Raid probe puts unit under scrutiny
Acevedo assures ‘extensive’ investigation of drug division to come
An internal Houston police investigation has uncovered alarming deficiencies in the department’s narcotics division that led to an allegedly falsified search warrant used to justify a southeast Houston drug raid last month that killed two Pecan Park residents and injured five officers, according to documents obtained Friday by the Houston Chronicle.
In a hastily called news conference, Police Chief Art Acevedo said Gerald Goines, the veteran narcotics case agent at the center of the controversy, likely will face criminal charges. The internal investigation revealed he allegedly lied about using a confidential informant to conduct an undercover buy at the residence on Harding Street. The buy led to a raid and fatal gunfight at the house the next day, killing Dennis Tuttle, 59, and Rhogena Nicholas, 58, and injuring five Houston Police Department officers.
The debacle, which has infuriated officers
across the department and which critics say has damaged public trust in HPD, also prompted Acevedo to order an “extensive audit” of the 175-member narcotics division and an examination of Goines’ recent cases.
“We know that there’s already a crime that’s been committed,” Acevedo said. “It’s a serious crime when we prepare a document to go into somebody’s home, into the sanctity that is somebody’s home. It has to be truthful, it has to be honest, it has to be factual. … There’s high probability there will be a criminal charge.”
Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi said that while he was “extremely concerned and disturbed” by the allegations that came to light Friday, they were “not indicative” of the performance of the rest of the department’s 5,200 officers.
“We certainly feel this is an isolated incident,” he said. “However, we will certainly support any review or changes to policy that need to be made in order to ensure that something like this never happens again.”
The critical allegations were outlined in a sworn affidavit written by HPD Officer R. Bass, with the department’s Special Investigations Unit, who asked a judge for a search warrant to examine the cellphone of Steven Bryant, an undercover narcotics officer relieved of duty after the shooting.
The Chronicle normally does not publish the names of undercover officers, but Goines and Bryant were identified in an affidavit related to a search warrant and both have been relieved of duty.
In the initial HPD warrant, Goines wrote that he monitored a deal by a confidential informant who identified the substance that was purchased as heroin and said there was a 9mm handgun in the house. Police obtained a no-knock warrant — allowing them to enter unannounced — and burst into the small southeast home the next day to a hail of gunfire.
At the end of the shootout, both Tuttle and Nicholas had been shot to death and five officers were injured — four by gunfire. Police found 18 grams of marijuana — about half an ounce — and a little more than a gram of white powder, but no heroin or trafficking paraphernalia. After the fatal operation, neighbors pushed back on assertions by police that the residence was a drug house.
HPD investigators have not been able to locate confidential informants who Goines claimed — in two separate interviews — made the undercover purchases at the Pecan Park home, according to Bass’ affidavit.
When detectives talked to the informants, both said they’d worked for Goines but never purchased drugs at the 7815 Harding home, where Tuttle and Nicholas were killed. Investigators then got a full list of Goines’ confidential informants, who all denied making a buy at the house or ever purchasing narcotics from Nicholas or Tuttle.
Bryant told investigators he had retrieved two bags of heroin from the center console of Goines’ police car at the instruction of another officer. That was not consistent with the affidavit used to obtain the warrant for the Jan. 28 raid, which said Bryant identified heroin brought out of the house. Though he took the two bags of drugs for testing to determine that they were heroin, Bryant eventually said he had never seen the narcotics in question before retrieving them from the car.
Investigators are reviewing Goines’ past cases, Acevedo said, adding that he’s assigned Assistant Chief Pedro Lopez to take a broader look “to make sure that we’re not being myopic, that we look at our entire narcotics operation out there, in terms of the street-level units; and they’ll be conducting a very extensive audit.” Renewed calls for scrutiny
The allegations of false information used to conduct the raid further stunned and angered residents. It marked one of most significant cases of police misconduct within the narcotics division in decades.
“When I joined this police department I told my people that if you lie you die,” Acevedo he said. “I’ve been here over two years and you will not find anyone here that has a sustained dishonesty violation who is a member of this department.”
As Friday’s revelations raised renewed calls for outside scrutiny, Acevedo dismissed the need for an independent investigation.
“The Houston Police Department is conducting a robust investigation, a thorough investigation, an impartial investigation into everything that occurred leading up to and during that raid,” he said, repeating past promises of transparency.
However, he was emphatic his officers had legitimate reasons to investigate the house, citing a 911 call from a woman reporting to be the mother of a young woman using heroin at the location.
“We have the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch), we have the audio, we have the patrol units that responded,” Acevedo said. “This was not just an investigator who decided to go target a house, as far as we’ve determined so far, for no reason.”
The Chronicle has requested a copy of the 911 call Acevedo referenced, but HPD has asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to allow the request to be withheld.
Mayor Sylvester Turner called for a “full and thorough” investigation, urging that it be completed “as soon as possible.”
“I will refrain from commenting about it until I have all facts before me,” he said, in an emailed statement.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said her office was continuing to work with police to investigate the matter.
“After a thorough review, our Civil Rights Division prosecutors will present this case to a grand jury to determine if any criminal charges are warranted,” Ogg said, in an emailed statement.
Former Chief Charles A. McClelland said the scandal constitutes serious violations of civil and constitutional rights, and possibly puts the city in civil jeopardy.
“It goes to the highest type of corruption any time police officers are accused of fabricating evidence,” he said. “And it has betrayed the public trust.”
Pending cases at risk
McClelland, who allowed FBI agents to review HPD investigations into a number of police brutality cases, said the scandal merited an external probe.
“If I was chief, I would also ask the FBI to conduct its own independent investigation,” he said. “Everybody at HPD needs to be held accountable — from Goines’ supervisors all the way to the chief of police.”
Houston defense attorneys warned that Goines’ conduct could jeopardize many pending cases.
“The saddest part of all of this, is this guy probably would have gotten away with it, but for the fact it was a botched raid and police officers were shot and innocent people killed,” said Doug Murphy, a criminal defense attorney and president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
Acevedo showed little tolerance for the alleged conduct of his officers and later expressed compassion for the relatives of the couple slain in the raid.
“I feel really badly for the Tuttle family, because no matter what we find there will always be a doubt,” Acevedo said. “I’m not saying we’re not going to find things but there’s always ‘what could they have done differently,’ and my heart goes out to them because they have a lot of unanswered questions.”
Police Chief Art Acevedo has ordered an “extensive audit” of the 175-member narcotics division after a botched drug raid Jan. 28 left two civilians dead and five officers injured.
An internal investigation by Houston Police reveals an officer allegedly lied about using a confidential informant to conduct an undercover buy at 7815 Harding Street.