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Originally published Monday, June 27, 2011 at 5:39 PM

Widows of 2 slain Lakewood officers file claim against DOC

Widows of two slain Lakewood police officers accuse the state Department of Corrections of bungling — and then lying about — its supervision of the man who killed their husbands, in a claim for damages filed on Monday in Olympia.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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TACOMA — Widows of two slain Lakewood police officers accuse the state Department of Corrections of bungling — and then lying about — its supervision of the man who killed their husbands, in a claim for damages filed on Monday in Olympia.

The tort claim, a first step toward filing a lawsuit, attempts to make the DOC a culpable party in the November 2009 murders of four Lakewood police officers by pinpointing lapses in the agency's supervision of shooter Maurice Clemmons.

The claim's most serious charge accuses DOC field staff of wrongly ignoring an Arkansas arrest warrant issued in October 2009 against Clemmons, who at the time was being held in the Pierce County Jail on a child-rape charge.

After the tragedy, DOC administrators "incorrectly informed" the public, saying they could not have held Clemmons with it because Arkansas had not sent a valid warrant.

"It was clear Arkansas wanted [Clemmons] held, and DOC could have worked with Arkansas to keep him held," said Jack Connelly, a Tacoma attorney representing Kim Renninger, widow of slain Sgt. Mark Renninger, and Kelly Richards, widow of Officer Greg Richards, and their combined six children.

"[DOC] had six weeks, but they just sat on it."

Clemmons made bail six days before the murders.

The families of slain Officers Ronnie Owens and Tina Griswold have not joined in the claim, although Griswold's family has sued Clemmons' wife and members of his family who aided him after the murders.

In a statement, DOC Secretary Eldon Vail said the agency would not discuss pending litigation. "We continue to extend our deepest sympathy and concerns to the family members of the four Lakewood police officers," he said.

This is the second tort claim filed by the Renninger and Richards families. In April 2010, all four families of the slain officers accused Pierce County of failing to listen to more than 100 hours of incriminating phone calls Clemmons placed from the Pierce County Jail before the murders.

The families quickly withdrew the claim after a community backlash over their requested $182 million in damages. Their attorney took the blame for inserting that figure, saying it was his idea.

The Renninger and Richards families declined to speak about the new tort claim, referring questions to Connelly and co-counsel Lincoln Beauregard. The widows insisted that no dollar figure be included in the claim, said Connelly, who has a long record of successfully suing DOC in wrongful-death cases.

"This is not about the money," said Connelly. "This is about making sure the truth will come out."

DOC began supervising Clemmons in 2005 after his parole was transferred from Arkansas. Although the rules of such transfers required Clemmons to have a suitable sponsor, DOC let him move in with his brother, a felon.

The tort claim says DOC also should have investigated indications that Clemmons, in the years that followed, was committing crimes, including selling drugs, as he later admitted on the Pierce County Jail records.

Clemmons, after suffering an apparent psychotic break, was arrested and jailed in the summer of 2009 on charges of assaulting police officers and child rape. As required by the Interstate Compact on Adult Offender Supervision, which covers the state-to-state transfer of probation cases, Arkansas sent DOC a pair of warrants to hold Clemmons in jail pending trial. Arkansas withdrew the first under dubious circumstances, but issued a second in October 2009.

Although Clemmons' community corrections officer noted the warrant — copying it verbatim into DOC's internal computer system — he did not alert the Pierce County Jail or prosecutors.

DOC officials, including Vail, later said the second warrant was invalid because it had not been entered in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a law-enforcement database of warrants.

But other DOC staff members have cast doubt on that claim, as did Harry Hageman, director of the Interstate Compact.

"Washington could have taken a copy of the warrant and given it to the jailer," he said in The Seattle Times' book on the Clemmons case, "The Other Side of Mercy," cited as a source in the widows' tort claim. "To me, the whole thing about NCIC doesn't make a lot of sense."

Washington state has 60 days to respond to the tort claim. After that time, a lawsuit can be filed. Connelly said he hopes the state will settle and agree to make some policy changes.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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