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Originally published October 19, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified October 20, 2010 at 11:41 AM

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Maurice Clemmons freed with help from bail system, lawyer's connections

Washington and Arkansas sparred over a warrant that would have kept locked up a man who would soon kill four police officers.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Maurice Clemmons needed help — and to his mind, that meant finding someone with connections, a "heavyweight," the kind of guy who knows everyone and everyone knows him.

In the summer of 2009, Clemmons was being held in the Pierce County Jail on eight felony charges. His home state of Arkansas had issued a no-bail fugitive warrant, meaning he couldn't get out no matter how much money he could raise.

So on July 3, 2009 — a Friday, just before 1 p.m. — Clemmons made a call to Stephen Morley, his old lawyer in Arkansas.

Morley told Clemmons how sorry he was to hear about Clemmons' arrest.

"Gosh, dog," Morley said.

"It ain't bad as you think, man," Clemmons said.

Clemmons explained: His wife, Nicole, caught him cheating. To punish him, she made up a story about how he had raped her 12-year-old daughter. Nicole was willing to recant now. But he'd already been charged with child rape — and was being held in Washington on $150,000 bond for that charge, plus $40,000 bond for other charges, plus the no-bail hold out of Arkansas, where he was still on parole.

Clemmons' account skirted how there was more evidence than Nicole's word to support the child-rape charge. But Morley didn't dig. He sympathized. He said everyone makes mistakes. People like Nicole have to learn to forgive.

"God damn it," Morley said. "One-hundred-fifty-thousand dollar bond, all this heartache and bull — , all for a [expletive] lie."

Clemmons told Morley he was in danger of losing his houses and landscaping business, all because of some adultery.

"You feel me?"

"I do, buddy," Morley said. "I've suffered a lot from [screwing] around on my ex-wife, and, you know, it cost me a bunch of money, but not like this."

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Morley's cheating had indeed cost him. A onetime traffic judge in North Little Rock, Morley had resigned from the bench in 1997 in the face of 26 disciplinary charges. Adultery accounted for two of the allegations: He was accused of cheating on one wife, getting a divorce, marrying the mistress, then cheating on her.

Morley was also accused of punching both wives in the stomach while they were pregnant. And of threatening to kill a process server ("I will hunt you down"). And of smoking marijuana; sniffing cocaine; filing a fraudulent insurance claim; forging a signature; and lying to police. That's a partial list. After threatening to kill the process server, Morley stuck his tongue out at him, according to the charging documents.

After leaving the bench, Morley had prospered in private practice. He represented dozens of liquor retailers in permit disputes and was elected secretary/treasurer of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

He worked out of a low-slung complex of brown buildings in North Little Rock, a few blocks north of the muddy, slow-moving Arkansas River. An Arkansas Razorbacks rug decorated his office, along with a fish tank. On his desk Morley displayed two buck knives.

Clemmons and Morley had a history. In 2004 Morley had convinced a judge to throw out a couple of aggravated robbery charges against Clemmons, arguing that authorities had taken too long to serve the arrest warrant.

Now, five years later, Morley offered Clemmons hope once again, this time on getting the Arkansas fugitive warrant rescinded.

"I've got a real, real, real good connection out at the Governor's Office," Morley told Clemmons. "So, you know, I feel like we can get a fair disposition real quick on this. Real quick."

"You can't just make it disappear?"

"I think I can, that's what I'm saying."

Clemmons told Morley he wanted out: "Today." Morley told Clemmons to shoot him $5,000. Clemmons said he'd make it $20,000 and send a postdated check.

"That's OK with me," Morley said.

"It's not going to happen over the weekend, though," Morley told Clemmons. "I mean, she's up in Fort Smith, and maybe over in Oklahoma at the casinos. So ..."

"So what you think?" Clemmons said. "The early part of next week or what?"

"I do. I mean that sincerely."

"So you just gonna make it disappear where I can bond out?"

"Yup."

For Clemmons, the situation was complicated. He lived in Washington, he was accused of a new set of crimes in Washington, but the state keeping him from bailing out of jail was Arkansas.

Although he left Arkansas in 2004, settling in the Puget Sound area, Clemmons remained under Arkansas' jurisdiction. Washington had agreed to supervise Clemmons' parole, under a system called the Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision, or ICAOS (eye-chaos).

Arkansas' fugitive warrant cited the felony charges pending against Clemmons and his failure to report to his Washington community-corrections officer. Clemmons insisted he was under no obligation to report — so how could he be a fugitive?

Morley presented Clemmons' argument to Linda Strong, the person in charge of ICAOS cases for Arkansas. Strong, an employee in the state's Department of Community Correction, worked for G. David Guntharp, the department's director.

By Morley's account, Strong was underwhelmed. "She's about as blind as a bat about a lot of that stuff," Morley told Clemmons on July 6.

But Morley kept working. He reached out to his friend, a woman he referred to as Amy in conversation with Clemmons, without providing a last name. He sent Strong a letter on July 8, saying the felony charges against Clemmons "may be dismissed in the near future." On July 9, Morley spoke again with Strong. But he didn't appear to be making much headway.

"She was kind of tepid about it," Morley told Clemmons later that same day.

Even so, Morley remained upbeat. He told Clemmons on the phone: "I've already called my friend out there and she's talking to David Guntharp. ... I believe that you'll get out tomorrow."

On July 16, two weeks after Clemmons' initial call to Morley, Arkansas rescinded its fugitive warrant.

Morley shared the good news first with Clemmons' wife, Nicole, who recounted the conversation to Clemmons. Morley "said he went over that lady's head," Nicole told Clemmons. Linda Strong was a bureaucrat, "she's gotta go by the books," and while Morley didn't want to step on toes, he had to go over her. "He sounded confident," Nicole said of Morley. "He was laughing."

Clemmons exulted in the news. "Well, that's a blessing," he said. He had nothing but praise for Morley: "Steve a good dude. That's one white man there that we can trust."

Arkansas' decision to rescind the warrant stunned Washington officials, who considered Clemmons dangerous and wanted to keep him in jail. On July 23 an ICAOS administrator for Washington wrote to her Arkansas counterparts: "I'm concerned that you have no problem releasing your offender into our community, based on his behavior. I thought ICAOS was all about community safety."

Two weeks passed. Then a reply came from Linda Strong — the woman who, by Morley's account, had been overridden. Her reply was terse: "The warrant was rescinded. When the pending charges are adjudicated we will reconsider the case."

When Morley touted his "real, real, real good connection" in the Governor's Office, he was referring to Amy Click-Horoda, Gov. Mike Beebe's liaison to the Arkansas parole system. Click-Horoda knew Morley through legal organizations as well as mutual friends in Fort Smith, Ark., where Click-Horoda lives.

Click-Horoda declined to be interviewed. But through a spokesman, she said she often spoke with Morley about criminal cases, although she didn't remember calls specifically about Clemmons. If there had been such calls, the spokesman said, Click-Horoda would have referred Morley to Guntharp or Strong.

Guntharp said: "It was not unusual for her to call. Usually, if there was an issue to be resolved on interstate compact, she would tell them to contact me or Linda Strong. I don't recall getting any calls. She could have, in terms of seeking information. What she'd say is, 'Check into this and see what you think.' "

As for Morley, he won't talk about anything he might have said to anyone regarding Clemmons. He told a reporter: "I don't discuss clients, living or dead." Then he slapped the reporter on the back and wished him a nice stay in Little Rock.

For Maurice Clemmons, the lifting of the initial Arkansas warrant figured prominently in all the events that followed in the summer and fall of 2009.

With the no-hold warrant no longer in effect, he was able to secure a $190,000 bond and bail out of jail on July 24. But the Washington state Department of Corrections, determined to keep him behind bars, found a way to arrest Clemmons again, picking him up on Aug. 20 on a warrant that resurrected alleged parole violations dating back to the spring.

That turn of events infuriated Clemmons. He complained to the Corrections Department of all the money he had spent to spring himself in July. He said he had paid his Arkansas lawyer $20,000, a lawyer in Washington $15,000 and a bail-bond company $19,000 — and for what? Twenty-seven days of freedom.

He kept saying that if he knew he would just be picked up again — and for something that took place months before — he never would have forked over all that money.

"This is crazy," he said. "Ridiculous." "Malicious prosecution." "Personal vendetta." "What they did is retroactive." In the spring, Clemmons had talked of going straight. But after his Aug. 20 arrest, he started talking about revenge.

"Sometimes it burns me in my chest, man, I have so much hatred toward the police and stuff," Clemmons told his half brother Rickey. "Before I let them devils put me back behind some bars and railroad me, I will be carried by six. ... As long as I got some company, I be all right."

"So you gonna take some with you, huh?" Rickey said.

"Yup."

Starting in the spring, Clemmons managed to bail out three times in six months. His ability to keep getting out could be traced to all kinds of lapses or questionable practices.

Bail-bond companies did a lousy job of investigating his background. Two believed he had no criminal record; they missed all nine of his felony convictions in Arkansas. A third agency posted Clemmons' $190,000 bond without requiring anything close to the 10 percent upfront that's customary in the business. When Clemmons told the Corrections Department that he'd paid $19,000 to secure his bond, that wasn't true. He'd paid $5,200 upfront, with a promise to pay the rest.

Controversy would also surround a second warrant for Clemmons, issued by Arkansas in October. In months to come, after Clemmons made national news by acting on his talk of revenge, Arkansas insisted that Washington could have used this second warrant to hold Clemmons without bail. Washington said that wasn't true. Washington said the warrant was no good, because it hadn't been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

That argument hasn't found much traction outside Washington. Harry Hageman, the executive director of ICAOS, questioned why Washington didn't treat the warrant as valid: "To me, the whole thing about NCIC doesn't make a lot of sense." David Guntharp, who is now retired from the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, is even more pointed: "Where the hell they're coming up with the fact that if it isn't in NCIC it isn't a warrant — that's crap."

When Clemmons bailed out of jail for the last time, on Nov. 23, 2009, his life had collapsed all around him. He was on the outs with his wife. His finances were in ruin. His mental condition was deteriorating.

And he was determined to make someone pay.

"I'm gonna go the wild, wild west," he said. "Woe to the one that sees me first."

Staff writer Christine Willmsen

contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605

or jmartin@seattletimes.com;

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730

or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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