Crime

‘I feel like I'm helpless’: Woman reacts to murder charge in Clinton officer's death

Listen to scanner traffic from Clinton, Mo. where three officers were shot, one fatally

Listen to the scanner traffic from Clinton, Missouri where three officers were shot early Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Officer Christopher Ryan Morton, 30, was fatally shot while checking on a disturbance at a Clinton Home. The audio, condensed to re
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Listen to the scanner traffic from Clinton, Missouri where three officers were shot early Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Officer Christopher Ryan Morton, 30, was fatally shot while checking on a disturbance at a Clinton Home. The audio, condensed to re

Tammy Dee Widger, in jail facing a felony murder charge in the March 6 shooting death of a Clinton police officer, says she never expected gunfire to break out that night.

Widger has been in the Henry County jail in Clinton since the shooting at her rental home claimed the life of Officer Ryan Morton and the suspected shooter James Waters and left two other officers injured.

The officers had been sent to Widger's home by mistake after a 911 call was made from a home 20 miles away.

In an interview with The Star on Wednesday during jail visiting hours, Widger said she had no reason to think the officers were in danger when she reluctantly agreed to have them look through the house.

She said she did not know Waters had a gun and thought he had left the house by a back door to avoid police. She said she was in the house with officers when the shooting started.

"I didn't know what was going to happen," Widger said. "In the blink of an eye, my life changed. I didn't want this."

Initially held on a drug charge and one count of maintaining a public nuisance, Widger now faces a charge of second-degree felony murder, filed by prosecutors Wednesday.

In custody at the jail for the past week, she has been focused on obtaining a lawyer and was surprised when prosecutors filed the murder charge.

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Tammy Widger, 37, has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Clinton Officer Ryan Morton. Henry County Sheriff's Office

Prosecutors can file felony murder charges against defendants accused of participating in a felony that led to a person being killed. In this case, Widger is accused of a drug offense that allegedly led to Morton's fatal shooting.

Widger said that on the day of the shooting she was at home at the house she rented at 306 W. Grandriver St. Waters, whom she knew from childhood, was at the house with her but did not live there, she said.

When police arrived shortly before 9:30 p.m. in response to a 911 call, she said, officers asked her to step outside and talk with them. The officers told Widger about the 911 call and she said she had not made the call. But she eventually agreed to let the police into the house to make sure no one was in danger.

According to Widger, she had last seen Waters slipping out of the house through the back door ahead of the police. She assumed he had left and didn't know about him having the assault-style rifle police say he used in the shooting.

Neighbors who witnessed the shooting scene in Clinton, Mo. on Tuesday night talk of multiple gunshots, an officer bleeding from his arm and pleadings for their wounded officer inside the house to hang on. Officer Christopher Morton, 30, was killed

Widger said she "kind of got the impression" that Waters was determined not to return to prison, where he had served time for robbery and gun charges, as recounted by his daughter last week.

When five police officers arrived at Widger's home in Clinton, Waters was facing charges in Cass County. Investigators would later find methamphetamine and other drugs in the home.

Widger went inside with several police officers and was standing with them in the living room when the shooting started, she said.

"I was right there with them," she said. She didn't know how many gunshots were fired, but thought they seemed to be coming from kitchen or the back door. She couldn't be sure who was shooting, or if the police were shooting back.

The officers told her to get outside, and when she did she was put on the ground and handcuffed. She said an officer stepped on her back, hurting her.

Two injured officers were taken away from the house while Morton remained stuck inside, where his fellow officers were unable to reach him for hours because of the gunfire. He was mortally wounded. After midnight, a Missouri Highway Patrol SWAT team entered the house, where Waters died.

The investigation, under the direction of the Highway Patrol, has not yet revealed whether Waters killed himself or died from police gunfire.

Hundreds, including many members of law enforcement agencies and the military, attended Morton's funeral in Clinton Monday.

Hundreds arrive at the Benson Convention Center in Clinton, Mo., for the funeral of Officer Christopher Ryan Morton who was fatally shot answering a disturbance call last week.

Widger says that once she was in custody and being questioned by police, investigators "grilled" her about the 911 call and later told her it had been a mix-up.

Widger said Waters was had been at her house "on and off" since October or November.

Henry County Prosecuting Attorney Richard Shields was not available for comment Thursday but his office issued a written statement announcing the felony murder charge filed Wednesday. The statement references the drug and nuisance charges filed against Widger last week.

"The added charge alleges that the death of Officer Morton occurred as a result of Widger perpetrating those felony offenses," the statement reads in part. "The continuing investigation by the Missouri State Highway Patrol revealed additional information that supports the amended charge."

Henry County prosecutors have accused Widger of using her home to sell methamphetamine. According to court documents, she allegedly told investigators that she helped Waters sell the drugs in exchange for him paying her bills.

Prosecutors allege that investigators serving a search warrant on the house found a purse that contained Widger's identification along with packages of meth, marijuana and pills.

Widger has filed paperwork requesting a public defender but one has not yet been assigned to her case.

Jeff Martin, the head of the local office of the Missouri State Public Defender covering Henry and four other counties, said Widger's application has been received and it remains to be determined if she qualifies for a public defender.

Even if she qualifies, providing a public defender is not a certainty, Martin said. His office, like other local public defender offices around the state, has recently applied to the courts for relief from excessive caseloads.

"I will have to see where we're at in terms of the application and her qualifying," Martin said Thursday. "Our office, just like every other office in our state, I would say, has a significant caseload issue."

Recently, Martin said, the sole public defender assigned to cover Henry County counted 300 cases on her caseload. The attorney now assigned to the county is defending six homicide cases.

The high caseloads and low funding of the Missouri public defender system have drawn criticism for years. The state ranks 49th in the country for funding legal defense for people charged with crimes who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

Apart from hoping to get a lawyer, Widger said she didn't know how she would defend herself against the murder charge.

"I have no idea," she said. "I feel like I'm helpless."

Widger is scheduled to appear in court April 6. With the felony murder charge, her bond was increased to $100,000.

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