Murder of Clements stuns Capitol

Corrections chief lauded by Governor; coincidences abound

Tom Clements, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was shot to death in his Monument home Tuesday evening.

In a bizarre twist, the suspect named in the case, Evan Spencer Ebel, 28 — a recent parolee with known ties to white supremacy — has been indirectly linked to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The governor has acknowledged his close relationship with Ebel’s father, Boulder attorney Jack Ebel, who Hickenlooper first met as a geologist working for an oil company. The two have remained close friends, according to the governor.

Evan Ebel was killed Thursday after a chase and shootout with authorities in Texas. He has become the focus of the investigation into Clements’ death, and is also suspected in the killing of Denver pizza delivery driver Nathan Leon, who was found dead in Golden on March 17.

A pale and red-eyed Governor John Hickenlooper, surrounded by members of his cabinet and staff, addresses the media Wednesday morning on the murder of Tom Clements, executive director of the Department of Corrections. Clements’ murder is believed to be the first of a state cabinet officer.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

The governor has vehemently denied having anything to do with Ebel’s release from prison in January. He has, however, commented on the Ebel family’s concerns with their son having spent significant time in solitary confinement.

In yet another seemingly inconceivable coincidence, Hickenlooper on Wednesday during the press conference to discuss Clements’ murder, unknowingly cited his Cabinet member’s possible killer.

“When I first interviewed [Clements] we talked about what was called administrative segregation. I’d had an old friend whose son had gone on the wrong tracks and been arrested and put in administrative segregation for a long period of time… solitary confinement,” remarked the governor. “At that time, we had a very large number of people in administrative segregation, and part of that interview was Tom had thought deeply about it before he ever came to interview with us.”

Hickenlooper said he did not learn of Ebel’s connection to the case, or his release from prison, until Thursday. The governor released a statement Friday night outlining his connection to the incident:

“Every killer has a mother and father, usually with broken hearts. I met Jack Ebel some 30 years ago when working for an oil company soon after moving to Colorado. Jack is one of the most kind and generous people I know. His son had a bad streak that I know he tried desperately to correct.

“Although Jack loved his son, he never asked me to intervene on his behalf and I never asked for any special treatment for his son. Based on information we received today, we understand that Evan Ebel served every day of his original sentence and was released on mandatory parole at the end of the time he was ordered to be incarcerated.

Tom Clements, Department of Corrections Executive Director

“The events of the past few days have been devastating for all involved. I am in shock and disbelief about how everything seems connected in this case. It makes no sense. Tom’s death at the hands of someone hell-bent on causing evil was tragic in every way. It also now appears Tom’s killer may have had another victim. Our hearts and prayers are with Nathan Leon’s family as well. We are most appreciative for law enforcement at all levels in Colorado and Texas and are anxious to learn more as the investigation continues.”

News of Clements’ death rocked the state Capitol Wednesday.

Hickenlooper, who was scheduled to sign a trio of gun control measures later that morning, convened a news conference to talk about Clements and his service to the state and to the Department of Corrections.

“We all stand here with leaden hearts and insufficient words,” Hickenlooper said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Lisa, and his two daughters, with all of the employees of the Department of Corrections.”

Hickenlooper explained that he had lured Clements away from Missouri, where he had served as the number two at that state’s corrections department for 31 years. “He was far and away the best choice we could find anywhere in the country. He understood the importance of building a team, operating an enterprise, when staff is motivated and focused.” Hickenlooper also lauded Clements’ approach to corrections, stating that Clements made sure inmates being released after long incarcerations would have job training, and mental health support to improve the chances they would not reoffend.

Clements’ sense of humor also was mentioned several times by the governor, who called Clements a “dedicated, commited, funny, caring expert at corrections. He had a sense of humor that… you almost can’t describe. His sense of timing, when he let a zinger fly, was so unpredictable and yet so astute. He was a great friend” who defined what a public servant is, by doing his job quietly and intently.

Hickenlooper also lauded Clements’ devotion to his staff, stating that the “depth of his caring about the people he worked with… was remarkable.”

“Tom Clements dedicated his life to being a public servant, to making our state and our world a better place. He will be deeply, deeply missed,” Hickenlooper said in concluding his remarks.

The governor also responded to questions about security and threats to other cabinet members. “As we get information about this, we will make sure our cabinet members are safe. We anticipate every possible eventuality. What little we know, we don’t believe it was directed at the cabinet. Corrections is a very difficult job,” he said.

Hickenlooper also addressed Clements’ murder within the context of the bill signing planned for later that morning. “An incident like this, whether an act of retaliation that we don’t know about, it’s also an act of intimidation. My gut feeling, [and] the cabinet is good with this, we go forward with our work. It’s the kind of thing Tom would understand and support. We will sign the bills and try to continue to move this state forward.”

The governor said he planned to leave the capitol and meet with the Clements family and Corrections staff. He said he could not respond to questions about the investigation itself. “The less said, the better.”

Hickenlooper appeared pale and red-eyed during the news conference, his voice breaking at times. He was surrounded by members of his cabinet, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, and members of his staff. At least a dozen legislators and dozens of capitol staff also stood silently by during the governor’s remarks, including Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

Waller later issued a statement that said, “Jennifer and I were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Tom Clements. Tom’s impact in Colorado and on the people around him was significant. In his short time as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom worked tirelessly to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer.

“Colorado has lost a great professional, and more importantly, an outstanding person. Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his family,” Waller added.

Members of the House paid tribute to Clements Wednesday morning, with more than a few wiping away tears. All House members stood at attention during the tribute.

“There couldn’t have been a finer person to take on the very difficult task of running our corrections department,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “He brought professionalism, humanity, everything you could want for that position.”

Waller noted that Clements had broken his hip in a bicycle accident last year, but it did not shake “his enduring spirit.” Around the same time, a prison guard was killed at the Rocky Ford facility, and Waller said Clements never let his personal physical issues get in the way of being there for his staff and for the whole corrections community. “Words can’t describe how unbelievable sad this occasion is. Colorado truly has lost not only a great professional but an outstanding person and good friend.”

When Clements joined the department, according to Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood, “you felt a surge of goodness flow through the entire system, coming from the top.” Kagan described Clements as someone with compassion for everyone, including the inmates in the prisons.

But it was the words of Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, that had many wiping their eyes. It took Gerou two tries to make it to the microphone; in her first attempt she appeared too distraught to speak. “We all give,” Gerou said. “He gave more than we should ever be expected to give.” Gerou recalled that she had last seen Clements just last week, during figure-setting by the Joint Budget Committee for the corrections department. “Tom was there, working on safety for his employees… he was a gentle, kind, good man, I am so sorry, I wish his family love and comfort.”

Clements was appointed by Hickenlooper to head the Department of Corrections on Jan. 10, 2011. He previously worked as Director of the Division of Adult Institutions for the Missouri Department of Corrections, with more than 31 years in corrections experience.

A public memorial service for Clements is set for Monday morning at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. A private funeral will be held on Sunday.

Hickenlooper has ordered all public buildings to fly the flag at half-staff until the day after those services have taken place. Clements, 58, is survived by his wife, Dr. Lisa Clements of the Department of Human Services, and daughters Rachel and Sara.

Wednesday afternoon, the family issued the following statement: “We are thankful for the overwhelming support and concern that we have received in the wake of Tom’s death. Our family has lost a devoted husband and a beloved father. There are no words at this time to describe our grief and loss. We thank our friends and those praying for us here and across the nation. Your well-wishes and prayers bring us strength. We appreciate your continued respect for our privacy during this terrible loss.”

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