Drug War

'I Still Think They're Heroes,' Houston's Police Chief Says of the Cops Who Killed a Couple During a Fraudulent Drug Raid

While the narcotics officers charged with murder and evidence tampering were bad eggs, Art Acevedo says, their colleagues acted "in good faith."

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"I still think they're heroes," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo says of the narcotics officers who shot and killed Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas during a fraudulent drug raid at their Harding Street home on January 28. At a press conference Friday, Acevedo said Gerald Goines, the officer who instigated the raid by falsely claiming that a confidential informant had bought heroin from Tuttle at the house the day before, and Steven Bryant, who bolstered Goines' cover story, had "dishonored" their badges and the Houston Police Department (HPD). But Acevedo insisted that the other officers who participated in the raid had "acted in good faith" and killed the couple in self-defense.

Goines was charged with two counts of felony murder on Friday. "Because false information was provided to a magistrate in order to secure a search warrant," Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg explained during another press conference on Friday, "Goines' actions violated Texas Penal Code 37.10," which makes "tampering with a governmental record" a felony when it is done "to defraud or harm another." And because Goines' false statements led to a no-knock raid in which two people were killed, Ogg said, his conduct met the definition of felony murder, which occurs when someone, in the course of a felony, commits "an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual." Felony murder is punishable by five years to life in prison.

Bryant faces a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison. In an offense-report supplement Bryant wrote two days after the raid, Ogg said, he claimed he had assisted Goines in the investigation of drug dealing at the Harding Street house. Goines named Bryant in his search warrant affidavit, saying he had verified that the "brown powder substance" supposedly purchased from Tuttle was black-tar heroin. Ogg said Goines later admitted to HPD investigators that Bryant had done no such thing. Goines also admitted that no informant had bought heroin at the house. Instead he switched to claiming he had made the purchase himself, although he could not say whether Tuttle was the man who had sold heroin to him.

Ogg said Bryant also falsely claimed in his supplemental report that, after the raid, he "recovered a plastic bag that contained a white napkin and two small packets of a brown powdery substance that he knew, based on his skill and expertise, contained heroin." He added that he "recognized the drugs as the same drugs allegedly purchased" by the confidential informant. That was a pretty brazen lie, since the official search warrant inventory said nothing about heroin or any other evidence of drug dealing. The only drugs the police recovered were personal-use quantities of marijuana and cocaine.

Acevedo, who initially defended the raid and described Goines as a hero, wants credit for investigating this fiasco. But he also wants us to believe that the fraud committed by Goines and Bryant, both of whom retired after the raid, does not implicate their colleagues in Narcotics Squad 15 or suggest broader problems in the HPD Narcotics Division. "I don't have any indication it's a pattern and practice," Acevedo said three weeks after the raid, by which time the Houston Chronicle and other local news outlets had noted Goines' history of alleged testilying and sloppy evidence handling.

Ogg, by contrast, says her office is continuing to investigate the integrity of Squad 15 by reviewing more than 14,000 cases it has generated. "While today the focus is on Gerald Goines and Steven Bryant, there may be more to the story," she said on Friday. "The purpose of the broader investigation of Gerald Goines' past cases and of the squad's ties to these 14,000 different cases is…to determine if this was a single act by rogue officers or whether it's part of a greater and pre-existing problem in that squad or that division."

Ogg said a Harris County grand jury will soon convene to consider additional charges against Goines and Bryant as well as possible charges against other officers. "We have had individuals contact our office who had prior contact with Officer Goines," Ogg said, "and there are other complaints that we are reviewing." Apart from his involvement in this particular case, Goines, who served the HPD for 34 years, faces allegations that he stole money, drugs, and guns.

"We recognize that the community has been violated," Ogg said, "and I want to assure my fellow Houstonians and other residents of Harris County that we are getting to the truth. You've heard Chapter 1. Each day, we uncover more, and with each fact we work toward doing justice. The breach of the public trust gives us great pause in this case, because our democracy depends on the public's trust of law enforcement and the courts."

It seems premature, to say the least, to conclude that officers who for years worked alongside a cop as corrupt as Goines seems to have been bear no responsibility for what looks like a pattern of dishonesty and shoddy work. Even if we focus on their actions the day of the raid, the "hero" label that Acevedo says they still deserve hardly seems apt. According to the official police account, these officers broke into the house without warning and immediately killed the couple's dog with a shotgun, setting off an exchange of gunfire that killed the residents and injured four officers, including Goines, who according to Ogg had falsely portrayed Tuttle as a dangerous character who routinely carried an apparently nonexistent 9mm semi-automatic pistol in his waistband.

"Mr. Tuttle shot at them," Acevedo said on Friday. "Nothing in the evidence shows he did not shoot these officers." Actually, an independent forensic examination of the house commissioned by Nicholas' family has cast doubt on the HPD's claim that Tuttle fired at the officers with a .357 Magnum revolver as they entered.

Michael Maloney, a retired supervisory special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, also found evidence that contradicted the claim that police shot Nicholas because they saw her reaching for the shotgun carried by the first officer through the door as he sat on a couch where he had collapsed after being hit by gunfire. Maloney found that Nicholas "was fatally struck by a bullet from a weapon fired outside the Harding Street Home by a person shooting from a position where the shooter could not have seen Ms. Nicholas at the time she was fatally shot."

Nor is it clear that the wounded officers were all struck by rounds from the revolver. After the raid, Acevedo responded indignantly to the suggestion that the officers might have been hit by friendly fire, and the HPD has refused to answer questions on that point. "As far as who is responsible for those officers' injuries," Ogg said on Friday, "the Texas Rangers have assisted us in that portion of the investigation" and "their findings will be presented to the grand jury."

Leaving all those issues aside, it is clear that the narcotics officers recklessly provoked the violence they encountered. There is no video of the raid, and Tuttle is not around to give his side of the story. But it is plausible that he did not realize the armed men who burst into his house and killed his dog, who were not wearing uniforms, were police officers. Nicholas' mother, who talked to her on the phone shortly before the raid, said she and Tuttle were about to take an afternoon nap, which suggests they were awakened by the tumult at their door and the ensuing shotgun blast around 5 p.m.

By imposing new restrictions on no-knock warrants, Acevedo has implicitly admitted that such "dynamic entries" in run-of-the-mill drug cases pose unjustified risks. On Friday he said no such warrants have been served by Houston police since the Harding Street raid, which suggests they were not necessary to begin with.

In addition to inventing a heroin purchase that never happened, Goines justified the no-knock raid with boilerplate claiming that "knocking and announcing would be dangerous, futile, or would inhibit the effective investigation of the offense." The only specific evidence he cited to support that claim was that "a weapon was observed during the narcotic investigation"—specifically, "a semi-auto hand gun of a 9mm caliber" that was supposedly seen by the nonexistent confidential informant the day before the raid but was not recovered from the house.

Houston Municipal Court Judge Gordon Marcum, who approved the no-knock warrant, had no way of knowing that Goines had invented the informant, the "controlled buy," and the handgun. But there were clues in Goines' affidavit that something fishy was going on. Although Goines claimed his warrant application was the culmination of a two-week investigation, he described Tuttle as "a white male, whose name is unknown." Apparently Goines had been investigating drug dealing at the house for two weeks, but he had not bothered to look up the names of its owners. Nor had he observed any evidence of drug dealing at the house that was worth mentioning (aside from the fictional transaction) or interviewed neighbors who had noticed suspicious activity there.

Acevedo has said Goines' "investigation" was triggered by a January 8 call in which "the mother of a young woman" reported that her daughter "was in there doing heroin." That unidentified caller, according to Acevedo, had described Tuttle and Nicholas as armed and dangerous. He said their home was known locally as "a drug house" and "a problem location," a claim that has been contradicted by neighbors in interviews with the local press.

While there is a record of the call to which Acevedo referred, it contains no details about the nature of the complaint. The Houston Chronicle reports that the genesis of Goines' investigation was "a tip scrawled on a yellow legal pad" by one of the officers who responded to the January 8 call but found no evidence of criminal activity. It looks like that piece of paper was the sole justification for the deadly raid that came two weeks later.

Michael Doyle, a lawyer hired by Nicholas' mother and brother, has cited evidence of lax supervision that allowed the raid to proceed. When informants provide "specific information about criminal activities," their identity "is required to be documented and readily accessible to police managers," Doyle noted in a July 25 petition seeking to depose Narcotics Division supervisors. "HPD's managers knew from the beginning that there was no documented [confidential informant] significant meeting record in its files supporting the assault on the Harding Street Home."

Acevedo, who became Houston's police chief in 2016 after a checkered history with the California Highway Patrol and the Austin Police Department, bears ultimate responsibility for this disaster and the supervisory practices that enabled it. The fact that he continues to describe the officers who killed Tuttle and Nicholas as "heroes," while tarring the couple as dangerous drug dealers despite the lack of evidence against them, suggests he cannot be trusted to get the Houston Police Department's house in order.