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Car, walker sought in Colo. Corrections killing

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 8:24 a.m. CDT

MONUMENT, Colo. — In the weeks before Colorado's top prisons official was fatally shot after answering his front door, he carried out a variety of functions including requesting execution chemicals and speaking to legislators about security issues.

It's unknown what role Tom Clements' position as executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections might have played in the shooting Tuesday, but investigators said they aren't ruling out any possible motives, including whether it was random or a work-related attack.

Colorado corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson would not comment on whether Clements had security at his home. Security was stepped up for other state officials, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was ashen-faced as he addressed reporters at the Capitol before signing bills placing new restrictions on firearms.

"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," Hickenlooper said Wednesday.

Authorities are looking for a late-model car, possibly a Lincoln or a Cadillac, that a neighbor spotted outside Clements' home around the time of the shooting Tuesday, El Paso County Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Kramer said.

Kramer also said investigators want to speak with a woman seen speed-walking near Clements' home not long before the shooting because she may have seen the suspect. The woman was wearing light pants, a dark windbreaker and possibly a hat.

While small in numbers, similar attacks on officials have been increasing in the U.S. in recent years, said Glenn McGovern, an investigator with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office in California who tracks such incidents worldwide. There have been roughly as many in the past three years — at least 35 — as the entire prior decade, he said. Revenge is usually the motive, McGovern said.

"It's often taking place away from the office, which makes sense, because everyone's hardening up their facilities," he said, adding that he advises prosecutors to constantly assess the safety of their residences.

On Jan. 31, Texas prosecutor Mark Hasse was gunned down as he left his car in the 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 home. In 2001, federal prosecutor Thomas Wales was fatally shot by a rifleman while he worked on a computer at night in his Seattle home. Both cases remain unsolved.

Attacks on legal officials are still extremely rare, said Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association, which counts 11 prosecutors as having been slain in the last 50 years. But he acknowledged that legal officials are vulnerable outside of protected offices and courthouses.

"If someone wants to truly harm or kill them, it's very difficult, frankly. There's not a lot we can do," he said.

Mike McLelland, the district attorney in rural Kaufman county east of Dallas, is a 23-year military veteran. Since his prosecutor, Hasse, was killed on his way into the office, McLelland has warned his staff to be vigilant about their surroundings and possible danger.

"The people in my line of work are going to have to get a lot better at it because they're going to need it more in the future," said McLelland, who carries a gun everywhere he goes.

Clements came to Colorado in 2011 after working three decades in the Missouri prison system. He began a review of Colorado's solitary confinement system and closed a new prison built specifically to hold prisoners being held in solitary — Colorado State Penitentiary II.

He lived in a wooded neighborhood of large, two-story houses on large 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. After word of the shooting spread Tuesday night, some residents slept with shotguns at the ready, fearful the shooter would return.

It would have been simple to find Clements' house. It took two clicks to get his street address through a publicly available Internet locator service Wednesday morning. The listing also included his previous address in Missouri.

McGovern said he tells his prosecutors to assume that any possible assailants can find their home addresses online and to check for areas they may be especially vulnerable such as neighboring alleys and poorly lit porches.

There is no central database of attacks on legal officials and senior law enforcement executives like Clements.

McGovern has documented 133 of them in the U.S. since 1950 by searching news accounts and court cases. The total includes 41 killings of judges, prosecutors and other justice and police officials. The assaults usually come with little warning, he said.

Steven K. Swensen, a former U.S. marshal who runs a business consulting on security for court officials, said attacks on legal staff used to occur in courtrooms. As security has been expanded to protect those rooms, then courthouses, the attacks have spilled out farther and farther.

"Now we're having more violence off-site, in judges' houses, on their way to and from work," Swensen said.

Clements' survivors include two daughters and his wife, who is director of the state Office of Behavioral Health.

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.

Clements also recently requested chemicals to execute Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of killing four people in a 1993 shooting rampage at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant and is scheduled to become the second person executed in Colorado since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.

Clements' father-in-law, Carroll Smith, told The Denver Post (http://bit.ly/YX6lLN ) that Clements opposed the death penalty.

Earlier this week, Clements spoke to legislators about the need for more security staff in the department's food service areas, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Alison Morgan said. Last year, a kitchen worker at a state prison was killed and another was injured in an assault involving an inmate.

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.

Hickenlooper ordered flags lowered to half-staff at public buildings until the day after Clements' funeral.

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Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert in Monument; Steven K. Paulson, Dan Elliott, Nicholas Riccardi, Alexandra Tilsley and Colleen Slevin in Denver; and Maria Sudekum in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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