The Hockey Wife’s ‘Heinous’ Murder-for-Hire That Gripped a Small Town
When 35-year-old Kelley Clayton was found bludgeoned to death in a halo of blood, suspicion immediately turned to her money-obsessed husband. Now he wants his conviction reversed.
In some three centuries of recorded history, the town of Caton, New York, has not racked up many scandals. The community’s timeline unfolds like an archetype of the rural Northeast: The land was stolen in 1788, organized into an area called “Township #1,” and settled by some 796 colonists—a population that, in the time since, has grown to just over 2,100.
There have been a few conflicts over the years: disputes over name changes (from Painted Post to Wormley, then to Caton), some flash floods (first in 1916, then in 1920, and later in 1936), and a gruesome fire at Town Hall in 1972. But for the most part, the hamlet has gone without terror, confusion, and roving teams of TV cameras—at least, until the fall of 2015, when a 35-year-old woman named Kelley Stage Clayton was found bludgeoned to death in her modern four-bedroom home.
Kelley Clayton’s murder placed the town of Caton in the center of a media storm. The community was consumed by reporters and investigators, as special prosecutor Weedon Wetmore summoned some 75 witnesses—many of them locals—to testify in a seven-week trial that would send Kelley’s husband, Thomas Clayton, and an accomplice, Michael Beard, to prison without parole.
When Thomas was sentenced in April 2017, Caton residents finally caught a breather. The town was still dotted with purple ribbons and “Justice for Kelley” lawn signs, but the case, for the most part, seemed closed. “It was a heinous murder,” Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard told the Elmira Star-Gazette at the time. “The folks who conspired to make that happen are now in jail.”
But recently, Thomas Clayton’s attorney filed an 149-page appeal with the Fourth Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, calling for a reversal of Clayton’s conviction and claiming that the entire case against him was built on “circumstantial evidence” and faulty cellphone science.
The new appeal has thrown the town of Caton back into the spotlight and reignited interest in the bizarre caper of a money-obsessed pro-hockey player and his dead wife, one that his neighbors had only just started moving past.
The night of Sept. 28, 2015, was muggy. Some tropical storm was considering hurricane status a few miles south, but in Caton, it wasn’t rainy yet. Kelley was at home at the couple’s house on Ginnan Road, and their two kids, Charlie and Cullen, then 5 and 2, were asleep. Thomas was out with friends, playing poker.
It would later become key to his defense that Thomas Clayton was a rabid gambler who “was known to carry large amounts of cash,” according to court documents. The former hockey player had two safes in his house—one under his bed and another in his basement—and regularly carted thousands to the high-stakes tables at casinos, or flaunted stacks of cash in front of his friends and neighbors. Once, his attorney wrote in his appeal, Thomas loaned his car to a friend’s sister, while it contained $22,000 in bills.
But by all accounts, this particular night was normal. Poker night was a Caton staple. Linda and Greg Miller, two neighbors and friends, hosted a weekly game. In court, Caton residents and poker-night regulars Nicholas Hojnoski, Davie Pierri, and Bill Davis all attested to the sheer averageness of the evening. “There was a poker game every Monday night,” Pierri told the jury.
At some point during the night, one of the poker players mentioned he was receiving a large supply of deer blinds, the camouflage cabins hunters use to hide from wildlife. The blinds were heavy, the player said, weighing around 300 pounds each. He’d need assistance carrying them. Thomas offered to help. Then he asked to use Linda Miller’s phone and made a call to Michael Beard, and allegedly offered him the deer blind job—a conversation that would become key during the trial.
By midnight, the games were wrapping up, and Thomas drove home. When he arrived, at around 12:30, he found Kelley lying on the floor, naked below the waist, with a head wound and a halo of blood. She was dead or close to it. Someone had attacked her in the master bedroom, chased her down the hall, down the stairs, knocked a hammer-sized hole in the wall, and then left her in the living room.
The struggle had woken Charlie, the couple’s daughter, who told her dad there had been a robbery. Thomas shuttled his kids to the house of their neighbor and called 911. “My wife,” he told the operator in a recording of the call, “she’s dead.” When the authorities arrived, a paramedic confirmed Thomas’ assessment. A K-9 unit searched the property. One officer, surveying the scene, muttered into his body cam that it looked “like a domestic,” according to court documents. The next day, Clayton was arrested at his house, taken into custody, and charged with murder in the second degree.
Thomas Scott Clayton was born in Binghamton, New York, a small manufacturing city about an hour east of Caton. Thomas’ father, Scott, worked as a landscaper, and his mother, Phyllis, managed a food service company. Thomas grew up unremarkably: He was well-liked, an all right student, and an athlete, according to newspaper archives. He spent most of his time playing hockey, a sport he continued in college at Niagara University, a small Catholic school in Buffalo.
Thomas played forward and he was good at it, good enough to get recruited to a minor league team the same season he graduated: the Elmira Jackals. The Jackals were a new Eastern Conference team; they joined the United Hockey League in 2000, just two years before Thomas appeared on the roster. But the players were promising, and better still, they were based in Elmira, New York, not far from Thomas’ home. “I wanted to pursue a career in hockey,” he told the Elmira Star-Gazette in 2014. “I wanted to play somewhere, and I thought Elmira would be a great fit. I had family in Binghamton, and they could see me play.”
On-ice brawls are a regular feature in hockey, and according to Jeff Antonovich, one of Thomas’ former teammates, Thomas played like “any other hard-nosed hockey guy.” He got into fights. He was scrappy, tough, and dead set on winning. “He wasn’t the biggest guy, but he played like he was. He would do whatever it took to win,” Antonovich told The Daily Beast. “But I never had a tendency to go, ‘Wow, I’m going to stay away from him off the ice.’”
Once, the punches did spill over into real life. In 2003, according to the Elmira Star-Gazette, Thomas and Brad “Wingnut” Wingfield, a teammate who would later become famous in hockey circles for being “crazy,” brawled with four police cadets in an Elmira bar. The fight, which reportedly started in response to Thomas’ “lewdness”—read: dancing “nearly naked” on table tops—poured out of the pub, onto the street, and landed Thomas with a misdemeanor and “Wingnut” with felony assault (both charges were later reduced to disorderly conduct). But more often than not, Antonovich said, Thomas was a “normal man.”
While playing for the Jackals, Thomas met a normal woman two years his junior, named Kelley Elizabeth Stage, and they got married not long later. Kelley was blonde, dimpled, and more local than Thomas. She had grown up in Elmira proper, the youngest of three kids. Kelley had gone away for college and spent a few years waitressing in Las Vegas, but she was still well-known around town. Her father ran the West Elmira Volunteer Fire Department, and, in high school, she’d made a name for herself as an honor roll student, cheerleader, and softball star at one of two local schools, the Elmira Free Academy. In their constellation of upstate small towns, Kelley had the kind of renown that, when she was later found murdered, the county prosecutor had to recuse himself over personal connections.
When Thomas and Kelley got married, they made a fitting couple. They shared Lands’ End- catalogue good looks and an easy, chatty demeanor. “Kelley was very outgoing, very fun. Sweet smile,” Antonovich, whose ex-wife had been planning to visit her just before the murder, told The Daily Beast. “She was always at the games, always cheering. She was a hockey wife.”
But marriage and minor league weren’t always a great combo. By 2006, Thomas had been rejected from the National Hockey League too many times and decided to retire. “I got hurt, I got married. It was a different phase of my life,” Thomas told the Elmira Star-Gazette in 2014. “The minors is not all glory like the NHL. You’re riding on buses many hours and many days. At that point in my life, I had to make a decision. Did I want to bounce around the minors, or start a family and do other things?”
That year, he and Kelley moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Thomas bought several multi-unit properties and started a taxi business for people too drunk to drive home. After five years, the couple moved back to New York and into a brown-paneled house on a wooded street in Caton. Kelley waited tables, and Thomas got into house remediation, first opening a franchise of Paul Davis, and later joining forces with a friend named Brian Laing to open a business called ServPro, which specialized in water, fire, and mold damage.
Between their two incomes, the couple made extra money by buying more multi-unit properties and renting them out, which is how, in the early 2010s, Thomas came to meet a tenant named Michael Beard, the hitman who would later confess to beating Kelley Clayton to death with the handle of a hammer.
It didn’t take long for authorities to connect the Clayton case with Michael Beard. The day after Thomas was arrested, a member of Kelley’s family told the police to talk to Beard. The Elmira Heights native had lived in one of the Claytons’ properties and was facing eviction. He had worked intermittently at Thomas’ companies and had been fired for the second time only a few weeks prior. After interviews with investigators, Beard confessed to killing Kelley just four days after he did it.
Beard spilled everything. He told authorities where to find the murder weapon—the fiberglass handle of a maul hammer—which he’d thrown off state Route 225 in the nearby town of Southport. He led them to an Elmira-area swamp, where he’d dumped a bloody bag of clothes he wore on that night. And he helped them dig up the Claytons’ house keys at the bottom of a creek in his own neighborhood, Elmira Heights. Beard also confirmed what authorities suspected: that he had murdered Kelley at the behest of Thomas, who’d offered him $10,000 in cash.
Beard repeated his confession before the grand jury, which indicted both men on murder-for-hire charges. But when Beard went to trial in November 2016, he changed his story, claiming that Thomas had paid him to burn down his home as part of an insurance scam. In the second story, Beard denied killing Clayton. He had backed out of the plan, Beard told the jury, when he saw a robbery had taken place. Clayton had said the house would be empty, but when Beard found a dead body, he fled the scene in shock.
“I did not kill that person,” Beard told Kelley’s family in court. “I’m sorry for your loss. I know you mourn, but I, Michael Beard, did not kill Kelley Clayton. May God rest her soul.”
At trial, prosecutors submitted DNA evidence pinning Beard as Kelley’s killer. He was later convicted of all charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But as Clayton’s court proceedings started, Beard’s new story forced the district attorney to find other ways of connecting the two men and establishing the ex-athlete’s motive for murder.
Two months after Beard was convicted, Thomas Clayton appeared in Steuben County court handcuffed, with an inch-long beard, for the first meeting of what would be a seven-week proceeding.
Starting on Jan. 9, 2017, the trial called on residents from across Caton and the neighboring towns of Elmira, Corning, and Southport. The witnesses comprised waitresses, life-insurance agents, real estate agents, friends, family, neighbors, poker players, bankers, bureaucrats, and auto mechanics, to name only a few, seemingly pulling from every corner of the Claytons’ upstate life. Taken together, their testimony painted the portrait of a man obsessed with money who carried on multiple affairs but would not leave his wife.
According to court documents, Thomas was involved with at least three women around town, including a 15-year-old, a close friend of Kelley’s, and a State Farm life insurance agent. When the insurance agent took the stand, she admitted to having a threesome with Clayton and another agent. After the encounter, the agent said, the ex-athlete dropped by often to chat and became comfortable around her. He spoke freely, often complaining about his wife, calling her “lazy,” and “a bitch,” though he would not consider divorce. Kelley would “take everything,” he once told the agent.
The agent also noted that Thomas had taken out a life insurance policy in Kelley Clayton’s name. Just one year before her murder, Thomas had considered increasing the policy to $1 million.
Thomas pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and two counts of second degree murder. In court, his attorney argued that first responders had assumed the murder was domestic from the minute they arrived on the scene and had gathered evidence to fit their assumption. The medical examiner, the lawyer told the jury, had been informed Clayton did it before her investigation. The attorney placed blame on Beard instead and denied that Clayton knew him outside of a professional context. Beard had a track record of stealing from people’s homes, the lawyer said. And besides, who better a target than Thomas, known around town for his large stacks of cash?
But prosecutors saw Beard as a “pansy”—not the murder mastermind so much as a guy in financial straits who had gotten desperate to get paid. They claimed Clayton was behind it, but without Beard’s confession, the crux of their case rested on the advice of an Arizona ex-police officer named Sy Ray.
Ray runs a company called Zetx, a data analytics firm focused on combining data to trace to movements of operating cellphones. “Basically, we compile a large amount of data points and look for call patterns and trends,” Ray told The Daily Beast, “to see if we can find an area where someone would be at a particular time.”
When he started working on the case, Ray knew nothing about Caton or the Claytons. He’d never heard of Michael Beard, and he didn’t follow minor league hockey. Instead, he looked only at about 67,000 data points, including all of Beard’s AT&T and Google records, and the Claytons’ entire Verizon history. Every time either man’s phone had pinged a nearby cell tower, Ray had a record of it in his files, and those records showed that Beard and Thomas Clayton had been in frequent contact with each other in the days leading up to Kelley Clayton’s death.
“Two things that are really important to the case are the movements and the continuing communication between the two of them,” Ray told The Daily Beast. “Initially what hurt Clayton’s case was that he denied being in contact with Beard. The data points indicate otherwise.”
Ray also confirmed that Beard had been in touch with two phones that were not Clayton’s but which he had used—the landline of an auto mechanic’s shop near ServPro and the cellphone of Linda Miller, host of Caton’s Monday night poker game, who had lent it Clayton to make a call about deer blinds.
The cell data testimony traced a convincing map, using phone activations to place Beard and Thomas in each other’s vicinity on multiple occasions in late September 2015. After the jury convicted Thomas on all charges, they told prosecutors that Ray’s evidence had been the most damaging to Clayton’s case.
In the appeal filed by Thomas’ attorney, Brian Shriffin, on Oct. 18, it is primarily the cellphone data he attacks, painting Ray’s investigation as “provably false,” phony science. “Mr. Ray’s artificial enhancement of the precision in which cellphones can be located,” Shriffin wrote, “is the very type of testimony which had [once] been held to be improper, since it lacks acceptance withing [sic] the scientific community.”
The test of Ray’s data won’t come for some time. According to Shriffin, Clayton will not return to court until February 2019, some two years after the town of Caton was first taken over by the proceedings. Prosecutors have yet to file their response, but if the court sides with Shriffin, Thomas’ conviction could be thrown out, paving the way for a brand new trial.
In the final moments of Thomas Clayton’s sentencing, Kelley’s sister, Kim Bourgeois, addressed the people of Caton. “I would like to thank the community. I would like to thank… every investigator,” she said. “This case has taken thousands of hours.” If Clayton’s appeal goes through, it could take a couple more.