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From Inmate To Cop Killer: The Maurice Clemmons Jailhouse Tapes

Next month, it will be one year since four Lakewood police officers were gunned down in a coffee shop. It was the worst crime against law enforcement in Washington history.

The killer was Maurice Clemmons, an Arkansas parolee living in Washington who had just bailed out of jail.

After the murders, The Seattle Times obtained more than a hundred hours of Clemmons’ recorded jailhouse phone conversations. In an exclusive partnership between the Times and Austin Jenkins, you will hear for the first time the transformation of Maurice Clemmons from jail inmate to cop killer.

A warning: many listeners will find the language in this story offensive and inappropriate for children.

Let’s go back to July 3rd of last year. Clemmons, age 37, has just been locked up in the Pierce County Jail. As you can hear in his taped phone conversations from that day, he’s delusional. Here he is talking to his friend Dawson Carlisle and claiming to be God.

Maurice Clemmons

Maurice Clemmons: “You’re getting everything straight from the Lord, partner.

Dawson Carlisle: “Gotcha.”

Maurice Clemmons: “Understand?”

Dawson Carlisle: “Gotcha.”

Maurice Clemmons: “Not from Maurice Clemmons, you’re getting it from the Lord.”

Listen to these tapes and you hear the many sides of Maurice Clemmons. Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin calls it a toxic brew.

Jonathan Martin: “Of psychosis and criminality and manipulativeness. What you hear is a real time manifesto of a sociopathic killer.”

Martin’s colleague Ken Armstrong says Clemmons was a….

Ken Armstrong: “Sociopath, he was delusional, at the same time he did have a certain amount of charisma.”

Martin and Armstrong have spent hundreds of hours listening to Clemmons’ jailhouse phone calls.

To better understand what we’re about to hear on these tapes, I went to see Kenneth Muscatel, a forensic psychologist in Seattle.

After listening to some of the calls, Muscatel says Clemmons appears to exhibit a hypo-manic disorder that ebbs and flows.

Ken Muscatel: “It’s a classic grandiosity, delusion, feels that he has special abilities, special powers and is on a special mission and it’s pretty consistent with a bi-polar disorder. In fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.”

Clemmons’ violent roots go back to his youth in Arkansas. But for awhile, after he moved to Washington in 2004, he stayed out of trouble: started a small business bought some houses.

Then in May of last year, he appears to have suffered a mental break: he attacks some sheriffs’ deputies and allegedly rapes his 12-year-old step-daughter. He’s thrown back in jail on multiple charges — all violations of his Arkansas parole.

From jail in July, Clemmons makes a bizarre and outlandish request. He instructs his wife Nicole to ask the followers of an online church to donate $37 billion to his legal cause.

Maurice Clemmons: “Don’t say Maurice, say the man of God is locked up and here our account number and we need…”

Not only does Clemmons have a God-complex, he has fantastical plans for the future. Almost every day he has a new idea for a get-rich-quick scheme. The overarching theme of these jailhouse phone calls from last July is Maurice Clemmons wants a new beginning. At times he sounds optimistic, even like a preacher.

Maurice Clemmons: “The truth is glorious. It is glorious. The sun ain’t never shined on you when you were living a lie. We command the sun. We command the rain. We can make the earth shake. We can turn the sea into blood.”

But Clemmons is also paranoid. He tells Nicole the devil or Satan — in the form of a racist criminal justice system — is trying to derail God’s plans for his future. But then his Arkansas attorney works some connections and manages to get Clemmons’ no-bail warrant lifted.

On July 24th — after 23 days behind bars — Clemmons bonds out of jail. Reporter Jonathan Martin picks up the story a month later.

Jonathan Martin: “Clemmons is out walking his dog on August 20th believing that he is onto a new path. And the Department of Corrections fugitive taskforce shows up and arrests him at gunpoint.”

Martin calls it a snapping point for Clemmons who spends a month brooding in a different county jail.  Then in September of last year, he’s moved back to the Pierce County Jail and his phone calls resume. By now something has clearly changed says the Seattle Times’ Ken Armstrong.

Ken Armstrong: “All of that talk of love and joy in July is gone and it’s replaced by hatred and rage and talk of threats and how he’s going to get even when he gets out.”

Maurice Clemmons: “The next time a police pull me over and I ain’t did nothing I’m gonna shoot him dead in his face. I swear it, bro.”

This is Clemmons talking to his half-brother Rickey Hinton.

Maurice Clemmons: “Man, 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.”

As the days goes by, the calls get even more haunting. On September 30th, Clemmons tells his brother he wants to make the families of police officers cry. In October, his wife Nicole tries to talk Clemmons down. She tells him to put his faith in God. He responds:

Maurice Clemmons: “I’m going to give them what they’re been looking for: a dangerous nigger.”

Meanwhile behind the scenes, Washington and Arkansas get in a dispute over how to keep Clemmons locked up. As a result, on November 23rd, Clemmons is allowed to post bond and is released. In the jailhouse tapes, Clemmons threatened to kill cops if they came after him. But he didn’t wait for that to happen. Six days after he’s out, Clemmons finds them in a quiet suburban coffee shop. The Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend is shattered by the news.

KING5 News: “Four officers in Lakewood shot and killed this morning as they were getting ready to go on shift around 8 o’clock this morning in Cafe Forza. 

Despite Clemmons’ mental instability, psychologist Kenneth Muscatel says these jailhouse tapes do not reveal a man who met the definition of criminally insane. 

Kenneth Muscatel: “Because of the coherent nature of his act even if part of him felt that it was an act that God mandated.”

Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times comes to the same conclusion in a new book he and Jonathan Martin co-authored titled “The Other Side of Mercy.”

Ken Armstrong: “This is a man who was an irredeemable thug from an early age. Some of his circumstances are unfortunate. But he made the decisions that led to those four officers being killed. Nobody else did.”

Earlier this year, the families of the slain Lakewood police officers gave notice they planned to sue Pierce County over the Maurice Clemmons jailhouse tapes.

They said the tragedy could have been prevented if jail staff had monitored the calls.

After a backlash, three of the families withdrew their claims. But the family of slain Officer Tina Griswold is still considering whether to file a formal lawsuit.