The Story of the Murderer Who Became a Monk
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
“In deep sorrow and contrition, I cast myself at Thy feet: Have mercy on me.” —St. Ignatius of Loyola
In the twelfth century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux once rescued a murderer being led to execution. When asked as to the wisdom of his decision, the saint replied, “I shall kill him myself.” By that, Bernard meant that he would help destroy the false man the murderer had made himself out to be. With the death of this false self, the real man could emerge and thrive in peace in God's loving embrace.
St. Francis of Assisi was fond of reminding people that, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone."
With all due to respect to one of my favorite saints, he was, after all, St. Francis of Assisi. How bad could he have been?
Some holy stories are more bizarre than others. Some stretch the credulity of the even the most ardent, grace-filled Believer.
This is one of those tales. The difference however, is that it's completely and unquestionably true.
There are no apparitions involved here. No blind men seeing or deaf people hearing.
Admittedly, there was a dead man walking.
It's a tale of redemption that makes the most stalwart, faith-filled Christian heart sit up and notice―sometimes, miracles really do happen.
It's the story of a conversion of the heart on an unprecedented, nearly hopeless scale. Think: Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Clayton Anthony Fountain (1955-2004) was a former federal prisoner, member of the Aryan Brotherhood and convicted murderer.
Clayton was born at the U.S. Army Hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was the oldest of six children (one brother and four sisters.)
His father, Clayton Raleigh Fountain, led a nomadic life of a career soldier and moved his family every eighteen to twenty-four months.
His father served on battlefield during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and, while his mother worked, Clayton, as the oldest child in family, took care of his younger siblings including cooking, ironing, serving, cleaning and caring for his young siblings.
At the age of 19, Fountain joined the Marines and was stationed in the Philippines. In 1974, no sooner did he enlist when he was convicted of murdering his staff sergeant.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth/Marion, the highest-security prison in the nation at the time.
In 1983, while in prison, he managed to murder three prisoners and one correctional officer with a homemade knife. He was labeled the “Most Dangerous Prisoner” in the federal system and labeled by the FedMed as “no human contact status,” doing life without the possibility of parole. He was moved to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri and housed in a specially constructed containment unit.
He was only allowed contact with authorized personnel. Thus he spent the next twenty years in virtual isolation.
In the latter years of his life Clayton converted to Catholicism, took several educational courses, mostly in Theology or related disciplines and became associated with a Trappist order of Cistercian monks at Ava, Missouri, who accepted him as a lay brother.
Fr. Paul W. Jones, OCist was the priest who brought this soul to Christ. He later wrote of his experience with Clayton Fountain and his remarkable spiritual transformation in his book, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk. (Eerdman Publishers).
Fr. Jones was kind enough to speak about his experience with the seemingly incalcitrant convicted multiple murderer.
Tell me something about your own background.
My background — one that couldn’t be more different than Clayton’s — is academic; I have taught at Yale, Princeton, and Saint Paul School of Theology. Born and raised a Protestant, I am now a Roman Catholic priest and a Family Brother of Assumption Abbey (Trappist). I was thus amazed to find myself gradually becoming not only Clayton Fountain’s spiritual director but also, in time, his companion and friend on an amazing spiritual pilgrimage.
Tell me about your book about this amazing story.
My new book, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk, is an attempt to share with as wide a readership as possible the pilgrimage that I was on for years with a man regarded as the most dangerous person in the entire federal prison system, Clayton A. Fountain. Clayton’s downward spiral began in a deadly fight with his sergeant in Vietnam, followed by an escape involving a SWAT team and incarceration at Leavenworth prison. In the book I describe how, despite heightened security in each new prison, this man only became increasingly incorrigible — until, even in solitary confinement in the highest security prison of the nation, he killed four more persons in succession. By that time prison authorities had more than enough and declared him totally beyond their ability to control. They constructed an underground steel and concrete cell just for him, where he would remain in total segregation and isolation for the rest of his life.
Tell me how you came to know Clayton Fountain?
Clayton's “girlfriend,” a women he never physically met, contacted the monastery and asked that one of the monk volunteers to be a spiritual director for Clayton. Fr. Robert agreed. But after a while, Robert said that the kinds of questions that Clayton had were beyond his ability to deal with, so he asked me to be his spiritual director.
How did Clayton Fountain come to the situation in which he found himself?
Clayton A. Fountain was 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.
Talk about Mr. Fountain's spiritual transformation.
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.
Speak about the process by which Mr. Fountain came to his conversion.
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 Ph.D., 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.
What was the process by which your abbot gave you permission?
This was done without need of abbatial permission. Monks can be spiritual directors as requested, sometimes for each other.
Whose recommendation/prompting was responsible for making Mr. Fountain's prison cell an extramural monastic cell?
As our spiritual direction continued, it seems that increasingly the life Clayton was living was like that of a hermit―solitary, daily offices, lectio divina, spiritual reading, spiritual direction, etc. I recommended that he read about the early desert hermits, and he became quite interested. It was then a mutual decision.
Is it common for venues other than a monastery be made into a monastic cell?
Yes, the early saints of the desert were hermits, some living in community and some being alone. Actually, there are a number of hermits today in various contexts, for whom “Raven's Bread” is a periodical in which they exchange ideas and needs.
Would you describe the ceremony/ritual that made his cell an extramural monastic cell?
Clayton and I agreed by phone about what this would be like. Then during a visit, I sprinkled his cell through the meal slot, we did mutual prayers, and I gave a blessing. As I recall, we sent him a white smock to wear, and sent him the four-volume The Liturgy of the Hours to celebrate the hours at the same time as monks in the monastery did.
How did Mr. Fountain initially come to learn about the Catholic Church?
His [former] girlfriend” wrote to him because of a newspaper article about Clayton. She was an evangelical and wrote explicitly about her Protestant faith. After a while she indicated that she was going to enter a RCIA opportunity to explore the possibility of being a Catholic. She invited him to read the same material and to talk to the Catholic chaplain. He agreed, but after a while she decided to drop out. But Clayton's interest continued. That was when she wrote requesting that someone at the monastery continue to aid him as a spiritual director.
Had Mr. Fountain initially reacquainted himself with his own Protestant background prior to becoming interested in Catholicism?
Only through letters with his former girlfriend. It was through their correspondence that Clayton was opened for the first time what it was like to be loved. She kept relating this to God's doings.
What led him to Catholicism?
Clayton was very intelligent, and he thrived on reading solid theological material. He was a searcher, without knowing for a while for what he was searching.
How did you come to trust him?
At first I remained objective, and did not involve myself personally in the relationship. But he began to intrigue me because of the papers he wrote for the correspondence courses he was taking. I found it hard to believe that a con artist would do the intense reading and creative work that he was doing. We had frequent phone conversations, and then personal contact but always with the steel door between us. The relation grew and I began to like Clayton, and began to understand why he had done the terrible things that he had done. He seemed thoroughly remorseful, and even made a financial gift to the widow of one of the men he killed. I was warned never to get near the meal slot because he could reach out and strangle me with one hand. One day I risked putting my hand through the slot to shake this hand. We touched, and I knew I trusted that the conversion was real. And he trusted me.
You wrote that you baptized Clayton while he was being restrained. To what level or depth did you ultimately trust him?
I came to trust him with my life. If it would have helped in his release, I would have volunteered to live with him in his cell to prove that he was not the monster that he once was. I did not baptize him, but the chaplain did―and yes, he was restrained in various potentially lethal ways during the ceremony.
Had your abbot ever met Mr. Fountain?
No. I was the only one who was given permission to see him.
What was the reaction of your confreres upon learning of your ministering to him?
They were intrigued, asked questions, and then were very supportive with their prayers. One volunteered to tutor him in learning Latin and Greek in preparation for possible ordination.
Had you ever been involved with prison ministry prior to working with Mr. Fountain?
One of my passions is to work to abolish the death penalty, and I have been involved for years with “Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.” I have visited Missouri death sentenced prisoners as they were facing their execution, and I try at least to call each on the day of their executions. I witnessed two Missouri executions.
Do you count any other conversions amongst prisoners?
Only God knows.
Have other convicts contacted you as a result of your ministering. to Mr. Fountain?
Yes. It is interesting how many folks who were involved with Clayton during his Marine years and through his prison years have contacted me after publication of the book, being thankful for learning “what had become of Clayton.” Some were prisoners but most were not. A few were hostile, but most were curing, caring and supportive. I learned that the prisoner with whom Clayton had done some of his killing had become insane during his incarceration.
Did Mr. Fountain's conversion and vocation as a monk have an effect upon his fellow inmates?
Not likely. You have to understand how utterly remote was the place where he was imprisoned, and how utterly cut off from any contact with others. For a long time, this extreme segregation was intended in the hopes that it would render him insane. In fact, his cell was in the same wing as the one reserved for the “criminally insane.” It is my hope that my book could make a change with those inside and those outside the prison walls.
How did you change in your time with Mr. Fountain?
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.
What was your purpose in writing your book?
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.
Fr. Jones put the above mentioned story about St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the murderer into Christian practice in his dealings with Clayton Fountain. Regardless of what the reader's opinion of capital punishment is, Clayton's conversion to Christ can't be ignored. And, if we chose to ignore it or label as a fluke, exactly what did Christ mean when He said:
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
Fountain's story is not without precedence in Christian history. Most Catholics are familiar with the hagiography of St. Maria Goretti (October 16, 1890 – July 6, 1902), an Italian virgin-martyr and among the Church's youngest canonized saints who forgave her murderer, Alessandro Serenellis, as she lay dying. Alessandro was arrested and jailed and later repented of his actions. After 27 years, he was released from prison and begged Maria's mother for forgiveness, which she granted. He later became a lay brother in a local monastery where he died in 1970. Maria was beatified in 1947, and canonized in 1950. Alessandro was present for both ceremonies.
We must ask ourselves, is Heaven a place for the self-satisfied who refuse to forgive those who have harmed them or is it a place where love, forgiveness and redemption is generously doled out by both God and the Blessed Souls Experiencing His Beatific Vision?
Is anyone beyond God's redemption? To suggest this is to put oneself above God and His Law. Even the vilest sociopathic criminal can be forgiven. If not, then we must admit to some type of silly Calvinist predestination or pseudo-scientific super-determinism but God is indeed greater than both.
It seems to me, we can't enter God's presence without forgiving all those who've hurt us. Hell is available to those who refuse to forgive others — even the most vile who, in turn, have no other recourse but God.