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Suspect in the shooting deaths of 4 officers eludes police

Police close in on a Seattle house, only to find it empty. Now police are detaining friends and family they think might have helped Maurice Clemmons, who was recently released on bail, evade arrest.

December 01, 2009|By Kim Murphy
  • An undated handout photo of suspect Maurice Clemmons
An undated handout photo of suspect Maurice Clemmons (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Seattle — The hunt for a 37-year-old landscaper accused of killing four police officers expanded across western Washington on Monday, with investigators combing through hundreds of tips after an 11-hour siege of a Seattle house turned up empty.

"Right now, they're just following every lead they can, whether it's up in King County or down here in Pierce County," sheriff's spokeswoman Sheri Badger said.

Maurice Clemmons -- a multiple felon charged with gunning down the four officers Sunday morning in a Parkland, Wash., coffee shop -- was shot in the torso during the altercation and was probably in need of medical attention, authorities said.

Convinced that Clemmons' friends and family were helping him evade arrest, police late Monday began an orchestrated campaign to detain anyone they believed could be involved.

"We're going after relatives and anybody who . . . we believe assisted him," Pierce County Det. Ed Troyer said. "We take everybody out of the equation that's helping him, that way, he'll have nobody left, he'll have to fend for himself."

A house in Renton was surrounded by police Monday night, and neighbors reported the sound of explosions and a SWAT team moving in. However, police left, apparently without making any arrest.

Clemmons had been released on $15,000 bond a week before Sunday's shooting. He was facing charges of rape involving a 12-year-old and assault on a police officer.

Students and staff at the University of Washington received a mass text message Monday warning them to be careful after one tipster saw a man resembling Clemmons near the university's medical center. A bus near downtown Seattle was vacated and impounded after someone else said they saw Clemmons aboard. Officers were looking for traces of blood.

"I don't want to put a number on it, but we've had a plethora of tips of people calling in, saying they see somebody that looks like the suspect. We respond, and it's not him," said Seattle police spokesman Jeff Kappel.

Officials said they had evidence that Clemmons indeed had been in or near a house in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood Sunday night. They cordoned off surrounding streets, brought in a helicopter and surrounded the house with a large number of officers, deploying percussion grenades and chemical irritants. But when a robot entered the house Monday morning, followed by a SWAT team, Clemmons was nowhere to be seen.

The reward for information leading to the suspect's arrest and conviction was raised to $125,000.

Authorities said they also were looking for Clemmons' wife, Nicole Smith, with whom he recently operated a home-based landscaping and pressure-washing business in Tacoma, about two miles from the scene of the shooting.

The bodies of the slain officers -- all veterans of the Lakewood Police Department in Washington -- were removed from the coffee shop Sunday night. A parade of police vehicles with flashing lights paid tribute to the fallen officers as the motorcade escorting their bodies passed through an arch formed by two firetruck ladders suspending a giant American flag.

"One of the questions I got throughout the day yesterday is, 'How is everybody doing?' . . . They're here, they're doing their jobs, they're working hard. They're dealing with their loss, but they're here to take care of the citizens. . . . We will get through this," Police Chief Bret Farrar, his voice shaking, said at a press conference Monday in Lakewood, south of Tacoma.

The slain officers were identified as Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39, and Officers Ronald Owens, 37; Tina Griswold, 40; and Greg Richards, 42. All had been members of the force since it started five years ago.

Clemmons has a history of violent crimes in Arkansas and Washington dating back to his teenage years.

He would have been serving a 108-year prison term in Arkansas, but his sentence was commuted by former Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2000 after Clemmons argued that he had committed his crimes -- including burglary, aggravated robbery and illegal possession of a firearm -- as a youth and had changed.

In his petition to Huckabee, Clemmons said that he came "from a very good Christian family" and "was raised much better than my actions speak."

A year later, Clemmons was back in prison on a parole violation, a robbery charge. He was paroled in 2004. "Said when he left the first time he was not ready," a parole reviewer wrote in his notes on the case. "Doesn't want to die in prison . . . will try to do right thing."

Clemmons moved to Washington state after his release but, family members told police, he began acting erratically and appeared to have lost some of his mental abilities.

Austin Raihl, whose family lived near the shooting suspect, said his mother was driving down the street last spring when Clemmons inexplicably picked up a landscape brick and hurled it through the window of her car.

She called her brother-in-law, and Clemmons and another man who was with him threw bricks and rocks and broke two of his windows, Raihl said.

"The cops finally showed up and hauled 'em off to jail, and they got bailed out like two weeks after that," Raihl said. "They said he was on drugs, and it took four police officers to take him down."

According to police reports, Clemmons punched one of the arresting sheriff's deputies in the face.

In May, Clemmons was charged with second-degree rape after a bizarre night during which he is accused of forcing his wife and her daughter to undress. He told them repeatedly to trust him, "that he was Jesus," police said in a court affidavit.

Clemmons' sister, Latanya Clemmons, told officers investigating the case that her brother had undergone a change. "Latanya," the sheriff's department report said, "stated that Maurice is not in his right mind."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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