"The worst part," Wanda Miller is saying, "was the way they pulled him up off the floor by his hair. I could see there was blood all over him."
Miller is sitting in the living room of her house in Humble, a small clapboard-and-trailer town on the border of Harris and Montgomery counties, talking about that night four years ago when she opened her bedroom door and saw her son Billy, then 19, being held like freshly bagged prey by a patrolman from the Houston Police Department.
As Wanda Miller turns her memory to that time, her hands tremble and her eyes tear up. It's usually pretty quiet in Humble. The short trip from Houston's freeways and high rises to Humble's rural two-lanes and dogwood trees is like a passage through a cultural airlock on the way to another world. If Houston's proud, Humble's resigned. Bad things happen, but unlike, say, a River Oaks carjacking, it's the kind of stuff that has a way of drifting through the ether until it evaporates, the way one's attention to something insignificant quickly fades away.
But this memory is one that refuses to fade. Wanda Miller knows that her son wasn't a complete innocent. She knows that her son was wrong not to have pulled his motorcycle over when ordered to do so by two HPD officers. And she understands that policemen can get angry when they're forced to chase someone who's disobeyed them. But despite all that, she can't fathom how a simple case of speeding caused so much hurt and humiliation to be visited upon her house.
"And they were so ugly," she says, her hands trembling. "When they left, one of them called us white trash."
The HPD, perhaps recalling its days as the meanest force in the land, may well have expected the Millers to act like what they were called and simply disappear to lick their wounds. Instead, the family has filed a civil suit against Houston and two of its finest that, if decided in the Millers' favor, could end up costing the city a few million dollars.
The trial is set to start June 6. The Millers are seeking damages for Billy's beating -- which, doctors for the family have determined, resulted in mild traumatic brain damage. They're also seeking damages for psychological harm done to his older sister, Linda, who was also arrested that night after she watched her brother be bounced around the Millers' home. Since her encounter with the Houston police, Linda Miller, who has battled a learning disability and speech impediment all her life, has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I feel so violated," says Linda, 32, a shy woman who has lived at home all her life. "We all do, because this was our house and they just came in."
They came in on July 3, 1990, shortly before midnight. About half an hour earlier, Billy Miller had done something stupid. He was riding his motorcycle home from work, heading east on the North Loop near I-45, when an HPD car whizzed past en route to a drug bust a few miles away. As they passed Billy, HPD patrolmen David Ashby and Domingo Garcia noted that he was going about 75 mph, a good 20 mph over the limit.
A few moments later, when the drug bust was called off, Ashby and Garcia decided to revisit their speeding cyclist. At first, Billy slowed down at the sight of the police, but when he saw the patrol car's overhead lights flashing, he panicked. Without thinking, he says, he punched the throttle of his Yamaha FZR 600 cafe racer and took off.
Despite HPD policy guidelines that suggest traffic violators don't warrant pursuit, the chase went on for 25 minutes. The officers may have thought Billy was driving a stolen bike. Maybe they suspected him of committing a serious crime. But if they followed standard procedure and ran a license check on the motorcycle, they should have known that the rider was leading the police in the direction of his home -- where, Billy Miller says, he planned to be arrested with his parents at his side.
"I screwed up," admits Billy, now a whip-thin young man of 23. "I made a mistake. But once [the police chase] started, I only wanted to make it home. To be safe."
Even after he had exited the freeway and patrolmen Ashby and Garcia had fallen well behind him, Billy knew he was in for it. By then, at least two other Houston Police units, plus a Harris County Sheriff's Department vehicle, had joined in the chase, which was now being tracked by an HPD helicopter recruited from the aborted drug bust.
With the chopper's spotlight on him, Billy Miller rattled into his neighborhood, a mixed bag of small houses and trailers. He parked his bike on his front porch and went inside. He removed his shoes, took a drink of water from the refrigerator and walked down the hall to the other side of the house. In his room, he changed his shirt. It was quiet, save for the rhythmic drone of a helicopter drawing tight circles over the house.
Billy went to the door of his parents' bedroom, knocked and opened his mouth to say, "Mom, I'm in trouble," when the front door came crashing in, followed by officers Ashby and Garcia.
Up to this point, the stories of the Millers and the police are pretty much in agreement. Billy admits to making a reckless mistake and, at one point early in the chase, going about 100 mph. HPD officer Ashby admits to kicking in not one but two doors to gain entry. Ashby even says that, yes, cops from every possible jurisdiction joined the hunt, eventually scrambling around and through the Millers' house. But there the stories diverge. Billy Miller says the police began to physically take out their frustrations on him. But no police officer admits to laying a hand on Billy Miller.
"Sometime during our struggle, in the process of taking him to the ground and us wrestling around on the ground, he managed to get injured, yes," Ashby conceded in a deposition taken for the civil suit, which names Ashby and Tony Fincher, now an HPD homicide investigator, as defendants along with the city. The city attorney's office did not respond to requests for interviews or information about the incident.
But in the depositions, the recollections of Ashby, Fincher and an officer in the helicopter are loaded with contradictions. For example, the policeman in the chopper says Ashby and Fincher entered the house with their guns drawn and in the company of a supervisor; Ashby and Fincher say their guns were holstered and no supervisor was on the scene. But the greatest contrast is with Billy Miller's version, which at least offers some explanation for why Wanda Miller had to clean her son's blood off the wall before she could go back to bed.
"I was just about to tell my Mom, so she'd be prepared when the police showed up to arrest me, when Ashby kicked the door in," Billy says. "He had his pistol in his hand and he hit me with it."
Billy says the pistol-whipping quickly degenerated into a "free-for-all," with at least three officers and two sheriff's deputies raining blows on him with guns, flashlights, batons and their feet. Miller suffered multiple cuts and bruises on his head, face and body. His left eye was swollen shut. A half-dollar-size welt was raised above his right eye. The bridge of his nose was bruised and swollen, as were his lip, stomach, ribs and kidney area. According to a doctor who examined Billy Miller a few days later, the injuries "were probably done by a blunt object."
The officers' claim that he fought with them is, Billy insists, absurd. "When someone comes at you with a gun in his hand, you're not doing much of anything," says Billy, who pleaded guilty to fleeing but was acquitted of charges that he resisted arrest. "They were just really mad and they were taking it out on me."
Billy says now that if he were the only person who had suffered as a result of his mistake, he might have been able to let the matter lie. Unfortunately, he says, someone else was pulled in.
Linda Miller awoke that night to the roar of a helicopter and the sight of its spotlight shining through her bedroom window. When she got up to check on the commotion, she recalls, a gun was shoved in her face and she was pushed against a wall. Later, after her brother was dragged down a hallway and put into a police car, several officers returned to her house to arrest her. They stood outside her open bedroom door while she changed her clothes in order to go downtown.
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Since that night, Linda Miller has suffered panic attacks, flashbacks and mild agoraphobia. She can't stand to be touched, and the sound of sirens sends her into a near frenzy. Though she was acquitted of charges that she hindered the arrest of her brother, she can't seem to embrace that as justice.
Wanda Miller's face collapses as she recalls the sight of her two children being taken away in handcuffs while a dozen police officers stood around casually insulting her family. She can't even seem to muscle up much anger anymore at the arrogance she perceives from the City of Houston, which claims that Linda has always had emotional problems and that Billy would be fine if he had only sought proper medical treatment.
Wanda Miller knows that a victory in court won't change any of that. It won't make life the way it once was. Daughter Linda is depressed and withdrawn; son Billy is moody and gets frustrated when his mind won't bite down on the thoughts in his head. But Wanda, who filed her suit only after long discussions with her pastor, thinks something had to be done.
"Other people seem to have people who look out for them," she says, sitting in the living room of the home she once considered a place of safety. "We're just middle-class people trying to live. Who's looking after us?