Killer Behind the Badge

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

"He was hitting on her," says Bazata, "and she just wished he would leave her alone."

During that summer White had developed a friendship with Ray Valentine, a man 13 years her senior. Valentine says he and White met at Del Friscos Steak House, a FM 1960-area restaurant, where they had dinner together a half-dozen times during a two-month period before she was killed. Sometimes they would be joined at Del Friscos by C.J. Harper, a captain with the sheriff's department, one of the many local law officers Valentine had come to know in his long tenure as producer of the Shrine Circus in Houston and 53 other cities.

As they got to know each other better, Valentine says, White began telling him about McGowen's persistence and how she was concerned for herself, as well as Jason. Valentine recalls that White, during that vulnerable time in her life, had at first appreciated McGowen's interest, since her husband had moved out, leaving her and Jason alone. However, it had soon become clear to White that the 27-year-old deputy's interest went beyond the normal scope of neighborhood-oriented policing, and her initial appreciation quickly changed to apprehension. Valentine says White informally passed on her concerns to Harper and others in the sheriff's department.

"She was scared to death of him," says Valentine. "I thought she was just hysterical about it. But she told me, 'Well, I guess you and everybody else will believe me when he kills me or Jason or both.' And about 12 days later he did."

On Sunday, August 23, White and Valentine were again having dinner at Del Friscos when they received a call on Valentine's portable phone. On the other end was Jason's girlfriend, calling to let White know that her son had just been arrested by Deputy McGowen. Valentine drove White to the nearby strip center parking lot of Cliff's Hamburgers along FM 1960, where Jason was being accused of selling a stolen gun to one of McGowen's so-called "confidential informants," another teenager who also happened to be Jason's best friend.

Valentine says when they arrived on the scene he introduced himself to McGowen and told him that he and White were there to see how they could help.

"He took his gun and stuck it in my face," Valentine recalls. At that point, according to the testimony of several witnesses at McGowen's murder trial, White, who had apparently been drinking, began shouting obscenities at the deputy. Jason was placed in the back of a patrol car and taken to the sheriff's department's Cypresswood substation, where he was detained for several hours before being transferred to one of the downtown jails. Prosecutors on duty at the jail thought so little of the evidence that they refused to charge Jason with a firearms violation, but they did hold him on two counts of credit card abuse. For much of the next 24 hours Susan White tried to cut through the county red tape to free her son on bond.

It took her until 9:30 on Monday night to finally get Jason out of jail. She had been in contact by phone with Ray Valentine for much of the day as he drove to Wichita Falls in preparation for an upcoming Shrine Circus. Exhausted and a nervous wreck, White called Valentine for the last time around 11:30 that evening. Valentine says White voiced fears that McGowen would show up at her house. The last thing he remembers her saying was that she had taken two Valiums and was going to go to sleep.

"I told her that sounded like a damn good idea," he recalls.
Meanwhile, according to Harris County authorities who investigated White's murder, McGowen was outraged when he learned that the weapons charge against Jason had been ignored. The investigators say a revenge-seeking McGowen concocted a tale to obtain a warrant for the arrest of Susan White -- a warrant that accused her of threatening the life of his in-formant. According to trial testimony, McGowen, after several hours of trying, was able to cajole an assistant district attorney into okaying the warrant, and the piece of paper approving the arrest of Susan White was signed by a judge.

According to trial testimony, McGowen had given the assistant prosecutor the impression that his informant's life was in imminent danger. But rather than immediately arresting White, McGowen went home after obtaining the warrant. The next afternoon, August 24, he returned to work. It was not until after midnight, early on Tuesday the 25th, that McGowen, accompanied by two other deputies, drove to 3407 Amber Forest, ostensibly to finally arrest the woman who he claimed was imperiling the life of his informant.

Around 12:30 a.m. McGowen and the other two deputies began banging on White's doors and windows, ordering her to open up. She refused and, instead, called 9-1-1. Meanwhile, McGowen contacted a sergeant on duty by radio who gave him permission to kick in the back door. As the back door flew open, the burglar alarm sounded, and McGowen -- his gun drawn -- charged inside, heading first through the laundry room, then the kitchen and then down the hallway toward White's bedroom.

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