Behind bars, Johnson said, Clanton sobered up, gained weight and filled in her skeletal appearance.
“The only time I think she had any clean period, or safe period, was when she was in prison,” Johnson said. “I told her once, ‘When you clean up, you really look fantastic.’ What an amazing transformation it was.”
The beginning of the end for Clanton came in 2005, with a series of prostitution and drug arrests in January, April and December. She was convicted each time — and each time, a judge gave her probation with a long list of conditions including staying away from drugs and getting treatment for her addiction.
She repeatedly failed to keep the bargain, and a judge revoked her probation in June 2006. A series of short jail terms that had been suspended added up, meaning she was poised to serve 31
2 years, her longest sentence yet — and in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, not D.C. jail.
But then Swift, the volunteer chaplain, lobbied on her behalf. On June 2, 2006, a judge agreed to free Clanton once more, ordering her to a comprehensive drug treatment center in Durham, N.C., where stays can last up to three years.
Clanton wrote Swift five days later: “If I ever even thought for one minute of turning back the other way (living in sin), all I would have to do is remember your face, because the thought of hurting you would be unbearable. Words will never be good enough, so therefore my actions will speak for itself.”
On June 14, Clanton was released from jail. She was to meet Swift and head for the bus to North Carolina. She never showed up.
Later that night, Swift said, Clanton called and said she was ready to go through with the trip. Swift said she picked Clanton up at a motel at 4 a.m. and paid for her Greyhound bus ticket south.
On July 17, Clanton walked out of the Durham facility. Swift said she had a dispute with staff over a cigarette she refused to put out. A subsequent D.C. probation report called her whereabouts “unknown” — but then she returned to Washington, got arrested and went right back behind bars.
“She had been moving along in the program,” Swift said of the treatment center. “But Clanton was very impulsive. She didn’t have her own best interest at heart.”
When she got out, Clanton again returned to the District, and continued to rack up arrests, jail sentences and probation for prostitution, drugs and, once, for pulling a knife on a police officer.
Her body was found 87 days after the last time she walked out of jail. She was found on Fenwick Street, between New York and West Virginia avenues in Northeast, a few minutes before 5 a.m. on Oct. 10 — not far from where Johnson saw her for the last time, in 2009, after she had gotten out of the Pennsylvania prison.
When they spoke that time, he warned her about returning to H Street, where coffee houses and renovated homes had replaced the drug dens she remembered.
“You walk the streets,” Johnson said, “they’re going to call the cops.”
He never heard from her after that, and he “hoped beyond hope” that she had escaped the streets. When he learned of her death, he searched out the letter she had written him four years earlier.
Seated at an H Street cafe recently, he pulled the envelope from his jacket pocket and read: “When I get out this time, I’m going to show you the real me. I truly love you. You have protected and nurtured me when I couldn’t protect and love myself. Please be safe. And trust me.”
At the end, she had scrawled the jailhouse phone number, wished Johnson a belated happy birthday and asked, “And where’s my freakin’ letter!”
Johnson never wrote back.
Jennifer Jenkins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.