Dead, Dead, Dead

The police killings of Pedro Oregon, Ida Lee Delaney and Byron Gillum

The man in the sport coat didn't look like a revolutionary, but he sounded like one.

Standing in the hallway of the Harris County Courthouse, Aaron Ruby was fuming for the press corps gathered to cover the latest chapter in the police killing of Pedro Oregon. In court, a police informant had just explained that Oregon's brother was a drug dealer. That, Ruby declared, was "clearly a fabrication by the prosecution in order to cover up the fact that [the police] murdered a young man, shooting him twelve times from behind, after illegally breaking into his apartment."

Ruby belonged to the Justice for Pedro Oregon Coalition, which formed last July after Houston police officers conducting an ill-conceived narcotics raid shot and killed Oregon. But his rhetoric, crackling with words such as "outrage" and "complete farce," echoed that generated by police killings from a decade before. In 1989, in two separate incidents, Houston officers shot and killed both Ida Lee Delaney and Byron Gillum: Both were black; neither death seemed justified. The shootings stunned a city that believed its police force -- once racist and out of control -- had been tamed.

Almost a decade later, Pedro Oregon's killing provokes the same questions: Is our police force racist? Can our cops be trusted? What has gone wrong when they're killing the very citizens they're supposed to protect?

The hangdog expression on Ryan Baxter's face said it all. The 28-year-old convicted cokehead would rather be anywhere than the witness stand. But there he was, dressed in an orange jail uniform, in need of a shave, looking like he could use a few minutes alone with crack pipe. Instead, he found himself at center stage of the Harris County misdemeanor court of Judge Neel Richardson.

Baxter had been called to explain his role in the Oregon shooting. Late on a Saturday afternoon, on July 11, 1998, Baxter testified, he and two friends drove around Gulfton's decaying apartment complexes in search of a cheap high. First they bought an 18-pack of beer at a gas station. Then they scored $35 worth of crack -- five rocks -- which they smoked in a makeshift pipe fashioned from an aluminum can bent in half. Baxter, sitting in the front passenger seat, downed a couple of Bud Lights. As the crack's glow faded, the trio craved more. Around 8 p.m., they drove back to the heart of Gulfton.

This time two members of the Houston Police Department's southwest gang task force stopped them, pulling them over near the intersection of Atwell and Bellaire. The officers noticed the beer and the fact that one of Baxter's friends was underage. They noticed the small piece of screen that was part of the jerry-rigged crack pipe. And they also noticed, when they ran a criminal-history check on their mobile computer, that Baxter was on probation for drug possession.

Baxter was in big trouble. The possible charges -- public intoxication, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of drug paraphernalia -- would be enough to have his probation revoked, enough to send him back to jail.

He rode in back of the squad car to the police department's Gulfton outpost on Renwick, a sort of mini-police-station. And he concluded that his only hope of avoiding jail time was to offer the police a better collar than himself.

Around 10 p.m. the officers who'd driven Baxter to the substation met with their sergeant. Officers James Willis and Pete Herrada, both 28, told Sergeant Darrell Strouse, 34, that Baxter was willing to make a deal: He'd set up his dealer, allegedly Rogelio Oregon, in exchange for his own freedom.

Houston Police Department policy prohibits using an informant under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but the cops chose to act on Baxter's information. It was the first in a series of mistakes that would cost six police officers their jobs and Pedro Oregon his life.

Using a police cell phone, Baxter arranged to buy more crack in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box, but the dealer never showed.

Baxter then agreed to take six officers to what he said was his dealer's residence, the Mark V Apartments, a rundown complex at 6711 Atwell. As the other officers waited below, Herrada and Baxter climbed a flight of stairs. With Herrada positioned to one side of Apartment 16's door, Baxter knocked softly several times. No one answered.

After about five minutes the mission was aborted. The frustrated officers returned to the Gulfton storefront and were preparing to haul Baxter to jail.

But then the cell phone rang. According to Baxter, it was his dealer. The desperate informant quickly made arrangements for a new buy.

Once again the six officers converged on the Mark V Apartments. At approximately 1:30 a.m., they lined up, one behind the other, at the bottom of the stairway leading to Apartment 16. Once again Baxter knocked. This time the door opened.

"What's up, vato?" Baxter asked Rogelio Oregon. Then Baxter dropped to the ground in a way that prevented the door from being closed -- just what Willis had told him to do.

In a kind of chain reaction, the officers rushed up the staircase, over Baxter's back and into the apartment. First Herrada, then Willis. Then Officer David Perkins, 30, followed by Officers D.R. Barrera, 28, and L.E. Tillery, 30. Sergeant Strouse brought up the rear.

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