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Families of slain Washington state police officers file suit

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Four police officers were shot to death in a Washington state coffee shop last year
  • Families of three of the officers have filed a $134 million lawsuit against Pierce County
  • Lawsuit says jail didn't heed warnings that should have kept gunman behind bars
  • Family of fourth officer has filed suit against friends, relatives of suspect in case
  • Murder and Homicide
  • Crime
  • Seattle

(CNN) -- The families of three police officers shot to death in a Washington state coffee shop last year are suing a county in the state, alleging its jail didn't heed warnings that should have kept the gunman behind bars, officials announced Thursday.

"This catastrophe, the worst law enforcement tragedy in the history of Washington state, was completely preventable," the lawsuits said.

The families are seeking a total of $134 million in damages against Washington's Pierce County.

A spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department announced the suits on Thursday.

Investigators identified the man who killed the three Lakewood, Washington, officers as Maurice Clemmons, an ex-convict who had served time in Arkansas before being jailed on charges in Washington state.

The family of a fourth officer who was killed in the November attack filed suit last week against Clemmons' relatives and associates, accusing them of helping him after the shooting.

The lawsuits filed this week allege that the Pierce County Jail could have known about Clemmons' intent to kill police officers if it had been monitoring Clemmons' phone calls from the jail.

"Using the most basic law enforcement skills -- the art of listening and reporting -- Pierce County could have determined that Clemmons was engaging in criminal behavior while in jail," the lawsuits allege, "... and formulating a specific plan to execute as many police officers as possible upon his release."

The suits allege the jail should have been monitoring Clemmons' calls based on reports from a county detective that Clemmons was intimidating his wife and her daughter, who Clemmons had been accused of raping.

"The next time the police pull me over, I am going to shoot him dead in his face," Clemmons said in a phone call from the jail to his wife and half-brother in September, the suits allege.

"The strategy is gonna go kill as many of those devils (police) as I can until I can't kill no more," Clemmons said later, according to the suits. "That is the strategy."

The Pierce County Jail does not have policies or procedures for monitoring inmate phone calls, the lawsuits say, though the jail has a monitoring system that records all inmate phone calls.

The lawsuits also allege that the Pierce County Jail ignored other red flags that should have prevented Clemmons' release.

Clemmons threatened to kill jailers after he was booked for arrest in May, but the jail failed to notify the state Department of Corrections, which was monitoring Clemmons as part of an interstate program for offenders. The complaints argue the jail should have notified corrections officials, a move lawyers for the slain officers' families say would have prevented Clemmons from being released on bond.

Clemmons was charged with child rape and assaulting a police officer in May. He had been released on $150,000 bail five days before the shootings.

A 95-year prison sentence for Clemmons in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Clemmons returned to prison in 2001 and was paroled in 2004.

The families of police officers Ronald Owens, Mark Renninger, and Gregory Richards filed suit this week. The estate of officer Tina Griswold filed suit against Clemmons' relatives and associates last week.

Clemmons, 37, was shot dead by a Seattle, Washington, police officer two days after a manhunt that stretched across the Seattle and Tacoma areas.