Recorded phone calls from the Pierce County Jail hint at Maurice Clemmons' checkered past and an unconventional union that was splintering.
Maurice Clemmons called his wife at 7:40 a.m. on July 7, 2009.
“Hey, what’s up,” she said.
“You gotta get up, sleepyhead. I got something for you to do.”
Clemmons was in the Pierce County Jail. His wife, Nicole, was at home.
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He told her to write down his instructions.
His first instruction was: “Have no doubt.” Then he went on:
“Write a personal check to yourself, a Bank of America check, for $150 million. Then you take that anointing oil and you anoint it. And then you gonna take it to Chase right there on 72nd and deposit it into your account. Before you do it, pray seven times. Pray five times before you leave the house. Pray one time while you in the car driving. Pray another time while you walking up to the teller.”
As absurd as it was, Clemmons wanted his wife to write a check with nine figures and deposit it in one bank while pretending to have all that money in another bank.
“Do that this morning,” he told her.
“OK,” she told him.
Their marriage required Nicole to believe and Maurice to deliver. Nicole told Maurice: “You are the brains of the operation.” Maurice told Nicole: “You always be my love. It’s always gonna be Maurice and Nicole.”
In the summer of 2009, Maurice Clemmons was in a world of trouble. He was staring at eight felony charges, including one for child rape. He was staring at a possible third strike and an accompanying life sentence. He was faced with the challenge of raising enough money to post $190,000 bail.
As he maneuvered to get out of jail, Maurice leaned on Nicole as never before, knowing she’d stand by him if others fell away — that she knew how to get things done, how to take his ideas and execute them. If this plan worked — if Chase believed Nicole had $150 million in her Bank of America account and wanted to move the money over — then Maurice’s bail of $190,000 would be nothing to worry about.
“You remember how to anoint it, right?” he asked her.
“Just put a cross on the back of the check, and a cross on the front with the oil. Say a prayer to God.”
They met at a nightclub in Pioneer Square in 2001. Nicole Smith was 29, with a 12-year-old boy and a 4-year-old daughter. Clemmons was coming off 11 years in the Arkansas prison system.
Nicole graduated from West Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School. Clemmons, a native of Marianna, Ark., was in Washington visiting family.
They shared stories of their past.
“They did me bad, Nicole,” Maurice would say. “It ain’t never been fair for me, it ain’t never been right, I ain’t never really saw no justice. You feel me?”
“I did what I had to do to get the [expletive] ahead,” Nicole would say. “Because I knew it was my responsibility, I had them kids, they are mine. I’m gonna get out there and do what I gotta do, whether it be boosting, hustling, whatever. I’m gonna do it.”
They became a couple and remained one even when Maurice returned home the same year. Back in Arkansas, Clemmons pulled a gun and robbed a woman of $10,000, and was caught and went back to prison. Nicole waited. Clemmons got out three years later, in March 2004. They married in June. They were both 32.
The same year they married, Nicole declared bankruptcy for her second time. She listed her job as nail tech and her monthly income as $1,218. Her car had been repossessed. She owed $59,200. Her debtors included Walmart ($153), Nordstrom ($900) and U.S. Bank ($2,862). Asked how much was in her checking account, she put: 0.00.
“I know what it is to have nothing,” she told Maurice. “I lost everything twice.”
“As long as you got Maurice, you got a gold mine,” he told her. “You understand, love?”
They settled in Pierce County. Clemmons started a landscaping and power-washing business. He started buying real estate — one, two, three houses, worth $690,000 in all. One house caught fire. (“Heat source: Fireworks,” the incident report said. “Cause of ignition: Unintentional.”) Clemmons collected the insurance and built a new house, all decked out.
Clemmons’ business, Sea-Wash, suggested legitimacy. There were the business cards, the website, the occasional job cutting back bushes. But other developments gave pause.
Clemmons outfitted the couple’s house with an elaborate security system, one police found suspicious, as if more was involved than protecting a home. “High tech, low res, eight cameras, every angle,” is how Clemmons described it. Police released a sketch of a man suspected of robbing 11 places in the Puget Sound region — auto-parts stores, a sports pub, a KFC. The sketch looked an awful lot like Clemmons.
Then there were the conversations Maurice and Nicole had about that new house, the one built with the insurance money.
“God know how I got that house. You follow me? So he probably want us to get rid of it, period, anyway,” Maurice said.
“If I have to,” he later told her, “I burn every last one of them down, and get the insurance.”
Listening to the conversations between Clemmons and Nicole, a vocabulary lesson helps. When the two talked about trees, cookies and batter, they weren’t necessarily talking about evergreens and Tollhouse.
Hit a lick. The Urban Dictionary says: “To rob or burglarize someone or something.”
Blunt: “Cigar hollowed out and filled with marijuana.”
Trees: “Slang term used for marijuana.”
Two days before Clemmons called Nicole about depositing that $150 million check, the couple had this conversation:
“What do you want me to do about Dorcus and his tree?” Nicole asked, referring to Darcus Allen, Clemmons’ old prison mate in Arkansas, now in Washington.
“What you mean?”
“Yeah, well, we ain’t supplying, you can give him a blunt, but we ain’t supplying nobody, we ain’t got it like that, and don’t you be putting our business out there. You know, if I don’t tell you something, then you don’t do it, you understand?”
“All right,” Nicole said.
“You give him a blunt or something, but you don’t be too God damn friendly.”
“I got you. Chill out.”
On July 7, when Maurice told Nicole to anoint the check and pray to God, his instructions reflected a change in direction.
The old Maurice was a robber and a drug dealer. The new Maurice had experienced what he considered to be a religious epiphany. The new Maurice believed he was Jesus Christ, returned to Earth in the time of Revelation.
Clemmons admitted to a friend that he used to sell Ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana. But that violated “the people’s temple,” contrary to God’s wishes. Clemmons told Nicole that they used to make “fast money,” and “fast money go fast,” but now they were going to make “Godly money.”
“I ain’t one to stay in no game for forever anyway, Nicole.”
“Yeah, I know that. I didn’t want that either.”
“We were tired of it,” Clemmons said.
“Been tired of it.”
“Exactly. Tired of looking over our shoulder, tired of all that, you know what I’m saying?”
Clemmons even reconciled his plan for the $150 million check with this new outlook. He told Nicole that if she deposited the check, and kept the faith, and the money turned up, it would be “a wire transfer from God.”
Before Nicole left for the bank, her voice dropped low.
“So, was I not supposed to, uh, do anything with them trees?”
Nicole said she could make some money with the trees. Clemmons said, “Oh.” Then he said, “Yeah, you can do that.”
“I wasn’t sure, because I started thinking about it, and I know you said you weren’t going to be doing anything anymore,” Nicole said.
“I got ‘em for the cookies,” Clemmons said. “He give us the green herb. The herb ain’t like all the other stuff. … You still got some of that batter, make it up already … You ain’t gave away my cookies, have you?”
“Nah, I gave Dorcus one, but there’s still some out there. That’s all I gave him, just the one. And I had a couple. They ain’t yours, they’re ours.”
Clemmons told Nicole that when she took the $150 million check to the counter, she could not allow doubt to enter her mind.
“What you need to do, go and eat your cookie, you hear me?”
“Well, see, that’s what I did yesterday and then it started playing mind tricks on me.”
“Well, whichever you think you got to do to be focused.”
At this time, Clemmons was being held on a slew of felony charges. Seven stemmed from May 9, 2009, when he threw rocks at people, cars and houses in his neighborhood and assaulted two sheriff’s deputies. An eighth stemmed from May 11, when Clemmons was accused of raping Nicole’s daughter, then 12.
Two things set Clemmons off that weekend. One was his sudden belief that he was Jesus Christ. The other was Nicole’s discovery that he was having an affair.
Nicole helped police at first, describing what Clemmons had done to her daughter. But then she reverted to defending her husband.
Some of Clemmons’ friends and family bought into Clemmons’ story, and began calling him Jesus. Nicole didn’t go that far, but when her husband talked of being anointed and of miracles around them, she would say: Yes, it’s real.
Nicole believed in signs. On their home’s surveillance system, on one camera in particular, she kept seeing an image — red flames, with black in the middle — that she took to be angels and demons at war. She attached meaning to how she and Maurice had both been born on a Sunday. What to most people would be random numbers, to Nicole would become cause for alarm.
To Nicole, those three straight sixes in her husband’s Department of Corrections number (866697) were no coincidence. She balked at dialing a bail-bond company because its number included three straight sixes. She calculated two-thirds as a decimal, came up with .66666, and said, “Hmm, that’s weird.”
The couple shared a belief in sweeping evil. Nicole told Clemmons that she’d picked up a pamphlet saying the devil was going to microchip people.
“That’s gonna happen over in Europe,” Clemmons said. “That’s not gonna happen over here.”
If the United States could, it would, Nicole said.
“But, see, look who running the government,” Clemmons said.
But just wait until Obama is no longer president, Nicole said.
Clemmons explained away his affair and other wicked behavior. He told Nicole that since he was Jesus, he needed to commit certain sins in order to sympathize with others.
When Nicole was in Clemmons’ camp, she was all in. “Ten toes down,” Clemmons called it. She worked long hours — talking to lawyers, bail bondsmen, parole officials — trying to secure her husband’s release. “Nicole has worked like a Trojan,” one lawyer told Clemmons.
She tackled their plans to refinance. (She planned to lie about having a job, in order to help their application.) She met with government inspectors. (The couple rented out the house built courtesy of the insurance payoff and received federal subsidies for providing low-income housing.) She changed the fluids in his truck.
She even let Clemmons talk on the phone to her daughter, despite a no-contact order.
Clemmons called Nicole at 9:01 a.m. on July 7. She was about to leave for the bank to deposit the $150 million check.
“If you go in there like a G, just like you seen your husband done, and believe it’s gonna happen, believe it’s gonna happen, it will happen,” he told her. “You have to walk on faith.”
Don’t even look at the amount on the check, he told her.
She asked where he got the amount.
“From God,” he said.
Nicole said she’d been reading Scripture, trying to calm herself. “I’ve been telling myself, the money is in the bank, I am a millionaire, manifestation.” While talking to Maurice, she listened to gospel music.
“See baby, I’m gonna tell you something, and this is how you gotta look at it,” he said. “This is all faith is. When I was going to hit them licks … I had faith that every lick I hit, I was going to get away with it. You see what I’m saying? And I used to get away with them. It took courage to go do what I did.”
Clemmons turned his pep talk to Nicole’s past, and how she used to cash “bogus” checks.
“You know you ain’t had the money, but you went right up there and done it.”
“You right about that,” she said.
“OK, well, God saying this is real, and he going to cash it for you. … But this time you ain’t even trying to cash it, you just trying to put it in your own account. Which one is the more easier?”
“So it ain’t nothing. … You been doing these things, but you been doing them the other way.”
“Really, I been trained to do it.”
“Yeah. The whole time. Right or wrong?”
“You right. … I used to do that s — a lot.”
” … when I was writing them hot checks.”
“If you my woman, you got to be bold,” Clemmons told Nicole.
“I am bold, Maurice. I done did some wicked s — in my life. Crazy stuff. Crazy and everything else.”
“Be crazy for the Lord now, then.”
She laughed. They both laughed.
Clemmons called Nicole again at 11 a.m. She was at the bank.
Nicole said the bank — a JPMorgan Chase branch, at 72nd and Pacific in Tacoma — was having trouble depositing the check.
“They’re having a hard time entering it into the computer. There’s too many zeros.”
Clemmons couldn’t understand: “That’s crazy that a bank can’t even put some zeros in. … This is a cheap bank system.”
While they awaited news of the $150 million — “They sure are taking a lot of time,” Nicole said — Clemmons told Nicole that God had angels all around her.
“Another day in the ghetto, baby. But we gonna get out of it, huh? … I’m a king and you my queen.”
Nicole said it was cold inside the bank.
“I love you, Nicole.”
“I really do. I’m glad God made you for me, because we fit. Don’t you think we fit?”
“And I love you.”
They did not always talk this way. Three days earlier, Nicole balked when Clemmons told her to buy seven computers — “three desktops and four laptops” — for a real-estate venture he’d cooked up. “Nicole, when I get out, I swear to God, I’m gonna take a belt and I’m gonna whup your ass like a dog,” he told her.
Nicole steamed at Clemmons’ infidelity. She’d found out in May that he’d had a baby with a woman named Quiana Williams. “No remorse! No remorse!” Nicole screamed. She cut him some slack, saying because of prison he’d missed out when young. She gave him this one mistake. Clemmons promised to be faithful from now on. “You better be, or I’ll break your [expletive] neck,” she told him.
Nicole missed the way they were. It used to be Maurice and Nicole as one. “Remember when we used to put our heads together to think of something?” she said. Then it became just Maurice — Maurice will think of something. “You right,” he told her. He promised to change back: “Maurice and Nicole. Back to the beginning.”
Nicole received the news within two days of leaving the bank. Chase was not crediting her with $150 million. What’s more, the bank was closing her account.
“Chase said we will no longer be able to use their services,” Nicole told Maurice.
Bank of America also closed Nicole’s account. But the repercussions appeared to go no further than that.
Nicole opened an account at Wells Fargo.
On July 18, Clemmons, still in jail, told Nicole: “I love you and really respect you. … With me pulling and you pulling and we pulling together, we gonna overcome anything that come before us. You got love in you and I got love in me and we got God in us.”
Moments later, Nicole handed the phone to Rickey Hinton, Clemmons’ half brother. The two men talked in confidence.
“Guess what,” Hinton said. “And this is bad. Little mama is pregnant.”
It turned out that Clemmons had more than one mistress.
“Look,” Clemmons said. “Listen. I gave her $100 and told her to go get the thang, man. Just like the other broad.”
Clemmons had tried to keep these affairs secret. But Nicole learned that his cheating went beyond one woman. As summer became fall, Maurice and Nicole stopped talking of love. Their conversations became marked by long silences.
It wasn’t just the cheating. Nicole loathed Rickey. She also chafed at other members of Clemmons’ family. Then, there were the financial problems. Clemmons, being in jail, wasn’t bringing in money. Their bills mounted. The bank moved to foreclose on their home. Nicole feared being on the street with her kids.
By November 2009, their marriage neared a precipice. She asked for power of attorney in order to get more control over their finances. He refused.
When Nicole visited Clemmons in person, he told her the Bible says a woman must obey a man at all times. “What about my opinion?” she asked, to which he said, “You don’t got no opinion, it’s my opinion, when we become married, we become one flesh, and so it’s what I say.”
“I don’t know you anymore,” she said.
Nicole had helped Maurice bail out of jail twice that year, only to see him arrested again. Now, she refused to bail him out a third time.
She no longer believed. He no longer delivered.
If Maurice got out of jail again, there would be no Nicole waiting.
Staff writer Christine Willmsen contributed to this report.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730
or firstname.lastname@example.org; Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605