Maurice Clemmons kills four Lakewood police officers in a coffeeshop near Tacoma on November 29, 2009.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/28/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9677

On November 29, 2009, four officers of the Lakewood Police Department are shot and killed by ex-convict Maurice Clemmons (1972-2009) in a coffeeshop near Tacoma. Clemmons has a history of violence, incarceration, and mental instability and is out on bail for rape of a child and assault. He has recently expressed a desire to kill police officers. Four Lakewood officers -- Sgt. Mark Renninger (1970-2009), Officer Tina Griswold (1969-2009), Officer Ronald "Ronnie" Owens (1971-2009), and Officer Greg Richards (1967-2009) -- meet that morning in a coffeeshop just outside the Lakewood city limits. Clemmons walks in, walks up to a table where three of the officers are sitting, and, without warning, shoots Griswold and Renninger in the head. After a struggle, Clemmons shoots Owens in the head as well. Richards, who is at the counter ordering coffee, shoots Clemmons in the torso but Clemmons grabs the pistol and shoots Richards. All four officers die at the scene; Clemmons flees to a waiting truck. A massive manhunt ensues. Two days later, Benjamin Kelly, a lone Seattle police officer, will confront Clemmons on a Seattle residential street and, when Clemmons attempts to pull a gun, will shoot him dead.

Early Troubles

Maurice Clemmons had a long history of felony convictions and trouble with the law, stretching back to age 16. In 1989, he was convicted in Arkansas of eight felonies, including aggravated robbery, and ordered to serve consecutive sentences totaling 108 years. The court made his sentences consecutive, instead of concurrent, because, in the words of the prosecutor in the case, "he was a mean S.O.B." (Robinson).

The prosecutor later said that the jury "saw in Maurice Clemmons what the juvenile judge saw, who transferred him to adult court: grave potential for violence and criminal behavior" (Robinson).

And there, in an Arkansas jail, Clemmons' story would have ended if not for a commutation of his sentence by Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2000. Clemmons had applied for clemency after serving 10 years of his sentence. Clemmons said that he had "learned through the school of hard knocks to appreciate and respect the rights of others" (Robinson).

The governor's board recommended clemency unanimously, and the judge who approved it added, "concurrent sentences would have been sufficient" (Robinson). This made Clemmons eligible for parole, which was granted that same year.

New Troubles

Clemmons had more scrapes with the law almost immediately, but no charges resulted. He was granted a parole transfer in 2004 and moved to Washington, where he soon had a house, a child, and a landscaping business. He had no other troubles with the law until May 9, 2009, when police responded to a domestic violence call. Clemmons was arrested for throwing rocks and breaking windows in his Pierce County neighborhood and then assaulting the Pierce County sheriff's deputy who arrived on the scene. He was bailed out of jail the next day and allegedly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old relative the next night. He disappeared for nearly two months. Arkansas issued a fugitive warrant against him for parole violation.

He was arrested in Washington on the rape charge on July 1, 2009. He stayed in jail until July 24, when Arkansas dropped its warrant, allowing Clemmons to be bailed out again. Washington authorities, anxious to get him back behind bars, issued a special warrant against him on August 19, and he was arrested within a day while walking his dog.

He served 40 days on that warrant and then became eligible for bail, set at $190,000, on the assault and child-rape charges. Washington authorities, worried about Clemmons making bail, resolved to "keep close tabs on him" (Martin, "Corrections ...").  If they found he had made bail, they could alert Arkansas authorities to issue a new no-bail warrant to keep him in jail until all of the pending charges were resolved. That did not happen. Clemmons made bail on November 23 and then dropped out of sight. Arkansas was not notified.

Delusions and Mental Illness

If authorities had realized what Clemmons had been spouting in taped jailhouse phone calls (released only after the shootings), they would have realized exactly how dangerous and delusional he was. He had begun to think of himself as Jesus Christ or God. "You're getting everything straight from the Lord, partner," said Clemmons to a friend in a July phone call. "... Not from Maurice Clemmons, you're getting it from the Lord" (Jail Tapes).

He once instructed his wife to write a personal check to herself for $150 million, then take some "anointing oil and anoint it," and deposit it at the neighborhood Chase Bank ("Mercy" newspaper series).

Then, in September, his taped conversations took an ominous turn. He believed that the devil, in the form of the criminal justice system, was out to keep him from his righteous path. "Next time a police pull me over and I ain't did nothing, I'm gonna shoot him dead in the face, I swear, it bro," said Clemmons (Jail Tapes). Minutes later he said, "The strategy is gonna go kill as many of them devils as I can until I can't kill no more. That's the strategy" (Jail Tapes). He said he wanted the families of police officers to cry "Whaaaaaa!" He said he was "going to give them what they've been looking for: a dangerous nigger" (Jail Tapes).

After making bail for the last time, he resolved to act on those wishes. His wife had kicked him out of their house and he had hacked off the bail-bond company's GPS tracking bracelet. During those days, he twice tried to go to a Tacoma police station and start shooting, but, as he told a friend, the first time the station was closed and the second time he had a flat tire. As for Lakewood police, he had no history of contact with them and didn't mention them.

Day of Violence

On the morning of November 29, 2009, he talked an ex-con friend into driving him around in Clemmons's truck. They noticed several police cars at the Forza Coffee Company, located at 11401 Steele Street S in an unincorporated part of Pierce County known as Parkland. Clemmons ordered the driver to turn around and park nearby. Clemmons got out and walked into the coffee shop, a common place for officers in Lakewood and neighboring jurisdictions to meet. Three Lakewood officers were sitting at a table. A fourth, Richards, was ordering at the counter.

According to the Lakewood Police Department's After-Action Report, Clemmons walked in and was greeted by the two baristas. He did not reply. He walked straight over to the officers' table, produced a 9mm Glock pistol, and without a word shot Griswold in the back of her head, killing her instantly.

Clemmons then turned and shot Renninger in the right side of the head, killing him instantly. The Glock malfunctioned, giving Owens time to rush toward Clemmons and attempt to subdue him. At some point during the struggle, Clemmons managed to produce his second pistol, a .38 revolver. He shot Owens in the head, killing him nearly instantly.

The shop's two baristas and two customers fled immediately and called 911.

Richards, at the counter, could not fire on Clemmons immediately, because Clemmons was locked in struggle with Owens. So Richards also advanced on Clemmons and began a desperate fight. During the fight, Clemmons wildly fired his .38 multiple times, striking various parts of the coffee shop and emptying the pistol.

At some point during the struggle, Richards was able to draw and fire his .40 caliber Glock pistol. He shot Clemmons in the torso, but it barely slowed him down. A fierce struggle for the gun ensued and Clemmons apparently managed to gain control of the officer's pistol. Clemmons shot Richards in the head, killing him instantly.

Clemmons fled on foot, bloody but not incapacitated, and still carrying Richards's Glock pistol. The two baristas, who had gone to a nearby convenience store to call police, saw Clemmons running down the street toward them, but then he veered off suddenly toward a car wash where the pickup truck and driver were waiting.

The Manhunt

Both men fled in the truck, which they later abandoned. A massive police manhunt began, covering the entire Puget Sound region. By some accounts, it was the largest fugitive search in state history. Within a few hours, police found the truck abandoned in a parking lot in the 13300 block of Pacific Avenue S. It was registered to Clemmons. Finally, police knew the name of the man they were hunting.

Clemmons stayed on the move, going first to his half-brother's house and then to the homes of various relatives. "I took care of my business," he told one of them ("Mercy" newspaper series). The bullet had entered his chest cavity, but missed all vital organs. Someone bandaged him up and drove him to a friend's home in South Seattle.

Meanwhile, police were receiving tips from some of Clemmons's relatives and friends. One of his aunts told police that Clemmons was on the way to her house in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood. Police staked out the house and watched a man enter. A SWAT team surrounded the house, but after they barraged the house with tear-gas and flash-bang grenades, they found nobody inside. Clemmons had apparently sneaked out of the house not long after arriving and escaped through the nearby woods.

That night, Clemmons found shelter in a crack house about a half-mile away. He offered $50 for a ride to Tacoma but didn't get one. He apparently stayed the rest of the day at the crack house.

Early the next morning, December 1, Seattle police officer Benjamin Kelly was investigating a report of a stolen car. He found the car running and apparently abandoned on South Kenyon, a quiet residential street in South Seattle. Kelly was calling dispatch when he saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt walking down the street toward him.

Kelly became suspicious when he saw that the man was not avoiding him, but coming right at him. Kelly jumped out of his patrol car and faced the man, who he immediately recognized as Clemmons. "The first thing that came to my mind is, "OK, I'm kind of in trouble here, and I better do something,'" Kelly said at an inquest (Tibbits).

He shouted for Clemmons to show his hands, and Clemmons fumbled for a gun in his pocket or waistband. The trigger guard was later found to be stuck on a zipper. Kelly fired seven shots, following as Clemmons tried to run away. Clemmons was found nearby, sprawled on a concrete path, hit by four bullets. He died shortly afterward.

Memorial for the Lakewood Police Officers

Twenty thousand police officers from all over North America attended a memorial service a week later in the Tacoma Dome. Each of the fallen officers left behind children, nine in total.

Two memorials now honor the four officers; one outside the Lakewood Police Department Headquarters and one near the Forza Coffee Company. A sign at the intersection of Steele Street South and 116th Street S proclaims the spot "Officers Memorial Drive." All four officers were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the state's highest award for law enforcement.

Aiding and Abetting

By the end of 2010, four people had been convicted of aiding or abetting Clemmons. Two other defendants were found not guilty of assisting Clemmons, but one of those was convicted on firearms charges related to the case.

The alleged getaway driver, Dorcus Allen, was charged with four counts of aggravated murder. He was scheduled to go on trial in 2011.

Reporting

The Seattle Times won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category for its coverage of the shooting and its aftermath. Two of its reporters, Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin, along with other members of The Seattle Times staff, wrote a book about Clemmons and the shooting, The Other Side of Mercy: A Killer's Journey Across the American Divide, published in October 2010.


Sources: Jeff Paynter, Brian Markert, Michael O'Neill, and Michael Zaro, "Lakewood Police Department After-Action Report," October 11, 2010, copies in possession of Lakewood Police Department, and available at Lakewood Patch website accessed December 20, 2010 (http://lakewood.patch.com/articles/new-report-details-the-accounts-of-4-fallen-lakewood-police-officers#pdf-2638926); Adam Lynn, "Four Police Killed," The News Tribune, November 30, 2009, The News Tribune Lakewood Shooting website accessed December 20, 2010 (http://www.thenewstribune.com/lakewoodshooting/index.html); Sean Robinson, "Clemmons Deemed Dangerous by Psychologists," Ibid., December 1, 2009; Lewis Kamb, "Clemmons' Last Days: A Timeline of Tragedy," Ibid., December 2, 2009; George Tibbits, "Seattle Officer Testifies on Shooting of Maurice Clemmons," Ibid., April 6, 2010; Adam Lynn, "2 Guilty, 2 Not Guilty of Aiding Maurice Clemmons," Ibid., December 7, 2010; Jonathan Martin, "Corrections Missed Chance for Cop Killer," The Seattle Times, January 1, 2010 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/home/index.html); Austin Jenkins, "Maurice Clemmons: Jail Tapes," October 18, 2010, KUOW.org website accessed December 20, 2010 (www.kuow.org); Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin with the staff of The Seattle Times, The Other Side of Mercy: A Killer's Journey Across the American Divide (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010); Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin, "The Other Side of Mercy: A Series Adapted from the Book," The Seattle Times website accessed December 22, 2010 (seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/othersideofmercy).

Related Topics:   Crime | Law

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