By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
"The worst part," Wanda Miller is saying, "was the way they pulled him up off the floor by his hair. I could see there was blood all over him."
Miller is sitting in the living room of her house in Humble, a small clapboard-and-trailer town on the border of Harris and Montgomery counties, talking about that night four years ago when she opened her bedroom door and saw her son Billy, then 19, being held like freshly bagged prey by a patrolman from the Houston Police Department.
As Wanda Miller turns her memory to that time, her hands tremble and her eyes tear up. It's usually pretty quiet in Humble. The short trip from Houston's freeways and high rises to Humble's rural two-lanes and dogwood trees is like a passage through a cultural airlock on the way to another world. If Houston's proud, Humble's resigned. Bad things happen, but unlike, say, a River Oaks carjacking, it's the kind of stuff that has a way of drifting through the ether until it evaporates, the way one's attention to something insignificant quickly fades away.
But this memory is one that refuses to fade. Wanda Miller knows that her son wasn't a complete innocent. She knows that her son was wrong not to have pulled his motorcycle over when ordered to do so by two HPD officers. And she understands that policemen can get angry when they're forced to chase someone who's disobeyed them. But despite all that, she can't fathom how a simple case of speeding caused so much hurt and humiliation to be visited upon her house.
"And they were so ugly," she says, her hands trembling. "When they left, one of them called us white trash."
The HPD, perhaps recalling its days as the meanest force in the land, may well have expected the Millers to act like what they were called and simply disappear to lick their wounds. Instead, the family has filed a civil suit against Houston and two of its finest that, if decided in the Millers' favor, could end up costing the city a few million dollars.
The trial is set to start June 6. The Millers are seeking damages for Billy's beating -- which, doctors for the family have determined, resulted in mild traumatic brain damage. They're also seeking damages for psychological harm done to his older sister, Linda, who was also arrested that night after she watched her brother be bounced around the Millers' home. Since her encounter with the Houston police, Linda Miller, who has battled a learning disability and speech impediment all her life, has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I feel so violated," says Linda, 32, a shy woman who has lived at home all her life. "We all do, because this was our house and they just came in."
They came in on July 3, 1990, shortly before midnight. About half an hour earlier, Billy Miller had done something stupid. He was riding his motorcycle home from work, heading east on the North Loop near I-45, when an HPD car whizzed past en route to a drug bust a few miles away. As they passed Billy, HPD patrolmen David Ashby and Domingo Garcia noted that he was going about 75 mph, a good 20 mph over the limit.
A few moments later, when the drug bust was called off, Ashby and Garcia decided to revisit their speeding cyclist. At first, Billy slowed down at the sight of the police, but when he saw the patrol car's overhead lights flashing, he panicked. Without thinking, he says, he punched the throttle of his Yamaha FZR 600 cafe racer and took off.
Despite HPD policy guidelines that suggest traffic violators don't warrant pursuit, the chase went on for 25 minutes. The officers may have thought Billy was driving a stolen bike. Maybe they suspected him of committing a serious crime. But if they followed standard procedure and ran a license check on the motorcycle, they should have known that the rider was leading the police in the direction of his home -- where, Billy Miller says, he planned to be arrested with his parents at his side.
"I screwed up," admits Billy, now a whip-thin young man of 23. "I made a mistake. But once [the police chase] started, I only wanted to make it home. To be safe."
Even after he had exited the freeway and patrolmen Ashby and Garcia had fallen well behind him, Billy knew he was in for it. By then, at least two other Houston Police units, plus a Harris County Sheriff's Department vehicle, had joined in the chase, which was now being tracked by an HPD helicopter recruited from the aborted drug bust.
With the chopper's spotlight on him, Billy Miller rattled into his neighborhood, a mixed bag of small houses and trailers. He parked his bike on his front porch and went inside. He removed his shoes, took a drink of water from the refrigerator and walked down the hall to the other side of the house. In his room, he changed his shirt. It was quiet, save for the rhythmic drone of a helicopter drawing tight circles over the house.