One phone call changed Chrisceda Clemmons’ life — and that of her family’s — forever. Their home, their well-being, their feelings about law enforcement and government.
That same call would also reveal what they were capable of.
“We’re resilient,” Michael Shantz, Clemmons’ partner, said recently, remembering the evening 10 years ago when she took a call from her nephew, Maurice, who told her that he had killed four police officers in Lakewood and was on his way to her home in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood to hide out.
After Clemmons and Shantz went to police to report that Maurice Clemmons had contacted them, their house was severely damaged in the ensuing SWAT raid. It was the beginning of what would be an eight-year odyssey of legal and governmental wrangling, displacement, court dates and media attention for their family.
Shantz emphasizes, though, that the focus should remain on those who lost their lives.
“There are two stories here,” he said. “One of them is the unnecessary destruction of our house. They didn’t need to do that. (Maurice Clemmons) was never in the house.
“The other story is the destruction of life,” he continued. “Those four officers, Maurice, the officers’ families. That is where Ceda believes the focus should be. … The loss of life is what Ceda is saying is the actual substance of importance here.”
Lakewood Officer Tina Griswold, Officer Gregory Richards, Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officer Ronald Owens were killed by Maurice Clemmons in the Nov. 29, 2009, shooting.
When Maurice Clemmons called his aunt that day, he wanted her and Shantz to rent him a car and drive him back to his home state of Arkansas. Clemmons refused. An armed man, on the run from police for four slayings, would put their family in danger.
But Maurice Clemmons kept calling, saying he was getting closer.
Clemmons and Shantz went to Seattle’s East Precinct and told officers that the man law enforcement was desperate to find was headed to Leschi.
Police descended on the house on Superior Street. Snipers were poised on neighboring roofs. Nearby restaurants were put on lockdown. Maurice Clemmons wasn’t found.
The next morning, Shantz and Clemmons returned to a devastated home. Tear-gas canisters were everywhere. Furniture was broken, as were pieces of African art and some of the musical instruments that the family used for their band, Bakra Bata, and for Shantz’s work as a music educator. The whole place was covered with a thick chemical residue from the tear gas.
Clemmons didn’t want to speak on the record, but asked Shantz to share a few thoughts.
“Ceda is still traumatized by the whole thing,” Shantz said at the house the other day. “It’s not easy for her. She felt kicked in the head and shoved to the side by the city, in general. The political machinations.”
The legal system, too, seemed rigged against them. Relatives — including Maurice Clemmons’ sister — were arrested and sent to prison for aiding a fugitive, then had their convictions overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct.
“I feel like the family was maligned,” Shantz said, noting their roots in rural Arkansas. “There was a shallow appraisal of where the family came from. I think they missed a great opportunity to shed a bit of light on the American curse, which is racism, and the legacy of slavery.”
He spoke just inside the door of the house they left that November night, now rebuilt and renovated with wood floors and a new staircase and large windows with views of the I-90 bridge and Mount Rainier.
“We did this by the sweat of our brow,” said Shantz, who did much of the work with his sons, “and we’re fortunate in how it worked out for us.”
For the most part, the family stays focused on that — but it can be hard sometimes.
“There was a lot of residual hurt,” Shantz said. “We didn’t feel important to, or fairly treated by, the city process.”
In March 2011, the city of Seattle agreed to pay Clemmons’ and Shantz’s family a $973,858 settlement. Some people saw it as a windfall, but that “wasn’t true,” Shantz said. The money had already been spent on the family’s living expenses, rent and contractors hired to clean the family’s belongings and to help them rebuild.
It’s just not that simple, nothing a newspaper story can capture.
For now, the Shantz-Clemmons family is “doing great,” he said. Their children are healthy and productive.
“But they took it pretty hard, what went on in their childhood home,” Shantz said.
“All that is behind us, and we just want to leave it there,” he said, “and focus on people’s futures.”