By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Last September, police finally arrested 63-year-old Ora David Lott in New Orleans and brought him back to Houston to stand trial for the 1964 murder of Alfonso Orosco Sr. As the lone surviving eyewitness to the slaying, Alfonso Orosco Jr. is looking forward to the day he can take the stand and finger Lott as the man he saw gun down his father during a robbery on the city's northeast side.
It's a story with the makings of a good pulp potboiler -- a son keeps the faith for three decades, then is able to help bring his father's killer to justice. Except the story of Al Orosco Jr. is not quite that neat, and lately it has taken on the more complex trappings of a Greek tragedy.
In an effort to revive the shelved investigation of his father's killing, Orosco gave the Houston Police Department a sworn statement last summer detailing what he witnessed during the murder. But Orosco now claims that investigators changed his statement without his knowledge to deflect potential criticism about the department's taking 30 years to make an arrest -- and possibly letting the suspect slip through its fingers once, and perhaps twice, in the meantime. The rift between Orosco and police has grown to the point that his value as the prosecution's star witness against Lott may be critically diminished. And at this point, Orosco sounds like he's prepared to watch his father's accused killer go free over a personal point of pride.
"I'm not going to perjure myself," says Orosco, now 42. "I'll cut him loose first. And I've already told them that."
On July 19, 1964, Al Orosco Jr. went to Mass at Holy Name Catholic Church with his mother, father, brother and two sisters. After church, while his father went to work, the rest of the family picnicked at Moody Park. Around dusk -- Orosco can still recall the brilliant red and orange sunset that day -- Orosco's father came to the park to collect the family. Orosco then accompanied his father to Orosco Wholesale Supply, the beer and soft drinks store his father and uncle ran on Liberty Road.
Business was good for the Orosco brothers, averaging close to $8,000 a week in receipts, according to Al Orosco Jr. At the close of business each day, Al Orosco Sr. and his brother, Lupe, would take the cash from their register and place it inside a longneck-beer box. Each Sunday night, they would take their money home and count it.
On the last Sunday night that Al Orosco Sr. would check his cash register, his son was playing inside the store when several fire trucks, their sirens blasting, roared past. They were responding to an alarm box that had been pulled down the street. The younger Orosco ran out the front door to see what the commotion was about. But there was no fire, and he headed back inside the store.
"I walked back in and I got me a good 90-degree look at him," Orosco says of the man he found pointing a gun at his father. "I saw him and he didn't see me, so I started to back up. I was going to go back out the door."
But the gunman caught sight of him and called him over. His uncle, who was standing at the end of the counter, grabbed him as the robber, a large black man, continued to point his gun at Orosco's father, who was standing behind the register. When the gunman asked for money, Orosco recalls, his father picked up the longneck box and set it on the counter. The bandit then asked for his father's wallet.
"My father was using both of his hands as he pulled his wallet out and handed it over," says Orosco. "But then it slipped out of his hands and the weapon discharged."
The gunman grabbed the wallet and box of money and ran as Orosco's father, a bullet in his chest, slumped into a chair behind the counter. Orosco watched as his father bled to death.
Six detectives were assigned to the case. Their investigation soon led to a search for Ora David Lott, but Lott's trail already was cold. A few years passed, no arrest was made. Then, in 1970, for some reason that is inexplicable today, the prosecutor assigned to the case asked a judge to drop the charges against Lott. He did.
Two years later, Houston police received an inquiry from authorities in Florida, who had an Ora David Lott in custody. They said they understood that Lott was wanted for murder in Houston. But since the case had been dismissed, there was no warrant for Lott's arrest. When Houston police finally realized that the charge against Lott had been dropped, the suspect had been released and was on the move again.
Today, investigators acknowledge that the case was bungled in 1972, but they blame it on the decision by the district attorney's office to drop the charges and the fact that HPD records were not computerized at the time. According to Orosco, an HPD detective has since told him that Lott also may have eluded capture in a similar fashion when he was detained by New Orleans police around the same time.
Orosco says that in 1975, in an attempt to keep the languishing case alive, he went to HPD's homicide division to check on the status of the investigation into his father's murder. He was not warmly received. "Basically, I was told to beat it," he says.
Another decade passed with no developments in the investigation, so, Orosco says, he went back to the homicide division. On that occasion, he recalls, he had a pleasant conversation with investigator D.A. McAnulty, now retired from the department. The detective gave Orosco his business card and told him to stay in touch, but held out little hope of finding his father's killer.
And, indeed, nothing happened. By 1993, Orosco's frustration with the police was such that he took it upon himself to track down his father's killer. Orosco, by then a CPA with his own company, hired a private investigator and tried to get the media interested in his father's unsolved murder. Channel 26's Randy Wallace bit, and his report on the mystery sparked renewed interest by Houston police. As the only living eyewitness to the murder (his uncle had died), Orosco was asked by investigators to give a statement that could be used in court -- in the unlikely event that a suspect was ever apprehended.
Wallace's story -- which featured a forensic artist's age-enhanced drawing of a photo of Lott taken prior to the murder -- also piqued the interest of two investigators from the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force, a multiagency team that operates on a state grant and specializes in tracking down fugitives. Investigators from HPD and the task force knew that Lott had served in the military and was from Louisiana, so they decided to have him red-flagged at Veterans Administration hospitals in that state and others. Sure enough, in September 1994, Lott, bearing a striking resemblance to the artist-enhanced photo of his younger self, visited a VA hospital in New Orleans. He was arrested a short time later.
"It was about five in the afternoon when the phone rang and the investigator said they had him," says Orosco. "And I'm like, 'I don't believe it.' It was the happiest day of my life. Anytime I'm down in the dumps I remember that day and feel good."
Orosco must be thinking about that day quite a bit lately.
Last March, he testified at Lott's bond hearing. (The suspect remains in jail, his bond set at $200,000.) Afterward, he watched a news report of the hearing. It included a comment by David Bires, Lott's attorney, that left Orosco dismayed.
"We have a witness [Orosco] that comes forward 30 years after the fact," Bires said. "We have some problems with that."
Orosco went back and reviewed his copy of the statement he gave police in July 1994. To his surprise, he says, he discovered a sentence he believes police added to the document without his knowledge.
"My family has had a difficult time with my father's death and it has not been until recently that I felt that we were prepared to inquire about his death," reads the portion of the statement in question. Orosco was furious. He claims he never told investigators any such thing. He contends he and his family had contacted the police about his father's murder many times over the 30 years prior to Lott's arrest. And he believes police embellished the statement for self-serving reasons.
"They're more concerned about their image and being embarrassed than they are about me and my case," Orosco charges. "They think they're immune [from scrutiny]."
HPD homicide investigator C.P. "Abby" Abbondandolo began re-examining the Orosco case in late 1993. "I guess I was the only one goofy enough to do it," he explains.
It was Abbondandolo who took Orosco's statement in July 1994, and he emphatically denies that it was altered in any way. "I must have wrote that in that mystery ink that only materializes after you sign your name to it," he says.
The detective acknowledges that mistakes were made early on in the Orosco case. But he points out that he was two years old when Al Orosco Sr. was murdered, and he would have no reason to be part of a conspiracy to protect the image of a police department that has undergone tidal changes since 1964. When Lott was finally arrested, he says, it was one of his proudest moments as a police officer.
Orosco also has claimed that approximately $8,000 was taken in the robbery of his father's store, and he suggests that someone other than the robber eventually made off with the money. The money box was recovered nearby on the night of the murder, and, according to a letter from assistant police chief John Gallemore to Orosco, only $174.75 was found in it.
Abbondandolo dismisses Orosco's claims about missing money as a "fish story," and he says he's puzzled that Orosco would jeopardize the case against his father's accused killer by raising a stink about police conduct.
"I really had expected that after the guy was located that there would be a heavy sigh of relief and maybe even a little celebration. Thirty years afterward, the suspect of a crime finally being brought to justice. This is something they write those hokey detective novels out of.
"He can be bitter and angry at the police department. He can join that long list of guys that are. But for me, anyway, I was given a task that was kind of unusual, and I did it. And I feel pretty proud of myself. But if he wants to be angry, go ahead. Tums are relatively cheap."
The woman who must somehow overcome the differences between Abbondandolo and Orosco, assistant district attorney Elsa Alcala, would prefer not to have to address Orosco's allegation that police changed his statement.
"I can't say that he is correct in what he says," she says. "I can't say that he is incorrect. I'm trying to not form an opinion in that regard. I'm trying to decide whether I can prove that Mr. Lott is guilty of the crime or not."
While Alcala downplays the impact of Orosco's claims on her ability to prosecute Lott, defense attorney Bires sees the schism between authorities and their only eyewitness in a more significant light.
"[Orosco] is crazy and we're going to have some fun with him," says Bires. He suggests that Orosco identified Lott from seeing his picture in a True Detective-style magazine as a child, not from having seen him inside Orosco Wholesale Supply with a gun.
"Let's put it this way: He's their eyewitness. Without him," says Bires, "they have very little else."
Bires will ask a judge next week to drop the charge against Lott again, on grounds that authorities have violated provisions of the state's speedy trial act. Police had information that Lott was in New Orleans 23 years ago but did nothing, he says.
Sitting in his west Houston office, Al Orosco acknowledges in a hushed, almost conspiratorial tone that, yes, some people think he is crazy for pushing the issue.
But he insists he's not, and says he would have just kept quiet about the discrepancy he believes police inserted into his statement if he hadn't seen Bires on television claiming that he hadn't come forward for 30 years.
"I should not have to be doing this," Orosco says. "But I had to draw the line.