On a quiet Sunday afternoon last September, Cpl. Lucy Evans of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Department was dispatched to the trailer where Conrad A. Owens lived alone on the outskirts of this Florida panhandle town.
Owens, a 64-year-old guidance counselor for the Santa Rosa County School District, hadn’t been heard from for three days, and his family was worried.
When Evans entered the trailer, she found Owens’, amid signs of a struggle, in one of the bedrooms. He apparently had been dead for several days. Blood was splattered throughout the bedroom and kitchen. A trail of blood led from the bedroom and through the kitchen to a closet where towels were kept.
The sheriff’s department immediately alerted other law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for Owens’ car, which was missing. Within minutes, police in nearby Gulf Breeze spotted the car and pulled it over.
Later that evening, the driver, 21-year-old Clifford Ray Allen of Los Angeles, admitted to killing Owens and taking the car. He was charged with murder and held without bond in the Santa Rosa County jail.
To the local citizenry, it wasn’t a major crime story--seven paragraphs in the next day’s Pensacola News Journal.
But more than a few college basketball coaches, had they been aware of Allen’s predicament that night, would have thought, “There but for the grace of God goes my program.” Few players have emerged from the L.A. playgrounds with as much natural ability as 6-foot-10, 230-pound Clifford Allen.
“He was the best I’ve ever seen,” said Issy Washington, director of the Slam-n-Jam youth basketball league in Carson, who at one point took Allen into his home.
Was, because last Wednesday Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge Nancy Gilliam sentenced Allen to 45 years in prison for beating, stabbing and strangling Conrad Owens.
Indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, which could have brought the death penalty, Allen pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of second-degree murder as part of plea bargain struck April 11. Even if he qualifies for the maximum amount of time off for good behavior, he can expect to serve at least 15 years, according to Neill Wade, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case.
Allen’s plight doesn’t come as much of a shock to Washington and others familiar with his background. He was, in Washington’s words, “a walking time bomb,” given to heavy drinking and running with a gang.
So severe were his personal problems that he spent most of his teen-age years in county and state penal facilities, never completing a full semester in a public high school.
But so dazzling was the basketball talent he displayed in summer leagues and tournaments that always, it seemed, he could count on another plane ticket, another second chance--first at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, then at a succession of junior colleges and finally in Florida, where he went to try out for the Pensacola Tornados of the Continental Basketball Assn.
That’s where the bomb went off.
“Because of his early childhood, Cliff was destined to end up where he is right now,” Washington said. “That’s my assessment.”
But Washington is also among those who concede that, as much as anything else, Allen is a product of the adults who coveted his talent and allowed him to believe that basketball would always bail him out.
Said Ken Curry, the coach at Los Angeles Harbor College, where Allen was briefly enrolled: “I’m betting my next paycheck that if Clifford got out of jail tomorrow there would be somebody at some school who would take him. He is just that good. I’m sorry. The good Lord gave him talent that he didn’t give many people.”
A GANG CHILDHOOD
Clifford Allen has never known his father and had only occasional contact with his mother. He grew up living with his grandmother, but the streets of South-Central L.A. were his home.
He told a court-appointed mental health counselor who examined him early this year in Florida that he has been a member of a gang, the Crips, since he was 10. During that examination, he also revealed that he has been using alcohol and marijuana since he was 7.
He was 12 when he was arrested by Los Angeles police for the first time. The charge: grand theft from a person.
By 15, Allen stood 6-8 and was developing into a dominating force on the basketball court, his game a rare combination of power, finesse and speed.
Issy Washington learned of Allen through a friend who was working as a probation officer at Camp Kilpatrick, a county probation camp in Malibu where Allen was incarcerated. Later, directing a basketball clinic at the camp, Washington saw what his friend had been talking about.
When Allen was released from the camp, Washington brought him into his home in Carson.
To outsiders, it was the perfect marriage: the troubled prodigy and the no-nonsense retired Air Force major who had turned his energy toward building a youth basketball league.
“All Clifford had to do was sit tight,” Curry said, “and in five years he’d be in the NBA.”
But in September 1984, after enrolling at Carson High for what was supposed to be his junior year, Allen took Washington’s car on a three-day joy ride, an episode that earned him another stay in a probation camp.
Back in Washington’s hands in March 1985, Allen enrolled at Carson again and made it to the end of the semester without adding to his criminal record.
By the next fall, he was, strictly on the basis of his performance in summer tournaments, one of the top college prospects in the nation. One national scouting service, Bob Gibbons’ All Star Sports Publications, ranked him 15th among high school seniors going into the 1985-86 season.
“An impact type of player who can take a team to the Final Four,” said Mark Warkentien, a UNLV assistant coach at the time.
Warkentien and other recruiters were circling.
But in October of 1985, before he could play for Carson as a senior, Allen got in trouble with the law again. This time the charge was robbery.
“He got in a fight at some liquor store and beat up some guy,” Washington said. “Two or three people were there. The guy dropped his wallet, and someone in the group picked it up.”
For Washington, who has two sons, the incident was the last straw.
“It was either save him or save my family,” he said. “And I chose my family.”
But UNLV coaches weren’t backing off, and during the November signing period in 1985, Allen signed a letter of intent to play for the Rebels.
“Now that he has somewhere to go, it might make a difference,” UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said at the time.
As for when he would actually go to Las Vegas, no one could be sure.
PROBATION AND A SCHOLARSHIP
Found guilty in L.A. Juvenile Court on the robbery charge, Allen was committed to the California Youth Authority in December of 1985 and assigned to El Paso de Robles School in Paso Robles.
There he played in what would be his only in-season high school game, scoring 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in a Southern Section 1-A wild-card game that the Spartans lost to Santa Ynez.
A few months later, a photographer showed up to take Allen’s picture for Sports Illustrated, and the story that accompanied the photo spoke of Allen’s academic success at the CYA institution, with Tarkanian referring to him as “my first valedictorian.”
In truth, Allen was something less than a glowing success story at El Paso de Robles and was ultimately deemed a “program failure,” CYA terminology for a ward who doesn’t fulfill the goals set for him.
“Cliff had a lot of physical talent, but he was extremely lazy,” said Rea Willson, a physical education instructor at the school. “There were a lot of people who tried to help him academically because they knew he was going to UNLV, and he never applied himself. He had all that laid out in front of him. It was just a shame.
“It seemed like he always knew that basketball was going to bail him out. He couldn’t see the whole picture.”
With officials at El Paso de Robles believing a change of scenery might make a difference, Allen was transferred in early 1987 to the CYA’s Washington Ridge facility, a conservation camp outside Nevada City.
According to Barney Lampe, the senior youth counselor at Washington Ridge, Allen arrived at the camp with a high school diploma earned at El Paso de Robles, but had to be put in remedial classes because testing showed his reading and math skills to be at the fifth-grade level.
On July 16, 1987, Allen was paroled, and, although his discharge evaluation was noted as “dishonorable,” he had a scholarship waiting for him in Las Vegas.
“He was being paroled in time to work out in the summer,” Lampe said. “He was going to go to summer school and had a tutor assigned to him there to help him. From what I understand, when he went to the (parole) board, he had more set up for him than most guys, what with the tutor and the college and everything.”
Finally--traveling from L.A. to Las Vegas on a prepaid airline ticket provided, he says, by UNLV--Allen enrolled at UNLV, where he could be on scholarship but could not play as a freshman because he did not meet the NCAA’s Proposition 48 eligibility requirements.
About a month into the fall semester, however, UNLV coaches told him that they wanted him to attend a junior college--Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Tex.
“I had heard of Texas, but I had never heard of Lon Morris,” he said. "(UNLV coaches) just picked it. I just figured I’d be playing, so I said OK.”
Tarkanian said it was necessary to send Allen to a junior college because Allen wouldn’t go to class at UNLV. Lon Morris was selected, Tarkanian said, because it’s “an isolated place.”
As for Allen’s claim of receiving air fare paid by UNLV, an apparent violation of NCAA rules, Tarkanian said: “He didn’t get anything from anybody at UNLV.”
JUNIOR COLLEGE ROULETTE
Lon Morris College is located in a town of 12,000 about 125 miles southeast of Dallas. It is a 400-student Methodist school best known for a fine-arts program that lists actress Sandy Duncan and choreographer Tommy Tune among its graduates.
According to Vic Trilli, the Lon Morris basketball coach when Allen enrolled there, the decision to take Allen required discussions that reached the upper level of the school’s administration.
Said Trilli: “We figured, ‘Let’s just take a chance with this guy, because it’s a recruiting connection with UNLV that might help in the future. Maybe we can help this kid turn his life around. If not, let’s get rid of him.’ ”
At Lon Morris, Allen played regularly in something other than a summer league or tournament for the first time in his life and, he says, learned a lesson in basketball economics from Trilli.
“If I played good, after the game, I’d go to the coach’s office, talk to him,” he said. “He’d tell me I played good. He’d ask me, ‘Where are you going to go now?’ I’d tell him, ‘I’m going out with my girlfriend to get something to eat.’ He’d give me some money to go eat.
“Then I’d have a few bad games. . . . I’d be in his office after the game. He’d tell me, ‘If you play, I’ll pay.’ So I started playing (hard) every game. He’d call me in the office, with nobody in there, give me an envelope. For one game, it might be $150. The next game it might be $350, $250.”
Trilli, now an assistant coach at the University of Texas, said he paid Allen’s air fare from L.A. to Texas, but denied giving cash.
“I knew when he got here he didn’t have anything, so my wife took him and got him a couple of pairs of pants so he could go to class and look like a student,” Trilli said. “I’ll admit to the fact that I may have given him $20 on the weekend when the cafeteria was closed. But hundreds of dollars in an envelope? That’s absolutely asinine.”
Through the first half of the 1987-88 season, Allen was the Bearcats’ leading scorer, averaging 28.1 points. Perhaps more important, he was staying out of trouble.
But when the Lon Morris players were packing to leave for the Christmas break, he was accused by a teammate of stealing a warmup suit, touching off a dormitory brawl in which Allen was attacked by a teammate wielding one leg of a chair that had been broken in the fight.
Allen returned to Lon Morris after the break, but a few days later, Trilli put him on a bus headed west.
“He was tearing up my team,” Trilli said. “It was a question of whether I would be with Clifford or with my team.”
Next stop: L.A. Harbor College, where Allen enrolled in the spring of 1988. Having finally fallen out of favor with UNLV, he was a free agent, and when the Daily Breeze newspaper in Torrance reported his presence at Harbor, Division I coaches began contacting the school to inquire about his status.
“As soon as word got out that he was here, I started getting calls and letters,” Harbor Coach Ken Curry said. “Everybody wanted to know if he had a chance to get an A.A. (associate of arts) degree. It was like, ‘Hey, I know he’s a fool, but if he gets a degree, don’t forget me.’ ”
As a transfer student, Allen needed to pass 12 units at Harbor in the spring to be eligible to play in the fall. Curry gave one of his players the job of picking Allen up each morning and taking him to school. By the middle of the semester, however, Curry learned from the designated driver that Allen was refusing to get up in the morning. Looking into the matter, the coach found out that Allen was making other plans.
“He said he was dropping out (of Harbor) to go to some school in Texas,” Curry said. “The quote he gave me was he was going there because he wouldn’t have to go to class, and I was making him go to class.”
And so Allen was on the move again, this time to San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Tex., outside Houston. With perhaps the best-known junior college basketball program in the nation, San Jacinto has won four National Junior College Athletic Assn. championships and gained a reputation for turning hard cases into Division I players.
Scott Gernander, San Jacinto’s coach, says he knew going in that Allen “liked to drink quite a bit,” rarely went to class and had “beaten the heck out of a guy” as a high school senior. But Gernander had seen Allen play against San Jacinto twice the previous fall--"I couldn’t believe how good he was,” he said--and so, when he learned that Allen was shopping for a school, he put in a call to Los Angeles.
Allen arrived at San Jacinto, once again needing to complete 12 hours to be eligible, and apparently he got those hours during San Jacinto’s two summer sessions in 1988--sessions during which, Allen says, he did little work. He was able to pass his courses, he said, by turning in papers given to him in completed form by Scott Horstman, an assistant coach.
“When we had to write term papers, I’d just go tell the coach,” Allen said. “Either that afternoon or that night, Coach Horstman would come to the dorm, give me a paper. I’d turn it in.”
Hannah Harrison, an administrative secretary for veterans affairs at San Jacinto who began dating Allen that summer, said Allen would tell her, “Horstman got me a paper.”
Said Harrison: “Clifford attended maybe 10 classes, and if you look at his transcript, it’s got Cs on it. I know what happened, because he lived with me. He’d be in bed in the morning and still be in bed when I got back at night.”
Both Gernander and Horstman said that Allen passed the 12 hours by doing his own work. Horstman said he often arranges for players’ papers to be typed before they are turned in, but he denied providing Allen with completed papers.
As it turned out, the San Jacinto coaches decided that, even with Allen’s eligibility in order, he was too big a headache to keep around when the fall semester began.
“He just wasn’t up to being part of the team and being where he was supposed to be,” Gernander said. “And then, the last week (of summer school), his girlfriend (Harrison) came in, to our campus police and myself, and started making accusations about how he had been stealing from her--a lot of gold, necklaces, things like that.
“It was something she really couldn’t prove. A lot of it had been pawned, I think. I guess they were having a fight, so she kind of squealed on him. I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe, but there had to have been a lot behind it.
“We’ve always been strict with kids. I thought this was a case of, hey, we’d make or break him. And then I realized he wasn’t going to make it. So I told him, ‘Cliff, it isn’t working out. I think you’d better go home.’ ”
BACK TO THE STREETS
Five months after returning to Los Angeles, Allen was in the state’s custody again--this time at the Heman G. Stark Youth Training School, a CYA facility in Chino--because of a parole violation.
He was also considering an offer to play basketball at the University of New Orleans.
In fact, according to both Allen and Harrison, New Orleans Coach Tim Floyd offered to arrange a job at the university for Harrison if Allen would enroll there, an apparent violation of NCAA recruiting rules.
"(Floyd) said, ‘Come down here. We’ll get you a job here at the university and an apartment,’ ” Harrison said.
Floyd, who has led the Privateers to two National Invitation Tournament appearances in two seasons at the school, did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed.
After his release from the facility in Chino last May, Allen traveled to La Porte, Tex., Harrison’s home at the time, to consider his options. He liked the idea of enrolling at New Orleans, but Harrison talked him out of it, arguing that, based on what she had seen of his efforts in the classroom at San Jacinto, being a student-athlete was a charade. Turn pro, she told him.
At that point, Allen says, Floyd put him in touch with a New Orleans agent, Eddie Sapir, who began making arrangements for him to try out with the Pensacola Tornados of the CBA.
But the plan hit a snag when Harrison went to La Porte police Aug. 4 and swore out a complaint, stating that Allen had threatened her with a knife and forced her to drive him to the Houston bus station.
She quoted Allen as saying he had to leave town because, “I stabbed a white boy last night and dragged the body into the bushes.”
She got away from Allen, she said in her complaint, after persuading him to return to La Porte with her to gather his belongings before getting on a bus.
La Porte detectives could not find the “white boy,” but they did find Allen and arrested him on a kidnaping charge. He was booked into the Harris County jail in Houston, where he remained until he was released on $5,000 bond Aug. 31 through, he says, Sapir’s arrangements.
The next day, Allen flew--air fare, he says, also courtesy of Sapir--to Pensacola, where he was met at the airport by Fred Bryan, the Tornados’ general manager at the time.
Bryan, now the Tornados’ coach, said Allen had come to Pensacola to attend a tryout camp that the team had scheduled for late last October.
Asked why Allen came to Pensacola nearly two months before the camp, Bryan said, “You’ll have to ask the guy who sent him.”
Sapir, a New Orleans lawyer and municipal court judge who has represented the late Billy Martin and former Washington Redskin quarterback Doug Williams, did not return repeated phone messages left at his office and home by The Times. An associate, Sonny Garcia, said that Sapir could not discuss his dealings with Allen because of attorney-client privilege.
THE END OF THE LINE
On Sept. 17, less than three weeks after arriving in Pensacola, Clifford Allen was charged with Conrad Owens’ murder.
What had he been doing in Milton, 20 miles east of Pensacola, in a trailer deep in the pines?
This is how Allen described what happened in a recorded statement taken by Santa Rosa County deputies Sept. 17:
Allen and another man, Charles McCall of Pensacola, were walking to a bar in Pensacola on the night of Sept. 13 when Owens pulled up beside them in his car. McCall went over and spoke to Owens, then returned and told Allen that Owens “wanted” him.
The next morning, Owens showed up at Allen’s motel room and invited him to his home for breakfast. Allen accepted. After breakfast, Owens drove Allen back to Pensacola.
That evening, Allen called Owens, who returned to Pensacola to pick him up. Later, at Owens’ trailer, the two had sexual relations. Afterward, they began to fight. Owens got a steak knife and attempted to slash Allen with it, but Allen took the knife and used it on Owens. After the fight, Allen called Bryan, but then decided to leave in Owens’ car.
In discussing the incident with the court-appointed mental health counselor who examined him, Allen told essentially the same story, although in that account he denied having sexual relations with Owens. Allen told the counselor that the fight began because Owens kept putting a hand on Allen.
According to Wade, the prosecutor in the case, the state’s willingness to accept the plea agreement rather than push for a trial on the first-degree murder charge was partly because of the nature of the circumstances surrounding the killing.
“You never know what a jury is going to do with a case,” he said. “And, needless to say, the publicity (of a trial) would further exacerbate the trauma to the (Owens) family.”
For Allen, the killing is now something to be purged from his mind, like a bad dream.
“I don’t know,” he said during a recent interview in the Santa Rosa County jail. “I try to pretend that it didn’t even happen. Sometimes, you know, I think I’m going to prison for a totally different crime.”
He said he will never pick up a basketball again, not even for recreation.
“It would remind me of too much,” he said.
His new interest, he says, is body-building.
And while Allen tries to lift away the hours, others try to figure out why.
“Clifford is highly intelligent,” said Vic Trilli, the former Lon Morris coach. “He draws; it’s unbelievable how he draws. But something’s wrong. Some wire is hooked up wrong.”
For Hannah Harrison, who has remained close to Allen despite their problems, the sketches he has sent with his letters to her from the Santa Rosa County jail say more than the words. She shows one to a visitor: two hands in prayer surrounded by chains and accompanied by the words “somebody please.”
Recalling her last conversation with Allen before he went to Pensacola, she said: “I told him, ‘Well, here’s your big break. You’re going to make it. Hang in there and do the right thing.’ He said, ‘Hannah, all my life, people have always pushed me toward basketball. No one has actually taken the time to ask me what I want to do. How do they know that basketball is all I want to do?’ When he said that, I saw for myself that Clifford was actually coming into himself, actually starting to ask, ‘What do I want?’ rather than be pushed in this one direction.
“Being in jail is not where I want to see him at all. I mean, I wish like hell he wasn’t there. But it’s like a security blanket for him. He can be himself.”
Times staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this story.