Drug War

Two Federal Lawsuits Say the Houston Police Department's Culture of Corruption and Impunity Killed an Innocent Couple

The families of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas say the city's policies and practices invited Fourth Amendment violations.

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Two years ago today, Houston narcotics officers broke into a house at 7815 Harding Street and killed all three occupants: Dennis Tuttle, a disabled 59-year-old machinist and Navy veteran; his 58-year-old wife, Rhogena Nicholas; and their dog. The couple's families marked the sad anniversary by filing federal civil rights lawsuits against the city, the police chief, and 13 officers implicated in that deadly home invasion, which was based on a no-knock search warrant that Officer Gerald Goines obtained by falsely portraying Tuttle and Nicholas as dangerous drug dealers.

The centerpiece of Goines' search warrant affidavit was a fictional heroin purchase by a nonexistent confidential informant. Another narcotics officer, Steven Bryant, backed up Goines' phony story by claiming he had verified the nature of the "brown powder substance" that supposedly had been bought at the Harding Street house from a "white male, whose name is unknown." Goines and Bryant eventually were charged with several state and federal crimes, including two counts of felony murder against Goines.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who hailed the cops who killed Tuttle and Nicholas as "heroes," would like the story to end there: with two bad apples whose lies led to the regrettable but necessary use of deadly force against two people who, in turned out, were not actually heroin dealers. But the lawsuits argue that the blame extends to 11 other cops who helped instigate the raid, executed it, or allowed it to happen; Acevedo, who has never apologized for posthumously defaming Tuttle and Nicholas or given a full explanation of why they died; and the city, which built a moldy barrel where apples were bound to go bad and spread their rot.

"Murder, corruption, lies, sex, and perjury—the history of the Houston Police
Department, and in particular, the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Squad 15, plays out like a scene from Training Day," says the complaint that Nicholas' mother and brother filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. "As approved and encouraged by the leaders of the City of Houston, Squad 15 operated as a criminal organization and tormented Houston residents for years by depriving their rights to privacy, dignity, and safety. This misconduct included (1) a long list of illegal search warrants obtained by perjury, (2) false statements submitted to cover up the fraudulent warrants, (3) a sexual relationship between an informant and police officer, (4) improper payments to informants, (5) illegal and unconstitutional invasions of homes, (6) a long list of illegal arrests and excessive force against Houston citizens, and, ultimately, (7) the murder of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle."

Goines, the man Acevedo initially described as "a big teddy bear" who was "tough as nails" and had "tremendous courage," worked in the HPD's Narcotics Division for 25 years. During that time, according to news reports, court documents, and charges filed by Harris County prosecutors, Goines routinely lied to obtain no-knock search warrants, framed innocent people, handled evidence recklessly, carried on a sexual relationship with a confidential informant, and bilked taxpayers by claiming phony overtime.

This was the guy Acevedo held up as a model police officer, and he did not operate in a vacuum. He was aided and abetted by dishonest or apathetic colleagues, negligent supervisors, and lax judges.

In 64 of 66 cases where Goines applied for search warrants from January 2012 to January 2019, he asked for permission to dispense with the knock-and-announce rule. In 61 of those 64 cases, he claimed the suspect had a gun, which he said presented a threat that justified a no-knock warrant. "Yet even though Goines made arrests in approximately 91.8% of cases," the Nicholas complaint notes, "he never recovered a single firearm in the subsequent return and inventory list after the search." Something similar happened in the Harding Street case: Goines claimed his imaginary confidential informant had seen a 9mm "semi-auto hand gun" in the house, but police found no such weapon.

The Tuttle family's complaint describes five cases in recent years where Goines or Hodgie Armstrong, another narcotics officer, lied about a drug buy to justify a search warrant, as Goines did to frame Tuttle and Nicholas. In one of those cases, Goines obtained a no-knock warrant by falsely claiming that the suspect had a "semi-automatic handgun of a .40 caliber." When Goines' colleagues in Squad 15 executed the warrant, they killed a dog but spared its owner, who received an eight-month jail sentence because he had less than a gram of cocaine.

The Tuttle lawsuit also notes the case of Otis Mallet, whom Goines arrested on trumped-up crack cocaine charges in 2008. Mallett was sentenced to eight years in prison and served two before he was released on parole. After the Harding Street raid led prosecutors to re-examine Goines' cases, Mallett was declared "actually innocent." So far, the Tuttle complaint notes, prosecutors have "dismissed nearly 200 cases based on the fact that Goines, now shown to be corrupt, was involved."

Goines was by no means the only corrupt officer in Squad 15. Since the Harding Street raid, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has charged a dozen current or former narcotics officers with felonies, including lies about overtime and drug purchases.

"Houston Police narcotics officers falsified documentation about drug payments to confidential informants with the support of supervisors," Ogg said in July. "Goines and others could never have preyed on our community the way they did without the participation of their supervisors; every check and balance in place to stop this type of behavior was circumvented."

After Ogg announced those charges, which included theft and tampering with government documents, Acevedo released the results of an internal audit that revealed widespread sloppiness, if not outright malfeasance, in the Narcotics Division. And after Ogg announced new charges against nine narcotics officers on Monday, alleging that they had engaged in "organized criminal activity" by falsifying government records as part of "a long-term scheme to steal overtime from the city," Acevedo said he would look into it.

This was the culture of corruption and impunity in which the Harding Street case unfolded. The case began with a false tip from a neighbor named Patricia Garcia. "For petty and vindictive personal reasons," the Tuttle complaint says, "she falsely claimed that her daughter was inside the house at 7815 Harding Street, that the house was a drug house, that the female resident was a heroin dealer, and that the residents had guns, including machine guns, inside the house."

Acevedo would later credulously cite Garcia's allegations as evidence that Tuttle and Nicholas maintained a locally notorious "drug house." Even after Goines' lies were revealed, Acevedo bizarrely insisted that police "had probable cause to be there." Yet as the FBI discovered, Garcia made the whole thing up. When a federal grand jury indicted Goines and Bryant in November 2019, it also charged Garcia with "convey[ing] false information by making several fake 911 calls."

The Tuttle lawsuit notes that the patrol officers who responded to Garcia's call found no evidence to back up her claims. One of them, Nicole Blankenship-Reeves, nevertheless passed handwritten notes about the Harding Street house to Lt. Marsha Todd, "with whom she had a relationship." Todd, who was in charge of Narcotics Squad 24 and is one of the defendants named in both lawsuits, shared that information with Goines.

Goines claimed he conducted a two-week investigation based on that tip. But he seems to have applied for the search warrant without knowing anything about Tuttle and Nicholas, neither of whom had any criminal convictions. The Tuttle complaint notes that they had lived on Harding Street "for many years" and were "well known and liked by their neighbors" (except for Garcia, presumably). But as Goines' affidavit shows, he did not even know their names. Unfazed by that red flag, Houston Municipal Court Judge Gordon G. Marcum approved the no-knock warrant a few hours before the raid.

Acevedo argues that Goines' colleagues in Squad 15 acted in good faith based on a warrant they believed was valid and should not be held responsible for his fabrications. On Monday, after Ogg charged Officer Felipe Gallegos with murdering Tuttle, Acevedo said "the other officers involved in the incident, including the officer indicted today, had no involvement in obtaining the warrant and responded appropriately to the deadly threat posed to them during its service."

The Tuttle and Nicholas families strongly disagree, saying the cops recklessly used deadly force in a situation that did not warrant it. Acevedo said the first officer through the door "was charged immediately by a very large pit bull," which he blasted with a shotgun. But a forensic examination of the house commissioned by the families found that the dog was about 20 feet from the front door when it was shot. "The dog was not attacking Squad 15," the Nicholas complaint says. "Because HPD broke into her house, fired their weapons first, and killed her dog, Nicholas—unarmed and located on the west [side] of the room—began screaming. HPD then filled the room with gunshots."

According to Acevedo, the cops did that because Tuttle responded to the violent invasion of his home by grabbing a .357 Magnum revolver and firing at the intruders. This week Gallegos' lawyer said Tuttle fired a total of four rounds, and every one of them hit his targets, striking one officer in the shoulder, two in the face, and one in the neck.

Tuttle's relatives consider that feat implausible. "Dennis was 5 feet 7 inches tall," their complaint notes. "He weighed 112 pounds. He suffered permanent disabilities. He suffered from other acute physical ailments which would have impacted his ability to do what HPD claims: he was wearing a brace on his left knee and had an ace bandage wrapped around his right wrist, and he was right-handed. He was not wearing body armor of any kind."

Tuttle's family notes that the city has refused to produce medical or ballistic evidence to support the police version of events, and they raise the possibility that the injured officers were hit by "friendly fire." Assuming that Tuttle did fire at the officers, the complaint says, "he did so lawfully in defense of himself, his wife, and his property, in circumstances under which any reasonable person would conclude that his home was under attack by violent criminals."

Acevedo claims the cops shot Nicholas because she posed an imminent threat. After the first cop through the door was shot, Acevedo said at a press conference the day after the raid, he "fell on the sofa in the living room," at which point Nicholas "reached over the officer and started making a move for his shotgun." Responding to that threat, he said, "other officers in the stack that made entry discharged their firearms, striking that female suspect."

The independent forensic examination, which was overseen by Michael S. Maloney, a former supervisory special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, contradicted that account. Maloney concluded 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."

Maloney found that police had fired several rounds through the exterior wall of the house near the front door. Nicholas was hit three times. "At least nine shots hit Dennis," the Tuttle complaint says, "and dozens of other rounds were fired." They hit the ceiling, the walls, the stove, and the kitchen cabinets. Contrary to what Acevedo says, that does not look like evidence that the cops "responded appropriately" to a "deadly threat." It looks like evidence that they fired blindly and wildly.

The lawsuits argue that the officers who participated in the raid are liable for violating the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force or by failing to prevent their colleagues from doing so. The families say the city is liable for encouraging Fourth Amendment violations through "policies, customs or practices" that tolerated them.

According to the Tuttle complaint, the city's failures included inadequate training, lax supervision of confidential-informant use and tactical plans, and allowing no-knock raids without body cameras, "without the presence of the case agent's supervisor," and without "supervisory review of the investigative efforts which support the search warrant affidavit." Such practices "allowed, encouraged, and assisted Squad 15 to engage in its improper searches and use [of] excessive and deadly force." For years before the Harding Street raid, the Nicholas lawsuit says, city policy makers "created the precise custom and practice that killed Nicholas by approving, encouraging, ratifying, defending, or covering up the long history of unconstitutional conduct."

The Nicholas lawsuit also argues that the HPD encouraged the use of excessive force by giving a pass to questionable shootings. "Between 2009 to 2014," it says, "HPD had 194 intentional shootings of civilians, 81 of which were of unarmed civilians. Each of the 194 shootings were deemed justified by the Internal Affairs Division… Similarly, between January 2015 and January 2019, on-duty HPD officers have killed 41 people and wounded 56 people in officer-involved shootings. Prior to this case, examiners have found officers justified in each of those shootings."

A few weeks after his officers killed Tuttle and Nicholas, Acevedo promised he would "leave no stone unturned to determine the good, the bad and the ugly." But two years later, despite his promises of transparency and accountability, he and other city officials have yet to answer basic questions about the raid, including what basis (if any) there was to think Tuttle and Nicholas were drug dealers, how many rounds were fired during the raid, who shot whom, and how police know that. Because of that stonewalling, Nicholas family lawyer Michael Doyle said at a press conference today, "the only way we're going to get to the bottom—or the top—of what really is going on…is by filing a civil action."

John Nicholas, Rhogena's brother, said their 87-year-old mother, Jo Ann Nicholas, "is not going to quit. She asks me every day….She says, 'It's been two years now. Are they ever going to tell us what happened?'" Although "it's taken a real toll on her," he said, "she's not backing down….We're not going to quit until we get answers."

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  1. Is Acevedo an elected official?

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    5. No, he was appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner who is elected but who, despite this, was still able to keep his job after the last election.

  2. Waiting for Acefuckhead and negligent judges to be charged.

    Or, drug out of their offices by their heels and thrown in the nearest river.

    1. Chipper Time?

  3. So what’s the alternative theory here? Just negligence? A bad fuck up? An attempted raid on a drug dealer “gone wrong” ala Training Day?

    1. “The shit is chess, not checkers! I’ve been planning it all week!”

      1. “This is a newspaper right? Its 90% bullshit, but it’s entertaining. That’s why I read it because it entertains me. YOU won’t let me read it, so you entertain me with your bullshit.”

        This entire comment section in a nutshell.

        1. Who’s the new guy?

          1. One of the old guys, dressed up like a confidential informant?

            1. Just another troll who, like the Irish, believe that contention is better than loneliness; total waste of time to engage with [feed] them as they will deflect and shift around to anything to just be a nuisance. It gets tiresome in those basements.

              1. Show us all on the doll where the comments touched you.

    2. Neighbor of the couple—allegedly—had some minor beef with Nicholas. Which lead to her—allegedly—making a tip that dope was being dealt out of the house. Who knows why HPD would care about this particular tip over others. Pay absolutely no attention to it being because of family or friendship ties between the HPD contact and the neighbor. Like every other 3rd World shithole.

      Anyway, the tip trickles to Goines and, for reasons known only to him, he decides to fabricate a warrant application for Nicholas’s house. AIUI, a bunch of his warrants mention dope and guns, yet he had a high percentage of warrant services that turned up neither. We’re not even counting the ones that say, “big time dealer”, and he deposits into evidence a baggie with a few buds and a kitchen scale.

      HPD and who knows who else, kick in the door, Hut!Hut!Hut! into the living room and see her dog. Blast her dog. Someone in the stack wigs out hearing the shooting, maybe hears “Gun!” and then he starts shooting. Hits another cop, screams of ‘Officer Down’ ensue, and everybody starts shooting, and damn the consequences.

      You know, just like the Louisville fucked-up warrant service went, where I ironically can’t remember the name of the woman who was shot and killed. In that one, one of the detectives admitted being outside the house, yet shooting into the house. I’m totally sure he had a clear sight picture and target too, and wasn’t just dumping the mag through the wall in the general direction of the (to him) ‘bad guy.’

      So it appears also happened with Nicholas and Tuttle. About 20 minutes after initial entry, additional gunshots were heard. My guess is either discharging Tuttle’s revolver to make it look like the couple was resisting, or Tuttle was getting finished off.

      A clear timeline of events—hell, just simply a ballistics and wounds report of the wounded officers—would be appreciated. I’d really appreciate an outside investigation of this department’s overall narcotics and other contraband search warrant procedures. It’s not like people in Texas law enforcement weren’t aware of the hazards of basing entire investigations on the say-so of one guy before: Tom Coleman’s lying, perjury and fraud in Tulia comes immediately to mind. Yet Goines was seemingly given free rein to apply for and execute search warrants on who ever he wanted, with zero oversight or auditing.

      1. “…The tip trickles to Goines and, for reasons known only to him…”

        Goines is an adrenaline junkie who loves a good shoot out.

  4. I thought the problem was trump rally and parlor and gab

  5. Good. I hope the lawsuit succeeds.

  6. It’s ok, Obama did it first. Oh wait, that doesn’t work anymore.

    1. “And he sets the bait close to the bank, hoping the gill net will yield a catch once the tide rolls back. He must wait, alone.”

  7. Don’t blame the culture. Blame the people who pulled the trigger.

    1. The culture of that police force bears their own responsibility for pulling the triggers.

    2. Sorry, no. In this case, the people who pulled the trigger are responsible for their immediate and direct failings but the people who established the culture are responsible for their long-term and much more sweeping failings, too.

  8. In an interesting (and to me, “just”) world, anyone accused of a crime could get off scot-free (although probably fired) if he could point to a boss who had ordered him to do it, obviously only if the boss was convicted, and there’s the rub; the boss’s boss could see the next step and would move heaven and earth to block his underling’s conviction.

    Let the foot soldiers send some of the generals to prison.

    1. Sure as fuck would save us from all this “investigate, inform, and grant immunity” business with the police, and the inevitable police state that constant clandestine enforcement activities give rise to. Reminds me of the cutthroat laws in ancient Babylon, where an architect would be sentenced to death if the house he built collapsed and killed its inhabitants due to a defect. They never touched the workers or slaves doing the work, as far as I know, just the shitty architect.

      I can see it. I like it.

      1. Ancient Athens had laws that rich people had to contribute a public good, like a warship. If you were accused and could find someone richer who had not contributed a public good, you were let off. How could you tell if someone were richer? You offered to trade houses; if he refused, he was richer.

        They had another rule. Cases were tried by hundreds of people. If you prosecuted someone (there were no lawyers) and could not convince 20% of the jury of your case, you were barred from prosecuting similar cases ever again.

    2. That hasn’t worked since Nuremberg.

      1. Maybe it should. I’d rather convict the top brass than the foot soldiers.

        1. You should convict them all – as say your boss tells you to kill an unarmed man in handcuffs. You would still be responsible for murder, just as your boss would be.

  9. Who’d they think they were working for, Kamala Harris?

  10. Huh. I guess I’m not moving to Houston.

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    2. Don’t. It’s a fetid swamp. People only come here to make money.

      It used to not be terrible—a very cut rate Los Angeles was how I used to describe it to people. But Democratic party rule, monstrous sprawl (with zero consideration for including things like traffic management or adequate stormwater drainage) and a nasty crime problem that recent policies have grossly exacerbated: all combine to make the juice not worth the squeeze.

      Which is too bad. It’s the best food town in the US. Fantastic museums. Until the last 5-10 years, quite low cost of living. Central location, golf year round, ocean’s right there. It isn’t worth it anymore, and it’s about to get a lot worse.

      1. Seems to be the way of blue cities, but then most of them are. And they consistently and reliably vote for Democrats.

        Seriously, how are we going to formally divide this country between these urban dystopias and everyone else?

        1. Via a river of blood, if it happens at all, QUT.

          Red Rocks had a good post in, IIRC, the Lizzie Warren/Gamestop thread last night. Let’s see…it was this one: https://reason.com/2021/01/28/elizabeth-warren-and-the-sec-should-let-the-gamestop-lulz-go-on/#comment-8731359

          Money quote:

          when that crash actually happens, if it happens, it’s about who possesses actual functional skills to not starve to death or die of thirst, and create groups that will actually trust each other enough to form defenses of their settlements. We become Yugoslavia after the collapse of communism. We would literally split into warring feudal tribes, based on ethnicity, because left-liberal pretensions about “diversity is our strength” and “love is love” only exist in decadent, highly complex societies–not the remnants of broken-down empires.

          Anyone thinking the simps will get their Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communist Utopia out of something like that is going to be in for a rude awakening when the axe cleaves their skull in a scramble over the last can of Van Camp’s Pork and Beans.

          I think Red was being an optimist if he thinks the splits will only be along racial/ethnic lines. Cultural and socioeconomic differences are also going to play a role.

          It would be an absolute fucking mess. Likely not Taiping Rebellion messy, but I’ve compared here before, the hypothetical toll to that from the Partition of India in 1947. I don’t think it’d be far off, once people lost the existing taboo against widescale serious political violence. Not Antifas fire bombs and concrete milkshake bullshit, but good ol boys getting together with rifles. West Virginia Coal Wars types of things.

          1. I think the divide will be more along socioeconomic and regional lines. The urban liberals will be crushed like a bug.

      2. The museum’s are great.

    3. Thank you.

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    1. This type of criminal activity happens regardless of red or blue. Corruption of power through force is color blind in the same sense that federal funding bills will pass regardless of party affiliation. I’ve never heard of felony murder. But 1st, 2nd, 3rd degree, yes. With all of the information available as of right now, in my opinion, one could argue premeditation. No?

  12. Funny how often this sort of stuff happens in cities run by Democrats, what with their supposed interest in protecting civilians from police overreach.

    1. It’s like the old mercantilism; sugar from one the West Indies, rum to North America, and slaves to run the plantations. They need their citizens to be the way that are, in order to maintain their power and institutions, and of course to vote for them in every f’ing election. It’s a terminal cycle.

      1. Yes. I read a quote from Terence McKenna not too long ago that I thought I was interesting:
        “Slavery died with the fall of the Roman Empire. It absolutely died. I mean, during the medieval period, if you owned slaves, you owned one slave. It was like owning a Duesenberg or something. It was the absolute proof that you were a person
        of immense wealth. And then the slave would serve your food or something like that. But the use of slave labor in agriculture was something that was brought back in the 14th century, uh, by Christian-the Christian gentlemen of Europe specifically
        for the production of sugar. No other reason. The stuff which came later, the tobacco and the cotton and all that, that was simply because there was an over-supply of slaves, and so there was a need to soak up all this slave labor.
        Why sugar? Because it was an addicting drug. Nobody needs white sugar. You can go from birth to the grave and never get near it and never miss it, but it was, uh- sugar is made in open vats in the primitive, you know, the way it was done 500 years
        ago, at a temperature of 135 degrees. No free person will work sugar. You have to chain people to the machinery. You literally have to chain them to the machinery, and then they die in short order from, uh, from heat prostration. In 1800, every
        ounce of sugar entering England was produced by slave labor, and Western civilization barely had a thing to say about it. And we don´t even think of sugar as a drug unless we´re very highly sensitized to these issues. (Terence McKenna)

  13. Rubber-stamp judges should face some punishment for failing to do their jobs.

  14. until I looked at the check of $7869 .READ MORE

  15. Funny how Breonna Taylor was national news but this wasn’t. Guess it couldn’t be used against Republicans in an election year.

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