Dead, Dead, Dead
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.
According to police investigators, as the officers rushed in, a second man in the apartment, Rogelio's brother Pedro, ran through the hallway toward a back room. As he did, one officer yelled that the fleeing man had a gun. At almost the same time, a shot rang out, and Tillery, struck in the side, fell to the ground.
Later the other officers would find out that they hadn't been fired upon, that instead, Barrera had accidentally discharged his weapon. But later would be too late.
During the brief, one-sided gun battle that followed, officers fired 33 times at Oregon. According to investigators, 24 of those shots came from Barrera, who paused to reload his pistol.
When the smoke cleared, Pedro Oregon, a 22-year-old father of two, lay dead. He'd been struck by 12 bullets, nine of them in his back.
A gun lay on the floor near Oregon's body, but no drugs were found in the apartment.
Last fall, after several weeks of hearing evidence, a grand jury returned only a single charge against only one of the officers: criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, filed against Willis. An internal police investigation was more critical.
In November Houston police chief Clarence Bradford held a press conference to announce the firing of the six officers. Pedro Oregon's killing, Bradford said, was the most egregious case of police misconduct he'd seen in his 20 years with the department. Mayor Lee Brown echoed Bradford's displeasure. The firings, he said, were "proof that our system of justice is the fairest and most democratic in the world."
Needless to say, activists such as Aaron Ruby were far from satisfied. Pedro Oregon -- a man not accused of a crime -- lay dead, and the cops who'd entered his apartment without a search warrant and wrongly shot him had merely lost their jobs. Instead of being charged with murder, only one -- one! -- was charged with trespassing. This, the activists asked, was the fairest and most democratic system of justice in the world?
Nine years earlier, Lee Brown himself had been police chief and had faced his own crisis of public confidence. In the predawn hours of October 31, 1989, 24-year-old Alex Gonzales, an intoxicated off-duty HPD officer, after an all-night drinking binge, was cruising the freeways with two other off-duty officers. At the time, HPD had no policy forbidding an intoxicated off-duty officer from carrying a weapon.
After leaving a bar early that morning, Gonzales's attention fell on Ida Lee Delaney, a Houston Post employee driving to work, when she abruptly pulled in front of the car in which he was a passenger. In a fit of rage, Gonzales and the two other officers chased Delaney down a 13-mile stretch of freeway. Apparently in fear for her life, with no way of knowing that the men were police, she fired several shots before finally pulling over. When she did, Delaney shot and wounded Gonzales; he, in turn, shot and killed her.
Less than a month later, Scott Tschirhart, a white HPD officer who'd previously been involved in several questionable shootings and the beating of a handcuffed prisoner, stopped Byron Gillum, a black security guard, for speeding. Tschirhart went back to his patrol car and from his mobile computer sent a message asking the dispatcher to find some reason for the officer to arrest Gillum "because he has an attitude." The dispatcher found nothing.
Tschirhart later said he believed the security guard was reaching for a pistol that lay on the front seat of the his car. The officer shot Gillum six times, including four times in the back. Witnesses said that Gillum was on his hands and knees, trying to crawl away, as Tschirhart fired his final shots.
Ada Edwards believed that the two deaths weren't isolated incidents. HPD officers, she thought, had systematic problems dealing with women and minorities. Edwards, who'd worked in protest movements such as an antiapartheid campaign against South Africa, was a product of the California '60s. And so, naturally, she helped organize a protest group, the Ida Lee Delaney/Byron Gillum Justice Committee.
Under her direction, the committee held numerous street protests and converged on City Hall to condemn the shootings and insist on change. The group demanded that HPD become more ethnically diverse, that officers receive more sensitivity training and that the city create a powerful civilian review board to investigate police matters. The committee wanted the department to change "how officers were recruited, maintained, evaluated and the whole bit," says Edwards. "For us, it became bigger than Byron Gillum and Ida Delaney."
The committee never got the review board it wanted. Instead, it saw the creation of the Civilian Review Committee, which reviews internal police reports about officer misconduct and passes its recommendations on to the chief. But Chief Bradford believes the department was indeed changed by the Gillum and Delaney shootings, that the Houston Police Department is now a more diverse and open organization and that officers themselves are now less tolerant of misconduct by their colleagues.
And Bradford himself does not take the position that his officers could do no wrong, or even that the Oregon shooting was within the legal bounds of police work. "I know what the department policies are, and I have reviewed the law in the areas that concern the Pedro Oregon case," says Bradford. "And I am confident in saying that, in my opinion, Texas state laws were violated, and the United States Constitution was violated."
Edwards, now 54, has allied herself with an even bigger organization: She's now the field coordinator for the Harris County Democratic Party. "My life is 'power to the people,' " she says. "If you don't have it, somebody's stealing it from you."
She sees the most obvious parallel between the Gillum and Delaney cases and Pedro Oregon's: cops killing civilians for no good reason. But she doesn't think that the three high-profile incidents are the only such outrages in the decade. "If you look at the times in between," she says, "you will see several similar cases, like the young white brother who was shot in Bellaire. I think it just takes us about ten years to get over the big ones. In the meantime, it's like, 'Oh, shit, I'm so tired of this.' But once you go through that grieving period as a community and it hits again, it's like, 'Damn!' "
In Harris County it's not easy to indict a cop for a criminal offense, much less to send one to prison. Alex Gonzales was indicted in the shooting of Ida Lee Delaney and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the verdict was overturned, and in a new trial in 1995 he received only 180 days in jail, a probated two-year sentence and a $5,000 fine.
No charges were ever filed against Scott Tschirhart for the shooting of Byron Gillum. After being dismissed from the police department, Tschirhart moved back home to Medina County, west of San Antonio, to work as a sheriff's deputy.
But in both the Delaney and Gillum cases, the City of Houston eventually paid large sums to settle civil lawsuits brought by the victims' families: $650,000 to the Delaneys, $350,000 to the Gillums. The out-of-court settlements were tantamount to an admission that the city's police department should have had better control of its officers.
It's still possible that federal criminal charges could be filed in the Oregon case. But the Oregon family members also hope for vindication in civil court -- even as they were protesting the unfairness of the county's criminal prosecution. In March, when an all-white jury found Willis not guilty of even the trespassing charge, the Oregon family's two big-name attorneys, Richard Mithoff and Paul Nugent, held a press conference after the trial. They declared that Oregon was basically murdered, and they pointed to a sworn statement by one of the officers, David Perkins, in which he says he never saw Pedro Oregon with a gun. The district attorney's office, the lawyers complained, had basically thrown the case.
The lawyers further criticized the prosecutors for basing their case against Willis on the testimony of Ryan Baxter, whom Nugent repeatedly called a "crackhead." It was Baxter, of course, who explained why the cops had come to the Oregon apartment in the first place, and Nugent and Mithoff were obviously concerned that a civil jury might hesitate to award a large sum of money to an alleged drug dealer. "From the beginning, the police and the D.A.'s office were out to taint [the Oregon] family name," Nugent complained.
Such criticism doesn't bother Johnny Holmes -- the cussing, death-penalty-loving prosecutor with the handlebar moustache -- who headed the county district attorney's office both during the Delaney and Gillum cases and now. Prosecutors are often accused of being reluctant to press cases against the cops, their natural allies in the day-to-day war against criminals. And in the Oregon case, even before the grand jury had concluded its investigation, Holmes's comments seemed to indicate that his heart wasn't in the prosecution, bullets in the back or no bullets in the back. "An analogy I use," he told the Houston Chronicle, "is that if it is okay to kill a guy dead, it is okay to kill him dead, dead, dead."
But the criticism stings the prosecutor directly in charge of the case -- the same assistant district attorney who, as a member of the D.A.'s civil rights division, investigated the deaths of Ida Delaney and Byron Gillum.
"I'm really irritated about [Mithoff and Nugent] saying this was a whitewash," says Edward Porter. "I believed in my case. I tried my case. I believed my theory of prosecution was the best we could come up with. The jury decided he was not guilty, and so be it. That's what the jury's function is."
Mithoff and Nugent charge that had Porter really wanted to win a conviction against Willis he would have offered testimony about the proper way to conduct a drug investigation. Porter responds that he did talk with members of HPD's narcotics division. Those officers, he says, told him that the tactic known as "knock and talk," which was used in the Oregon case, is employed often by HPD officers. They just don't usually have a drunk, unregistered informant doing the knocking and talking.
Porter indicates that he, too, was surprised that the grand jury chose to indict only Willis, and only for trespassing; Porter had prepared indictments on every charge except that one.
But why only Willis? Why trespassing? Porter, in retrospect, can explain the grand jury's reasoning. In police work, officers must trust fellow officers to make the right decisions. When the line of cops along the stairs outside Oregon's apartment started moving, only Herrada and Willis could see what was happening inside. Of the two of them, only Willis knew that Baxter was going to fall to the ground. When Herrada saw Baxter drop, he could reasonably assume that something had gone dangerously wrong and that he had reason to enter the apartment. But Willis had no such justification, thus the grand jury's trespassing indictment.
Porter, though, wanted and expected more. The way the officers went about their business, he says, makes no sense. If Baxter said Oregon's brother had been selling him drugs for three years, why did the cops rush to the apartment that very night? Why didn't they check their computers to see whether anything in the criminal data banks supported the story? Why didn't they do surveillance to see whether the traffic in and out of the apartment seemed suspicious? Why did they appoint an unauthorized informant to knock on the door?
"It's because they didn't want to do the nuts-and-bolts police work," Porter says. "The problem with that type of police work is that it's not very exciting."
Staying within the parameters of the good sense of departmental guidelines can be boring, says Porter, but if the officers who shot Delaney, Gillum and Oregon had either stayed within those parameters or used their common sense, all three victims might still be alive today.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.