Killer Behind the Badge

Susan White complained to friends and authorities about Deputy Joseph Kent McGowen, but nobody listened. Then he killed her.

The sergeant recalls one occasion when McGowen informed him that he no longer planned to write traffic tickets. According to the sergeant, a new captain at the command station had ended an unofficial quota that called for each officer to write two tickets daily. One evening the sergeant was dispatched to a scene in southwest Houston where McGowen was trying to resolve an automobile accident involving a driver who spoke only Spanish, had no driver's license or insurance, and had rear-ended a woman's car at a stop sign. McGowen refused to issue the man a ticket.

"And I asked McGowen, 'Why not?'," says the sergeant. "And he tells me, 'Conflicting statements.' And McGowen doesn't know any Spanish!

"And I say, 'Well, I think you need to write a ticket.' And he says, 'No, the captain says we don't have to write tickets. As a matter of fact, I don't even carry a ticket book anymore.'"

The sergeant says McGowen further informed him that the woman really had a bad attitude, a remark he believes reflected McGowen's own attitude toward women. It's an attitude that the sergeant would have to deal with once he left his desk assignment and was placed on patrol, where he served as McGowen's supervisor two days each week. According the sergeant, McGowen asked to be assigned to the Galleria area "because that's where the pussy is." And McGowen -- who was investigated by internal affairs on allegations of the sexual harassment of a female officer -- then boasted of his sexual prowess and practices once he finally got his wish to patrol in the Galleria area.

"He got over to the district and was bragging about getting all these women," says the sergeant. "And he said, 'Yeah, I've only had one that made me wear a condom. I finally broke down and wore one. But then it broke, so that taught her.' He didn't think much of women."

And the sergeant didn't think much of McGowen. To his delight, he had the chance to make his opinion official in an exit evaluation he wrote when McGowen resigned from HPD in 1989. In his report, the sergeant said that the only future law enforcement job that McGowen might be suited for would be one where he could work alone, have few responsibilities and no contact with the public.

McGowen reapplied to HPD in 1991, and the sergeant says he was asked to change his exit report, but he refused. One of the county investigators assigned to Susan White's murder says that despite the sergeant's steadfastness McGowen was allowed to take two psychological evaluations when he tried to hire on again at HPD. He failed both. The evaluations -- one conducted by a HPD staff psychiatrist, the other by a doctor at Baylor College of Medicine -- concluded that McGowen had violent tendencies and a disdain of women and minorities, but did get along well with fellow white men.

"I wrote [the exit report] the way I wrote it because I didn't want him back," says the sergeant. "I felt that he was a danger, that if the city took him back, they'd be leaving themselves wide open for anything that happened. Because I really felt that something might happen. I said, 'Somebody's going to die out here.'"

Unfortunately for Susan White, no one at the Harris County Sheriff's Department bothered to read the sergeant's report. Or if they did, they didn't care.

In Texas, peace officers must be certified by the state's Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education. To be licensed by the commission, an applicant must have received 560 hours of law enforcement training. (In contrast, a hairdresser needs 1,500 hours of training for state certification. In the words of one assistant district attorney, "A bad hair day is obviously infinitely more important than whether you are killed by a police officer in Texas.")

To keep the license without having to submit to new psychological screening and drug testing, an officer can't go more than six months without holding a commission -- that is, without having a job, paid or unpaid, with a law enforcement agency. Many former officers who have moved on to other careers are able to retain their certifications by becoming reserve officers -- unpaid volunteers -- usually in small cities or counties that can't afford a large number of paid officers.

In his resignation letter to the HPD, dated December 20, 1988, and effective January 9, 1989, McGowen indicated that his decision was based on his desire to become a full-time student and earn a college degree. Shortly after leaving HPD, however, McGowen applied with the Tomball Police Department to become a volunteer reserve officer, a job that would allow him to keep his state certification.

At first, things went well for McGowen, who was putting in between 10 and 20 hours a week for Tomball. He was even selected as the department's representative on the Harris County Organized Crime Task Force. But shortly after McGowen won that coveted assignment, questions were raised about how much he was charging the task force for mileage, says Leroy Michna, who was then the acting chief of the police department. Nothing ever came it, but Michna says it was about that time that he began to notice other McGowen oddities.

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