Search and Seizure

C.I. Whose Heroin Buy Led to a Deadly Houston Drug Raid Does Not Seem to Exist

An application for a warrant to search a narcotics officer's cellphone reveals that police have been unable to identify the informant.


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The no-knock search warrant for the drug raid that killed a middle-aged couple in their Houston home on January 28 seems to have been based on a "controlled buy" that never happened by a confidential informant who does not exist. According to a February 8 search warrant affidavit obtained by KPRC, the NBC station in Houston, investigators looking into the raid at 7815 Harding Street, the home of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, have been unable to identify the C.I. who supposedly bought heroin from Tuttle the day before.

Sgt. Richard Bass submitted the February 8 affidavit in support of a warrant to search a cellphone used by Steven Bryant, a narcotics officer who participated in the raid and who was suspended last week because of unanswered questions about the warrant for it, which was obtained by Gerald Goines, another narcotics officer. Bass says Bryant talked to Goines, who was shot during the raid and remains hospitalized, and relayed the name of the C.I., who denied making the purchase described in Goines' affidavit.

Bryant went back to Goines and got the name of another C.I., who also denied participating in the controlled buy. Investigators eventually talked to all of the informants known to work with Goines, and "all denied making a buy for Goines from the Harding Street residence, and ever purchasing narcotics from Tuttle or Nicholas."

If that transaction did not actually happen, it would explain why police found no heroin at the house, where the C.I. supposedly had seen many bags of it. The only drugs found in the search were small amounts of cocaine and marijuana, consistent with personal use. Nor did police find the 9mm semi-automatic handgun that Goines said the C.I. also mentioned. Bass notes another inconsistency: While Goines' affidavit says Bryant saw the brown powder purchased by the C.I. and recognized it as black-tar heroin, Bryant told Bass he did not see the heroin until he was asked to retrieve it from Goines' car so it could be tested.

"Often when individuals communicate with their confidential informants," Bass notes, "they will use their cellular devices to communicate via telephone call or text message." Hence he hoped the contents of Bryant's cellphone would help illuminate the circumstances that led to the deadly raid.

The story that is now emerging goes something like this. On January 8, a woman called the Houston Police Department to complain that her daughter was "doing drugs" inside the house at 7815 Harding Street. "Her daughter was in the house, and there were guns and heroin," Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a press conference three days after the raid. "The informant stated she did not want to give any information because they were drug dealers and they would kill her." But last week KTRK, the ABC station in Houston, reported, based on interviews with "sources close to the investigation," that the "informant" was Nicholas' mother, who was worried because her 58-year-old daughter "was doing drugs inside her own home." According to Acevedo, two patrol officers who went to the house in response to that call overheard a passer-by refer to it as "the dope house."

Aside from that incident, it seems the only evidence that Tuttle and Nicholas were drug dealers was the controlled buy reported by Goines, which now appears to have been invented. If so, it is easier to understand why neighbors who spoke to the press after the raid say they never saw any suspicious activity at the house, notwithstanding Acevedo's claim that "the neighborhood thanked our officers" for the raid "because it was a drug house" and a "problem location."

Update: At a press conference today, Acevedo said Goines' "actions, in terms of his conduct, are in question," because "it appears that there are some material untruths or lies in that affidavit, and that's a problem; that's totally unacceptable." But he insisted that "we had reason to investigate that location," and "the investigation continues to show that." He referred again to the January 8 call, which by his account came from "the mother of a young woman that was in there doing heroin." That contradicts KTRK's story.

Acevedo's assessment of Goines' conduct became less tentative as the press conference continued. "A person lied in an affidavit, and I'm angry about that," he said. "We know we've had a criminal violation, and a serious criminal violation, by the individual that prepared that affidavit….More than likely, the investigating officer will be charged with a serious crime at some point." Under Texas law, lying in a search warrant affidavit is aggravated perjury, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison. Goines has been on the force for 34 years, and Acevedo said the department is reviewing his cases to see if there has been a pattern of dishonesty.

Acevedo seems to be having second thoughts about the routine use of no-knock warrants and "dynamic entry" to execute search warrants in drug cases. "After I've had four officers shot and two suspects killed," he said, "we'll be tightening that up." Avoiding the destruction of evidence is usually cited as a reason for police to crash into homes without warning, as it was in this case. But "if somebody flushes all the evidence" because police have to knock and announce themselves, Acevedo observed, "you probably didn't have all that much evidence in there to start with." Or in some cases, none at all.