TROUBLES OF YOUTH ACCUSED IN FATAL MD. FIRE DESCRIBED; VICTIMS' BROTHER SEEKS TRIAL AS JUVENILE

Date: 1989-02-01

Washington Post
Author: Veronica T. Jennings; Washington Post Staff Writer

Fifteen-year-old Jacob S. Clemons had wanted to commit suicide for almost a year.

He contemplated jumping from the patio deck of his parents' Ellicott City home, police said he told them. He thought about setting himself on fire with old newspapers and motor oil. One day he swallowed 60 pain pills, but only suffered a terrible stomach ache from the attempt, police said.

Then, last Oct. 30, Clemons, severely depressed about his physical handicaps and family problems, set the mattress afire in his downstairs bedroom, according to testimony during a court hearing yesterday. His two younger brothers, Michael, 8, and James, 5, were killed in the blaze and Jacob, an adopted orphan with cerebral palsy, was charged as an adult with murder in their deaths.

Clemons' depression, his attempts at suicide and the fatal fire last fall were chronicled in testimony yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court as Clemons attempted to have his case moved to juvenile court. But among those who said Clemons should be treated more harshly and tried as an adult was Clemons' father, who is scheduled to testify this week against his son. He said he hopes the youth he took from a filthy Seoul orphanage eight years ago serves time behind bars.

"He should pay a price," David Clemons said yesterday during a hearing recess. "Maybe not 50 years or 20 years, but something . . . . Those boys were helpless. There are things we can never forget."

Police have charged Jacob Clemons with arson and two counts of first-degree murder. If convicted, he could face a maximum life sentence. Clemons, dressed in blue khaki slacks and a jean jacket, sat passively yesterday, his head bowed and barely visible to the courtroom gallery.

Police testified yesterday that Clemons, who uses crutches, told them that after he set the mattress on fire he had second thoughts and grabbed a blanket to try to contain the flames. As the blaze intensified, Clemons rushed to get a fire extinguisher, a detective testified.

But it was too late. Clemons was carried out of the burning house in the arms of his brother-in-law, Michael Touchette. Touchette's wife, Wendy, and four other children barely escaped the flames.

The parents, David and Sally Clemons, were vacationing in Aruba when the fire occurred.

Assistant Public Defender Louis Willemin asked Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas Nissel to remand Jacob Clemons' case to juvenile court, where Willemin said his client could receive rehabiliation and pyschiatric counseling.

But prosecutor Richard P. O'Connor said the criminal justice system must exact more retribution for the two children who died of soot and smoke inhalation. "If this case is heard in juvenile court, {Clemons} will not be punished. We feel he should."

Carl S. Love, a county counselor for juveniles, recommended yesterday that Clemons be treated as a juvenile. Love said Clemons is remorseful about his brothers' deaths and can best be treated outside of prison. "There are different ways of punishment," Love said. "He could be punishing himself" for the tragedy. Since his arrest Clemons has been held in the juvenile psychiatric wing of the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

David Clemons said outside the courtroom that Jacob is a danger to himself and to others. The father also said his son is unrepentant about the fire.

"He's a danger to bring back into the family," the father said. "The way he hangs his head, you want to feel sorry for the little orphan boy . . . . But {Jacob} knows what to say. He knows what to tell the pyschiatrists. He's a survivor."

Yesterday, police and fire investigators, as well as counselors and social workers, described a troubled youth taken in by the Clemonses, who specialized in adopting hard-to-place children. Many of the youngsters were foreign-born and had physical and emotional handicaps. Through the years the Clemons family has adopted 15 children.

But Jacob Clemons never seemed to fit in with the family, Love testified. "He never really bonded with the family," David Clemons said in a separate interview.

Witnesses testified that Jacob Clemons became suicidal about a year ago, depressed about his crippling disease and family arguments. The mental lows became worse after a friend committed suicide six months ago, police Lt. Daniel M. Davis testified.

Davis said Jacob Clemons told him he tried to commit suicide Oct. 1 by swallowing an overdose of pills. Days before the fire, Clemons said he doused motor oil on the yard and patio deck in a planned suicide attempt, Davis said.

State Fire Investigator John Earp said Clemons told him that he twice tried unsuccessfully to start a fire in his bedroom on Oct. 30 before he ignited the mattress.

Davis testified yesterday the arson seemed to be an act of frustration and desperation by the youth.

Hours after the fire, Davis said Clemons told him that "he didn't mean to endanger others, but other methods of suicide hadn't worked. He wanted to cremate himself . . . but he was embarrassed. He didn't realize what he was doing was wrong.

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