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Slain Colorado prison chief remembered as an innovator

The killing of Tom Clements shocks his colleagues. One says he 'treated inmates with respect and dignity.' The manhunt for the perpetrator continues.

March 20, 2013|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times
  • Tom Clements, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, "wasn't afraid to objectively look at the department," a prison reform activist said.
Tom Clements, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections,… (Colorado Department of…)

DENVER — As the manhunt expanded Wednesday for the killer of Tom Clements, Colorado's top corrections official, shock and sadness spread across the nation for the loss of what many called a true innovator in how prisons should work.

"What Tom brought was a completely different perspective," said a shaken Doug Wilson, Colorado's state public defender, who had frequently worked with Clements. "He wasn't a cop. He was a man who cared not only for those he worked with, but he treated inmates with respect and dignity. He saw them not as the bad guys that the public saw but as people he needed to house and treat and ultimately rehabilitate to the best of his ability."

Clements, 58, answered the doorbell just after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at his home in Monument, Colo., a bedroom community about 16 miles north of Colorado Springs, and was shot by an assailant who fled, El Paso County sheriff's officials said. Clements died at his home a short time later. His wife, Lisa Clements, was home but not injured.

By Wednesday afternoon, the FBI had joined the search. Although authorities have no suspects, they are looking for a boxy two-door car, possibly a dark-colored or black Lincoln, that neighbors saw outside the Clementses' home in the heavily wooded, upscale neighborhood. The car was running but no one was in it. Soon afterward the car was gone.

The motive for the killing remains a mystery. Authorities said it did not appear to be a home invasion robbery. Because of Clements' position, speculation continues that the shooting could be connected to his job. Clements was appointed executive director of the Department of Corrections in January 2011.

"We realize that it is a possible motive for a crime such as this," sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Kramer said.

At a news conference Wednesday, a visibly distraught Gov. John Hickenlooper praised Clements as a dedicated professional who was working to transform the state's prison system.

The governor said it was too soon to know whether the killing was linked to Clements' job, but he did wonder aloud whether the shooting could be an "act of retaliation" or an "act of intimidation." The corrections post, he said, "is a difficult job. You make difficult decisions."

Clements' death came just hours before Hickenlooper signed landmark gun control laws that require background checks for private and online gun sales and ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. The governor said Clements was not especially involved in the state's acrimonious gun debate.

Clements' death also occurred a week after he denied a request by a Saudi national, Homaidan al-Turki, to serve out the remainder of a Colorado prison sentence in Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reported.

Clements came to Colorado from Missouri, where he started his career in corrections as a parole officer. He rose through the ranks over three decades to become that state's director of prisons. George Lombardi, director of Missouri's Department of Corrections, remembered Clements as innovative in his approach of using diversion programs and probation at the front end of sentencing to avoid long prison stays.

Wilson, the Colorado state public defender, remembers that Clements often asked, "How do we become better?"

Wilson and Clements recently went to Europe as part of a fact-finding trip to look at prisons in Germany and the Netherlands.

In his two years as head of Colorado's prison system, Clements is credited with reducing the number of inmates in isolation and had just begun tackling ways to improve the treatment of sex offenders, Wilson said.

"He wasn't afraid to objectively look at the department," said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. She remembers Clements saying that the vast majority of inmates would someday return to society, so it was crucial to get them good mental health and substance abuse treatment rather than just lock them up and throw away the key.

Lombardi called Clements a "good and decent man." He remembers the send-off party before Clements moved to Colorado. "I told him, 'Just be who you are.' And that's exactly what he did."

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