From the Rink to the Brink: A Hockey Wife’s Murder

The town of Caton, New York is home to many scandals. There are only about 2,100 people living there, after all. Newsworthy stories from Caton typically involve town name changes, flash floods from the beginning of the 20th century, and a town hall fire in ’72. The point is that after centuries of being an eventless small town, this happened.

Thomas Clayton and police officer / Kelly and Thomas Clayton / “Justice for Kelly” signs

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It was the fall of 2015, and suddenly the town of Caton was swarming with terror, confusion, and news teams. A 35-year-old woman, mother and hockey wife named Kelley Stage Clayton was found clubbed to death in her family home. What happened, and who would do such a thing? All signs were pointing to her hockey player husband, Thomas Clayton.

The Night of September 28, 2015

On the night of September 28, 2015, it was muggy. A tropical storm was brewing a few miles south, but in Caton, it wasn’t even raining yet. Kelley was at home with her kids, Charlie and Cullen, then five and two, who were asleep. Her husband Thomas was out playing poker with friends. Remember this part of the story, as it will later become a key factor in his defense.

Kelley and Thomas Clayton pose together out in nature.

Source: Twitter

Thomas Clayton, 37, was known as a rabid gambler who tended to carry large amounts of cash around with him, according to court documents. The former hockey player kept two safes in the home — one under the bed and another in the basement.

A Gambler With Wads of Cash

Thomas needed to keep his cash safe, considering he regularly lugged around thousands to the high-stakes tables at casinos, in addition to his affinity for flaunting stacks of cash in front of his friends and neighbors. His lawyer would later note that Thomas loaned his car to his friend’s sister, who couldn’t help but notice the $22,000 in bills just lying around.

A hand holds up a folded over wad of cash.

Photo by Grace Cary/Getty Images

Still, on this particular night in late September, everything seemed normal. In the small town of Caton, poker night was a routine event. Linda and Greg Miller, a couple who were both neighbors and friends of the Claytons, hosted a weekly game.

It Seemed Like Just a Regular Poker Night

Later, in court, poker night regulars Nicholas Hojnoski, Davie Pierri, and Bill Davis all attested to just how normal that evening was. “There was a poker game every Monday night,” Pierri told the jury. But, at some point during the night, everything went wrong.

Family members are playing poker at the kitchen table.

Photo by FOTOGRAFIA INC./Getty Images

One of the poker players told his friends that he was waiting to receive a large supply of deer blinds (the camouflage cabins that hunters use to hide from wildlife). Since the blinds were heavy (about 300 pounds each), he needed help carrying them. Thomas offered to lend a hand, and after he asked to use Linda Miller’s phone to call a man named Michael Beard.

What He Came Home To…

Thomas allegedly offered Beard the deer blind job – again, another key component in the story. Around midnight, the games wrapped up, and Thomas drove home. He arrived around 12:30 a.m. to find his wife Kelley on the floor, naked below the waist, with a head wound and a halo of blood.

A photo of Kelly Clayton.

Source: Facebook

She was either already dead or soon to be. The story goes that someone attacked her in the master bedroom, chased her down the hallway and down the stairs, knocked a hole in the wall, and left her in the living room. To make matters even worse: The kids were home and heard everything.

“Looks Like a Domestic”

The struggle woke up their daughter Charlie, who told her dad that there was a robbery. Thomas immediately grabbed his kids and put them at the neighbors’ house and called 911. “My wife,” he told the dispatcher in a recording of the call, “she’s dead.”

Police tape blocks the entrance to the Clayton home.

Source: ABC News

By the time the authorities arrived, a paramedic had confirmed that Kelley was indeed dead. A K-9 unit then searched the property. An officer surveying the scene mumbled into his body cam: “looks like a domestic,” according to court documents. The following day, Thomas was arrested at the house, taken into custody, and charged with second-degree murder.

A Chilling Moment

When she was questioned at the neighbor’s home shortly after her mother’s body was found, Charlie Clayton told the authorities that she saw a man “hurting mommy.” Sheriff Jim Allard later told 20/20 that he asked the seven-year-old, “How do you know it’s a he?” to which she said, “Because his eyes look just like daddy’s.”

CCTV footage of Charlie Clayton answering investigators' questions.

Source: ABC News

Allard said that was “a chilling moment for me.” A few hours later, a child forensic investigator assisted with interviewing the little girl. She was brought to a room which had soft seating and toys at the Steuben County child advocacy center instead of a typical police interrogation room.

“This Guy Came and Started Hitting My Mom”

The police recorded the conversation with Charlie, which was later played in open court. She was seen and heard saying, “In the middle of the night, this guy came and started hitting my mom with like this pipe thingy.”

Kelly is playing with her kids in nature; Charlie climbs on her back as Kelly holds her son.

Source: Tumblr

“There was blood everywhere,” she said. “On my door, on the floor. Not on the carpet, though. And I thought she was dead when she was lying on the ground in the blood.” Charlie referred to the intruder as a “robber” and remembered her mother screaming “Run!” as the man chased Kelley downstairs.

A Heartbreaking Eyewitness Account

In a heartbreaking account, the young girl said her mother was “sort of suffering. Then I hugged her leg.” She also told the police that the robber was wearing dark jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a mask. She said the mask he was wearing looked like the one her dad wore when he went hunting.

A child sits at the top of the steps peaking through the shadows.

Photo by Annie Otzen/Getty Images

She also that he “looked like my dad.” When she was asked if the robber was big or little, she responded by saying he was “the size of my dad.” In fact, she said, “Everything was just like daddy.” To make things even more heart-wrenching, she then told Allard something else…

Emotionless, With No Tears

After comparing the robber to someone who was “just like daddy,” she looked at Allard and said, “But it couldn’t have been daddy because then who would take care of us?” The Sherriff believed her statement was truthful, but he was also struck by how emotionless the girl appeared at that time.

A smiling Kelly Clayton sits in a lawn chair.

Source: Twitter

“I don’t know if she was still in shock, but there were no tears on her part,” he told 20/20. It might have to do with the fact that Charlie didn’t think her mom was really gone. Before leaving the interview room, the girl turned and asked them one question: “It’s about my mom… Like where is she at?”

Scarred by the Situation

Charlie and her younger brother were sent to live with their aunt, Kelley’s sister Kim Bourgeois. The kids have been very resilient after the absolute worst nightmare a family should ever have to deal with. According to Kim, the kids are doing well but are still scarred by the situation.

Charlie and her brother Cullen are lying in the grass.

Source: Go Fund Me

“She still does not speak of it,” Kim said of the now 13-year-old girl. “She rarely talks about her mom. It’s too painful.” As for her younger brother, he “still cries out at night ‘I miss my mommy. I want my mommy.’”

So, what on earth happened? Let’s find out…

Thomas Clayton: A Normal Kid Who Played Hockey

Thomas Scott Clayton was born in the city of Binghamton, New York, about an hour east of Caton. His father was a landscaper and his mother a food service manager. His childhood was rather unremarkable: He was a well-liked kid, an okay student, and an athlete.

Thomas Scott Clayton is playing hockey in university.

Source: Imgur

He spent most of his free time playing hockey and went semi-pro in college at Niagara University Buffalo, New York. He played forward and was good at it; at least he was good enough to get recruited to a minor league after graduation. The Elmira Jackals were a new Eastern Conference team that joined the United Hockey League in 2000, two years before Thomas was recruited.

He Was a Fighter on the Ice

Despite the newness of the team, the players looked promising, and the team was based in Elmira, not far from Thomas’ home. “I wanted to pursue a career in hockey,” he told the town’s 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.”

A referee attempts to separate two hockey players who are fighting on the ice.

Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI/Getty Images

According to Jeff Antonovich, a former teammate, Thomas played like “any other hard-nosed hockey guy.” He was scrappy, tough, and competitive. “He wasn’t the biggest guy, but he played like he was,” Antonovich told The Daily Beast.

His “Lewdness” Got Him Into Trouble

For most players, the aggressiveness on the ice doesn’t carry over to day-to-day life. But for Thomas, the punches sometimes spilled over. In 2003, for instance, Thomas and Brad “Wingnut” Wingfield (who was later notorious for being “crazy”) got into a brawl with four police cadets in a local bar.

A photo of Thomas Clayton

Source: Facebook

The fight reportedly started because of Thomas’ “lewdness.” He was dancing “nearly naked” on the tables before heading out onto the street, where he and Wingnut got handed a felony assault (the charges were later reduced to disorderly conduct). But other than that, Antonovich said, Thomas was very much a “normal man.”

Kelley Clayton: The Elmira Native Known for Her Smile

While playing for the Jackals, Thomas met someone two years younger, a woman named Kelley Elizabeth Stage. The blonde, dimpled woman who was known for her smile was more of a local than Thomas. She was a born and raised Elmira resident, the youngest of three kids.

Kelly and Thomas are out on a date.

Source: Facebook

Her father ran the West Elmira Volunteer Fire Department, and when she was in high school, she was an honor roll student, a cheerleader, and a softball star. The Elmira native had gone away for college and spent some time waitressing in Las Vegas before returning to her hometown.

The Quintessential Hockey Wife

Before long, Kelley and Thomas walked down the aisle. They were a fitting couple – good-looking, friendly, smiles from ear to ear. “Kelley was very outgoing, very fun. Sweet smile,” Antonovich told The Daily Beast. The former teammate also noted that Keeley always came to watch the games and was “always cheering.”

Kelly and Thomas on their wedding day.

Source: Facebook

“She was a hockey wife,” he stated. But marriage and minor league hockey didn’t really mix well in the Claytons’ case. By 2006, Thomas had been rejected from the NHL too many times and decided it was time to retire after playing for four seasons between 1998 and 2002.

He Chose Family

Much later, in 2014, Clayton told the Elmira Star-Gazette that it was a “different phase of [his] life… I got hurt, I got married.” He added that the minor leagues “is not all glory like the NHL. You’re riding on busses many hours and many days.”

Thomas poses with his wife and kids by a lake.

Source: Twitter

He explained that he came to a point in his life where he had to make a decision. “Did I want to bounce around the minors or start a family and do other things?” He chose family. The same year he retired from hockey, he and Kelley moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to start a new career.

Settling Down in Caton

In Charlotte, Thomas bought several multi-unit properties and began his own taxi business for people who were too drunk to drive home. They gave it a shot, but after five years, the couple moved back to the state of New York and settled into a brown-paneled home on a wooded street in Caton.

Kelly and Thomas embrace as they stand in an open field.

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While Kelley waited tables, Thomas entered the world of house remediation, first opening a franchise of Paul Davis. He later partnered up with a friend named Brian Laing to start their own business called ServPro, which specialized in managing water, fire, and mold.

What Went Wrong?

The couple made extra income by purchasing more multi-unit properties and renting them out. It was in this period, in the early 2010s, that Thomas met a tenant named Michael Beard – the hired hitman who would later confess to killing Kelley Clayton with a hammer.

Kelly Clayton is staring off into the distance, lost in thought.

Source: NBC

What went wrong? How did this seemingly happy couple go from the rink to the brink? The truth is that it didn’t take long for the authorities to connect Kelley’s murder with Michael Beard. It was the day after Thomas was arrested that a member of Kelley’s family told the cops to talk to Beard.

Michael Beard: The Accomplice

The Elmira Heights native was living in one of the Claytons’ properties and was facing eviction. He was also an employee of Thomas’ who worked intermittently and had been fired for a second time within weeks.

Michael Beard’s mug shot.

Source: ABC News

After multiple interviews with investigators, Beard confessed to Kelly’s murder just four days after he did it. In fact, he spilled everything, telling the authorities where to find the murder weapon — a fiberglass handle of a maul hammer. Where was it? He threw it off state Route 225 in the nearby town of Southport.

The Murder-for-Hire Story

Beard also led investigators to a swamp in the area, where he dumped a bag of bloody clothes that he wore that night. He even helped them dig up the Claytons’ house keys which were lying at the bottom of a creek in Elmira Heights.

Police search the woods by the highway with K-9 for the murder weapon.

Source: Reddit

Beard confirmed what authorities suspected: that he killed Kelley at the order of Thomas, who offered him $10,000 in cash. He ended up repeating his confession before the grand jury, which indicted both him and Thomas on murder-for-hire charges. Then, when he went to trial in November 2016, Beard changed his story.

The Insurance Scam Story

Beard now claimed that Thomas had paid him to burn down his house as part of an insurance scam. In this new second story, he denied killing. He told the jury that he had backed out of the plan when he saw a robbery had taken place.

A handcuffed Michael Beard is being escorted by Police officers.

Source: Reddit

According to Beard, Thomas told him the house would be empty, but when he found a dead body, he fled the scene. “I did not kill that person,” he 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.”

One Down, One to Go…

It only begs the question, then why would he initially confess to her murder? The jury wasn’t buying his new story, and neither was the judge. At trial, prosecutors submitted DNA evidence that ultimately pinned down Beard as Kelley’s killer.

Michael Beard is placed in a police car.

Source: Tumblr

He was convicted of all charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole. However, once Thomas’ court proceedings began, Beard’s new story led the district attorney to find other ways of connecting the two men, establishing the husband’s motive for murder. So, what was his motive?

The Beginning of a Seven-Week Trial

After Kelley’s murder, the community in Caton was consumed by a media storm. Special prosecutor Weedon Wetmore assembled 75 witnesses — most of them locals — to testify in what would become a seven-week trial. Two months after Beard’s sentencing, it was Thomas’s turn to appear in court.

Thomas Clayton is arriving at court, handcuffed and escorted by two police officers.

Source: Facebook

He showed up in Steuben County court handcuffed, with a beard of his own. The trial began on January 9, 2017 and called on all those witnesses who were residents of Caton and the neighboring towns of Elmira, Corning, and Southport. These witnesses were all kinds of people who were involved – somehow or another – in Thomas’ life.

Portrait of a Money-Obsessed Husband

Among these witnesses were friends, family, neighbors, poker players, waitresses, life-insurance agents, real estate agents, bankers and auto mechanics. All together, their testimonies gave the jury a look into the life of a man obsessed with money who had multiple affairs yet refused to leave his wife.

Family and friends of Kelly Clayton speak to reporters outside the courthouse.

Source: Pinterest

According to court documents, Thomas was seeing at least three other women around town, including a 15-year-old girl (a friend of Kelley’s) and a State Farm life insurance agent who admitted her affair with Thomas when she took the stand. She divulged that she and the ex-athlete would often chat (in addition to their “physical encounters”).

Divorce Wasn’t an Option

This insurance agent also revealed to the court that Thomas spoke openly about his relationship, complaining about his wife, calling her “lazy” and “a b***h,” yet he was not willing to even consider divorce. Why? You guessed it: because Kelley would “take everything.”

Thomas Clayton and his lawyer walk into the courthouse.

Source: Facebook

The agent also mentioned that Thomas had taken out a life insurance policy in Kelley’s name. A year before her murder, Thomas considered increasing the policy to $1 million. So, what did Thomas plead in court? You guessed it again: not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

The Unfair Assumption Story

In court, Thomas’ attorney argued that from the minute first responders arrived on the scene, they assumed the murder was domestic and gathered evidence to fit their assumption. He also told the jury that the medical examiner had been informed that Thomas did it before her investigation took place.

signs and purple ribbons in support of Kelly Clayton

Source: Tumblr

The attorney placed the blame on Beard and denied that Thomas knew him in any capacity other than a professional context. He also stated that Beard had a track record of stealing from homes. And besides, who’s a better target than Thomas – a man known for carrying large stacks of cash?

Back to the Murder-for-Hire Story

The prosecutors, of course, didn’t see it that way. They painted Beard as a “pansy” — not the type of murder mastermind the defense was arguing. According to the prosecution, Beard was more of a desperate guy in a desperate situation, looking for fast cash.

The judge listens to testimony in the Clayton Trial.

Source: Reddit

The prosecution claimed it was indeed Thomas who was behind the murder. But, without Beard’s confession, the core of their case rested on a former Arizona police officer named Sy Ray and his advice: “Initially what hurt Clayton’s case was that he denied being in contact with Beard. The data points indicate otherwise,” Ray stated.

Tracking Beard and Thomas

“Two things that are really important to the case are the movements and the continuing communication between the two of them,” Ray added. Ray has a company called Zetx, a firm that uses data analytics to trace the movements of operating cellphones.

Thomas Clayton walks through a metal detector at the courthouse.

Source: Facebook

He explained that they compile “a large number of data points and look for call patterns and trends” to see if they can find an area where an individual might be at a particular time. Once he started working on the Clayton case, he knew nothing about Caton nor the Claytons.

The Data Speaks for Itself

In other words, Ray was not biased. He had never heard of Thomas or Beard, nor did he follow minor league hockey. What he did was look at about 67,000 data points, which included all of Beard’s AT&T and Google records, as well as the Claytons’ entire Verizon history.

A closeup of a man holding his phone in his hand.

Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images

Every time their phones pinged a nearby cell tower, Ray had a record of it. Those phone records ultimately proved that Beard and Thomas were, in fact, in frequent contact during the days leading up to Kelley’s death. Ray was also able to confirm something else…

The Nail in the Coffin

Ray confirmed that Beard was in communication with two other cellphone numbers that weren’t Thomas’ but which he had used — the landline of an auto garage near ServPro and Linda Miller’s cellphone. Remember Linda? She and her husband hosted Caton’s Monday night poker games.

A photo of Thomas Clayton.

Source: Facebook

Thomas used her phone to make a call about those deer blinds. All in all, Ray’s cell data testimony provided a convincing map, placing Beard and Thomas in each other’s vicinity on more than one occasion in late September 2015. In the end, it was Ray’s evidence that put the nail in Thomas’ coffin.

Convicted on All Charges

The jury convicted Thomas on all charges, telling prosecutors that it was Ray’s evidence that was the most damaging to Thomas’ case. In the final moments of Thomas’ sentencing, Kelley’s sister Kim Bourgeois addressed the community of Caton.

Thomas Clayton is handcuffed and escorted out of the courthouse.

Source: Tumblr

“I would like to thank the community. I would like to thank every investigator,” she said. “This case has taken thousands of hours.” Once Thomas was sentenced in April 2017, the residents of Caton were finally able to breathe. Still, they were a town in mourning. Purple ribbons and “Justice for Kelley” lawn signs could be seen everywhere.

A Town in Mourning

“It was a heinous murder,” Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard told the Elmira Star-Gazette. “The folks who conspired to make that happen are now in jail.” While everyone thought the ordeal was over and closure was given to the friends and family of Kelley Clayton, Thomas’ attorney, Brian Shriffin, opened it up again.

A smiling Kelly Clayton takes a selfie.

Source: Facebook

Shriffin filed an appeal, arguing that Ray’s investigation was “probably false” phony science. He claimed that the entire case against Thomas was built on “circumstantial evidence.” Just like that, the town of Caton was thrown back into the spotlight.

“I Feel Like Dad Is a Coward”

Thomas, who is serving life in prison without parole at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, lost the appeal in November 2019. He is not in contact with his children, and it’s a wonder if he ever will be.

A family portrait of the Claytons

Source: Tumblr

During the trial, in a letter to the court, Charlie Clayton wrote: “I feel like dad is a coward because he asked Michael Beard to kill my mom.” If this whole story isn’t heartbreaking, then I don’t know what is. May the family of Kelley Clayton find peace in some way or another.

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