NY officer's body camera reveals horrific crime scene in murder-for-hire plot aftermath

Kelley Clayton was found brutally murdered inside her Elmira, New York, home.

August 30, 2019, 10:57 AM
Kelley and Thomas Clayton are seen here in this family photo.
Kelley and Thomas Clayton are seen here in this family photo.
Collene Rose

— -- Two police officers in Steuben County, New York, responded to a frantic 911 call just after midnight in September 2015 and ended up walking through a grisly crime scene.

One of the officers wearing a body camera captured something that seemed too horrific to be real. The victim was 35-year-old Kelley Clayton, a beautiful wife and loving mother of two small children. She had been bludgeoned to death in her own home.

“She's been beat to death,” Deputy Dean Swan said. “I got a body cam on to show where we went ... it is extremely bloody.”

Kelley Clayton’s husband, Thomas Clayton, was the one who had called 911 after he said he had returned home from a poker game and found her body on the kitchen floor.

Investigators began piecing together what happened and trying to make sense of a seemingly senseless murder that rocked the small town in upstate New York.

Kelley Clayton was born and raised in Elmira, New York, and was always under the watchful eye of her older sister, Kim Bourgeois.

“We are 10 years apart. So she was kind of my baby. I am protective of her,” Bourgeois said. “[Kelley was] very brave to me, bold, sassy. ... She liked to dance, she was pretty. ... She could model, and I just think that’s what she wanted to do.”

Kelley Clayton’s big personality and dreams took her to Las Vegas, where she traded in a teaching job to work as a cocktail waitress for a time.

“She absolutely loved it,” Bourgeois said. “One time, she had worn a big, 30-pound feather headdress and she just loved it.”

But it was Kelley Clayton’s attraction to an Elmira sports star that brought her back home. Thomas Clayton was a hockey player for the semi-pro Elmira Jackals and seemed to have a reputation for fighting on the ice and flirting off it.

“People were very much in awe of him because he was cute and he was an instigator and he would start fights,” Bourgeois added. “People got very caught up in that.”

Kelley Clayton moved back home and she and Tom Clayton got married. They had two children, a girl, now 11, and a boy, now 7.

On the night she was killed, Bourgeois and her mother arrived at the Clayton house less than an hour after police.

“My mother and I were wailing,” Bourgeois said. “I was throwing up on the side of the road. I can’t even explain to you that feeling.”

Back inside the house, authorities started collecting evidence. The police officer’s body camera captured the savage brutality that shocked even the first responders.

“This was an extremely brutal attack, a very gruesome situation,” said Donald Lewis, an investigator for the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office who was on the scene that night.

“[It was] some sort of attack in the upstairs area down the hallways,” he continued. “Down the stairs, there was a hole in the sheetrock at the bottom of the stairs and a blood trail that ended at Mrs. Clayton's body in the kitchen area.”

Lewis said Kelley Clayton had died of blunt force trauma after being beaten with a fiberglass maul handle. Investigators’ suspicion quickly turned toward her husband.

“There was a lot of things that kind of raised some flags,” Lewis said.

One major flag: There were no signs of forced entry or robbery. Despite witnesses seeing Tom Clayton at his friend’s poker game that night, and his GPS placing him there, police took him into custody.

While looking into Tom Clayton’s alibi, police learned that a woman at the poker game said he asked to borrow her cellphone to make a call just 90 minutes before he got home to find his wife’s body.

Then, a new person of interest emerged: a man named Michael Beard, a former employee at one of Tom Clayton’s companies who had recently been fired.

Police said the two had been in contact. Phone records showed there were frequent phone calls and texts between them, including the call Tom Clayton made to Beard from the poker game. It was a smoking gun revealing what investigators believed was a sinister murder-for-hire plot.

Beard confessed to being hired by Tom Clayton to murder Kelley Clayton,” Lewis said. “From what we were able to gather was [for] $10,000 cash.”

Questions arose as to why Tom Clayton would want to murder his wife. Kelley Clayton’s sister said she believes he wanted his freedom.

Other red flags for investigators were that a year earlier Tom Clayton had doubled his wife’s life insurance policy. Authorities also alleged that Tom Clayton was romantically involved with other women and wanted out of the marriage, but he didn’t think divorce was an option.

“He had made comments to some of these women ... that if he was to divorce Kelley, ‘she would take everything from me,’” Lewis said.

Tom Clayton and Beard were each charged with first-degree murder and tried separately.

Beard, who had confessed to the crime, then changed his story and pleaded not guilty, claiming Tom Clayton hired him to burn down his house for insurance money. He said he never went through with it. Beard was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Tom Clayton also pleaded not guilty. His defense said all of the evidence is circumstantial.

“This is probably by far the most interesting and the most complicated case that I've ever been part of,” Lewis said. “Everything was circumstantial when it came to Thomas Clayton… You could explain away a lot of them calls and a lot of the circumstances but you couldn't explain all of it away.”

Tom Clayton was also found guilty.

He appealed his case and an appeals court upheld Clayton's conviction this month. However, Clayton's attorney, Brian Shiffrin, said that next, he aims to take the case to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, according to the Star-Gazette.

Kelley Clayton’s family is trying to move forward the best they can. Since her murder, the children have been living with Bourgeois and her husband.

Bourgeois said of the Clayton children, “Those kids, that’s what gets me up every day. ... I have got to keep going.”

In March 2017, Tom Clayton’s former team the Elmira Jackals hosted a Domestic Violence Awareness Night in memory of Kelley Clayton. All ticket proceeds went to support her children, who were there to drop the first puck.

Bourgeois said she’s grateful to have her sister’s children because they help her stay present, but if there was one thing she could say to their father, it would be that she will make sure Kelley Clayton’s memory lives on.

“I also would say, “You took her life, not her light, and her light will shine forever, through [her children], through me, through my brother, through my mother, forever, and we’ll be OK.’”

Editor's Note: An updated version of this story makes the Clayton children anonymous to protect their identities.