Colo. Prison Head Gunned Down At His Home

The head of Colorado's state prison system was shot and killed this week when he answered the front door at his home in Monument. The incident happened just hours before Colorado's governor signed strict new gun-control measures into law.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

People in Colorado are still trying to make sense of the shooting death of that state's respected head of the prison system. Tom Clements was gunned down Tuesday night as he answered the door at his home in the small, quiet town of Monument. Police are still searching for the killer. And this happened just hours before Colorado's governor signed strict new gun control measures into law.

Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee has been following this story. Good morning.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's start with the motive. It's been a couple of days now. Does there appear to be any connection between Clements' killing and his job as prison director?

VERLEE: As far as we know, not at this point. But police are not ruling anything out. They say they're looking at all possible leads and suspects. It does seem likely, though, that the two are related because he lives in a fairly remote area and it doesn't appear to have been a robbery attempt or a home invasion. And Clements, he wasn't a controversial figure at the state level, but he ran a prison system so there are likely a fair number of people, in out of prison and their families who may have blamed him for their problems or for things they considered unfair.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us more about Tom Clements. I gather he was not just respected but he was also admired.

VERLEE: He really was, and you got that sense as people reacted to news of his killing. He oversaw the drawdown of the prison population. Colorado, like a lot of states, has been reducing its prison population in recent years. And so he's been part of making tough choices about closing prisons and moving staff around. And he also was part of a very large effort to shrink the solitary confinement numbers, which have gone down dramatically under his tenure.

So he was known as a reformer. I was impressed at the number of people outside the system, people who work on justice reform, who were very emotionally affected by news of his death. Colorado's governor was also quite close to him and you got a sense of that yesterday when he came out to speak on Clements' passing.

GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: We are so grateful for the time that he gave us. He was a dedicated, committed, funny, caring expert at corrections.

VERLEE: He was choking back tears through that entire press conference. He was red-eyed. And standing behind him as he spoke to the media was his entire cabinet. They just stood with their heads down. It was a very grim and solemn moment there at the state capitol.

MONTAGNE: As we said, this killing of a top prison official comes just as new gun control laws went into effect there in Colorado. Is this murder coloring people's reaction to those laws?

VERLEE: Within the capital it definitely is. It's bringing various sides of what's been a very bitter debate together. I saw Republicans and Democrats who I think got up on Wednesday expecting to be fighting tooth and nail, hugging and consoling each other. But it's important to remember that these laws and the killing are completely unrelated as far as we know.

Clements had not taken a public stand on these issues. He was not - had not done anything that would've made him a target on these issues.

What the laws do, they institute universal background checks and limit the size of ammunition magazines. And they're really much more a reaction to the shooting last summer at the Aurora movie theater here in Colorado and the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December. And the mood has been, like I said, bitter and divisive. But for a moment I think this killing completely changed people's perspectives.

MONTAGNE: Megan Verlee with Colorado Public Radio speaking to us from Denver. Thanks very much.

VERLEE: Thank you.

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