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.

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."

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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.  

Tucker died there at the corner of La Branch and Prairie, just up the street from the Star of Hope and only a few hundred feet from where the new $265 million ballpark will start to rise in a few months. The moments after his death were framed in a chilling tableau by Chronicle photographer Ben DeSoto, a picture literally worth the 3,000 or so words here. The Chronicle photo showed the judge's Volvo, pulled at an angle to the curb. The lawyer, Ramirez, is checking the contents of his briefcase, which sits atop Voigt's car. Behind the Volvo are a mounted HPD patrolman and another lawman, each looking off in a different direction. Ronnie Tucker's body is laid out beneath the front bumper of the car, covered by a sheet. No one is looking at him.

Since then, Werner Voigt's killing of Ronnie Tucker has been argued over in letters to the editor, radio call-in shows and less public venues. Predictably, gun proponents and gun-control advocates viewed the episode the way they were predisposed to see it; others with no particular agenda wrote it off as one of those senseless but probably unavoidable tragedies that occur all too frequently in the big city.

Very few people, however, have raised the obvious question about Ronnie Tucker's death: What was he doing running loose on the streets of Houston on April 29? It's a question that has little to do with Werner Voigt, or the right to protect yourself with firearms.

It was a question that occurred to Ken Brauer, who was not surprised to learn of Tucker's death. Brauer was appointed to represent Tucker after his 1991 arrests, and he remembers Ronnie as "probably the least capable of any of the people I've had the privilege of representing" in 24 years of practice.

At the time, Brauer spoke with MHMRA about Tucker. "They said, yeah, we have a long history on Ronnie, we've had him for most of his life," the lawyer recalled. "They handled him up to the point where he reached puberty, then he started jumping the female help. Once he did that, the word got around, and none of the facilities wanted to handle him anymore. So in the end they turned him back over to his mother. But she couldn't handle him. He'd just walk loose on the streets. He'd walk into somebody's house, he didn't know any better, then he'd get charged with the burglary of a habitation.

"I just knew," added Brauer, "that something bad was going to happen to [him] after he got out of the Vernon hospital."

As people who knew or worked with Tucker will tell you, he had lots of "problems." His IQ was once measured at 79 -- that's in the "borderline retardate" range -- and he had, in the icily clinical jargon of one psychiatric evaluation, a "polysubstance dependence," the substances being alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. Various diagnoses over the years had pegged him as "paranoid, confused and delusional," a "high risk for violent acting out" and as suffering "chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia." He heard voices in his head, and he carried on conversations with himself. During his 1994 interview with psychologist Edward Silverman in the county jail, Tucker explained that he had a job transporting inmates for the Texas Department of Corrections. "When asked to elaborate, he indicated that he had to transport people from outer space back to Earth," Silverman reported.

It's always possible that Ronnie Tucker was just being craftily manipulative, feigning insanity in search of a free meal and a warm place to sleep, but even the broad details of his life would seem to argue otherwise.

He grew up in the Studewood-Independence Heights area and attended the neighborhood's Burrus Elementary, but, according to his grandmother, never made it past the eighth grade. Lottie Jefferson remembered that her grandson was once enrolled in the Job Corps, but that didn't pan out, and on the half-dozen occasions he had been arrested since 1979 he was always listed as unemployed.

Mrs. Jefferson, who is 83 and a regular at the North Main Church of God in Christ, said she pretty much raised Ronnie. His mother and father were separated, and "his daddy did drink pretty heavy," she recalled. As for Ronnie's mother, her daughter, "She's very nervous, but she's nice when she's in a normal condition," Mrs. Jefferson explained with a plainspoken delicacy.  

I talked with that woman briefly a week or so after Tucker's death. At first she told me, yes, she was Ronnie's mother, but then her conversation became garbled and seemed to drift, and a few moments later she insisted that, no, she wasn't his mother. "You know how these men just come into your life," she said. Later, when I finally saw a picture of Ronnie Tucker, the resemblance to the woman was apparent: the same proud, broad forehead, the same vacant, narrowed eyes.

People who know the family said it was very poor, and that it was Lottie Jefferson who held it together. Mrs. Jefferson is not conversant in the language of the therapeutic community, and she takes what you might call an Old Testament view of her grandson's decline.

"Mental capacity was very, very rough on him, because he got with the wrong company ... messed him up," she said. "The Bible says, 'Evil communications corrupts good manners.' "

There may have been other reasons that weren't foreseen by the authors of Scripture. The easy availability of street drugs, the fraying of family ties, generations of intractable poverty -- all of those social conditions seemed to find expression in Ronnie Tucker and exacerbate whatever neurobiological destiny was his to bear. He had the misfortune to wind up on the streets of Houston, a city notoriously stingy when it comes to public psychiatric services. It was his misfortune, too, to come of age -- at least chronologically -- when the great wave of "deinstitutionalization" was washing thousands of the chronically mentally ill out of state asylums and onto the streets of America's large cities. Tucker didn't belong in jail, he couldn't adjust to a shelter and his family was incapable of caring for him.

"Ronnie is a prime example of good intentions gone bad," said Ken Brauer. "He should have been a ward of the state; he should have been locked up for the rest of his life in an institution that would keep him out of trouble and do what could be done to keep him happy."

Another person who worked with Tucker more recently said Tucker was capable of functioning with "help and medication," but he suggested that the law makes it almost impossible to provide the kind of custodial "help" needed by the many Ronnie Tuckers on Houston's streets.

"Persons who work in the system ... we're always jumping up and down and shouting we need to have some resources where we can place people who need this kind of help, but the laws are so stupid that we can't do anything to the clients because we would be violating their rights. And until they do something that causes themselves to be harmed, or they harm somebody else, then we can't take action. And that's dumb."

This person and several others who knew Tucker said they were truly surprised that he had attacked anyone. Yet Tucker had a long recorded history of violence, both on the streets and in state hospitals. Since the late 1970s, at least, he had been caught in a revolving door: He would be arrested for crimes of varying severity -- he was once accused of stealing from a convenience store and assaulting the store owner; another time, he allegedly stabbed a man during a theft -- but would be found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a state institution. There, he'd be medicated and stabilized before being sent back to Houston, where, on April 29, a judge finally put an end to that cycle.

It would be a lie to say nobody cared about Ronnie Tucker. Lots of people seemed to, and they did their best to help him. The social workers and counselors who help the homeless speak of him with some affection, and they were genuinely anguished upon learning that he had been killed. "He had problems, but he was a human being," said one. "He was not someone who should have been shot down in the street, like a dog."

He was evaluated and medicated, institutionalized and turned loose, counseled and given more medication. His grandmother prayed for him. Still, it's too easy to say he just fell through the cracks in the system, or that his death was unavoidable. For Ronnie Tucker, the system broke down. The only thing truly unusual about his story is the way it ended.

Among the aggrieved were employees of the Fabre Research Clinic, where Tucker lived earlier this year while participating in a drug study, something he had done "a couple" of times previously, according to chief administrator Janice Roggenkamp. She described Tucker variously as an "excellent" patient, a "very stable participant when he was on medication" and "a very good person."  

Roggenkamp wouldn't say exactly when Tucker was at the Fabre clinic -- he left, she said, "four to six weeks" prior to his death. Nor would she reveal what antipsychotic medication he was administered there, although she did allow that the clinic is participating in tests of a newer class of such drugs that address a patient's "negative symptoms" -- that is, their inability "to fit in with the rest of the world." The clinic is paid by drug companies to conduct its FDA-sanctioned tests; patients are all volunteers (Fabre advertises for subjects in the Press) and are compensated for their "time and trouble," Roggenkamp explained. Before admission, they must complete a "very comprehensive" consent form of five or six pages -- a task, you would imagine, that a 41-year-old man with an IQ of 79 might not perform with alacrity.

After completing the study, patients are discharged from the clinic. The medication they've been taking is no longer available to them, although, according to Fabre's head nurse, the dosage of the drug is reduced as the study draws to a close. Then, said Roggenkamp, test subjects such as Ronnie Tucker usually "transition" to another facility; in his case, Roggenkamp assumes, it was a county facility. But she isn't sure where Ronnie Tucker went.

Several stories have circulated about Ronnie Tucker's path to the corner of Prairie and La Branch on April 29. One version has it that he had walked the mile or so from the Star of Hope to MHMRA's Bristow Resource Center, where he had an appointment early that morning. He was evaluated there and arrangements were made for him to go to the county psychiatric center, where he would be off the streets for at least a week. But for some reason he left the Bristow Center in a rage and set off back in the direction of the Star of Hope. He was not, according to this version of Ronnie Tucker's last day, on medication. (The medical examiner's report on Tucker, including toxicology tests that would reveal what, if any, drugs he was on, is still not available.)

But it's impossible to get any official confirmation of what happened to Ronnie Tucker before he stole a lawyer's briefcase. Because of confidentiality law, MHMRA will not even acknowledge that Ronnie Tucker existed, although, since April 29, he's had all the privacy a person would need.

Ronnie Tucker could have been buried by the county in a pauper's grave. Instead, Pruitt Mortuary on North Main, the North Main Church of God in Christ and another neighboring church got together to give him something nicer. Earl Pruitt provided the casket and embalmed Ronnie -- "He made him look so nice, so pretty," said Lottie Jefferson -- and the churches helped with the funeral costs.

What's left of Ronnie Tucker lies in an unmarked plot in the Cemetery Beautiful, a few blocks off of West Montgomery Road, where presumably he now has what he so desperately needed in his life: perpetual care, and a permanent place to rest.

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