Looking at Clem Vestal with his shaved head, skull tattoos, and biker image, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy you want to mess with. But under this hard exterior beats a soft heart.
Over the past few years, Clem has organized hundreds of fundraisers, everything from raising money for sick children to helping poor families bury a loved one. We caught up with him at a fundraiser he organized for 37-year-old Karrie Davis, a young Des Moines mother who died of a heart attack leaving behind five children.
“She loved to have fun and go out and spend time with her five kids and, I mean, she’s gonna be missed,” says Davis’ cousin, Brandy Whitney. When Clem heard about Davis’ family, he immediately stepped in, just like he has so many times in the past.
“Clem he offered to have the t-shirts printed up because we didn’t have the money to do them. And the bandanas. He had them printed up. He arranged the whole benefit today,” Whitney says, “He’s been there for everything that we’ve needed.”
The list of people Clem has helped goes on an on. Diana Foulk’s son was killed in a motorcycle accident. Clem raised the money to give him a proper burial. “He had these tee shirts made up and he went around selling these tee shirts in order to give Jim a headstone so we could have a memorial for life for Jimmy,” Foulk says, “Clem did this from his heart.”
We asked Clem, who paints houses for a living, why he works so tirelessly to help others. “Back in ’85 I took an innocent person’s life,” Clem says, choking back tears, “My life hasn’t…hasn’t…I took an innocent person’s life and…my tears show it.”
Clem was just 18-year- old and had an on-going feud with some other teens. One evening, they caught up with Clem near a parking lot. “I made the worst mistake ever in my life,” Clem explains, “Instead of just getting off my bike and fighting them or instead of trying to leave which would have been the smartest thing, you know..something I’ll always regret. Ain’t never going to change, I figured i’ll get my buddy’s gun. I’ll shoot it a couple of times.”
One of the bullets Clem fired into the ground to try to scare the teens off ricocheted striking 24-year-old Cynthia Sue Stanbrough. She died a few days later. Clem pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 50-years in prison but was released after serving just 17. “Ever since then I vowed that I would always try, I’d always help,” Clem says, “I never thought I’d get out of prison. I went to prison, did 17-years straight. Never thought I’d get out but was given that chance to get out. And now I’m just trying to live it.”
Clem has a tortured soul. He lives for the few moments of happiness he feels by making others happy, by helping them out. He says he owes it to Stanbrough. “Oh, I owe her more…I’ll never be able to repay her. I’ll never be able to repay her family. There’s no payback in taking somebody’s life.”
Clem has paid his debt and done his time. But the guilt over one foolish mistake imprisons him for life. “I’m out. I’m discharged. But I really ain’t. It’s still with me. It’s gonna be with me till the end.”