Last Friday the Houston Police Department released the inventory of items seized during the January 28 drug raid that killed a middle-aged couple and injured five narcotics officers. Strikingly absent is any evidence that Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas were selling drugs from their house at 7815 Harding Street, notwithstanding Police Chief Art Acevedo's portrayal of them as scary, heavily armed, locally notorious heroin dealers.
According to the warrant affidavit, a confidential informant bought heroin from a man matching Tuttle's description at the house the day before the raid, when he reported seeing a "large quantity of plastic baggies" containing heroin. Instead police found "approximately 18 grams of marijuana" and "approximately 1.5 grams of an unknown white powder" that Acevedo later identified as cocaine. These are personal use quantities that are not consistent with drug dealing. Nor did police find any equipment, supplies, or cash indicative of drug sales. The inventory does not mention scales, bags, or heroin paraphernalia. It does not even mention the police-supplied money that the C.I. supposedly used to buy heroin from Tuttle, which should have been identifiable by serial numbers recorded before the purchase.
The other four items in the inventory are guns: a 20-gauge Beretta ALS shotgun, a 12-gauge Remington 1100 shotgun, a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, and a .22-caliber Winchester 190 semi-automatic rifle. The list does not include the .357 Magnum revolver that police say Tuttle fired at the officers who broke into his home, shot his dog, and killed his wife. Nor does it mention the 9mm semi-automatic handgun that the C.I. supposedly saw in the house the day before, which apparently disappeared along with the heroin and the money.
"There's nothing identified in [the] search warrant return as scales or baggies, or anything that would be used to distribute heroin—or any other drugs, for that matter," Val Zuniga, a local defense attorney who specializes in drug cases, noted in an interview with KTRK, the ABC station in Houston. "It's not the amount of drugs that would be associated with distribution. I think in this case the officer probably relied on an unreliable informant."
That much seems pretty clear, but it does not get the narcotics officer who applied for the warrant off the hook. "The confidential informant has provided informant [sic] and assistance to officers in the past on at least ten (10) prior occasions which has lead [sic] to narcotic arrests and seizures," wrote the officer, whose name is blacked out in the publicly released copy of the affidavit. "The confidential informant has proven to be credible and reliable on many prior occasions." Before sending the C.I. into the house, the officer told him that "narcotics were being sold and stored" there, so it was clear what he wanted to prove and what kind of "assistance" was required.
The officer swore that he searched the C.I. prior to the controlled buy and watched him as he entered the house and emerged from it, which implies that the "quantity of brown powder" (later identified as black-tar heroin) the C.I. presented must have come from there. The officer also said the house was subsequently put under "surveillance," so someone presumably would have noticed if people arrived there to buy all of Tuttle's heroin or if Tuttle came out to dispose of a 9mm pistol between the alleged transaction and the raid the following evening. These inconsistencies may help explain why the HPD recently suspended an officer who was involved in the raid, reportedly because of questions about the search warrant.
Acevedo on Friday reiterated his promise to conduct a thorough investigation of the raid and the events leading to it. "When we are done with our investigation, we will have uncovered and turned over every stone to get at the truth," he said. "We owe that to the involved officers. We owe that to the family of the deceased suspects, and at the end of the day we owe it to the community."
Yet Acevedo seems to have prejudged the outcome of an important aspect of the investigation by claiming "the neighborhood thanked our officers" for raiding Tuttle and Nicholas' home, "because it was a drug house" and "a problem location." He also paraphrased an anonymous informant who called police on January 8 to complain that "her daughter was in the house, and there were guns and heroin." According to Acevedo, "The informant stated she did not want to give any information because they were drug dealers and they would kill her." By contrast, the neighbors who have spoken to the press say they never noticed any suspicious activity at the house and thought Tuttle and Nicholas, who had no criminal records to speak of and had lived on the block for more than two decades, were "wonderful people."
Part of the investigation into the raid will involve sorting through the evidence to support these dueling portraits. We already know which one Acevedo favors.
Update: KTRK, citing "sources close to the investigation," reports that the woman who called police on January 8 was Rhogena Nicholas' mother, who was worried that her 58-year-old daughter "was doing drugs inside her own home." If so, the complaint that set the investigation into motion, culminating in the home invasion that killed Nicholas and her husband, was very different from the way Acevedo described it during his press conference three days later, when he implied that Tuttle and Nicholas were scary "drug dealers" and that the caller was afraid they might kill her. Acevedo also said that two patrol officers dispatched to the house heard a passer-by say "the police are at the dope house" while talking on her cellphone. If the KTRK story is accurate, Acevedo, wittingly or not, misrepresented a family dispute as a tip about drug dealing.