Killer Behind the Badge

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

With the other two deputies a safe distance behind him, McGowen crossed the bedroom doorway, pointed his 10 mm semi-automatic pistol toward the inside of the room and three times ordered White to drop a gun. (White's .25-caliber pistol was found on the bed by McGowen and one of the other two deputies after the shooting.) In his statement to investigators and later at his trial, McGowen claimed that White turned and faced him and raised her pistol at him with her right hand. When she did, McGowen says, he fired at her three times. Later he would brag to a jailer that he had shot White first in the head and then twice in the torso -- in reverse order of the method recommended in a federal law enforcement training film he had seen. White died on her living room floor, despite paramedics efforts to save her life.

Fatal shootings involving police officers are always strange scenes. The "do not cross" perimeter cordoned off by yellow police tape is always larger. The detectives and other officers are always a little more tense, a little less friendly to reporters. But when investigators arrived at 3407 Amber Forest in Olde Oaks, they found, to their surprise, that there were no reporters or photographers around at all. Hurricane Andrew was about to hit the Louisiana coast and, in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention, newsrooms around the city were stretched thin. But stranger than the absence of the media, the investigators thought, was evidence at the scene that immediately raised suspicions about McGowen's version of what had happened in Susan White's bedroom.

The first odd thing to strike one of the investigators was the fact that McGowen had been executing a "retaliation" arrest warrant when the fatal shooting took place. You just don't see many retaliation warrants issued for people who live in fashionable subdivisions like Olde Oaks. But it could happen, the investigator admitted to himself.

Then there was the picture that McGowen, under questioning at the scene, painted of Susan White and her son being violent and dangerous, machine-gun dealing desperadoes. It just didn't seem to fit. Shortly after they had arrived, the investigators had been told that White had called 9-1-1 -- something you wouldn't expect a criminal to do.

Finally, they just had a bad feeling about the shooting. During the required "walk through" at the scene, in which an officer reenacts a shooting, McGowen seemed to be proud of what he had done.

"I've never seen that in an officer before or since," says one investigator.

Two months after White's death, McGowen was indicted for murder. In addition to the troublesome questions that had surfaced at the scene, other evidence had come to the attention of investigators. McGowen had claimed White pointed the gun at him with her right hand; all of Susan's friends and family knew she was left-handed. On top of that discrepancy, police firearms experts could find no trace of White's fingerprints on the .25-caliber pistol. In the meantime, officers from various law enforcement agencies began to contact investigators with their own stories about McGowen. Among them was Captain C.J. Harper of the sheriff's department, who told them of White's fear of McGowen -- a fear that he and others in the department had failed to take seriously (according to investigators, however, there is no evidence that White ever filed a formal complaint against McGowen with the sheriff's department, as she indicated having done in her 9-1-1 call).

McGowen's indictment angered lawyer Bob Thomas, a former Houston police officer who represented McGowen initially. At the time of the indictment Thomas told the Houston Chronicle that the charges against his client were intended to embarrass the department and Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen.

"It's a big political game," said Thomas, who claimed that the indictment had been returned primarily on the basis of hearsay evidence -- admissible before a grand jury but not in a trial.

Much of the evidence the grand jury heard was, in fact, hearsay and came from witnesses like Ray Valentine and Helen Bazata, who testified about what Susan White had told them, rather than their own first-hand knowledge of what McGowen had said and done to their friend. And, indeed, it wasn't until McGowen's trial that investigators actually realized why McGowen was guilty of murder. The revelation came during the testimony of a crime scene investigator from the sheriff's department. And, in part, it was McGowen's own bragging to the jailer about the order of the shots he fired at White that would play a large part in convincing the jury that he was guilty of murder.

According to the jailer, McGowen had boasted that his first shot had hit White in the head. The crime scene investigator testified that claim was consistent with his findings. However, he said, the first shot was not a direct hit. It had first struck a cable television converter box, and had then hit White. The bullet traveled, right to left, across the bridge of her nose. If White had been directly facing McGowen, as he had claimed, the bullet would not have taken that path.

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