ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2009, at 8:14am, a man walked into a strip mall coffee shop frequented by cops in Parkland, Washington, a Tacoma suburb 40 miles south of Seattle. Ignoring the barista’s greeting, he reached for a handgun under his coat and fired at a table of three uniformed police officers, hitting two in the head, killing them where they sat. The third cop stood up. The assassin shot him in the neck. A fourth officer, standing near the back of the shop, fired three shots, hitting the attacker in the back, then lunged, slamming him against the entryway door.
As they fought, the man wrested the officer’s gun from him and fired, killing the cop instantly. He then tucked the weapon into his coat and walked away, northbound on Steele Street, a four-lane blacktop that separates the strip mall from McChord Air Force Base.
The subsequent manhunt would be one of the largest in state history. And the breaking news coverage—for which The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer Prize—would not only test the boundaries between old and new media, but draw out tensions between two wounded institutions: the region’s law enforcement community, still reeling from the assassination of a Seattle policeman four weeks earlier, and the Northwest’s largest daily newspaper, which had recently undergone severe budget cuts and almost folded.
The crime’s implications would stretch from the Northwest to Arkansas to the nation’s capitol. It would impact the future of presidential politics. And it would challenge the public’s sense of how a tragedy should be covered—indeed the very purpose of a news organization—at the dawn of the new century.
The Times threw everything it had at the story. An estimated 150 reporters, photographers, and web producers worked the police massacre, starting with Sara Jean Green, the first staffer on the scene.
That morning Green’s assignment had been to interview runners at the finish line of the Seattle Marathon at Seattle Center. But by 9:30am she was making a mad dash for her car, parked eight blocks away. Her editor had called. Four cops shot and killed.
Green, a 36-year-old Ontario, Canada, native who started at The Seattle Times as an intern in 1999, sped her Honda Civic through Interstate 5’s Sunday morning traffic at 80 miles per hour only to find, when she got to Parkland, that she could only get within a quarter mile of the crime scene.
The police had set up a briefing area at a gas station down the street from the coffee shop. Ed Troyer, a gruff, mustached Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman, addressed the gathering media in a bulletproof vest, at one point cradling an assault rifle as he spoke. He explained that the four officers—later revealed to be members of the Lakewood Police Department—had been ambushed in a targeted assassination. (Lakewood, another Tacoma suburb, borders Parkland.) He said that the suspect, a black male, was last seen “walking this way,” right past the media staging area. “This is a hot area,” he later told the reporters and camera operators at a nearby storage facility where investigators thought the killer might be hiding. “So you’re kind of on your own.”
Green’s fellow Times reporters began following leads—and SWAT vehicles—to addresses throughout the Tacoma area. But when asked what he knew about the assassin, Troyer wouldn’t answer. “I’ll get back to you,” he kept saying.
What the spokesman didn’t know was that the Times newsroom already had the killer’s name.
The Seattle Times has long been at odds with the community it covers. In 2000 the paper endorsed George W. Bush for president—in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore. That conservative streak had earned it, decades earlier, the nickname Fairview Fanny, a reference to its street address and uptight, prissy worldview. You may like your music loud and your politics progressive, the sentiment went, but your Aunt Fanny didn’t understand why you kids couldn’t just cut your hair, tuck in your shirts, and steer clear of left-wing ideologues and tattoo guns.
And the Times had a frenemy. In 1983 the paper and its rival, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, entered a joint operating agreement, a shotgun marriage in which the newspapers shared advertising and printing costs. And yet they battled over readers and revenue for decades. As the newspaper industry collapsed in the early and mid-2000s, the Times and P-I fight intensified.
In April of 2008, the Times announced that it was cutting nearly 200 positions from its 1,845-person staff to help save $15 million. It also shut down its suburban bureaus in Bellevue and Lynnwood. In November of the same year, it disclosed that another 130 to 150 staffers would be cut. Rumors swirled that the Blethen family, which had owned the paper since 1896, was preparing to shut it down.
Then, in March 2009, the Hearst-owned Post-Intelligencer folded and went online only as seattlepi.com. The Times had a reprieve.
Walking through the newspaper’s South Lake Union offices today feels like traveling back in time. The complex takes up two city blocks, the newsroom a sea of cubicles from which gray-haired reporters pop up every few seconds. In an era of sleek media startups run out of one-room offices, the Times seems like an ancient colossal creature—a beached leviathan, blinking at the children who’ve come to poke it with a stick.
Executive editor David Boardman bristles at such characterizations. But he confesses that his paper hasn’t always been a leader in breaking news. The P-I, he says, was traditionally the king of info on the fly. But now, “we’re really good at it.” The Times was a Pulitzer finalist for breaking news in 2003. And the painful staff cuts in 2008 forced an evolution in the newsroom. “We protected our breaking news reporting, investigative reporting, public service, and the web.” The fat was trimmed and what money was left in the budget was lavished on those departments.
“We’ve been through hell,” he says. The remaining staff “chose to stay through three rounds of buyouts. They could’ve gone. But the people who are here, they’re the true believers.”
Jennifer Sullivan, a longtime crime and courts reporter, lay sprawled out on her couch, racked with the flu. Fever. Stomach cramps. When her BlackBerry buzzed, she was tempted to ignore it. When she answered and heard the news, she spun into action.
Doubled over at the kitchen table, she phoned her network of sources, people inside Pierce County law enforcement, relationships cultivated over 10 years of talking to cops. She kept asking: “What do you know?” Very little, as it turned out. But they did have a name. Sullivan speed dialed her editor. Police are looking for Maurice Clemmons, she said, a 37-year-old ex-con from Marianna, Arkansas.
Relations were already tense between the media and Ed Troyer near the crime scene. The spokesman had dressed down a KING-5 TV correspondent, charging that the station’s helicopter, hovering above and following search teams, was compromising the investigation. And when Times reporter Mike Carter repeatedly asked Troyer about whether investigators had recovered all the slain officers’ guns, Troyer “just went apeshit,” recalls Carter. “Don’t you interrupt me!” he remembers the spokesman yelling.
Green floated the name Maurice Clemmons. Troyer neither acknowledged nor denied that Clemmons was a person of interest. But the newsroom was certain. Sullivan’s source was solid. And another reporter had subsequently confirmed the name with another source. Managing editor Suki Dardarian made the call: Put it online. The story went live at 5:29 Sunday evening with the headline, “Police Identify Ex-Con Wanted for Questioning.” The paper had scooped every other media outlet.
Then Dardarian’s phone rang. Troyer. He was livid. “Your information is wrong!” Dardarian remembers him saying. She panicked. Did we really get it wrong?
At the briefing station near the coffee shop, Troyer laid into Green as well. I never confirmed that name! “Ed, sorry,” said Green, “but you’re not our source.” He stomped off. Soon after, Troyer told TV cameras that Maurice Clemmons was indeed a person of interest.
Back at the newsroom, as researchers pieced together Clemmons’s history, an increasingly disturbing picture emerged. Sentenced to 108 years in prison at age 17 for robbery and other crimes, Clemmons spent just 11 years in Arkansas correctional facilities before receiving clemency and being released on parole in 2000. Eight months later he committed and was convicted of another robbery and spent three more years in prison. In 2004, Clemmons was paroled again and moved to the Seattle area, where he had family. He soon married, started a pressure-washing and landscaping business, and bought three houses in the Tacoma area.
The stability was short lived. In May 2009 he punched a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy who had come to question him for hurling rocks at people and cars in his Tacoma neighborhood. Arrested and hauled off to the Pierce County Jail, he told the booking officer his middle name should read “The Lord Jesus Christ.”
Released on bail, two days later he ordered his wife and her two children into the living room at 4am and told them to take off all their clothes, saying it was sanctioned by God; that morning he also reportedly sexually assaulted his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Clemmons’s run-ins with the law and what appeared to be failures of the justice systems in both Arkansas and Washington state would be threads Times reporters would spend the next several hours and days untangling. What neither the newsroom nor police detectives knew at the time, though, was that the killer had announced the massacre in advance.
On Thanksgiving, three days before the shooting, Clemmons told a gathering of family and friends that he was going to kill cops, court records would later reveal. He believed the apocalypse was coming and that God had sent him as an instrument of death. His plan: Lure officers to his house and ambush them at the door. He pulled out a handgun for everyone to see. It would go like this, he said, “Knock, knock, knock, boom!”
Now, three days later, he had the attention of every law enforcement officer in the region. And they—and The Seattle Times —went looking for him, starting with his house.
Knock. Knock. The rap on Clemmons’s door finally came. But it wasn’t the cops. Reporter Mike Carter, dispatched by Times researchers who had uncovered the county records of homes owned by Clemmons, was checking each address in hope of scoring a comment from the suspect’s family. The white, one-story rambler was the reporter’s first stop.
A descendent of Mormon pioneers who in the nineteenth century scratched out an existence on the high-plains desert of Utah, Carter, 56, had an undeniable toughness about him. You could see it in his face—the intensity with which his blue eyes seemed to bore right through people, the way his cheeks gathered up around those eyes in leathery creases. He kept his graying hair cropped short and a peppered goatee on his chin.
His father had been a newspaperman in Salt Lake City, and when Carter was 19, he took a job as a copy boy at The Salt Lake Tribune and later as a crime reporter, interviewing some of the scariest sons of bitches in the west. After a 10-year stint as an Associated Press correspondent, he joined The Seattle Times in 1999. “Mike’s the consummate pro,” a fellow reporter recently explained. “He’s got that AP motor.” In other words, Carter doesn’t quit.
Another knock. No answer. By the time Carter walked back to his truck, the cops who’d rolled up at about the same time he had were swarming the premises. A SWAT team sheathed in body armor had rifles drawn. One officer climbed up a nearby tree for a better line of fire. Others closed off the streets. Carter was in the middle of what looked like a standoff.
The officers searched the house. Not a soul inside. The reporter expected the team to force him out of the area. The order never came. So he knocked on a few doors for quotes from neighbors, then retired to his truck and waited for more to happen.
Finally an officer approached him. The cop was holding something. He handed it to Carter. Half a sandwich from Subway. The SWAT team had gone for a lunch run.
Pick a name. Any name. First name, last name, date of birth—and as long as it’s a Washington state resident, chances are The Seattle Times can tell you more about that person than any agency in the world. Tax records, voter registration, marriage licenses, police reports—all information that’s available to the public but which the Times has culled into one giant database. Only two other newspapers in the country— The New York Times and Los Angeles Times —possess anything like it. Such resources had helped the Times win seven Pulitzers (though none since 1997) and attracted talent from afar. Investigative reporter Ken Armstrong, 47, was taken aback when he joined the paper eight years ago, after a long stint at the Chicago Tribune. “It was eye-opening how quickly one could get a hold of information.”
Shortly after the newsroom had confirmed the name of the Lakewood cop killer—and sleuthed out his addresses and clashes with Pierce County law enforcement—they began digging into his Arkansas files. Scrolling through parole records they found gold. The name at the bottom of Clemmons’s clemency certificate: Governor Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and 2012 aspirant. They posted the story online at 5:41pm—before Troyer even admitted that Clemmons was a person of interest. Within hours websites around the country jumped on it, including politico.com and washingtonpost.com, waxing political on Huckabee’s new albatross.
The velocity with which the news hit the Times website was no accident. Shortly after the layoffs, editor David Boardman made the decision to seat web producers closer to reporters and editors at the metro desk to synchronize their efforts.
In recent years the paper had begun experimenting with social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, but it had yet to shake its reputation for dragging its feet through the digital age. Employees and freelancers privately speak of a newsroom long reluctant to embrace new media, one that misapprehended the nature of online content. Indeed, for years seattletimes.com was a mere duplicate of the print edition.
The old schoolers accepted the code jockeys in their midst, but when it came to social media they grumbled. Twitter’s distillation of info into 140-character blips offended their sensibilities. “All of the gadgets in the world can’t make up for a reporter on the streets,” says Mike Carter. “New media people are transforming our newsroom and I’m fine with that, but I’m a bit of a dinosaur.” “I’m a Twitter skeptic,” adds Armstrong. “So often it’s a vanity platform.”
But in late November 2009 it was different. Information was coming in too fast to be accommodated by standard online publishing, let alone the dead-tree variety. The Times needed something more nimble.
“I got a call from my editor,” recalls Cliff DesPeaux. “He said, ‘Get down to Leschi.’ I said, ‘I’m already here.’ ”
DesPeaux, a 22-year-old photo intern and recent UW grad, had spent the day chasing cops while they chased the cop killer. One of the first photographers to arrive at the media staging area near the coffee shop, he had navigated around the police barricade and found a high spot near the crime scene, where he stood on the roof of his car for a better angle until an officer barked him down and threatened him with arrest. When a convoy of police cruisers raced to a Tacoma neighborhood after a tip, DesPeaux was right behind them, gunning his gold Hyundai Santa Fe down the street as if it were an emergency vehicle. The tip was a hoax.
A little after 8pm, Maurice Clemmons’s aunt told the Seattle Police Department that the fugitive had called. He’d killed four cops, he confessed to her. He was wounded. Would she give him sanctuary? Either way, he was in a car on his way to her Leschi home.
Dozens of police cars descended on the aunt’s house. A helicopter roared overhead. Again, police cordoned off the scene from the media. The journalists were huddled nearly a mile from the house, so DesPeaux and another photographer, a woman from the AP, decided to explore the lakeside neighborhood. “It was kind of weird, because it’s nighttime, there’s a potential murderer running around, and we kind of tag-teamed a little bit. We wanted to stay together.” They roamed the dark avenues until they came to a dead-end street with a cop car parked in the middle. A few officers milled about. This was the spot. The aunt’s home was nearby. An officer approached, no doubt to order them to leave.
Just then, a resident of a nearby house came out to drag his garbage to the curb. “Hey, can you see what’s going on?” DesPeaux asked. The man said he had a balcony that overlooked the entire scene and invited them in. There was nothing the cops could do about it.
Up on the balcony DesPeaux could hear the police but it was too dark to see them. He clicked away on his digital camera anyway. By using a low shutter speed, DesPeaux could pop off a shot, then preview the image. “I was literally shooting into a black spot. I mean you can’t see anything at all. It’s totally pitch black. You just shoot randomly and then:
Oh, what’s that? It’s a police officer. And so I started focusing on them and was able to see what they were doing.”
But that didn’t do the newsroom any good. DesPeaux had left his laptop in his car, so he couldn’t download and email photos. He did have his iPhone and a Twitter account he hardly ever used. What the hell? At 1:50am, he tweeted:
Ok it’s hard to Tweet this but I’m at the standoff with the Parkwood [sic] shooting suspect in the Leschi area.
The newsroom couldn’t resist. They reconfigured the website so that DesPeaux’s Twitter feed—@despeaux—appeared on the home page. Now thousands of people were reading what the photographer was tapping out on his phone.
1:53am. They’re talking to suspect over loudspeaker. Trying to get him to communicate.
1:54am. Over a dozen rounds were fired into the house or trailer.
1:56am. Our noses are tingling. Tear gas, likely, was fired. We’re sneezing and coughing from a few hundred feet away.
DesPeaux watched as his number of Twitter followers climbed from a few friends to hundreds of people held rapt by his every tweet. At 2:01, he got a tweet from someone at CBS: “@despeaux Hi – can you give me a call – I’m at the CBS News National Desk in NYC.” The person included their direct phone number. “I can’t now,” the intern tweeted back, “sorry.”
2:22am. They’re moving in on the trailer. They’re very close.
In the newsroom, Suki Dardarian’s phone rang. It was the Seattle police. They wanted to talk about DesPeaux’s tweets. “We’re not telling you how to do your job,” she remembers the voice on the other end saying. “We totally recognize the separation of church and state, but could you slow him down? Because we’re just concerned that if for some reason the suspect inside has access to Twitter, then he would know what we’re up to.”
Back on the balcony, DesPeaux’s phone buzzed. It was his photo editor: “Suki got a call from the cops and she would like you to slow down on these tactical things.” “Okay, no problem,” DesPeaux replied. “But who’s Suki?” The intern had never heard the name of the newspaper’s managing editor.
Around 4am, DesPeaux’s host, who had generously loaned the photographer a coat and made a pot of tea, politely asked him to leave the balcony. The guy needed to go to bed. DesPeaux stepped out into the street. A helicopter still hummed above, but the cops were easing off their assault on the house. Maurice Clemmons had given them the slip.
The staff in the newsroom took a collective breath. In a few hours readers would see Monday morning’s print edition, a stunning piece of reporting, with profiles of the four slain officers, a detailed account of the shooting, revelations about why the killer was pardoned, and why, despite eight new felony charges, he had been out on the streets. Below the fold, in a mug shot beneath a photo of the crime scene, the suspect, a dime-size mole on his cheek, glared on.
By sunrise everyone in America would know the name Maurice Clemmons, Mike Huckabee’s presidential chances would be damaged, and reporter Mike Carter would be on a plane bound for Arkansas.
The reporter sat in the rental car on a dark street in North Little Rock. He couldn’t force himself to get out of the vehicle. Instead he just stared at the house that court records revealed belonged to the family of Darcus Allen, now known to be Clemmons’s getaway driver after the shooting.
Broken-down trucks crowded the front yard. Pit bulls barked from behind a chain link fence. It was nearly 11pm, but Carter could tell someone inside was awake. A light shined through a bedsheet draped over a window.
He tried to summon the nerve to knock on the door and interview Allen’s relatives, but he knew so much more now than he had back at Clemmons’s house in Tacoma. Allen, a convicted murderer, had just been paroled from the Arkansas state penitentiary, where he once shared a cell with Clemmons, and had been living in one of Clemmons’s Tacoma homes when he drove the cop killer to and from the coffee shop.
Clemmons had deep Little Rock ties. Born and raised in Marianna, Arkansas, an impoverished 5,000-person town 100 miles to the east, he moved to the projects in the state capital as a teen. Carter was retracing Clemmons’s steps, tracking down the family and friends who had shaped him. There were also rumors, leaked from Pierce County cops, that Clemmons might be heading back to Arkansas. The journalist wanted to be on the ground just in case that happened.
Now Carter sat frozen in the car. It didn’t help that he’d gotten lost on his way to the Allen home, at one point driving into a cemetery and nearly backing over headstones. But the longer he sat there the more riled the pit bulls became, baying as if guarding the gates of hell.
Carter swallowed hard, made a wide berth around the hellhounds, stepped up to the front porch, and tapped on the door. A man answered. Carter identified himself and said he wanted to talk about Allen. The door shut in his face. Carter had no choice but to walk back to his car and drive away.
He encountered that same response again and again in Arkansas, especially in Marianna, where Clemmons had grown up in a mobile home. The town is “a terrifically, terrifically depressed place,” Carter says. The median income is less than half the national average. “In places,” Carter would report, “cotton fluff forms a haze that stretches almost to the horizon. Trim brick ramblers share property lines with clapboard shacks or trailers set on cinder blocks. Dozens of homes stand empty. One dilapidated house, owned by a member of the Clemmons family, is now home only to feral cats.” The journalist would find a lead, the address of someone related to the suspect, but no one in the home would talk. They just stood and looked at Carter suspiciously.
But at Clemmons’s grandmother’s house, where the front screen door was held in place by a shoestring, Carter hit pay dirt. “After I was a big enough pest and hollered through a window for someone to please come and talk to me, one of Clemmons’s sisters came out and she said that they decided that the uncle would be the family spokesman, and she gave me his cellphone number.”
Carter met the uncle, Ray Clemmons, a lieutenant in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, in the back room of a diner. He had time to talk before a swing shift at a maximum-security unit.
Ray, 39, had last seen Maurice in Tacoma in the spring of 2009, and what he saw disturbed him. Born just two years apart, the two men shared a bucolic childhood together, playing in the woods near their house, before moving to the projects in Little Rock, where Maurice got in with a rough crowd. In Tacoma, Maurice was distant with his visiting uncle, but other family members told Ray that Maurice believed that a devil worshiper—a man he’d been in a fight with—had put a curse on him.
Carter drove back to his hotel in Little Rock and emailed his story about Uncle Ray to the newsroom in Seattle, where the devil was still on the loose.
The city felt under siege. Cops in riot gear roamed the streets, a retinue of newspaper photographers close behind. All day Monday, investigators followed dozens of tips on the whereabouts of Maurice Clemmons. They closed off a park near the University of Washington and placed a Beacon Hill elementary school on lockdown. Times photog Mike Siegel captured an image of three cops, one with an assault rifle, surrounding a pedestrian, a black man, his hands up. It wasn’t Clemmons.
At least 10 Times staffers, including top editor David Boardman, tweeted updates about the manhunt, funneling anxious, info-hungry readers to seattletimes.com. By now, all walls between old and new media—and infighting over which camp truly owned the news—had fallen. The web team set up a Google Wave account, on which it posted links to police scanner audio and communicated in real time with as many as 500 users, many feeding the Times tips about the manhunt. The newspaper’s web traffic soared to 3.3 million page views, the most single-day hits in the site’s history.
On Tuesday morning, around 2am, more than 40 hours after the coffee shop massacre, a cop on patrol in South Seattle pulled up behind a silver Acura Integra. Its hood was up, and when the officer ran the license plate, the car came up stolen. He was sitting in his police cruiser filling out paperwork on the stolen vehicle when he saw a hooded man approach in his rearview mirror. He jumped out of the car and immediately recognized Maurice Clemmons. That mole on his cheek. The officer commanded Clemmons to stop and drew his weapon. Clemmons walked around the front of the car, toward the officer. Put your hands up. Clemmons reached for his waist. The cop fired. At least two bullets hit Clemmons. He ran a few yards and collapsed.
Medics pronounced him dead on the scene. One of the slain Lakewood officers’ guns was in his pocket.
Sara Jean Green’s cellphone woke her from a deep sleep. It was Monday, April 12—more than five months after the Lakewood police killings. Green had been working a week of night shifts and had stayed up until 4am. Sara-a-a-a, the voice said. It was Green’s friend and fellow reporter Christine Clarridge. There was a hitch in her voice, an undeniable twist of emotion. Sara thought, Shit, What’s wrong? We won. Won what? We won the Pulitzer. We won a Pulitzer for Lakewood.
In the days after Clemmons was killed, the paper had stayed on the story, with detailed reports of the week in May 2009 when he pummeled neighbors with rocks, his fight with the deputies, his psychotic disconnect, and his claim that he was sent to kill in the name of God. And reporters kept digging, uncovering the system failures—in both Arkansas and Washington—that let him out on the streets. They also focused, in elegiac prose, on the victims—officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owen, Mark Renninger, and Gregory Richards.
For the Sunday edition, a week after the shootings, the staff crafted its opus, “A Path to Murder: The Story of Maurice Clemmons.” The 3,783-word narrative arched back a generation and followed the killer from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the South Seattle street where he met his end. The byline included 22 names.
The entry the paper sent to the Pulitzer committee for consideration also included screen shots of its online coverage, the Google Wave feed, and tweets, including those of intern Cliff DesPeaux.
There would be no champagne uncorked the morning the award was announced. There were cheers and hugs—then tears. Four innocent people had been killed. The Times just told the story.