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A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk

A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk

by W. Paul Jones, Sr. Helen Prejean (Foreword by)

The gripping story of one man’s remarkable spiritual journey

A "most dangerous" criminal, convicted of five violent murders, Clayton Anthony Fountain was condemned in 1974 to live out his days in solitary confinement at the highest-security prison in the U.S. Without ever again emerging from his cell, however, Fountain underwent a profound spiritual


The gripping story of one man’s remarkable spiritual journey

A "most dangerous" criminal, convicted of five violent murders, Clayton Anthony Fountain was condemned in 1974 to live out his days in solitary confinement at the highest-security prison in the U.S. Without ever again emerging from his cell, however, Fountain underwent a profound spiritual transformation. Father W. Paul Jones, who served as Fountain’s spiritual adviser for six years until Fountain's sudden death in 2004, shares his amazing story with candor and compassion in these pages.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Clayton Fountain was regarded as a ruthless killer beyond anyone's power to save. Yet in the stillness of his solitary confinement — entombed alive in a cell of concrete and steel — God was at work redeeming and remaking Clayton Fountain. I am grateful to Father Paul for ministering so compassionately to a man precious only to God — and for sharing his remarkable story with the world.
— Martin Sheen

"Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century once liberated a murderer being led to execution. 'I will kill him myself,' Bernard promised; he took the man to Clairvaux and made him a monk. Bernard meant that through the process of monastic conversion the man's false self, which had expressed itself in violence, would die and his true self emerge and thrive in peace. W. Paul Jones tells a twentieth-century version of that story. Through Jones's sensitive, gripping prose the reader follows the conversion of Clayton A. Fountain from chaos to clarity."
— Fr. Mark Scott
Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky

"No one is beyond the mercy of God. No one. The message of this book is that to kill anyone on the assumption that their redemption is impossible is to take the place of God."
— Sr. Helen Prejean (from foreword)

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Different Kind of Cell

The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk
By W. Paul Jones

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 W. Paul Jones
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6651-6

Chapter One

An Overture

* * *

While I have always tended to find God's leadings of me inexplicable, one relationship in particular defies all logic. There is no conceivable way I could have imagined that I would become the closest friend of Clayton Anthony Fountain — the legendary killer, widely regarded as the most dangerous person in the entire U.S. federal prison system.

The simple facts are indisputable. He was a hardened killer, convicted of murdering in cold blood five different people at five different times with no apparent motive. In fact, four of his five victims were in prison with him in the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois — the successor to Alcatraz. Although constrained in the cell block of "last resort" in this highest of security prisons, given a single cell inside a "cage" designed to enforce severe isolation and extraordinary surveillance, Clayton earned in just seven years a fearsome renown of being both incorrigible and uncontrollable. Of him, U.S. prosecuting attorney Frederick Hess alleged, "I have never, in eighteen years of law practice, ever found a cold-stone killer that deserves the death penalty more than he does."

Yet at the time of Clayton's rampages, there was no death penalty for federal prisoners — not yet. Thus officials were baffled at the same time that they were desperate for some solution to "the Fountain nightmare." Much to the relief of everyone at Marion, it was decided in 1984 that there was no other alternative but to construct an extraordinary chamber in the bowels of the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, so designed that Clayton could be totally isolated, once and for all. There he would remain in solitary confinement until he died twenty-one years later. The intention was to cut him off completely from all contact with other humans — except for guards, carefully chosen.

Disdain for him was so heavy for a number of years that the silent treatment was complete, without even a word from the guard who would slide Clayton's meals through a slot in the double-plated steel door. Especially infuriating for the federal prison personnel was that Clayton had intentionally stabbed to death a prison guard in Marion and severely wounded two others. The unspoken working assumption seemed to be that forcing an inevitable nervous breakdown would be just retribution for Clayton. Indeed, years later, when I was finally permitted to visit Clayton, his isolation chamber was across the corridor from a double-tiered unit for the criminally insane. A mélange of screams issuing from their padded cells provided the only "human" sounds Clayton could hear. Not even his mother, Ruth, doubted the appropriateness of Clayton's imprisonment, yet she never gave up praying for her son, plagued by the nightmare that the authorities had "thrown away the key."

What was to unfold within that isolation chamber, however, would be contrary to every expectation — incredibly so. Yet I must be clear from the beginning of this story that only a very few of us would ever come to believe, at least publicly, the authenticity of what was to happen. A staff member of the chaplain's office made a comment to me that perhaps spoke for many: "The fact that he hasn't become unglued under such conditions only proves how crazy the man is. A sane person would have been a basket case long before this." Reactions to his changed behavior, then, were mixed. On the one hand, there were federal prison authorities who admitted surprise at his change without trusting that it would last. On the other hand, there were those who regarded what they were observing as one of the biggest con jobs in prison history. The most kindly judgment available was that Clayton was "self-deceived."

Whatever conclusion one comes to draw, there is agreement on one thing: something intriguing did happen over the fifteen-year period beginning in December 1989. Still, whatever the authenticity, a "catch-22" was destined always to circumscribe it. One of Clayton's few parole-board reviews expressed it this way: "Parole cannot even be considered unless Clayton's self-professed transformation could be tested through social interaction with other persons." Yet, understandably, the prison authorities prohibited anyone even to touch Clayton, certainly in no way daring to gamble on opening his double steel door to permit his interacting with anyone. Thus, as we shall see, any talk of parole would prove to be little more than theoretical, for what board would entertain release for a prisoner whose trail of sentencing had accumulated five life sentences to be lived out consecutively? Through it all, however, Clayton Fountain was sustained by an amazing amount of hope, which he never relinquished, not even when he was almost crushed by disappointment.

If the word miracle is in any sense appropriate to this story, it is probably best reserved for me. Suspiciously, skeptically, and unwillingly, I slowly became one of the few people to accept as genuine Clayton's pilgrimage, one just as mystifying to him as it was to me. Our walk together became uncanny, especially when he came to the conviction that he was being called to the priesthood. I began to be haunted by a gnawing question, especially in strange dreams. "I'm nearing the end of a good life. Clayton is reaching his prime. If my taking Clayton's place in that cell could somehow free him to go to a seminary to study for the priesthood, would I be willing to do it?" After all, members of the Order of Mercedarians, founded in the thirteenth century, took a vow of willingness to offer themselves as hostages if necessary in order to rescue Christians who had been taken prisoner by the Moors. I knew that the question haunting my dreams was totally crazy, but it persisted. And out of my thinking and praying came a quiet conviction: I would do it.

From that point on, the meaning of my pilgrimage as Christian, monk, and priest became intertwined in an inexplicable way with Clayton's own spiritual quest. It was a saga that ended for me on July 11, 2005, in my monastic cemetery in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri ...

But this is to jump far ahead in our story. The violent beginning with its irreparable downward spiral began on March 6, 1974. The scene opens with Clayton Fountain as an eighteen-year-old U.S. Marine stationed in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines.

Chapter Two

Dancing with Death

* * *

The fateful event that would change the whole of Clayton's life occurred on the day when he murdered his Staff Sergeant at point-blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun. Although no one else really knew it, this was the crescendo of a tragedy that was a year in the making.

Clayton belonged to the 3rd Platoon of Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, distinguished as the "Raider Company." They were stationed at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan. Shortly after arriving there, Clayton was placed on temporary duty assignment, and he left his unit to attend a parachute jump school run by the U.S. Army's 3rd Special Forces Group, where he was to earn his "jump wings" as a paratrooper.

Clayton's class was made up of personnel from different branches of the armed forces. In contrast to the other soldiers was a forty-year-old U.S. Air Force colonel who had barely met the entrance requirements. He was obviously out of shape, quite unaccustomed to the demanding physical exercise that would be required. Everyone expected him to "wash out" within weeks. But as the time passed, Clayton and the other Marines gained a respect for him, even beginning to admire the courage with which he persevered. As a result, they adopted him, almost as a mascot, giving him emotional and physical support—especially during the daily mandatory ten-mile runs.

In appreciation, the colonel used his contacts to arrange unofficial weekend transportation for his new friends. Clayton preferred to take the supply transport plane from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Subic Bay in the Philippines. He was particularly attracted to this place after hearing the colonel describe with suggestive detail his own erotic experiences there.

Clayton described these free weekends as making the most of "an exciting and exotic environment where women were eagerly and readily available, trying generally to raise hell and enjoy myself to the fullest in every possible way." His favorite routine was to bar-hop and carouse until martial law closed things down at 11:30 p.m. Afterwards he would "engage in a few lustful hours of what amounted to a sex marathon" with a bar girl in some hotel.

During one of these escapades, he met a woman using the bar name of "Sally," and at her invitation they spent the entire weekend together, mostly in bed. Although he wasn't clear about it at the time, when he later talked with me about the nature of this relationship, he concluded that "a large part of it was not love but pure lust." "Sally" was an attractive woman — five feet tall, slightly over a hundred pounds, with brown eyes, a smooth olive complexion, an abundantly attractive figure, and a personality that was "both vulnerable and pragmatic at the same time, with a rare straightforwardness and honesty." The magnetism between them made this the first of what became regular weekend adventures.

After completing his jump school training, Clayton returned to his unit. His entitlement to continue making parachute jumps on his liberty weekends provided a feasible explanation for his being "unavailable" when he was able to find a way to Subic Bay. After several months, his unit underwent a month of "Raider School." This consisted of advanced training in techniques of "hit-and-run" warfare to be conducted in enemy territory; nighttime parachute jumps; nighttime fighting techniques; silent nighttime movement; the use of plastic explosives; extensive hand-to-hand combat; techniques in scaling up and rappelling down obstacles; jungle escape survival; combat shooting; guerrilla warfare; house-to-house fighting; security and riot-control procedures; the detection and disarming of booby traps as well as the construction and setting of them; jungle warfare; sniper and counter-sniping techniques; sabotage; surveillance and field interrogation of captured prisoners — and, above all, "quick-kill" techniques of silently killing with hands, knife, and garrote. Clayton was incredibly well-trained for the carnage that he would soon leave in his path.

Because of a shortage of non-commissioned officers, Clayton was assigned as 3rd Platoon's 1st Squad Leader, which made him "acting sergeant" even though he was only a Private First Class. One day, everyone was given a three-day liberty pass, but Clayton's Company Commander issued an order for an inspection the next morning. Failure to pass meant cancellation of the leave and punishment with additional duty. As Clayton remembered that morning, recalling both feelings and graphic details, the squad was sitting together on the floor, with Clayton supervising their cleaning of their rifles and gear—while they were listening to the radio, laughing, and telling ribald jokes.

Suddenly Staff Sergeant Wrin stepped through the door without knocking and slammed a clipboard down on a man's head, then began screaming obscenities at the top of his voice. "As Staff Sergeant Wrin raised his clipboard to hit another of my men," Clayton recalled, "I stepped in front of him and asked him to step outside—to tell me why he was hitting my men and shouting at them, since they had done nothing wrong. He pushed me backwards, told me to 'f—k off,' and stated that he didn't have to tell me anything because he outranked me. Rather than argue with him, I ordered my squad to remain seated while I went across the street to my platoon sergeant. There I explained the problem, and asked for instructions on what I should do. The platoon sergeant accompanied me back to my quarters, where Staff Sergeant Wrin was still threatening my squad and screaming obscenities. He was bluntly ordered back to his own platoon area, and told to keep his hands off anyone in 3rd Platoon, or he would face a general court-martial for assault."

This whole exchange lasted less than an hour, but it put into place the elements of a personal vendetta that would escalate relentlessly toward its violent ending — beginning Clayton's downward spiral into a maelstrom of violence, rage, vindictiveness, and murder. As Clayton saw it, Staff Sergeant Wrin felt insulted and embarrassed in front of the troops; he attempted to save face by retaliating, bringing formal charges against members of Clayton's squad. When Wrin commanded Clayton to sign the "charge sheets" without being told the nature of the charges, Clayton tore them up, dropped them into the trash can, and left with a barrage of curses following him. With this act, the plot was firmly in place, and from then on the dynamic would take on the shadow of inevitability.

The charges against the squad members were dismissed, and Staff Sergeant Wrin was reprimanded. But the matter didn't end there; it simply escalated. The Staff Sergeant, again insulted and embarrassed, allegedly charged Clayton with "insubordination." The dynamic between the two soldiers was feeding a full-fledged vendetta. As Clayton tells it, the harassment from Wrin became increasingly physical: he would beat Clayton severely "whenever I was isolated or caught alone, where there would be no witnesses present." Although Clayton became quite angry, he insisted that he didn't retaliate, knowing that to do so would provide immediate reasons for formal charges. Instead, Clayton brought charges against Wrin. Because of his rank, however, his superiors chose not to believe him. Feeling that he had no other option, Clayton began to fight back when Wrin attacked him. This was the only time that I ever heard Clayton admit that "although my fighting abilities and skills were very good, his were even better."

When three months of war games were scheduled, all troops were issued a four-day liberty pass. Clayton went to see "Sally," explaining that he would be unable to see her for quite a while. Although he wouldn't learn of it until three months later, when the war games ended, she was already four months' pregnant.

Because the war games were intended to simulate real combat, Wrin and Clayton used them as an opportunity to fight each other tooth and nail. In one encounter, Wrin backhanded Clayton across the mouth. Clayton called Wrin a "sadistic bastard" and spit a mouthful of blood in his face. Wrin retaliated by slamming a rifle butt into Clayton's chest, cracking three of his ribs. Although others observed this incident, it was judged "justifiable," being seen as "accidental."

After completing the war games, Clayton's battalion was assigned to serve aboard U.S. naval ships as a "combat-ready force," capable of deployment anywhere in the area of Southeastern Asia. When they docked in the Philippines, Clayton went immediately to see "Sally." Totally unaware of her pregnancy, he was shocked to see her with a hugely swollen stomach. While she insisted that the baby was his, he accused her of unfaithfulness. But he softened. "Without proof to the contrary," Clayton concluded, "I could only believe that she was telling the truth—and thus accepted the responsibility of fatherhood." The two of them would never be legally married, but they wore wedding bands and understood themselves as having a common-law marriage, even though neither the military nor United States law recognized it. Clayton later shared with me that if he hadn't gone to prison, he might have formally married her. Yet, he confessed, "in all honesty I know now that it would not have lasted. While we had a strong lust for one another, that lasts only for a short period, while true love needs to last and sustain a lifelong marriage."

Staff Sergeant Wrin continued to physically harass Clayton during the "float." Looking back on that time, Clayton admitted that he "was starting to become filled with hatred, rage, bitterness, and fear — feelings that over the months continued to grow and deepen, to an intensity that was frightening." Clayton believed that official forms of redress were closed, and he admitted to me how he felt about Wrin—something I never heard him say about any other person: "I was frightened of him, deeply." The situation in which he found himself he described as one of "isolation and betrayal."

When the Khmer Rouge had surrounded Phnom Penh, his unit left port for the Gulf of Siam, and was put on "combat alert status." They were divided into six-man and twelve-man "killer teams" and flown by CH-46 helicopters into "landing zones." They infiltrated the Khmer Rouge lines, their purpose being to provide cover for the evacuation operation underway. Clayton later acknowledged that this assignment showed him just how much violence had become second nature to him. When he entered a conflict, his intent was to finish it — permanently.

In the middle of February 1974, Clayton held his son, then five months old, for the first time. Immersed as Clayton was in a totally violent environment, it was hard for him to embrace a new and contrary experience — yet he did: "It is impossible for me to describe the joy, love, and pride I felt as I held my son and watched him hold my right finger and suck on it. He was my son."

But such moments wouldn't last. On May 1, 1974, the dark crescendo approached. Clayton's unit was informed that a company inspection would be held the next morning, prior to their being given liberty passes. With such motivation, they spent the day and most of the night in preparation. When they finished, the platoon lieutenant ordered the platoon to fall out for a ten-mile run in physical training gear. When they completed the run, they returned to the ship, only to find that the inspection was still in progress. They were told to go to lunch dressed as they were, which was not normally allowed. The thirty Marines went into the mess hall as commanded, only to encounter Staff Sergeant Wrin. He ordered only Clayton to leave and "get properly dressed." Clayton obeyed and returned to his quarters, only to have the First Sergeant deny him entrance until the inspection was completed. Even though Clayton explained the situation, he was ordered back to the mess hall. When Staff Sergeant Wrin spotted him a second time, he didn't ask Clayton about the circumstances—he brought formal charges against him for insubordination.


Excerpted from A Different Kind of Cell by W. Paul Jones Copyright © 2011 by W. Paul Jones. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

W. Paul Jones is a Roman Catholic priest, a Trappist brother at Assumption Abbey in the Ozarks, and founding spiritual director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, Pittsburg, Missouri. His other books include The Art of Spiritual Direction

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