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The Truth is Out There

Someone is lying in Deer Park.
Pharmacist Garland Gross says he's been subjected to a decadelong campaign of police harassment -- he's seen teams of cops periodically storm into his store for no reason, their guns drawn on startled and baffled employees; he's had foul-mouthed, belligerent cops routinely block his parking spaces and drive-through lane; he's been unjustly arrested and beaten in custody.

Deer Park police, on the other hand, all but say that Gross is nuts. There have never been any bogus police raids on his store, officers have not harassed him and Gross bumped his head on purpose on a police-car roof during his arrest just so he could claim police brutality. Far from bothering Gross, Police Chief Don Little says, Deer Park officers have been subjected to abuse from him for the past ten or so years, have investigated a constant stream of bogus complaints and have kept their cool as they've endured expletive-filled tirades from him.

It may take a federal jury to sort out the truth -- Gross has hired a prominent Dallas lawyer to handle a $5 million civil suit he's filed -- but whoever's lying, it's clear that things have been plenty strange in Deer Park.

Deer Park Pharmacy, near the heart of that suburb's not-quite-bustling Center Street, hardly seems like ground zero for a blood feud.

One of the thinning ranks of independent pharmacies in America, the small, clean establishment offers simply drugs -- not lawn chairs, not photographic equipment, not greeting cards, shampoos or makeup. Some comfortable couches sit in front of a TV that faces the counter where a handful of employees chat with the customers they've been serving for ages. The middle-aged guy picking up blood-pressure medication may have been here before as a toddler, squirming away while his mom bought something for his ear infection.

Gross, 50, bought the place from its longtime owner in 1985. An Austin native who graduated from Deer Park High, Gross worked his way though college and pharmacy school by cutting hair at his dad's barbershop.

"This was my dream store because I have a different philosophy than the giant chain stores," says the slightly built Gross, whose casual hair, hangdog face and trying-to-be-bushy mustache make him look like Sonny Bono in his congressional era. "I just wanted to concentrate on personal service. I don't sell cigarettes, even though we could make a lot of money doing it. We just do medicine."

He says the store grossed $400,000 in his first year; word-of-mouth advertising, along with a little inflation, has raised that to $2 million a year now. He enjoys his work, his coaching of Little League teams, his wife and two kids, his Methodist church and Sunday school.

"I think it's just a pretty typical life, but I enjoy it," he says. "If not for this one blight, it'd be perfect."

That blight, he says, is an inexplicable vendetta by a small but significant portion of the Deer Park police force.

What began with petty annoyances escalated over the years into occasional terror-filled moments looking down the barrel of a police shotgun and culminated in his May 1997 arrest and beating in the Harris County Jail, Gross claims.

"In retrospect, if I knew where this was all going to end up, I probably would have got out a long time ago," he says. "I can't explain how it kept growing and grew into this whole big thing. It's like you and a friend frogging each other, hitting each other on the arm, you know, and then all of a sudden one of you gets mad. This stuff would happen, and (my employees and I would) just say to ourselves that the cops were having a bad day or that 'Man, that guy needs something to do with his time.' We always thought it would blow over or that whatever happened would be the last time something would happen, but it just kept going on and on."

It all began, Gross says, shortly after he purchased the shop and got crosswise with a Deer Park cop.

He says he was alone in the back office late one night with his pet, a miniature Yorkie named Bogie, when the tiny dog's sudden barking caused him to grab a pistol and check the front door. He kept the gun at his side, he says, and as soon as he saw officers instead of burglars at the door he relaxed and let the two in.

They said they were answering a burglar alarm; a perplexed Gross said the alarm hadn't gone off and demonstrated the ear-piercing noise it makes when it is tripped. He called the department to explain he had just intentionally triggered the alarm as a demonstration and then began chatting with the younger of the two officers while the other did some paperwork.  

As the pair was leaving, he says, the older cop suddenly asked him why he had pulled a gun on a police officer. He then asked to see Gross's identification; the pharmacist says that his driver's license was in the car, but that he pointed out the photo and pharmacist's license on the wall.

Gross -- who does seem stubborn enough to argue a seemingly minor semantic point well beyond human endurance if he feels put upon -- says the conversation with the officer degenerated quickly into back-and-forth over "I need to see some ID" and "There's my picture, that's all you need," and reached a bickering climax when he demanded the officer's badge number.

He claims he later received a critical letter from the police chief. "I told him to listen to the tape of me calling in to the station about setting off the alarm and see if I was being rude, and if he thought so I'd apologize," Gross says. "He came in the store a few days later and apologized to me instead."

And thus, according to Gross, was born The Feud.
"I don't know if (the cop) got disciplined, but I think he just held a grudge or something against me," he says.

A few months later, Gross says, two Deer Park officers came to his home in Pasadena at 1:30 in the morning to arrest him for assaulting a man who was renting a home from him; Gross says he thought it odd that they would choose that time, considering the incident allegedly had occurred several days earlier. The charges were later dropped.

Within months, Gross says, Deer Park officers began pulling over traffic violators in front of his store, taking their time writing tickets as they blocked the driveway and taking up the few parking spaces available. One officer even pulled into the pharmacy's drive-through lane to do paperwork, Gross says, and refused to leave until Gross called the department to complain. ("They put me on hold forever, and he finally left while I was on hold," he says.)

Gross has some quirks, and among them is a tireless dedication to keeping his parking lot free from the scourge of those who would take up more than one space. It's hard to imagine something more disconcerting to him than two cars -- a police cruiser and a vehicle being ticketed -- defiantly blocking four or five parking spaces, but Gross says he never cursed or unduly raised his voice as he asked the police to move.

"They were the ones who would curse," he says. "After it kept happening, I would just go out and stand there as they blocked the lot -- not saying anything, just standing there. They'd look up and yell, 'Why don't you get your stupid ass back in the pharmacy?' or 'Get back in the fucking pharmacy.' "

One time, he says, he saw an officer pull over an African-American driver who regularly delivered medical goods to the pharmacy. Gross ran out, he says, after seeing the officer slam the driver's head on the car roof, only to have the cop ask, "Does this nigger belong to you?" (The driver no longer works for the company, Gross says.)

"I told him he needed to get into the 20th century," Gross says. The officer, who has since moved on to another police force, remained a nemesis through the years, he says.

The number of officers involved in such incidents would fluctuate through the years as turnover hit the force, he says. "They would come and go, and it was really whoever would be influenced by that one officer," he says, speaking of the former Deer Park cop who he claims had it in for him. "At any one time, when it was really going on, it might be 20 to 25 percent of the force involved."

The frequency of incidents would wax and wane, Gross says, as did their seriousness. He and two longtime employees, Kenny Foulds and Tracy Willis, especially remember what they call the "SWAT team" storming the store on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We were all just here working, and we look up and see two officers doing this SWAT dance through the front windows," he says, describing the guns-pointed-up, I'll-cover-you, you-cover-me choreography used by stealthily approaching police officers that's familiar to anyone who's seen a cop movie.

As the innocuous-looking pharmacists idly watched, the two dramatically advancing officers slammed open the front door and aimed their firearms, one crouching with a pistol and another standing over him with a shotgun.  

As the now-frozen group stood tensely waiting for orders, the drive-through window burst open, and a third officer thrust in his gun. "It kind of went from this laughable, almost Charlie Chaplin-type deal outside the front to a scary, this-is-no-bullshit deal, and you better not move and don't breathe hard," Gross says.

"I'm just waiting on customers, and this suddenly happens. It's not something you forget," says Foulds, who has been working at the pharmacy for 20 years.

"I was just running the computer, and I looked up to see these things darting back and forth in the window," says Willis, a 17-year employee. "It was pretty alarming."

The officers explained that the burglar alarm had gone off. "You definitely know when it's going off, and it obviously wasn't going off," Willis says.

"Then you see them giving little winks and nods to each other," Gross says. "It was scary as hell."

Willis says she was there for two such incidents and was told about a third; Foulds says he was there on three such occasions. Gross says he's sure of three incidents but believes there was a fourth somewhere during the feud. None of them remembers specific dates.

Sitting in his office relating all this, Gross seems mostly bemused. While there are some conspiracy-theory edges to his tale -- one particularly annoying officer's dad, he notes, is a chief pharmacist at a nearby chain drugstore seeking to buy him out -- he appears to be as rational as anyone else. A steady stream of customers seems to back up the idea that he can at least conduct a business without alienating people.

But if what the Deer Park police say is true, Gross is all but pathological, spinning tales out of whole cloth.

Seven blocks away from the pharmacy, current Deer Park Police Chief Don Little admits to a reporter on the phone that he hesitated before taking the call, and you can just about hear the remnants of the groan he must have voiced when his secretary told him someone wanted to talk about Garland Gross.

"When I hear that name, I go, 'Here we go again,' " he says.
Little doesn't say that his officers and Gross have different versions of events. He doesn't say that the pharmacist tends to exaggerate innocent police actions. He says, simply, that such events as the SWAT raids and the racist comment are figments of Gross's imagination.

"Those things never happened. They just never happened," he says. "How can you defend yourself against something? How can you prove that something didn't happen? It's all just inexplicable -- how do you go about refuting someone who says that a SWAT team showed up, or officers came in with their guns drawn? You can only ask what's reasonable, and does that sound reasonable to you?"

Little says he's confident that he would learn if any of his 50 officers had engaged in any of the activities Gross describes, even if they tried to keep it private as their own little harmless jerking around of a smart-ass John Q. Public. He says he's limited in what he can talk about because there's a federal suit pending but expresses utter bafflement at Garland Gross.

Far from being the harassers, he says, the members of the Deer Park Police Department are the harassed -- harassed by a constant stream of unfounded allegations and complaints from a business owner who, for some unknown reason, has it in for the police force of this refinery town with a population of 28,000.

"Of course, there's no truth to it, all the things he says -- we don't have time to spend dealing with one individual in a city like this. We've got bigger fish to fry."

In 32 years of police work, he says, he's never come across anyone like Gross. "I don't know where he comes up with his allegations. The whole suit is just bizarre to me," he says. "Saying we harassed him ... and the alleged racial comments, it never happened. It just never happened. The hard thing is, the only way to refute is to say it never happened. It's like jousting with ghosts."

Other law-enforcement officials, both inside and outside of Deer Park, won't comment on the record, but those who back the department's version of events hint darkly that Gross is not to be believed.

Assuming Gross's suit goes forward, a jury will eventually decide whether Gross or Little's officers are telling the truth. In their only courtroom battle so far, though, it was Gross who emerged triumphant.

Things came to a head between the pharmacist and the police in May of last year, and the flash point was, not surprisingly, the parking lot.  

Three teenagers, dashing in to make an appointment at the tanning salon next to Gross's store, parked across much of the driveway entrance to the small strip shopping center that houses his establishment, he says.

What ensued is a matter of some dispute. Gross says he told the driver not to park there; there was an exchange, and the kid began to drive away before abruptly backing up, getting out and approaching him. Gross says he told the kid, "Don't start something you can't stop," and that the kid hesitated, got back in the car and peeled out onto Center Street. Six witnesses -- three customers, all of whom worked for the school district, the wife of one of those customers and two employees -- all backed Gross's story to one degree or another. Not everyone saw the entire incident.

The kids testified at trial that Gross became enraged at them and that, as they were pulling out, he gave the finger to one of them, a 16-year-old girl. When the driver confronted him about "flipping her off," they said, Gross pulled a gun on them.

They said they went immediately to the police station and told their story; Gross's attorney argued to the jury that an hour or so passed between the alleged incident and the time they contacted the police.

Gross says he's especially annoyed at the claim of pulling a gun; he decided in 1994 to turn in to the police department the only pistol he owned. "We took a vote in the shop, and some people wanted me to keep it, but I didn't. If there was a burglary, I wasn't worried about the drugs being stolen -- they're insured. I was worried about the gun being taken and then winding up being used somewhere, and I'd be responsible."

Evidence of any feud was not allowed to be introduced, but bad blood between the parties was obvious: a string of cops testified that Gross's reputation for trustworthiness in the community was bad (the judge refused to let them provide further details), and the seats were filled with Deer Park cops, apparently inordinately interested in the outcome of a seemingly run-of-the-mill aggravated assault case in which no one was injured.

Police Chief Little says the only cops there were the ones who were subpoenaed by one side or the other; Gross and his attorneys are convinced the turnout was designed to intimidate him.

Gross says he timed how long the jury was out, and they came back with a not-guilty verdict in 12 minutes, 43 seconds ("I still have it saved on my watch," he says). There are those on the other side who say the jury was out longer; Gross's victory came, they say, because jurors found it hard to take the word of a trio of not-exactly-clean-cut teens over that of an adult.

Gross's wife, Stephanie, sitting incognito in the gallery, told him that she heard one of the officers say, after the not-guilty verdict, "That's okay, we'll get him next time." That's when he decided to sue, he says. "I just saw that this was going to go on and on," he says.

Although his federal court pleading describes various incidents of the last ten years as a way of showing malicious intent on the department's behalf, the $5 million suit is centered largely on the events surrounding his arrest on the charge of pulling a gun on the teens.

Harris County sheriff's deputies, he claims, gave him a jailhouse beating because Deer Park cops told them he had taken a swing or two at them.

As Gross tells it, the Deer Park PD made no attempt to contact him after the incident with the kids, even though it was notified he had retained counsel and would turn himself in if any charges were filed. Instead, the cops waited outside his store until he showed up at 8 a.m. and put the cuffs on him.

Gross says he had $5,534 in cash on him, with $5,000 earmarked to pay a contractor who was remodeling his house (Gross's reason for regularly paying the contractor in cash is a little tortured; he says he refused to go into debt for the $170,000 remodeling project and has always tried to use banks as little as possible. "I've never even had a savings account or an IRA in my life," he says). When he was released from jail, only $534 remained.

He says the arresting officers banged him around when they arrived at the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. His glasses were askew, and he asked for help getting out of the car, he says; the Deer Park cops went and got a sheriff's deputy, who he says took him by the ankles and dragged him across the jail entrance to where he was booked in. The deputy "was mouthing off," Gross says, "saying, 'So you're a bad motherfucker from Deer Park.' "  

His memory of what happened next is precise. He was alone in a holding cell when five officers came in, one wearing latex gloves. "I said to myself, 'Oh, no, a cavity search,' and my emotions just went right down," he says. "Then the guy said, 'You'll be out of here in five or ten minutes,' and my emotions went right back up. He told me to take a step forward and one to the left, and I took one step forward, and he just blindsided me. I was hit in the mouth as hard as I've ever been hit."

Gross says he tried to make himself as small as possible and, improbably enough, started counting the blows. He says there were 27. "They hit me three times, and I couldn't believe it -- I said, 'This son of a bitch is hitting me.' So I just started counting."

He said he heard one officer say, "Deer Park says this guy needs his ass kicked." He says he was flat out on his stomach and handcuffed, with one officer's foot on his back, when the gloved officer squatted down and got face-to-face with him.

"He said, 'What are you in here for? Drinking?' I said no. He said 'Fighting?' I said no. He said, 'Did you hit a police officer?' I said I would never hit a police officer. All of a sudden I saw his face just go, 'uh-oh, that's not the response we were looking for,' and they left." Within ten minutes, he says, a shift supervisor came in and hustled him through the release process.

Gross says there's a photo of him taken shortly after the incident, at a bail-bond company, that shows his injuries. His lawyer, Steve Sumner of Dallas, will subpoena it for trial, but the bond company could not produce it by press time.

Sumner is a prominent Dallas attorney who made a name in Houston earlier this year by winning a $26 million award against the city on behalf of Barbra Piotrowski, who became paralyzed in a murder-for-hire plot allegedly orchestrated by an ex-boyfriend.

That case involved allegations of police misconduct, and since then Sumner has begun to take on more and more lawsuits involving claims of abuse by law-enforcement agencies. That's what brought him to the attention of Bob Gaddis, the Houston lawyer to whom Gross first turned. Gaddis, a childhood friend of Gross's who is serving as co-counsel, doesn't normally handle such federal civil rights suits against police departments.

Police Chief Little won't comment on the beating allegations, and Harris County officials also refused, citing the pending litigation. The county denied the incident occurred in its initial answer to Gross's suit.

In the aggravated assault trial, one Deer Park officer testified that Gross had intentionally injured himself when he was told to get out of the police car at the jail.

"It looks -- being an officer for just two years, I have not experienced a whole lot," said Officer Jason LaPoint. "It was something out of the movies to me. I have never experienced anyone trying to harm themselves, and it just drew me back. I have never been in a situation like that before."

So either Gross is someone who'd slam his head into a car to make a point, or Deer Park police officers feel free to request beatings of people they don't like. Either way, it's a strange tale coming out of Deer Park. And a jury will decide who's right.

Gross says the harassment ended with the filing of the suit. His lawyer's letter formally notifying the city of the suit specifically laid out that they would be on the lookout for any retaliation. Still, he says, it's odd working in a town where you're fighting the police.

"I come in from Pasadena, and as soon as I cross Spencer Highway, I'm on guard," he says. "I don't have anything against the whole Deer Park Police Department, but there are bad apples there, and I don't know what they'd do. I mind the laws, drive 30 miles per hour and just try to get out of Deer Park every day."

He says he can't depend on the police for help when situations arise in his business. "Unless you're a pharmacist, you don't know what kind of nuts we have to deal with -- people coming in wanting drugs, using forged prescriptions and getting mad when you turn them down," he says. "I had a guy who pulled a six-inch knife on me -- he was about six-four. I would've called the cops, but I didn't because I was afraid I'd be the one arrested. Instead, I talked him down, which I'm pretty good at."  

Chief Little doesn't have patience for Gross's claims he can't trust the police. Even though Gross has been a thorn in the department's side, the chief says, he gets treated like everyone else. "If we get a call, we will follow it up like anything else," he says. "He will not be ignored just because of all this."

Little says Gross's suit and claims of being beaten stem from his courtroom victory. "Obviously the thing that set him off was being arrested for aggravated assault," he says. "He was found not guilty, and so be it. The jury didn't find the kids too credible, I guess.... But I wish I had the answer to what's driving him."

Gross claims to be equally baffled. "I think about it every day, why this is going on, and I can't figure it out," he says.

One way or another, the feud -- whether it consists mainly of police harassment or bogus complaints from Gross -- is close to ending. Even if the suit goes nowhere, the pharmacist says, he's looking to sell his store and move back to Austin.

"I probably would have stayed for another ten years or so, but all this has just left a sour taste in my mouth," he says.

He says he has mostly kept his travails to himself, not telling his wife or his customers much about what he says has happened.

"I just sit back," he says, "and I can't believe that all of this has gone on."

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.


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