The Usual Suspect
As if it weren't hard enough just being a black man among the trailer parks and suburbs ringing Lake Houston, Eddie Nyuke had the nerve to try it with a funny accent. It cost the South African refugee a week in jail, more than a thousand dollars in attorney's fees and four months of wading through an intimidating legal system.
It started one late January afternoon in Nyuke's adopted town of Huffman. On his way home from work, Nyuke would have passed a grazing longhorn and the fading pressboard-and-spray-paint campaign signs indicative of small-town Texas. Yet another planned community tucked behind a thin veneer of greenery was trying to lure potential buyers off the road with promises of "No MUD."
Even as the open lands east of Lake Houston are being replaced by a more modern suburbia, the demographics have changed little. Nyuke, who moved from Houston to Huffman a year ago, is still a rare sight out here, one of the 10 percent of black folks making their home in the vanishing countryside.
Nyuke works as a medical specialist at the Houston city jail. After a day helping inmates with their injuries and injections followed by an hour at the local gym, he was ready to relax. His wife and eight-month-old child were out of town. It would be a quiet night, one where he might hear the "night creatures sing."
As he pulled into the drive, he noticed someone on the porch. He thought it was a friend waiting for him. Instead, as he applied the brakes he saw two figures crouching over his front-door lock. They were so involved in their work they hadn't noticed the blue Ford Explorer settle at the top of the drive.
"What are you doing?" Nyuke yelled, jumping from his SUV. "Where do you live?"
The pair, just shy of their 14th birthdays, jumped. The white boy with cornrows told him they came from Lochshire, a nearby subdivision. Neither he nor his accomplice, who is Hispanic, struggled when the 54-year-old grabbed one around the arm, moving them inside to the telephone.
"Who are your parents?" Nyuke continued. "What is their phone number?"
As a new parent himself, Nyuke figured the best course of action was to let the children's families know just what they were up to. He surprised one boy's mother when he got her on the line, asking, "Do you know where your child is?"
Then he called the Harris County Sheriff's Department.
That was his one mistake.
The middle-aged man's dropped consonants and halting poetic phrasings can be endearing. As when he tells you, wiping tears from the creases of his eyes and cheeks, trying to clear away the frustration of recent months: "I am at this moment at my lowest ebb."
But his parlance failed to impress Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Ronald Hamlet. The deputy cuffed Nyuke within minutes of arriving at the house and placed him in the backseat of the squad car. As neighbors gathered to watch, Hamlet interviewed the kids and their parents. The children complained he had hit one and slapped the other -- something Nyuke strongly denies. The evidence circulated in court was a single profile shot of one child's cheek showing a scattering of burst blood vessels -- a far cry from the images of any other assault cases Nyuke attorney Tyler Flood says he has witnessed.
"From what it sounds like, he got screwed around, and he definitely got looked down upon, and it was apparently because of his race," Flood says. "I think the officer thought he didn't have much credibility and tried to get him for anything he could."
Hamlet, who could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts, arrested Nyuke on charges of injury to a child. The children went home with their parents.
After he was booked into county jail downtown, Nyuke's accent again began to present problems. First a passport was requested. After a day and a half, Nyuke was able to cajole a friend to make the two-hour trip to his house to secure it. Then, he was told they needed confirmation from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Instead of calling themselves, jail staffers instructed Nyuke to again find a way to get the documentation. Two more days passed.
After spending five days in jail, Nyuke was released on a $1,500 bond. The man with no previous criminal record was ashamed to tell his boss what had happened. He managed to keep his job by admitting that he had been arrested -- but he blamed it on old traffic tickets. "How could you be so irresponsible?" his boss asked him. Shame and bitterness held his tongue.
Nyuke had called the sheriff's department several times about delinquent youths over the past year. By a stroke of bad luck, in choosing his Huffman home he was also unknowingly selecting the designated "party spot" for Huffman-area kids. Teens who tired of running the jumps at the ATV trails behind the trees across the street had long made use of the empty house. When they became bored of drinking beer and soaking in a swimming hole off Lucius Bayou, they would leave the woods for the last home on Doverbrook Drive.
Even before Nyuke's purchase, nearby property owners had taken turns running the kids off. "I'd drive by and I'd drive kids out all the time," says Joseph Biondolillo, stopping to talk with Nyuke after gunning his red Polaris up and down the road. "I know other people ran them out, too."
Biondolillo, who regularly buys up HUD properties in the area to repair and sell, considered the Doverbrook property years ago.
"I could tell it was a nice house," he says, "but they had just destroyed it."
At least once a boy tried to pick a fight with Nyuke when the immigrant doctor told him to leave. It was a pattern that deputies in this corner of Harris County were aware of, neighbors say.
Nyuke's first attorney, Jack P. Lee, who also serves as a substitute municipal court judge, urged his client to plead guilty and settle the matter out of court, Nyuke says. Lee says he recommended deferred adjudication with no admission of wrongdoing only after Nyuke expressed concern about the cost of going to trial. But then another of the firm's attorneys, Edna Garcia, told the judge it would be wrong to agree to the terms of adjudication -- a $500 fine, 80 hours of community service and a year on probation -- because she believed he was innocent.
Besides the differing opinions among counsel, there were personality clashes between Lee and Nyuke.
Nyuke says that at one point when he protested his innocence and asked about receiving justice, Lee scoffed, throwing up his hands into the air and saying, "Justice? There's no justice!" Lee writes it off to a figure of speech, but agrees that certainly not everyone gets what they deserve from the courts.
Nyuke went along, fearing things would be worse if he fought. He told no one but his wife what he was going through, but when it came time to sign his name to the agreement, he balked. "I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive myself for accepting something I did not do," he said at the time.
Ultimately, Lee's firm withdrew from the case and the judge gave Nyuke time to find a new lawyer. The legal team at the district attorney's office also changed in the middle of the case, Lee says.
Coincidentally, it was about this time that things began to resolve themselves. As Flood and his newfound client prepared to go to trial, the charges were reduced. On May 15, they were dropped altogether. Nyuke is still required to attend three anger-management classes, which suggests that at least someone in the court feels Nyuke could benefit from them, Lee says. And the arrest will remain on his record, possibly limiting his job options in the future.
Flood, who still argues Nyuke's innocence, says there is "no civil remedy" for his client's experience.
After months of struggling to make sense of recent events, Nyuke is coming to uncomfortable conclusions.
"It hurts. It hurts," he says. "In apartheid, I would expect it, because I wouldn't expect any better. But not here. Not here. This is another side of America."
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