Killer Behind the Badge

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

Perhaps it's just a coincidence or an unusual run of bad luck, but the troubling string of incidents involving current or former sheriff's employees has naturally raised questions about the department's hiring practices. One former close associate of Klevenhagen's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes part of the problem has to do with the large number of employees hired to staff the county's new downtown jail at 701 San Jacinto, which opened in September 1991 and where McGowen worked for a time after first hiring on with the department. With a work force of 663, the new jail staff accounts for about 20 percent of the department's 3,334 employees.

"Whenever there was a personnel problem, a problem child as we called them," says the former Klevenhagen associate, "I would say, 'How did this moron get into the system?' And more often than not, this problem child was a product of an open hiring. They had to hire so many hundreds of people to open up the new facility."

The president of the Harris County Deputy Sheriff's Union, Lynwood Moreau, disagrees with that analysis. He believes, however, there is room for considerable improvement in the way the sheriff's department makes its new hires.

"There are 3,000 officers in this department and things like [the White case] are going to happen," Moreau says. "But I do think there needs to be more emphasis on psychological evaluations. The sheriff's department puts too much emphasis on physical evaluations, rather than concentrating on people with sound minds."

On paper, at least, it seems the sheriff's department's hiring standards are stringent enough to keep potential criminals from being hired. "A thorough background investigation is conducted on applicants, and evidence of good moral character and reputation is mandatory," according to the department's guidelines. Among the grounds for rejection is "evidence of mental or emotional insta-bility" or an "unfavorable record ...."

The department also requires that an applicant's past employment record be checked, "including number of jobs and reasons for leaving, as well as employment references ...."

Leroy Michna says he wishes he had talked with the HPD sergeant who completed McGowen's exit review before hiring him at the Tomball Police Department. He says few law agencies take the time to examine personnel files from an applicant's previous job, and the fear of lawsuits makes agencies reluctant to voluntarily pass on such information to other prospective employers.

"If we terminate somebody," he says, "we'll tell [another department] they can come in and look at his file. But ... no, we won't tell anybody, 'Hey, this guy's a nut.'"

Susan White would have been 45 this past October. Today her grave is marked by a small headstone in a cemetery outside of Baton Rouge. Her family members, many of whom live not far from the gravesite, get little comfort from the distant promise of money from a wrongful death lawsuit. And they are tormented by the fact that her killer is still a free man.

"I don't understand these policemen," says 54-year-old Gloria Hamilton, Susan's sister. "I think they get a little cocky. I mean, this guy has taken my sister's life, and she was so dear to my family. And I am not going to quit until he's in jail.

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