A Phony Warrant, a Deadly Drug Raid, and a Barrel of Bad Apples in Houston

Did the city's "policies, customs or practices," invite Fourth Amendment violations?


On January 28, 2019, plainclothes narcotics officers broke into a house on Harding Street in Houston and killed all three occupants: Dennis Tuttle, a retired 59-year-old machinist; his 58-year-old wife, Rhogena Nicholas; and their dog. The couple's families marked the two-year anniversary of that deadly home invasion by filing federal civil rights lawsuits against the city, its police chief, and 13 officers implicated in the operation.

The raid, which was triggered by a phony tip, 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' story. 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" and 10 months after the raid was still dismissing "the chances of this being systemic," 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.

The lawsuit filed by Nicholas' mother and brother says Narcotics Squad 15, which executed the raid, "operated as a criminal organization" that "tormented Houston residents for years." The officers' crimes included "search warrants obtained by perjury," "false statements submitted to cover up the fraudulent warrants," "improper payments to informants," "illegal and unconstitutional invasions of homes," "illegal arrests," and "excessive force."

Goines, whom Acevedo initially described as "a big teddy bear" who was "tough as nails" and had "tremendous courage," worked in narcotics for 25 years. According to news reports and court documents, he routinely lied to obtain no-knock search warrants, framed innocent people, handled evidence recklessly, carried on a sexual relationship with a confidential informant, and stole public money.

Goines was not the only allegedly 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."

Acevedo argues that Goines' colleagues acted in good faith based on a warrant they believed was valid and should not be held responsible for his fabrications. In January, after a Harris County grand jury indicted Officer Felipe Gallegos for murdering Tuttle, Acevedo reiterated his position that the cops "responded appropriately" to the "deadly threat" they encountered after they broke in the door and immediately opened fire, killing the dog with a shotgun.

An independent forensic examination commissioned by the Tuttle and Nicholas families cast doubt on key parts of Acevedo's story, including the justification for shooting the dog and the claim that Nicholas, who was unarmed, posed an imminent threat. The physical evidence indicates that the cops, who said Tuttle responded to the violent invasion of his home by grabbing a revolver and shooting at the intruders, blindly and wildly fired dozens of rounds. Tuttle—who supposedly fired four rounds, hitting one cop in the shoulder, two in the face, and one in the neck—was frail and disabled, which his family says makes that feat implausible.

Both families argue that the city's "policies, customs or practices," including inadequate training and lax supervision, invited Fourth Amendment violations. They say the city has refused to answer basic questions about what happened during the raid, which was not recorded by body cameras. "It's been two years now," said John Nicholas, Rhogena's brother. "We're not going to quit until we get answers."