Clayton A. Fountain: The Murderer Who Became a Monk

If Clayton's transformation was authentic, then is anyone beyond the mercy of God?
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"A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk," is the story of my pilgrimage with Clayton A. Fountain, widely regarded as the most dangerous and violent murderer in the history of the US federal prison system. Clayton's deadly spiral began in a violent fight with his sergeant in Vietnam. His attempt to escape prosecution involved an amazing stand-off with a SWAT team. Following his eventual capture, incarceration at Fort Leavenworth was far from successful, with Clayton engineering a daring escape. This book details how Clayton's transfer into successively heightened security prisons merely intensified his apparently untouchable incorrigibility -- landing him at Marion, "the end of the line."

Even in solitary confinement at the highest security prison in the nation, Clayton's "special forces" Marine training served him well as he managed to kill four more persons in succession--with his bare hands. The prison authorities had had more than enough and declared Clayton totally beyond their ability to control. The "solution" was to have an underground steel and concrete containment cell constructed especially for Clayton, next to the criminally insane wing of the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri. Convinced that Clayton's punishment would ultimately be a complete mental breakdown, the key, in effect, was thrown away--leaving Clayton in total isolation for the rest of his life.

My background could not be more different from Clayton's. Academically oriented, I taught at Yale, Princeton, and Saint Paul School of Theology. I was born, raised, and ordained as a Protestant, later becoming a Roman Catholic priest and a Family Brother of Assumption Abbey (Trappist). I am presently the Resident Director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in the Ozarks. Yet I was pulled, in spite of myself, into the vortex of Clayton's unfolding drama--functioning first as his unintended spiritual director, gradually becoming a companion and eventually a friend in his unbelievable spiritual pilgrimage.

His transformation began in experiencing "love" through correspondence with a woman he never could meet. She was on her own spiritual quest, and encouraged Clayton to pursue one as well. When she felt that his probing had gone beyond her ability to help, she encouraged him to seek a spiritual director, suggesting inquiry at a Trappist monastery that she had visited several times. Clayton began finding a new kind of determination, earning a GED and then teaching himself to type so that he could begin earning funds to begin a college correspondence course.

This is where I entered, first in occasional sharing by letter, then in a deepening theological exchange. In time, the warden permitted a guard to hand a phone in to Clayton through his meal slot so that he might call me -- a practice that eventually became weekly. During this time, he acquired his college degree with top honors. Finally I was permitted to visit him on occasion, passing through nine guarded gates -- to converse through the meal slot in his double steel door. Clayton was baptized in shackles, making for a bizarre ceremony, and soon he began to feel a call to the priesthood. To this end he began correspondence work on a PhD, at the time of his death being well on his way with all "A's." In addition, he would have needed a special dispensation from the Pope, because murder bars a person from ordination.

My relationship with Clayton forced me to ponder graphically the issue of the death penalty. Had the current federal law been in effect at the time, Clayton would long ago have been executed, sealing his life as the most deadly of murderers. Many in the federal system regretted not being able to execute this fate, for they were never convinced that what was happening to Clayton was anything more than "an amazing con job." I too began as a skeptic, but as our relationship deepened, I became convinced that this ongoing conversion was authentic. Clayton Fountain was in fact becoming a gentle, caring person.

My purpose through this book is to pose for others the same conundrum that encountered me. If Clayton's transformation was authentic, then is anyone beyond the mercy of God? My monastery struggled too, eventually permitting me to bless Clayton's cell as a monastic hermitage and accepting him as a Family Brother. When he unexpectedly died under strange circumstance, a cross bearing his name was placed in our monastic cemetery, where one day I will be buried.

In her Forward, Sr. Helen Prejean (author of "Dead Man Walking") declares that this book presents "what may be the most powerful case of all against the death penalty." The case is contained in Clayton's own confession: "If I can be forgiven, then no one is beyond God's forgiveness." To execute anyone, no matter how heinous the crime, becomes an arrogant limiting of the power of God to change persons.

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