get food on the table make payments?"
Christine Willmsen: email@example.com or 206-464-3261
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