GEORGETOWN, Del. – Out on probation after serving a three-year stint for attempted bank robbery, James Leon Clay of Georgetown was scheduled to appear at a court-ordered status conference in December to determine whether he was complying with the terms of his release, including treatment under a mental health court program.
That same day, Clay, a 67-year-old wizened wisp of a man with a string of petty crimes to his name and a history of mental illness, met with a fellow parolee and former cellmate, who chatted him up in the lobby of the parole office and again while sitting in Clay's truck, according to law enforcement authorities.
Unbeknownst to Clay, his former cellmate, Ronald Malone, had in 2012 told Baltimore FBI authorities about a jailhouse conversation in which Clay supposedly revealed that he had killed a man in Arkansas in 1967. Clay also apparently didn't know that Malone was wearing a wire when they met Dec. 18 and Clay allegedly repeated his story.
Using that information, Arkansas authorities sought an arrest warrant last month charging Clay with first-degree murder in the shooting death of James Ricks, 27, whose skeletal remains were found in August 1967.
Arkansas prosecutors say Clay and his brother Leon Clay, who reportedly has since died, robbed a Little Rock pawn shop and later found Ricks asleep in his car alongside some railroad tracks after their vehicle broke down. Prosecutors allege that the brothers shot and wounded Ricks, handcuffed him and drove about 90 miles to a farm near Newport, Arkansas, where James Clay shot him in the head.
According to Arkansas authorities, Clay and his brother were arrested in Elliott City, Maryland, on June 20, 1967, for carrying concealed weapons, which police linked to the Little Rock pawn shop theft. A sheriff's affidavit also says they had Ricks' 1964 Oldsmobile. According to Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas, the brothers were convicted of transporting the stolen car and firearms in interstate commerce, but neither was charged with killing Ricks, whose body was not found until two months after their arrests.
Clay, diagnosed last year with chronic paranoid schizophrenia, is now fighting extradition to Arkansas to face charges of murder and kidnapping. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed extradition papers earlier this month directing authorities to deliver Clay to Arkansas, but Tuesday a Delaware judge gave Clay's public defender a week to file court papers challenging the extradition.
Meanwhile, Clay is being held at the Sussex Correctional Institution, just a few miles from the ramshackle house where he lived in the noisy shadow of a poultry processing plant. He was arrested at his home May 10. The house was condemned that same day as unfit for human habitation.
Georgetown police say Clay twice repeated his claims about the Arkansas killing before saying he didn't want to talk anymore without an attorney.
Sitting quietly in handcuffs and leg shackles, his prison clothes draped loosely on his hunched frame, Clay said little at Tuesday's hearing.
Public defender Robert Robinson said the opportunity for Clay to enter a plea would typically come at arraignment in the proper trial venue, which in this case would be Arkansas.
"As for the confession to the Georgetown officer, I haven't seen a tape or anything else," Robinson said in an email.
Clay, who also has convictions in Delaware for shoplifting, criminal trespass and noncompliance with bond, was sent to prison after trying to rob a Sussex County bank in 2011 wearing a mask that he bought at a local Rite-Aid drugstore.
"At the time I was cut off medication which I have taken ... for 30 years. I wasn't in right state of mind," Clay scribbled in a 2012 motion seeking reduction of his sentence. Clay also expressed concern about losing his house because of being incarcerated and noted that he was 64 years old and "not in greath (sic) condition.".
Last September, a probation and parole officer wrote that Clay was "not motivated to change," and that he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
According to the Department of Correction, Clay was released from custody last August, but officials sought to have him transferred back to prison in November because of a need for "24 hour medical care."