Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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A day that ‘hurt your heart’: 10 years ago, 4 Lakewood police officers were shot down


SEATTLE — Ten years ago on Nov. 29, a sunny Sunday morning, a deranged ex-con named Maurice Clemmons walked into a Parkland, Pierce County, coffee shop and killed four Lakewood police officers.

That horrific act left nine children without a parent, a state and community shaken, and police officers everywhere looking over their shoulders.

The killings, more than anything, served as the starkest of reminders of just how unpredictable and dangerous a police officer’s job can be. Just a month earlier, another officer — this one from Seattle — had been ambushed Halloween night while parked on a quiet side street in the city’s Central District, discussing a traffic stop with a rookie officer. Three weeks later, on Dec. 21, a sixth officer — a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy — would be gunned down during a domestic-violence call in Eatonville.

Throughout Western Washington, officers were doubled up in patrol cars. They were instructed to carry rifles and shotguns in their patrol vehicles and told to not gather in groups in public places. For a while, it seemed like open season on police.

Clemmons was killed during an early morning confrontation with a Seattle officer two days after the murders.

“I think people sometimes focus on how dangerous this job can be physically,” recalled Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, who described the fall of 2009 as among the “worst hard times” in his 40-plus year career. “But the fact is that the greatest danger we face is the emotional danger — those things that hurt your heart. This combined both of those.”

The killings that morning of Lakewood Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39, and his squad of patrol officers — 37-year-old Ronald Owens, 40-year-old Tina Griswold and Greg Richards, 42 — tore through the social, law-enforcement and political fabric of the day, on both a local and national level. Records would show later that Clemmons should have been in prison or jail instead of the tiny Forza Coffee Shop in Parkland that morning, armed with a .38 revolver and an unquenchable hatred of police. In weeks and months after the killings, anyone thought to be in any way responsible for his release or escape that morning — from the former governor of Arkansas to Clemmons’ sister — would pay, one way or another.

The immediate members of Clemmons’ extensive family and circle of friends came under intense scrutiny since Clemmons — who was shot and wounded during a struggle with Richards — was driven to and from the scene, and given first aid and succor after the killings.

Police came down on them hard — the courts would decide too hard, in some cases. Police arrested seven friends and relatives of Clemmons, who were alleged to have given him rides, money, cellphones or first aid. Eddie Davis, Douglas Davis, Quiana Williams, Letrecia Nelson and Latanya Clemmons were convicted of rending criminal aid or illegal possession of a handgun. Of those, all but one have been released from prison with their sentences served or their convictions overturned.

In several cases, the higher courts ruled the Pierce County prosecutors should not have sought longer than standard sentences.

One of the cases, the prosecution of getaway driver Dorcus Allen, is still in the system today. Allen, who knew Clemmons from Arkansas and had served time there for his involvement in a double murder, was convicted of four courts of first-degree murder as an accomplice to the Lakewood shootings and sentenced to 420 years in prison by a Pierce County judge. In 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ordered a new trial, citing mistakes and prosecutor misconduct. Allen was convicted a second time, but that sentence was thrown out as well, this time with the justices dismissing aggravated-murder counts. He now is at the Washington Correctional Center in Shelton, Mason County, where he awaits trial, scheduled to begin in February 2020, on four counts of second-degree murder.

Former Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist is unapologetic for throwing the book at anyone connected to the killings.

“We were guided by our principle and not public opinion when we looked at every possible charge, and we landed where we did,” he said. “They were not helping a shoplifter. They were helping a man who was talking about shooting cops and shooting schoolchildren. When you do that you are putting innocent lives at risk and we sent the message that you will be held fully accountable when you help a murderer.”

On the national stage, the shootings harmed the political career of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had commuted Clemmons’ sentence in 2000 after he had served just 10 years of a 106-year prison term in that state. The killings raised questions about that decision just as Huckabee had emerged as national voice for conservative and evangelical Christian voters. Huckabee had floated the idea of running for president, but his attention was diverted by questions about Clemmons’ commutation when prison records showed Clemmons had been a violent and uncooperative inmate. Pundits on the local and national stage referred to Huckabee’s “Clemmons problem” as an impediment to his success in national politics.

Huckabee — who during his tenure as governor granted pardons or clemency requests to more than 1,000 inmates — had said he was trying to right the wrongs of Arkansas’ racist past and believed that Clemmon’s 106-year sentence, handed down when he was 17, for a string of burglaries, assaults and robberies was excessive. Clemmons grew up in rural Arkansas, where his family struggled under the twin yokes of racism and poverty. He and his mother moved to Little Rock when he was a teenager. It was there that he was arrested and sent to prison for his involvement in the crime spree.

Clemmons was released from prison in 2000 and moved to Washington, where other members of his family had settled. Here, police said, he held several jobs, although after the shootings he was described as a suspect in drug trafficking, robberies and other crimes. In the spring of 2009, family members say Clemmons began demonstrating strange behavior. He began referring to himself as the savior, and he was arrested after assaulting family members and a police officer outside his Parkland home. Then his wife accused him of molesting their 12-year-old daughter. In May, Clemmons was charged with eight felonies and his parole from Arkansas was revoked. He went to jail.

Then, he got out.

His family managed to persuade Arkansas to rescind its no-bail warrant for his parole violation — to the distress of Pierce County and Washington corrections officials — and his wife put up their house as collateral for a bond to cover his $190,000 bail. That Thanksgiving, Clemmons, just a few days out of jail, sat with his family over dinner and wildly announced plans to murder officers. Three days later, he did.

The shootings in Lakewood and the killing a month earlier of Seattle Officer Timothy Brenton revealed the deep divide between law enforcement and communities of color years before the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Brenton’s killer, Christopher Monfort, had cited police brutality as justification for his attack. The investigation into Clemmons would show that he had talked openly of killing police for months before he walked up to those four officers in the coffee shop and opened fire.

For two days in November 2009, Western Washington was a hostile place for stocky black men. Clemmons had run from the coffee shop, a gunshot wound in his abdomen, and disappeared. He was quickly identified by coffee-shop employees, and a massive manhunt was organized. Police stopped anyone who even resembled him.

The shootings also led to an overwhelming public outpouring of support and goodwill, recalled Sheriff Pastor. “It was a hell of a cost for a little sympathy,” he recalled. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in for the families of the slain officers. Schools would be renamed and the city of Lakewood would mark the anniversary of the event with a food drive — an effort to turn something bad into something good.

This year, a special flag memorial will be held at the coffee shop, now called Blue Steele, at 8 a.m. on Friday, Lakewood Lt. Chris Lawler said The ceremony is open to the public.

The manhunt for Clemmons ended early on Dec. 1, as Seattle Police Officer Benjamin Kelly was investigating an abandoned car in a south Seattle neighborhood. While he was in his patrol vehicle, writing a report, he saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt coming up from behind him. Kelly recognized Clemmons, got out the vehicle and ordered him to show his hands. He said Clemmons instead moved around the car and reached for his waistband, and Kelly opened fire. Police say Clemmons had a handgun taken from one of the slain Lakewood officers in his pocket.

Kelly would be named Seattle Police Officer of the Year. He also would, in subsequent years, be sued twice in federal court in cases alleging illegal stops and excessive force involving a second shooting. The city has paid $165,000 to settle those cases.

The Lakewood Police Department, in the meantime, has struggled since the killings. Already grieving over the loss of the officers, the department was thunderstruck when one of its own, Officer Timothy “Skeeter” Manos was arrested for stealing more than $150,000 from a fund set up to benefit the families and children of the slain officers. That fund raised nearly $3.5 million, according to reports. Manos, who also embezzled money from the department’s union, was sentenced to more than two years in prison.

The shooting caused officers across the region, and country, to suddenly be “extremely aware of their vulnerability” and police departments to “reexamine everything, even how we go out and have coffee,” said John Urquhart, then spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, where he later became sheriff.

Urquhart said law-enforcement officers are trained at academies to believe that “everybody out there is trying to kill you.” You stop feeling that way after a couple of years, Urquhart said, until a day like Nov. 29, 2009, strips away that sense of relative safety.

“These were intense and disturbing times,” recalled King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. “Police officers, their families and the entire community were gripped by justifiable fear after these two outrageous acts of random violence against police officers. I have to think that these experiences remains fresh in the minds of all officers working our streets today.”

Officer Tina Griswold

Officer Tina Griswold, 40, described as an “outstanding officer” and “tough as nails,” joined the Lakewood department in 2004 and had previously worked as an officer in Lacey, Thurston County, and Shelton, Mason County, the town where she grew up. Small in stature, the mother of two “had this presence about her that was in charge and you were going to do what she said,” a former supervisor said. She was the department’s first woman officer to complete SWAT basic training.

More: Lakewood Officer Tina Griswold was a ‘ball of fire’ in a tiny package

Officer Gregory Richards

Officer Gregory Richards, 42, had been a police officer for eight years, starting in Kent. He was a “very well-respected and well-liked co-worker” who loved his family and was nicknamed “Perma-grin” for the smile always on his face. The Lynwood, California, native, Army veteran and father of three also was the drummer in an all-police officer band. “If there were more people in this world like Greg, nothing like this would ever happen,” a family member said of the shooting.

More: Officer Gregory Richards: Loving family man was ‘the golden boy’

Sgt. Mark Renninger

A former Army Ranger, nationally known SWAT team trainer, and father of three, Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39, grew up in Bethlehem, Pa. He began his law-enforcement career at the Tukwila Police Department and moved to Lakewood’s department in 2004. His family described him as a “professional, dedicated police officer” as well as a “loving and devoted father, husband and family member who will be missed by so many.” An easygoing and funny person with his friends, he was also a persistent and smart officer with a “natural skill for police work.”

More: Lakewood Police Sgt. Mark Renninger was devoted to family, dedicated to police work

Officer Ronald Owens

Officer Ronald Owens, 37, joined the Lakewood department in 2004, after serving as a trooper in the State Patrol. Those who knew him described him as “an unforgettable man and a kind, kind person” who loved watching NASCAR, playing basketball and spending almost all his off-duty time with his young daughter. “He was a very dedicated father, first and foremost,” a colleague and friend said. He was drawn to police work by his father, who was a sergeant in the Tacoma Police Department, and his co-workers said he was always the first to volunteer to respond to a service call.

More: Lakewood Police Officer Ronald Owens was always smiling.