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The news was disturbing. A nice Jewish couple in their fifties living in the Westchester subdivision in far west Houston woke up Sunday morning, March 11, to find a severed pig's head on the front doorstep, with various fish parts strewn around their property.
Was this an anti-Semitic attack, a hate crime? The couple display a mezuzah on the outside of their house, a protective symbol that Jews believe guards their home from harm. Pigs are considered unclean animals by Jews. Clearly this incident was beyond the investigatory powers of the local constable's service, hired by the neighborhood to provide that extra measure of protection designed to allow residents to sleep more safely at night. So the Houston police were called.
There was also the question of whether this was the aftermath of a road rage incident that had occurred a week and a half before. Someone had cut someone off. Someone had gotten mad.
But no one had spotted anyone doing anything. Yet there sat the pig's head, shown over and over on the television news, its piggy face permanently frozen in a death smile, slits of piggy eyes, pasty piggy color. Not a Babe kind of moment. The couple, who do not want to be publicly identified, were shaken and offended.
"We definitely feel threatened by it," the woman said from her home the next day. She'd taken time off from work to interview a succession of security firms to see what protective devices could be installed in her home. She was considering a surveillance camera. She still hadn't told her two grown children away at college; hadn't figured out what to say to them.
"At 7:15 my husband went out to get the newspaper. There was a huge pig head. It was posed, very deliberately placed there. Its tongue had been pulled down through the slit in the neck," she said. Fish entrails, bits of squid, shrimp and crab as well as fish carcasses were in their bushes. Other fish bits were inside their mailbox. Discarded surgical gloves and bags from a Fiesta supermarket were in the shrubs and a neighbor's yard.
The woman was in shock. "I've lived in Houston for 20 years, in this neighborhood for seven. We live in a nice neighborhood. Things like this are not supposed to happen here. Things like this are not supposed to happen anywhere."
As it turns out, it wasn't a hate crime, something everyone from the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League to the Houston police sound very relieved about. It was road rage. The police know it. They talked to an 18-year-old suspect, and he admitted the deed. He went to a butcher shop and got his fish and pig parts. The pig's head was affordable. He had no idea the couple was Jewish. So this makes it somewhat less awful, yes?
Apparently so, because no charges were filed. Members of the Houston police major assaults team, called in for their expertise when the hate-crime angle was still being explored, brought the case to the Harris County district attorney's office. They went away empty-handed.
There were two possible charges, says Elizabeth Godwin, who has 27 years behind her as a prosecutor and is head of the Public Service Bureau at the D.A.'s office. One would be a "threat," but the chances of getting the guy to admit he was threatening the couple would be slim. The other would be criminal mischief, a Class C misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $200 as punishment.
Unless you can show actual monetary damages of more than $50, you can't even get a Class C, she says. And what were the damages in this case? They had to pick up a mess in their yard, Godwin says, but there was no permanent damage to property.
"It's not that we didn't think it was offensive," Godwin says, "but there's a lot of obnoxious behavior that people visit upon each other that is not part of the criminal justice system."
So what led to this obnoxious behavior? HPD spokesman Martin DeLeon says, "A couple of weeks ago, a man who just happened to be Jewish was driving on the Beltway at the Katy Freeway. This was on February 28 around 4 p.m. There was a traffic altercation."
DeLeon says the two men became confrontational over a lane change after the 18-year-old driver of a pickup felt the other had cut him off in front. The teenager yelled at the other man from his truck and followed him home. The homeowner took down the license plate number and the other guy drove off.
That was on a Wednesday. Three days later, on Saturday, the couple found cans of sardines in their yard, on their windowsill and in the bushes. They cleaned it up and wrote it off as teenagers pulling a prank. It wasn't until the following weekend and the arrival of the pig's head that they called in the police, that they became truly frightened.
A year ago, the nation was briefly caught up in a case of road rage that seemed cruel beyond belief. Never mind adults who lose their heads and come to blows over fights on the roadway -- this was the case of a dog as sacrificial victim.
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