On Saturday Nov. 29, 2009, Seattle patrol officer Benjamin Kelly learned about the murders of four Lakewood, Wash., officers via messages left on his cell phone while he slept in after working night shift. From the time he got up, Kelly kept tabs on the investigation's progress and by nightfall had learned that one Maurice Clemmons was the prime suspect.
Later that evening, Clemmons' aunt showed up at a Seattle precinct to announce that her nephew was at her house. An unmarked unit responded in time to see a passenger exit a car parked in front of the aunt's house. After being detained by the undercover unit, the vehicle's driver confirmed that she had just dropped off Maurice Clemmons at the house.
The speed with which a containment of the house was effected led many on scene to believe that Clemmons had been cornered inside. But when SWAT made entry 13 hours later, Clemmons was nowhere to be found.
Any disappointment at having failed to corral Clemmons was at least tempered by the realization that the man was in all probability still within their jurisdiction. Given the manpower that had been committed to the search, the smart money was that it'd be only a matter of time before he popped back on their radar.
Seattle officers spent the next two shifts pinballing back and forth throughout their patrol area in response to Clemmons sightings. More profitable had been intelligence gleaned from the containment operation the night before.
When Kelly returned to work on November 30, a hostage negotiations team sergeant who'd participated in the operation the previous night shared descriptions and photos of Clemmons during briefing. The precinct captain was also present at the roll call, stressing officer safety and encouraging troops to partner up with one another. Staring at a photo of Clemmons that clearly showed a distinctive mole on the suspect's face, Kelly recognized that the odds were pretty good that someone in the room was likely to run across the assassin.
The officers exited the briefing room and entered the real world where the usual calls—and Clemmons—waited.
The shift started quietly enough, so much so that the prospect of a confrontation with Clemmons had retreated to the back of Kelly's mind by the time midnight rolled around. But over the course of the next two hours a total of three cars had been reported stolen in Kelly's sector.
Some would euphemistically characterize Kelly's sector as a "working class neighborhood." By any name, it had more than its fair share of narcotics activity, prostitution, and gang problems. Still, it was unusual for that many cars to be reported stolen at that time of night. For one, sectors tended to be relatively small; for another, people were usually asleep at that hour and didn't notice that their cars were stolen until morning. Armed with the plates and vehicle descriptions, Kelly decided to cruise the back streets in hopes that he'd find one ditched on the side of the road.
He was driving westbound on South Kenyon Street when he passed a pedestrian, also westbound. The man was shuffling along, hands in the pockets of his nylon pants and his head down, concealed beneath a gray hooded sweatshirt pulled over it.
It was a good bet that anybody out and about at that time was probably up to no good. Kelly noted the man's presence and drove on. Within a block and a half, he saw a silver Acura parked on the north side of the street, with its hood up and engine running.
Kelly had actually cruised by the car before recognizing it as one of the three reported stolens. As he backed his patrol vehicle behind the Acura, he flicked on a side light. There was no one inside the vehicle.
Keying his mic, Kelly advised area units that he'd found one of the stolen vehicles unoccupied. Glancing in his rear view mirror, he spotted the pedestrian he'd passed moments earlier. The man was starting to cross to the opposite side of the street.
What's this guy up to?
Kelly's initial speculation was that the man probably had a warrant and was giving officers a wide berth to avoid contact. But such efforts were more common than they were successful, and tonight was no exception. Kelly continued to keep an eye on the guy.
Kelly's vigil paid off-but in an unexpected manner.
Instead of just crossing the street and giving Kelly a wide berth, the man started walking directly toward Kelly's patrol car down the middle of the street. What's more, he was approaching the driver's side of Kelly's patrol vehicle. There was nothing particularly quick about the man's movements, but his determined gait communicated enough to Kelly for the officer to recognize that the man was walking up to contact him.
Kelly considered all of the possible scenarios: This could be a guy whose dog got out of his yard, or he could possibly be the guy who stole this car. A gamut of possibilities was entertained, but that the man might be Maurice Clemmons was not one of them.
Kelly got out of the car and turned to face the man who by now was at the rear bumper of his vehicle walking directly toward him, head still down, his sweatshirt still pulled up so as to obscure his face.
Just as Kelly started to lift his left hand in preparation of handchecking the man should he walk into his personal space, the stranger glanced upward, exposing his face for the first time.
That's when Kelly saw the mole.
Instantaneously, the officer's mind took corresponding note of the man's height and weight and other physical descriptors. And in that split second, he recognized not only that the man was Maurice Clemmons, but that Clemmons knew that he'd been made.
Whatever game plan Clemmons initially had in his murderous head visibly evaporated as communicated by the "oh, crap" expression that crossed his face.
Kelly started to go for his gun even as he yelled commands for Clemmons to keep his hands where he could see them. Instead, Clemmons' hands went for his midsection even as he began to rotate his pelvis and step to his left away from Kelly.
Breaking leather, Kelly brought his .40 caliber Glock 22 up on target as Clemmons was making his own move.
Clemmons moved around him. Kelly's Glock tracked the man's movements like a tank turret, his finger finding its trigger and squeezing off an initial volley of three rounds.
Clemmons broke into a sprint, darting between the front of the patrol unit and the abandoned Acura where Kelly stood.
Kelly thought that he'd somehow missed.
Clemmons ran to the north side of the street toward the front of a house whose front yard was bordered by an eight-foot-tall hedge whose only break was where the sidewalk led up to the front door.
Kelly knew that if Clemmons made it to the front yard and behind the hedge that he'd lose sight of the suspect. Determined to get as many rounds down range as possible before the man disappeared from his sight, he squeezed off a second volley that ended as Clemmons made it to the sidewalk and through the hedge to the front yard of the house and disappeared from sight.
Kelly had no idea where Clemmons was. From the time he'd stepped out of his vehicle to the time Clemmons had disappeared around the hedge perhaps five seconds had lapsed. Concerned that his rounds had missed a man that could now reposition to reengage him, Kelly remained standing inside his open car door for cover as he attempted to broadcast what was going on over the radio. But twice his portable failed to transmit and he leaned into his patrol vehicle in a bid to transmit via the patrol vehicle's radio.
But when he grabbed the radio mic he got bonked again. Saddled with three failed radio transmissions, Kelly knew he was on his own. Determined to ramp up his stopping power, he popped out the shotgun from its mounting and threw it over the top of his patrol vehicle in preparation of Clemmons reengaging him.
Help On the Way
With the shotgun leveled toward the hedge, Kelly decided to try one more time to transmit with his portable. It worked. Relaying the essentials and reading off the address of the house he was facing, Kelly advised dispatch that Clemmons had last been seen running northbound through the yard of the property. He could hear the radio chatter and sirens sounding off in the distance and knew a lot of people were coming his way very quickly.[PAGEBREAK]
Kelly glanced back toward the hedge. He could now see Clemmons' head down on the ground, extending just from behind where his body was hidden behind the bushes. The man's eyes were as fixed on Kelly as Kelly's were on Clemmons, and it became obvious that his initial rounds had struck Clemmons and done some damage: Clemmons was having an extremely difficult time breathing.
As it was obvious that the man was in no position to comply with any orders even if he wanted to, Kelly didn't bother to give Clemmons any commands but remained at the unit, covering the downed suspect with the shotgun until units arrived.
Officers started arriving; they formed a contact team. Someone grabbed a ballistic shield from one of the sergeant's vehicles. They moved up behind the shield while Kelly held cover with his shotgun. They put handcuffs on Clemmons, grabbed the gun that was in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, and moved him into the street.
The precautions were not necessary. Maurice Clemmons was dead.
Clemmons' intentions that night are subject to all manner of speculation, but Kelly has arrived at certain personal conclusions as to the man's desire to access the Acura.
"He wanted that car," Kelly states. "That was his ride home. He had no idea that it was stolen, or if it was stolen it had been reported so quickly. I think he believed that he could BS his way through a contact with me, or at least get me off guard to the point where he could distract me with other things and then pull out the gun and try to kill me. That is just my gut feeling."
Kelly cannot emphasize enough how important the intel shared with the troops during the shift briefing proved for him. Of particular import were the photos of Clemmons and his mole.
"It was a prominent, distinctive mole," Kelly says. "Without that, it would have taken me at least a second or two longer to figure out who he was. With the whole thing lasting only four to five seconds, that was time that I didn't really have. When I started to pull the trigger, there was no doubt in my mind who I was shooting."
There was a conspicuous difference in the two men's mindsets when it came to split-second adaptation, too.
"When he saw that I was on to him and his plan wasn't going to work, he had a couple of bad moments when he had to reevaluate. He couldn't adjust quickly enough. It was like an Old West shootout with two guys standing in the middle of the street and they go for their guns at the same time. At the same time, we both realized that the other guy means business. I just reacted quicker."
Kelly's training and experience paid off repeatedly throughout the incident, particularly in personal discipline when it came to the prospect of a one-on-one foot pursuit of Clemmons.
"I had no thought of chasing after Clemmons by myself because I had no idea where he was on the other side of the hedge. In our training, they drilled into us that we don't go off chasing a suspect by ourselves and launching into all these unknowns because you're just setting yourself up for just about anything. I continued to maintain a position of cover and made sure I was protected as best I could should Clemmons come back."
Fortunately for Kelly, his 180-grain Spear Gold Dot ammunition was very effective, even though he wasn't sure that he had hit Clemmons at the time.
"I shot seven shots. I struck him four times. There's no way to determine in what order the rounds struck. It's my belief that my initial three rounds were all lethal hits. One round took out his right lung. One round took out his left lung. A third round was a through and through gut shot, perforating organs. There was a through and through to his right thigh, which I'm pretty confident was one of the rounds shot while he was running away from me. Then I had three rounds that didn't strike him. Because of the darkness and how quickly he was moving further away from me, it's likely that the last couple of rounds had the least likelihood of striking him."
Kelly observes that Clemmons' choice of attire may have played a role in the fates of both men.
"The gun had caught up on the zipper of his sweatshirt, which may have been another factor that gave me the advantage of time and may have saved my life."
For 36 hours after the shooting, Kelly obsessed over why the suspect didn't have his gun out prior to the confrontation and how the situation might have been resolved differently if he had. Kelly finally concluded that he would never find that answer, so there would be no use in rehashing that thought over and over again.
"Seattle Detective Russell Weklych of the Homicide/Assault Unit, who investigated the shooting, said that Kelly did an excellent job throughout the incident and its aftermath, especially given the working climate that had descended upon the vicinity over the preceding month."
The Seattle Police Department aided Kelly in his ability to cope with the situation. They gave him as much time as he needed to deal with the aftermath. Once he was ready to return to work, they provided several options to help him transition smoothly back into the job.
Kelly also credits his friendship with fellow officer Britt Sweeney with his ability to move forward after the shooting. Sweeney, just a month before the Lakewood shooting, had been a victim of a similar ambush that killed her training officer.
"I can't say enough about the support she gave to me. It was very nice to have someone that I could speak freely with," he says.
Kelly received numerous awards for his actions against Clemmons, including the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund's Officer of the Month, the Seattle Police Officers Guild's Officer of the Year, the Seattle Police Department's Medal of Honor, and the Washington State Officer of the Month.