MONUMENT, Colo. – Colorado’s top state prison official was shot and killed when he answered the front door of his house, setting off a hunt for the shooter and raising questions about whether the attack had anything to do with his job.
Tom Clements, 58, was shot about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in Monument, north of Colorado Springs, and a witness reported a person driving away in a dark-colored “boxy” car that had its engine running at the time of the shooting, authorities said.
Investigators were exploring all possibilities, including that the shooting could have been related to Clements’ job as executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, which he took after years working in Missouri corrections.
The killing stunned officials in both states. They described Clements, who is married with two daughters, as dedicated, funny, caring and an expert on the latest and best methods in his field who chose the Colorado job over retirement.
At a news conference, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was red-eyed and somber, speaking haltingly as he said he didn’t think the killing was part of any larger attack against his cabinet, members of which stood behind him, several of them crying. Others dabbed their eyes.
“Tom Clements dedicated his life to being a public servant, to making our state a better place and he is going to be deeply, deeply missed,” said Hickenlooper, who planned to go to Monument to meet with Clements’ family after signing gun-control bills.
While the motive of the killing wasn’t immediately clear, similar attacks on officials have been on the rise in the U.S., said Glenn McGovern, an investigator with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office in California who tracks such incidents worldwide. He said there have been as many in the past three years as the entire prior decade.
The attacks are often motivated by revenge, said McGovern, who has documented more than 133 attacks, including 41 homicides, against judges, prosecutors and other justice and police officials since 1950.
Last month, a Texas prosecutor was killed by masked gunmen as he walked through a parking lot to the county courthouse. McGovern also counts the rampage by an ex-Los Angeles police officer who killed the daughter of a retired city police officer as part of a plot to avenge his firing.
In Colorado, a prosecutor was fatally shot in 2008 as he returned to his Denver house. In 2001, federal prosecutor Thomas Wales was fatally shot by a rifleman while he worked on a computer at night in his Seattle home.
“It’s often taking place away from the office, which makes sense, because everyone’s hardening up their facilities,” said McGovern, adding that he advises prosecutors in their houses to constantly assess the safety of their residences.
Clements lived in a wooded neighborhood of large, two-story houses on expansive 2-acre lots dotted with evergreen trees in an area known as the Black Forest. Long driveways connect the homes to narrow, winding roads that thread the hills.
It would have been simple to find where Clements lived. It took two clicks to get his correct street address through a publicly available internet locator service Wednesday morning. The listing also included his previous home address in Missouri.
A family member called 911 to report the shooting. Search dogs were called in to comb through a wooded area around Clements’ home, and authorities were going house to house trying to find out what neighbors heard and saw.
While Clements generally kept a low profile, his killing comes a week after he denied a request by a Saudi national to serve out the remainder of a Colorado prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. He cited al-Turki’s refusal to undergo sex offender treatment.
Homaidan al-Turki, a well-known member of Denver’s Muslim community, was convicted in state court in 2006 of unlawful sexual contact by use of force, theft and extortion and sentenced to 28 years to life in prison. Prosecutors said he kept a housekeeper a virtual slave for four years and sexually assaulted her. A judge reduced the sentence to eight years to life.
Al-Turki insisted the case was politically motivated. He owned a company that some years ago sold CDs of sermons recorded by Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Al-Turki’s conviction angered Saudi officials and prompted the U.S. State Department to send Colorado Attorney General John Suthers to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and al-Turki’s family.
After Clements’ shooting, someone with the State Department called the Colorado Corrections Department. Prisons spokeswoman Alison Morgan said she had no details on the call other than to say it wasn’t connected to the shooting investigation and may have been a simple courtesy.
“They called us because we have a cooperative international program with them,” she said.
Clements is at least the second state prisons chief killed in office.
Michael Francke, director of the Oregon corrections department, was stabbed to death outside his office in 1989 in what prosecutors described as a bungled car burglary. A former Oregon prison inmate was found guilty of aggravated murder in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison.
Clements received a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri. He started with Missouri corrections in 1979 and over his 31 years there worked in prisons as well as probation and parole services. He was director of adult institutions when he left.
Hickenlooper appointed Clements to the post in 2011. He replaced Ari Zavaras, a former Denver police chief who led the department under two governors.
Since October 2011, his wife, Lisa Clements, has been the director of a state office that oversees the state’s mental health institutes in Fort Logan and Pueblo, as well as community mental health and substance abuse centers.
Hickenlooper ordered flags lowered to half-staff at public buildings until the day after Clements’ funeral.