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Corrections missed chance for cop killer

It was after 10 p.m. on Nov. 23 when Maurice Clemmons walked out of the Pierce County Jail with $3.39 in his pocket and a brewing sense of injustice.

Clemmons had just posted bail on felony assault and sex-crime charges, and he was supposed to report to a state Department of Corrections field office within 24 hours.

Instead, Clemmons dropped off the agency’s radar. The corrections department didn’t even know Clemmons was out of jail until it was too late.

Six days after making bail, on the morning of Nov. 29, Clemmons killed four Lakewood police officers in a Parkland coffee shop. Two days later, a Seattle police officer shot and killed Clemmons, ending a major manhunt.

The six days after Clemmons’ release from jail represent a missed opportunity to avert tragedy, one in which he benefited from a critical lapse in oversight by the corrections department.

A review of records obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request shows Clemmons’ community corrections officer, who was new to the case, lost track of him.

The Pierce County Jail didn’t tell him Clemmons had been released. And an internal corrections department computer system, set up to alert the agency’s officers when offenders under their watch get into trouble, doesn’t track releases from county jails.

Before Nov. 23, the corrections department spent a great deal of energy last spring and summer trying to keep Clemmons behind bars and to send him back to Arkansas, where he was under parole for theft and burglary convictions.

The agency is in the final stages of an internal review that will recommend systemic changes to close any loopholes in how it tracks those under its watch. But corrections Secretary Eldon Vail acknowledged the missed opportunity in the Clemmons’ case.

“I would have liked to know he’d gotten out of jail,” he said. “There might have been a warrant if so. That’s unfortunate.”

TRACKING A KILLER

Clemmons, who moved to Washington state in 2004, was arrested May 9 for allegedly assaulting a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy during a wild rock-throwing spree in his neighborhood.

He bailed out of jail May 10, and allegedly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old relative that night. He disappeared for the rest of May and June, prompting Arkansas to issue a fugitive warrant because of his parole in that state.

On July 1, he was arrested on the child-rape charge. If convicted of that charge, Clemmons potentially faced a life sentence under Washington’s “three strikes” law. He also would have been denied bail under the Arkansas warrant.

But in mid-July, Arkansas rescinded its hold on Clemmons after a North Little Rock attorney, hired by Clemmons’ wife, lobbied corrections officials in that state to drop the warrant, according to records released by Arkansas.

As a result, Clemmons was able to bail out of jail again, on July 24.

Frustrated with Arkansas and eager to have him back behind bars, the corrections department in Washington obtained a special “secretary’s warrant” Aug. 19 against Clemmons for violating his Arkansas parole during the assault on the deputy.

Within 22 hours of the warrant’s issue, Clemmons was arrested while walking his dog near his house.

A corrections hearing officer found Clemmons guilty of violating the terms of his Arkansas parole and ordered that he serve 120 days in jail regardless of whether he made bail.

The hearing officer also ordered tightened supervision of Clemmons in the event of his release, requiring that he report to a community corrections officer within 24 hours and check in weekly.

The sanction infuriated Clemmons. He appealed to another corrections hearing officer, calling the sanction an “injustice.” He said he was being “railroaded” by the Pierce County sheriff’s deputies who had arrested him, and noted a co-defendant in the May 9 incident had pleaded guilty and taken sole responsibility, according to corrections department records.

“I hope who ever reads this appeal is honest,” Clemmons wrote.

He served the sanction, which was cut by one-third – 40 days – for good behavior. Still facing the assault and child-rape charges, he was eligible for bail, which was set at $190,000.

‘CLOSE TABS’

As Clemmons’ case ground through the courts, his case file bounced among corrections officers. On Oct. 12, it was handed to John Hinson in the agency’s Parkland office.

Hinson asked staff members in corrections department’s headquarters for help understanding the confusion about the Arkansas warrant and direction on how to proceed.

On Nov. 10, Marjorie Owens, a corrections administrator who dealt with Arkansas on the Clemmons case, gave a clear direction, according to records recently released by Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office.

If Clemmons remained behind bars and ultimately was convicted of the assault and child-rape charges, he would be sent to prison, presumably for a long time. But if Clemmons made bail before going to trial, Owens instructed Hinson to “keep close tabs on him.”

If Clemmons failed to report, Owens told Hinson, he should tell Arkansas that Clemmons was on the run again. That likely would lead to Arkansas issuing a new no-bail arrest warrant that would keep Clemmons behind bars until the pending charges in Washington were resolved.

“We cannot continue to supervise an offender who absconds,” Owens wrote. “This is a very ugly case.”

That put the burden on Hinson to find out if – or when – Clemmons made bail. The corrections department’s internal software system, Offender Management Network Information, issues automated alerts for offenders’ contacts with law enforcement.

But no such alert exists when an offender is released from jail.

Anmarie Aylward, head of agency’s community corrections division, said creating such an alert system would be complicated, given there are 39 counties with their own software systems.

The corrections department has an officer assigned to the Pierce County Jail, responsible for keeping track of inmates on the state agency’s caseload. The officer, who works part-time, has access to release records.

About 40 to 50 people are released from the jail each day, and it’s not possible for jail staffers to notify all the agencies that might be interested in the former prisoners, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said Thursday.

As for Clemmons, he made bail and satisfied the conditions of his release, Troyer noted.

“We can’t keep track of people who legally get out of jail,” he said. “That’s not a police issue, that’s a justice system issue.”

Community corrections officers also typically check online jail registries, Aylward said.

“Certainly there could be improvements,” Aylward said. “It wouldn’t be surprising if this becomes an issue” in the internal DOC review, set to be released next month.

In a note in the state’s offender management system, Hinson says he checked on Nov. 23 and found Clemmons still in jail. That note, however, was entered Nov. 29, after Clemmons was the prime suspect in the officers’ deaths.

The message is one of only two notes – among more than five dozen entries – that were backdated since Clemmons’ arrest six months earlier, when his supervision was tightened.

Hinson did not respond to a request for an interview.

If Hinson had known Clemmons had bailed out, the corrections department could have sought an arrest warrant, similar to the one issued Aug. 19 which resulted in his quick arrest.

But Aylward said Clemmons still might have eluded arrest. He told relatives on Thanksgiving – three days before the police shootings – that he was planning to kill officers.

“We could have known (about the bail), we could have had a ‘secretary’s warrant,’ we could have had crews out looking for him, and it may not have made a difference,” she said.

While the corrections department didn’t know Clemmons had left jail, another branch of state government did.

A psychologist for Western State Hospital in Lakewood called Clemmons’ defense attorney Nov. 24, seeking to schedule an interview with Clemmons as part of a court-ordered psychological evaluation for the pending charges.

Clemmons, the attorney said, had posted bail and been released. That information wasn’t relayed to the corrections department, the agency’s records show.

News Tribune staff writer Brian Everstine contributed to this report.

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