Maurice Clemmons believed he was a deity returned to Earth, but in the Pierce County Jail, he assumed a new role — Undercover Jesus — to keep from being institutionalized.
In the spring of 2009, Maurice Clemmons had a bizarre run-in with a man named Mark, who lived in a mobile home on one of Clemmons’ properties in Pierce County.
Clemmons walked in to find Mark acting crazy, tearing the place apart. Mark told Clemmons the devil had jumped out of the oven and attacked him, as tongues of fire lapped the air.
Clemmons believed Mark. He believed the devil had invaded Mark’s body, as punishment for some evil in Mark’s past. His talk of flames cinched it. “The devil is fire,” Clemmons would say.
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Clemmons also believed the devil’s assault wasn’t finished: “The devil jumped out of him and jumped in me.”
For Maurice Clemmons — a man with an extensive criminal record in Arkansas, pledging to start anew in Washington — that episode served as both explanation and exoneration for all he did afterward. Clemmons would say the devil was in him, he was possessed, and that’s why he became so deranged in May 2009.
On May 9, Clemmons threw rocks at people, cars and houses, shattering 18 windows around his Parkland neighborhood. That same day he punched a sheriff’s deputy in the face and called himself “The Beast.”
On May 11, Clemmons was accused of sexually assaulting his 12-year-old stepdaughter, then making the whole family gather around and stand naked — “the first family,” he called them — at 4 in the morning.
To Clemmons’ mind, his body was a spiritual battlefield, with Satan and God at war, and when it was over, Clemmons awakened and realized who he was. He was Jesus Christ.
Prosecutors filed eight felony charges against Clemmons over his actions on that one weekend in May.
To defend himself, Clemmons told his wife, Nicole, to take pictures of all the ways Mark ransacked the trailer, to photograph that oven door ripped from its hinges. Clemmons became convinced that if jurors saw those pictures, if they heard Mark’s story, Clemmons would be held blameless, that jurors would acquit him across the board.
“The truth is going to set me free,” he said.
It is easier to believe if someone else believes with you.
For Maurice Clemmons, the principal believer — the first acolyte — was Dawson Carlisle, Clemmons’ future brother-in-law.
Even without the delusions, they were the oddest pair.
Clemmons was a thug, a product of prison, a man quick to administer beatings and to say that women must do the bidding of men. Carlisle was a lamb. Friends called him “Boo Man,” a nickname that said more about his reaction to the world than his effect upon it.
Carlisle traced his timidity to his youth, when he crashed on his bicycle, messing up his teeth, scoring his face. He stayed in the house the whole summer, desperate to avoid ridicule, his mother slathering his scars with cocoa butter. “I never got over that emotionally,” he’d say. “With women, I will pick anyone who will pick me.”
Clemmons and Carlisle met when Carlisle began dating Clemmons’ sister-in-law. They laughed about their differences. “The nerd and the gangsta,” they said.
But when the delusions took hold, they changed the title of their pairing, becoming: Jesus Christ and Gabriel. Carlisle was Gabriel, “the most trusted messenger.”
In the summer of 2009, Clemmons called Carlisle from the Pierce County Jail, where he was being held on the eight felony charges, including assault and child rape. Carlisle, unemployed, lived in Kent at the time.
Carlisle told Clemmons that he was outside, and while they were speaking, he looked skyward and watched as the sun broke through the clouds.
“The sun is hitting me right in the face,” Carlisle said.
“Because what I’m telling you is the truth, little brother.”
“It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. The sun is beaming. Thank you, God.”
“The truth is glorious,” Clemmons said.
When Clemmons spoke like this, as Jesus, his voice’s register dropped and his words elongated.
“It is glorious,” he said. “The sun ain’t never shined on you when you was living a lie. … We command the suuuuun. We command the raaaaain. We can make the earth shaaaaake. We can turn the sea into bloooood. We can make the stars fall out of the skyyyyy.”
Carlisle traced his conversion to a spring day when Clemmons summoned Carlisle to his home.
“I was in the back yard,” Carlisle would say later. “I spoke to him. I could tell he wasn’t the same person. He was totally different. The very same day I saw my friend stop the wind and I saw angels before us.”
When Clemmons said he was Jesus Christ, Carlisle believed him.
“We went from Boo Man and Maurice to Jesus Christ and Gabriel,” Clemmons said. “It’s beautiful, you know what I’m saying?”
Clemmons, who did not grow up going to church, began studying the Bible. When he would butcher some word — Psalms became “Palms” and Pontius Pilate became “Pilates,” the exercise that strengthens torso muscles — Carlisle would say nothing, or maybe find some roundabout way to say the word right.
Talking to Clemmons, Carlisle said thank you God, thank you God, thank you God. And everywhere Carlisle looked — miracles. A charge went through on a maxed-out credit card? A miracle. Carlisle’s printer worked after he shook the cartridge? Another miracle.
“I shook it, and now I got ink,” Carlisle said.
“See, God is great, ain’t he?”
“God is great.”
Clemmons became convinced the world had entered revelation — and that he was Jesus Christ after Jesus was crucified but before he ascended to heaven, and that everything was preordained, that every moment had already played out “hundreds of thousands of billions” times before, that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was the devil and New York City was Babylon and the fifth trumpet blast was sounding and that God was “lining up all his soldiers in the penitentiaries.”
For Clemmons, affirmation was all around.
He believed he had convinced other inmates at the jail, including one who said, I can tell you’ve been anointed, and another with the biblical name of Luke. He believed he had convinced a jail chaplain.
While reading, Clemmons would seize upon random details as proof of his true identity as Jesus. “He had four other brothers. Just like I do. Because we one and the same.” With Clemmons, there were no coincidences: “This is Pierce County. Jesus was pierced in the side. You follow what I’m saying? And then the county over is King. … Jesus was the king, and he was pierced. Everything, it’s just real.”
And Carlisle wasn’t the only person saying yes, you are the Messiah. Clemmons’ Aunt Chrisceda picked up on this weird vibe. When she called Clemmons’ home, a nephew who lived near Clemmons answered the phone with: “Aunt C, you know that Maurice is your lord savior Jesus Christ.”
After his rampage in May of 2009, Clemmons began seeing Timothy Bean, a 40-year-old counselor in Lakewood.
In a professional directory, Bean describes his practice: “Using a foundation of Humanistic therapy the healing wisdom of each client is explored in a respectful and compassionate way. … I believe that much of our society is asleep and seeking to awaken. I have an interactive style that supports and respects the power of each individual to grow and heal.”
Clemmons called Bean his “psychological and spiritual adviser.” Bean called Clemmons a charismatic man, beloved by his family, who was dealing with a “spiritual crisis” rooted in the 108-year prison sentence he’d received in Arkansas as a youth. To Bean, Clemmons was “trying to solve the hole within him — the great injustice that occurred when he was 16 years old. All his choices led him back to solve that crisis.”
On July 9, Clemmons called Bean from jail.
Clemmons told the counselor that on his first day in the cell, he had asked for a Bible. The first page he turned to said be faithful to your wife and be faithful to God — and that very day, Clemmons’ wife discovered an affair he’d been having for four years.
“Oh, boy,” Bean said.
“Yeah. So, you know, everything is real.”
Being locked up, he’d had time to think and to read the whole Bible, Clemmons said. “I know he pruning me right now, he cutting off all the rough edges — you know, preparing me for whatever it is to come. You know?”
Clemmons told Bean: “Once the story is told, all the witnesses that was involved come forward and tell what they saw, the things they saw me capable of doing, like me stopping the wind, and, you know, these balls of light appearing, you know, things like that, then the truth got to be told. Too many people saw what I saw and experienced what I saw. And, you know, everything that happened was supernatural. You know?”
“So I’m just gonna let God guide my footsteps, I’m gonna stop fighting it and, you know, I’m gonna obey all his commandments and just do what I know I’m supposed to do, what he created me to do.”
“Absolutely,” Bean said. “And he created you to do great things.”
Clemmons said: “Even my wife, she finally coming around to it. People run from the unfamiliar and what they don’t know.” He said: “For things to happen to me the way they happened to me, it was really mind-blowing.” He said: “It’s amazing, though, huh?”
“It is,” Bean said.
Bean told Clemmons: “Well, I think the biggest part of this lesson, Maurice, is that you have to begin to live without fear. And once you can start living without fear, you won’t have to run from anything. Fear is a tool of the devil.”
Clemmons told Bean he wasn’t scared of the devil, that he wasn’t scared of any man, that he would stand toe to toe with anyone, that he no longer worried about material things, and Bean said good, good, good, excellent.
In the spring and summer of 2009, Clemmons didn’t occupy his mind with religion alone. He also obsessed over wealth.
Two beacons captured his attention. The first was a self-proclaimed prophet in New York City. The other was Donald Trump.
In June, while on the lam from all the felony charges he had racked up, Clemmons traveled across country to Zoe Ministries, a church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Carlisle accompanied Clemmons on the 2,800-mile trip.
The church preached the ways to prosperity, and its ministers were an eclectic, electrifying group; they included the Rev. Run — also known as Joseph Simmons, also known simply as Run, from the famed rap duo Run-D.M.C.
The head of the church was Bishop E. Bernard Jordan, who says he discovered his powers of prophecy at the age of 15. Clemmons studied Jordan’s book, “The Spirit of Liberation,” in which Jordan pounded out 96 prophetic principles in big bold letters: “Jesus was a black man! Freedom cannot exist without wealth! The gospel has been polluted by Europeans!”
Clemmons also followed Jordan online, visiting chat rooms and mulling over the bishop’s stream of prophecies.
In New York, Clemmons and Carlisle showed up unannounced at Jordan’s 50th birthday celebration at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan. When Carlisle insisted that Clemmons was Jesus Christ, Jordan replied: “He is Maurice Clemmons to us. We are not going to call him Jesus Christ. … If there’s some mental problem, then you need to find an institution.”
When Clemmons, resplendent in a tuxedo, approached, Jordan asked him: “How did you know to come?”
“You did a live chat,” Clemmons said. “And um, you know … God called me.”
Later, after Clemmons and Carlisle returned to Washington state, they stayed in touch with the church. The church sold prophecies and other products (the “prophetic soap,” $7 a bar, “helps bring protection and gives you a greater ability to function with greater intuition and insight”), and Clemmons was an enthusiastic customer.
He belonged to the church’s Trailblazer program (for $365, Jordan “will prophesy what he sees on a cassette tape, and actually map out your life!”), and could always find something in his life to confirm the prophet’s words. One prophecy declared that on the 29th, Clemmons would be able to buy something. And what happened on the 29th? He ordered some food from the jail commissary.
Clemmons also engaged in tithing, or what the church called “sowing seeds.” He tithed even after he was arrested on July 1 and put in jail on $190,000 bond. But he envisioned a quid pro quo. On July 3, Clemmons instructed Carlisle to go to the Zoe Ministries’ chat room and ask the church’s followers to deposit $37 billion in Clemmons’ bank account with JPMorgan Chase.
“They know I’m Jesus Christ,” Clemmons said. “Then pay me my goddamn money! Right or wrong?”
“Right,” Carlisle said.
The billions never materialized. Three weeks later, Clemmons, still in jail, told Carlisle that he was beginning to have doubts about Zoe Ministries. Clemmons said the Bible says to give to the poor — and Bishop Jordan wasn’t poor.
“The only thing they talk about is getting money, getting money, getting money,” Carlisle said.
“They gonna have some explaining to do,” Clemmons said. “We gonna be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Clemmons talked of all the money they had donated: “We in debt and everything. We done gave them everything that we done had. Now we can’t help nobody, we need somebody to help us.”
Carlisle said he was relieved to hear of Clemmons’ suspicions. “You ain’t gonna go for the okey doke, and I admire and respect that. … It’s a trip. I’m rolling with a straight-up gangster.”
For Clemmons, a second path to riches was paved by Donald Trump — or, to be more specific, Trump University, Donald Trump’s online business school.
Sometime before July, Clemmons and Carlisle had attended a 90-minute seminar presented by the school. Afterward, the two elected to sign up for the $1,495 three-day workshop. With Clemmons now in jail, Nicole took his place.
“Look,” Clemmons told Nicole on July 10, the workshop’s first day. “You going to the best school for real estate that money can buy. Now ain’t that a blessing?”
Any advice that flowed under the Trump name, Clemmons absorbed in a way that was stunningly literal. “Convenience is the enemy” became, for Clemmons, a directive to sell his residence, because having a house to live in was nothing if not convenient.
For Clemmons and Carlisle, the seminar and workshop fired dreams of wealth. Clemmons said they would invest in distressed real estate — in Michigan, in Georgia, in every state you could think of — and cash in when prices spiked. They would travel in luxury RVs and wear $1,000 tailored suits. Their company, Clemmons said, would “outpace Google and Microsoft until they want to buy it out for at least $100 billion.”
“Who knows what the next day gonna bring?” Clemmons told Carlisle from jail. “Today I’m sitting in here, looking at this wall. Tomorrow we could be multimillionaires.”
Clemmons also had other business plans. He and Carlisle would invest in GM and customize “old-school Buicks” with fiberglass bodies — “It’ll get 25 to 30 miles per gallon,” Clemmons said — and high-end DVD players. “Black folks will eat them up like candy,” he said. Or maybe they’d start a bottled-water company: “We’re gonna name it Revelations. Because ain’t nobody’s water gonna be good but our own.”
Clemmons and Carlisle would treat themselves to Bentleys. Nicole would get a Mercedes-Benz.
By the close of the workshop, Carlisle had become skeptical of the Trump enterprise. He said the 90-minute seminar seemed designed to get people to sign up for the $1,495 workshop, and the workshop seemed designed to get people to sign up for an even pricier mentorship program.
“So it’s a hustle,” he said.
But Clemmons and Nicole weren’t discouraged. Describing the mentorship program, Nicole told Maurice: “It’s the gold package. It’s like 29 percent off. It’s normally $47,000. They’re giving it to people for like $35,000.”
The couple didn’t have the $70,000 needed to sign up two people, so Clemmons told Nicole to offer a postdated check.
Clemmons told Carlisle: “No, what it is, bro, it’s not a hustle, it’s the truth. You gonna need mentorship.”
Clemmons planned to buy or lease office space for his real-estate enterprise. But when a Zoe Ministries prophet called Nicole — “He asked if we had an office at home, and I said, ‘Yeah, in the back,’ and he said, ‘God is touching the office and blessing it’ ” — Clemmons decided a home-based business was the way to go.
None of Clemmons’ business plans gave birth to riches. By the fall of 2009, he was back in the Pierce County Jail, back to needing the money to post a $190,000 bond in order to get out.
And that was if he could get out at all.
On Oct. 14, two psychologists from Western State Hospital, Melissa Dannelet and Carl Redick, interviewed Clemmons as part of a court-ordered mental-health evaluation. They needed to answer three questions:
Did Clemmons have the mental capacity to assist in his defense? Did he present a “substantial likelihood” of committing future acts of violence? Should he be considered for involuntary commitment?
In taped telephone conversations from jail, Clemmons had threatened to kill police officers: “The strategy is gonna go, kill as many of them devils as I can until I can’t kill no more.”
He had also recounted how his counselor and a jail chaplain had advised him to quit saying he was Jesus. Society wasn’t ready for the truth, is how Clemmons replayed those conversations. If he revealed himself, he would get put in a straitjacket and thrown into the “crazy house.”
But the psychologists didn’t listen to those tapes.
They interviewed Clemmons for one hour and 15 minutes. He fed them a mix of truth, lies and exaggeration.
With these two psychologists, Clemmons was Undercover Jesus. Asked about his religion, he said: “I believe in God.” What he didn’t say was: I believe I am God.
The psychologists asked Clemmons if he ever thought of hurting police.
No, Clemmons said.
Five days later, the psychologists wrote up their report. They said that at the time of their evaluation, “there was no evidence of a mental disorder,” no evidence of “psychiatric symptoms.”
So their answer to the first question was: Yes. He could assist in his defense. Their second answer was: Yes. He was likely to be violent in the future. But because they did not find evidence of mental disturbance, their answer to question No. 3 was: No. They would not recommend further evaluation with an eye toward committing Clemmons.
The upshot was, the criminal case could go forward. And if Clemmons could swing his release from jail before trial, he would be free to go — a man twisted by delusion and anger, released upon the world.
Staff writer Christine Willmsen contributed to this report.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605