© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Nightmare' Unfolds After Clinton, Missouri, Police Officer Killed

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Flags were flown at half mast Wednesday after three police officers were injured, one fatally, in a shooting at a residence in Clinton, Missouri Tuesday night.

As residents and law enforcement officials in Clinton, Missouri, processed the events leading to a police officer's killing late Tuesday, confusion emerged over why officers had gone to the address where Officer Ryan Morton, 30, was fatally shot while responding to a domestic disturbance call.

Henry County 911 operators received a phone call late Tuesday night. According to Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Collin Stosberg, no one was on the other end but operators heard women screaming in the background.

When officers arrived on scene, 37-year-old Tammy Widger emerged from the house and told officers there was no problem and that no one else was inside.

After double-checking the address with dispatchers, officers entered the house. 

That's when the suspect, later identified as James E. Waters, 37, opened fire, killing Morton and wounding two other officers. Shortly after midnight, a SWAT Team entered the house and found Waters in the bathroom, dead from a gunshot wound.

Credit Missouri State Highway Patrol
Clinton, Missouri, Police Officer Ryan Morton was killed in the line of duty Tuesday night.

In a press conference Wednesday evening, investigators said the 911 call Clinton Police Officers responded to had actually originated in Windsor, Missouri, about 20 miles from Clinton. 

"The dispatch, when it was attached to the incident, the address that was given to the officer ... was to the address here in Clinton, Missouri," said Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Lowe. 

But, Lowe confirmed, the women heard screaming in the background never spoke directly to the dispatcher, and officials have now determined that was a separate incident.

Still, it was not unusual to see police at the address where Morton was killed, said a neighbor, Christina Littleton, who watched the events unfold from her window across the street. Littleton said she had seen Widger arrested before.

"Cops would come over every so often because of whatever was going on inside that house," she told KCUR. "But we never saw this coming."

Since Tuesday night's shooting, Widger has been charged with possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. Her bond has been set at $25,000.

Waters, meanwhile, had been part of another investigation involving a rape, Lowe said.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
After hearing gunshots across the street Tuesday night, Christina Littleton and her brother Anthony Haverland put the kids in the back of the house and turned the lights off.

Waters had also spent much of the last 14 years in prison. He pled guilty to drug charges in 2004, was paroled four years later, and then returned to custody for parole and other violations. In 2008 he pled guilty to drug trafficking, and in 2014, he pled guilty to charges relating to resisting arrest. He was last discharged from custody in July 2017.

Lowe stressed that confusion over the 911 call was not the fault of the officers, who followed procedure responding to, and confirming the address where they were sent.

"[The officers] were doing what they were asked to do by the citizens of the state," Lowe said. "We have to follow up on 911 calls. We have to make sure that just because someone says that everything is OK, we can't take that at face value, we have to continue the investigation. And they did that and they did that heroically."

The Highway Patrol, Lowe said, would investigate what went wrong with the 911 call.

"We want to make sure that we're getting the correct information and figure out where that information was misinterpreted, or through the system and how it works, how that happened," Lowe said.

All three of the officers involved in the incident Tuesday night were graduates of the Central Missouri Police Academy at the University of Central Missouri.

"It's a nightmare," the academy's director, Colin Comer, told KCUR.

Comer knew the three officers personally. He said instructors at the police academy consider their students like their own children.

"We're responsible for putting them out there," Comer said. "And we never feel relieved of that responsibility, even when we can't do anything more."

Comer said domestic disturbance calls can be some of the most dangerous. Most of the time, he said, people need a referee to get an argument under control, but generally, no arrests are necessary.

"The problem is, you can't tell until you get there. They are explosive situations, they can go from very much under control to totally out of control in no time," Comer says.

Morton is the second officer killed in the small town in the last seven months. Another Clinton police officer, Gary Michael, was killed during a traffic stop in August 2017.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @_tudhope, and email her at andreat@kcur.org.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.