Drug War

Federal Indictment Says Deadly Houston Drug Raid Was Based on Lies From Start to Finish

The Justice Department says Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas were killed in an operation based on a fraudulent warrant triggered by a false report to police.

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Today the Justice Department announced that three people have been indicted on federal charges because of their roles in a fraudulent no-knock drug raid that killed a middle-aged Houston couple on January 28. The indictment alleges not only that Gerald Goines, the narcotics officer who spearheaded the operation, lied in his search warrant affidavit, but that Patricia Ann Garcia, whose 911 calls prompted Goines' investigation, lied when she implicated Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas in drug dealing.

The upshot is that the basis for the raid was a lie from start to finish. That realization contradicts Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo's insistence that there were sound reasons, apart from Goines' prevarications, to think Tuttle and Nicholas were selling heroin.

Goines, who already faced state murder charges in connection with the raid that killed Tuttle and Nicholas, has been charged with violating their Fourth Amendment rights under color of law. The Justice Department says "Goines faces up to life in prison" if convicted of those charges, although the statute also allows the death penalty for violations with lethal consequences.

Goines, who retired in March after 34 years with the Houston Police Department, claimed in his affidavit that a confidential informant had purchased heroin from a middle-aged "white male, whose name is unknown," at the house on Harding Street that Tuttle and Nicholas shared. But the raid, which was executed the day after that purported sale, discovered no heroin and no evidence of drug dealing. Soon afterward Houston police investigators concluded that the confidential informant described by Goines did not exist. Goines then changed his story, claiming he had bought the heroin himself. According to the federal indictment, that was also a lie.

The Justice Department says Goines "made numerous materially false statements in the state search warrant" and afterward repeatedly lied about the circumstances of the raid. In addition to the civil rights charges, Goines is accused of falsifying records and obstructing an official proceeding.

The indictment also charges Steven Bryant, a Houston narcotics officer who helped back up Goines' story, with obstructing justice by falsifying records. Bryant, who supposedly identified the "brown powder substance" that the nonexistent informant never bought as black-tar heroin, already faced a state charge of tampering with a governmental record. The federal charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The biggest revelation in the indictment is that the January 8 report about drug activity at the Harding Street house was completely false. Yet Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has repeatedly cited that report as evidence that his department was right to investigate Tuttle and Nicholas.

According to Acevedo, a woman called police on January 8 to complain that her daughter was "doing heroin" inside the house. At a press conference three days after the raid, Acevedo described the call this way: "The caller wanted to remain anonymous but said that her daughter was inside the residence 'doing drugs, and they have a lot of guns in the residence.' She stated there was also a female in the house." The woman said she had looked through a window, and she saw that "her daughter was in the house, and there were guns and heroin."

When two patrol officers arrived in response to that call, the woman was nowhere to be found. According to Acevedo, they questioned a passer-by and afterward heard her say into her cellphone, "Hey, the police are at the dope house." When the officers called the woman who had made the report, Acevedo said, "She stated she did not want to give any information because they were drug dealers and they would kill her. She wanted the officers to go into the house and get her daughter." The officers explained that they had no authority to enter the house.

The federal indictment says the caller, which it identifies as Garcia, made all of that up. Garcia, who lived across the street from Tuttle and Nicholas, is charged with "convey[ing] false information by making several fake 911 calls," an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

Acevedo said Garcia's calls showed there was a legitimate basis for the investigation that led to the Harding Street raid. He called the home a "problem location" and a locally notorious "drug house." He even claimed that people who lived nearby had thanked police for raiding the house. Yet neighbors interviewed by local news outlets described Tuttle and Nicholas, who had lived on Harding Street for two decades, as perfectly nice and said they had never seen any signs of criminal activity.

"You and other members of your department have made factually incorrect, but globally disseminated, statements about Rhogena Nicholas and her husband, Dennis Tuttle, from the date of their deaths and going forward," an attorney for Nicholas' family complained in a letter to Acevedo last March. "These statements have not been publicly corrected or retracted to date."

Even after Goines' lies were revealed, Acevedo insisted that police "had probable cause to be there," apparently relying on Garcia's report. But even if that report had been accurate, it did not provide probable cause for a search, and neither did Goines' fictitious affidavit. Goines, who supposedly had been investigating Tuttle and Nicholas for two weeks, cited no suspicious activity consistent with drug dealing. His investigation was so cursory that he apparently did not even bother to look up the names of the home's owners.

"I still think they're heroes," Acevedo said of the officers who killed Tuttle and Nicholas after breaking into their home without warning based on a fraudulent search warrant stemming from a report the Justice Department says was not true. If the lack of oversight that allowed this disastrous operation to unfold were not reason enough to demand Acevedo's resignation, his dogged defense of the investigation and his casual defamation of Tuttle and Nicholas would be.

Update: At a press conference today, Acevedo continued to imply there was probable cause for the search, even though it was not identified in the warrant and no such evidence has been publicly revealed so far. "I stand by [saying] we had a reason to be in that house," he said. "We had a reason to be in that house, and probable cause or suspicion to be in that house. There's a reason we were there, and that will all come out in due time." Note that Acevedo has backtracked without admitting it, shifting from "probable cause" to "suspicion," which does not legally justify searching a home even when the suspicion is reasonable.

At the same time, Acevedo seemed to acknowledge that police did not have probable cause for the search. "But for that call," he said, "we wouldn't be standing here today, and so all of that will go into play, in terms of accountability, levels of accountability, what people are responsible for." If the call itself did not provide probable cause, which it did not, and the warrant was falsified, which it was, what additional piece of evidence does Acevedo have in mind that gave police "a reason to be in that house"?