Dead on the Street

Weirdly enough, Ronnie Tucker thought he was a judge.
That, at least, was a delusion he voiced during a September 19, 1993 interview at Vernon State Hospital, one of the many psychiatric evaluations of Ronnie Tucker that were performed in his relatively short and hapless life.

"You can't be questioning that I am a judge," Tucker declared that day.
Tucker was 37 then and had been committed to Vernon almost two years earlier, after being found not competent to stand trial in Harris County on 1991 charges of robbery and assault of a peace officer. Judges, and other agents of the state, were not an unknown presence in Tucker's life. He had been institutionalized previously at the Austin and Rusk state hospitals, after being accused of other crimes, and had once been admitted to the Harris County Psychiatric Center. While at Vernon, he distinguished himself by assaulting a member of the staff and breaking his dentures, masturbating in the day room in view of other male and female patients and having sex with another man.

Yet by September 1994, Vernon had concluded that Tucker was a manipulator who was "quite elusive in handling contraband" and was taking advantage of other, slower patients in "running a successful business," the nature of which was left unspecified in the available public record. He was found, finally, to be competent to stand trial and was shipped back to the Harris County Jail. There he was examined by Edward Silverman, a psychologist who performed evaluations of inmates for the Mental Health-Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. Silverman came to an entirely different conclusion about Ronnie Tucker.

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Tucker, wrote Silverman, suffered from "a serious mental illness of psychotic proportions" and had not notably improved during his several years of treatment. Silverman determined that Tucker was still incompetent to stand trial and recommended he be dispatched to "a facility where he can receive appropriate psychiatric intervention."

The charges against Tucker were dismissed in January 1995. After that, he was no longer a concern of the court system, and it is there the trail of documents that accumulated around his brushes with the law ends.

At some point, Tucker wound up back on the streets of downtown, staying occasionally at the Star of Hope's men's shelter on La Branch, where he had bunked on and off for years. His behavior, however, was "flaky," said shelter director Bill Reed, and he had difficulty following the rules and adjusting to the Star of Hope's routine. Tucker was even suspended from the Star of Hope for a year in the late eighties, but after his return from Vernon he stayed at the shelter again and was referred for treatment to the Bristow Resource Center, a drop-in facility for the homeless that MHMRA runs at Caroline and Dennis streets. He spent his last night at the Star of Hope in the summer of 1996, thereafter sleeping on the sidewalk near the shelter or in a nearby parking garage. Other street people said they knew him as "Shakes," a nickname that begs no explanation.

For a time this spring, Tucker was an inpatient at the Fabre Research Clinic, a private, for-profit facility on Crawford Street north of the Medical Center, where he was paid to be, essentially, a guinea pig in a study of new antipsychotic drugs. He had participated in drug studies at the clinic before.

Some weeks after leaving the Fabre clinic, Ronnie Tucker made his last appearance before a judge. Something had been bothering him for at least a couple of days, and shortly after noon on April 29 he went on an angry rampage along the east side of downtown. It is believed that he assaulted a pregnant woman who was leaving her doctor's office on San Jacinto, and robbed and hit a man near the Park Shops Mall. Then, according to police, he came across a lawyer named Vidal Ramirez Jr. on the sidewalk in the 1400 block of Lamar near the mall. Tucker assaulted Ramirez and stole his briefcase, then set off down La Branch. Ramirez flagged down state District Judge Werner Voigt, a criminal court jurist who was heading up the street in his Volvo. Voigt wheeled his car around and headed the wrong way down La Branch. At the street's intersection with Prairie, Voigt spotted Tucker, emerged from his car and demanded that Tucker hand him the briefcase.

This is not to condemn or excuse what happened next, although the fact that Voigt drove six blocks the wrong way on a one-way street, in pursuit of a lawyer's briefcase, gives one pause to consider whether such a response is reflective of a judicial temperament, especially since cops and other law officers are usually never too far away in that part of downtown. By the time the judge confronted him, Ronnie Tucker had been sounding one long cry for help, or for mercy. He began slamming the briefcase on the hood of Voigt's car, then hit the judge in the face with it. Werner Voigt responded the way you or I might have, if we were permitted to carry a handgun and had been hit in the face with a briefcase. He shot Ronnie Tucker once, but the solidly built Tucker kept coming. Voigt shot him twice more.

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