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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Mild demeanor hid a criminal’s worst nightmare

Lincoln County deputy prosecutor Clark Colwell will retire from a life of putting bad guys behind bars. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Lincoln County deputy prosecutor Clark Colwell will retire from a life of putting bad guys behind bars. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Doug Clark The Spokesman-Review

Clark Colwell is definitely the guy to bring along on a camping trip. There’d never be a shortage of hair-raising yarns around the fire.

He could tell you the one about Ralph Howard Benson, a reclusive truck driver who lived in a missile silo. Benson put a bullet through the brain of a state fuel tax auditor. Then he dismembered the remains.

Or Colwell could talk about Damon Chapple, a muscle-bound monster with an insolent smirk. Chapple once squeezed the air out of a drug dealer with a bear hug. Then he stomped on the man until he died.

Chapple raped a woman in her Browne’s Addition home and tortured her with a knife. He beat another woman to death with his fists.

A serial rapist. A cop killer.

On and on …

Here’s the thing about Colwell’s tales. Each one is gospel true.

In 32 years as a prosecuting attorney Colwell helped put away some of the area’s worst criminals – all of the above and many, many more.

Today, it’s time to say thanks.

Colwell, 62, will call it quits Friday. He plans to put in his final day at the Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, where he has worked as a special deputy for the last 10 years.

Prior to that, Colwell logged nearly 21 years trying cases as a deputy prosecutor for Spokane County.

Retirement will be worlds apart from courtrooms, jury selections and grisly case files. But Colwell is already making positive adjustments, like giving up his pack-a-day cigarette habit.

“My wife said I had to quit smoking at least a month before I retired,” he says. Colwell has been married to Sally, a former schoolteacher, for 38 years.

Retirement will also be a blessing to Colwell’s purple/blue ‘95 Nissan pickup. Commuting back and forth from Colwell’s South Hill Spokane home to his office in Davenport’s Lincoln County Courthouse has put 175,000 miles on the beater.

Colwell isn’t one to keep track of his conviction rate. But when pushed, he’ll concede that it’s probably in the 90 percent range.

You’d never peg Clark Colwell as a criminal’s worst nightmare just by meeting him.

Many defense attorneys have no doubt been led to their doom by underestimating this lanky, bald-headed Larry David look-alike. But in trial Colwell makes up for whatever charismatic shortcomings he may have with a methodical, studied approach. “I have to be confident, and the only way I can be confident is to prepare,” says Colwell, who adds that his goal during a trial is to “present the evidence in an order and in a way that makes sense to the average person.”

Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Shepherd calls Colwell an “unmatched and outstanding” prosecutor who is respected by his peers and always thoroughly prepared.

Don’t be fooled by the low-key demeanor. Colwell won’t hesitate to fillet a defendant at the appropriate time.

“I love cross examination,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a mean person at heart. But I kind of like to be one when I get the chance. In cross-examination I’m not a nice guy.”

A Washington State University grad, Colwell began his law enforcement career as a cop. He soon decided he’d rather fight crime with law books instead of a badge and graduated from Gonzaga University Law School in 1973.

An internship with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office gave way to a full job after he passed the bar. That put Colwell on the road to prosecuting many of our high-profile felonies.

Of all the memorable cases, Colwell doesn’t hesitate when asked which defendant he found most appalling.

Damon Chapple, who fortunately will spend his life in prison, is “by far the most menacing, dangerous and scary person I’ve ever come across.”

Colwell pauses. “God, he was something else. Not only was he big and strong, but totally mean. He had absolutely no regard for human life. He’d kill you in a blink.”

After Friday, Colwell says he will concentrate on fly-fishing, target shooting and completing a substantial list of “honey-do” projects his wife has compiled.

If there’s a final thought on Colwell’s long and successful career, it is contained in his personal code of conduct:

“Honesty. Don’t hide anything. Don’t play games.”

Fabulous job, Clark. You will be sorely missed.

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