A Wrong Turn

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Fred Mueller steered his truck through the open-window welcome of Gulf air atop the I-45 Causeway, descending into his first Galveston Isle-style Mardi Gras adventure. This 17-year-old Bellaire student had installed a stereo system in the old F-150 pickup that now pulsed to the mellow reggae sounds of SOJA. He reached the rendezvous point for a dozen or so other Bellaire teens at the Breakers condo unit, owned by the grandparents of one of them. Ahead was the inaugural night of festivities and a friend's birthday.

After a few minutes of greetings, Mueller and two classmates left to score some food. They climbed into his truck and he eased onto Seawall Boulevard. That route west took them through smudges of fog rather than fast-food joints. Mueller edged into the center turn lane, preparing to head back the other way.

Suddenly, the exterior of his driver's side door seemed to explode. The impact jointed the pickup, jamming the door. The teens slid out the passenger's side and hurried around the F-150.

The truck had taken a one-ton hit of metal and chrome, as well as human bone, flesh and fluid. The kids saw the carcass of what had been a Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide motorcycle. Its rider sprawled on his back on the ground, feet still dangling at the base of the pickup. Dark liquid quickly masked the motorcyclist's face; it poured from his mouth and a deep gash in his head, forming a path that oozed over the pavement toward the bay.

Mueller's 911 call began at 6:26 p.m. on this Saturday, February 26, 2011. "Hey dude, we need an ambulance right now! Right away, sir," the youthful voice said. "A motorcycle just hit my truck. And the guy, I think he's dead, sir. I think the guy's out..." He urgently tried to answer the operator's question about his location on Seawall, or whether he could see any identifying hotels. "Aw, shit. I'm trying to find one. Uh, give me a second..."

The motorcyclist "just came out of nowhere," as Mueller was making a U-turn, he explained. The reduced visibility and the unfamiliar setting left him clueless about the specific location. "Excuse me, I'll put you on the phone with a grownup." A woman's voice followed, along with the confirmation that they were in the 8300 block. "He's dead," the woman said. "It looks like he's dead..."

Galveston Fire Department paramedics began frantic efforts to revive the biker. Some witnesses said the action slowed in the absence of any response from the motionless man. As they handled the body, more clothing was exposed. Mueller heard a shout from them that triggered a new flurry of attention:

"Oh my God — he's one of us!"

Physicians at John Sealy Hospital's emergency room formally concluded that Christopher Norregaard, 49, was dead. He had been more than just a biker. For 25 years, the local construction contractor carried Badge 733 of the Jamaica Beach Volunteer Fire Department. His father retired after a career as an area firefighter — one son was also a volunteer firefighter; another was a GFD officer. The extended family further validated their Born-on-the- Island status.

Norregaard was "one of us." Mueller wasn't. This Bellaire teen, with his Justin Bieber swept-brown hair and boyish looks, began sensing that in the eyes of these police and medical technicians, he might as well have been from a foreign land.

His first Mardi Gras adventure rapidly morphed into the grim, stark cadence of a Miranda warning.

Frederick Gustav Mueller would spend the next months trying to persuade Galveston authorities that, no, he wasn't really a drunken kid who had killed one of their own. His charge: intoxication manslaughter, a felony that could send him to prison for the next 20 years of his life.

Some news reports said Norregaard had joined other Jamaica Beach firefighters and police for warm-up Mardi Gras festivities at a party in the Academy Sports parking lot on Seawall. They stated that he rode for home to escape the increasing traffic, while some of his peers boarded fire trucks for a Mardi Gras parade. Troy Beasley, a fire captain, told the Galveston Daily News how hard it was for those crews to "hold it together" once their fire radio crackled with the message that their colleague was dead. Locked into the parade line, they had 40 more blocks to endure of throng-lined streets of revelers, blaring music and the controlled mayhem called Mardi Gras.

Parade route barricades spawned the expected traffic backups. In one of those was a car containing Randy Seehausen and his wife Paola. They were trying to get to John Sealy Hospital and their son, Fred Mueller. Paola remembers the unsettling sights through the windshield. Emergency sirens whooped to the crowds' delight. Fire trucks crawled by with animated riders clutching plastic drink cups and tossing trinkets to cheering audiences.

The Seehausens had been in their Bellaire home preparing to leave for another event — the Chili Cook-off at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Mueller, who had just hung up from the 911 call, telephoned his father. Seehausen heard him start with, "Something terrible has just happened," before he briefed him on the accident. Then a Galveston police officer came on the line with reassurances.

The officer summed up accounts of witnesses who said the motorcyclist had caused the crash, and had his helmet tucked into the Harley's rear storage compartment. He told Seehausen his son would have minor injuries checked out at the hospital, and the family could pick him up there.

Emergency department staff directed the parents to an upstairs room where Mueller was being treated. They were a few feet away when a GPD officer intercepted them. He and another officer inside the room curtly ordered them off that wing. Why? Mueller was under arrest for the felony charge.

That stunned the Seehausens. The father remembered his son's call, which had come within ten minutes of the crash. "He was naturally shaken up, but also calm, concerned and alert — and sober." The officer on the line also had given no hint of anything criminal, the father said. "Something clearly had happened between the time of that call and when we arrived," he said. "There had been an accident, yes, but nothing like this...everything had changed when they discovered the deceased man was a firefighter."

They gained his later release by posting a $40,000 bond. In many ways, the crisis brought them closer. "It was unbelievable," Seehausen said. "None of us had been through anything like this. And at that instant, none of us fully understood what all we were getting into. We ran on adrenaline for the next few days...Ultimately, there was a real togetherness that emerged from all of this."

Also joining ranks were police and public safety officers and the Galveston community. They mourned the death of Chris Norregaard, an esteemed elder even at 49 years of age. Published tributes and the obituary cited his cheerful outlook, charitable ways and the solid credentials of a homegrown product.

"He loved riding his motorcycle, playing with his dogs, creating his artwork, helping friends and spending time with his two boys and his wife," the obit stated. "He had monstrous hands and a heart of gold, always letting you know, "I LOVE YOU, MAN!"

Norregaard, a master carpenter and contractor, built on his family's hook-and-ladder legacy even as he undertook construction projects such as docks and boathouses. His metalworking skills showed in his large sculptures of fish and tiny, detailed miniatures of boathouses and other island structures. They could be seen in Strand art exhibits, and he donated many for community fundraisers.

Norregaard was instrumental in establishing the Jamaica Beach department's Marine Division, and in modifying equipment to improve responses to emergencies. He was among the force of police and firefighters who stayed behind to make rescues and protect the area in the hectic days after Hurricane Ike slammed ashore in 2008. Friends told of how proud he and his wife, a registered nurse, were when their sons became firefighters.

As an island motorcyclist, he made many rides at area rallies and events. At his funeral last March 3, the Texas Patriot Guard motorcycle riders formed a Flag Line procession. The atmosphere was one reserved for a fallen public service hero.

Capt. Beasley, his fellow Jamaica Beach firefighter, summed up the sentiments for Norregaard in the Galveston Daily News. "Goodbye, buddy," he wrote. "You answered our alarms for help here, now you take your rest in heaven's fire station."

Back in Bellaire, the Catholic Seehausen family was saying their own prayers for the man who had died in the crash. The parents enjoyed the small-town aspects of this Houston inner suburb, although their lives had been shaped by broader international perspectives.

Paola, a real estate agent, carries the faint accent of her native Ecuador. She found her adopted country when she first came to the United States for college at the University of Texas. Mueller and his brother Paul, a year younger, were born during her previous marriage. Seehausen formally adopted them when he wed Paola four years ago.

Seehausen gained his engineering degree from Texas A&M and prospered in developing offshore oil and gas production systems. His consulting group was retained by British Petroleum in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.

He can also transform himself into an accomplished, goateed magician who has several professional venues in his past. He still entertains kids, church crowds and other groups with his act, often accompanied by inspirational messages.

The Seehausens' spacious home was designed by him. They've strived not to make that life of comfort too comfortable or entitled for their children. Seehausen didn't give his son the pickup truck — he sold it to the teen for $278 a month. Most of that went to cover Mueller's share of the auto insurance costs. To afford it, Mueller worked part-time driving a converted golf cart that took diners from remote parking to the Pappas restaurant off Kirby Drive. He staffed open-house events for Realtors, and wrangled other odd jobs.

The exterior of the 1998 truck and his driving record were both kept spotless. He did well in school as well; he had a 3.6 GPA and Advanced Placement credits.

His first eight years of education were at St. Anne's Catholic School, where he was elected student body president. Two years at St. Pius X preceded his transfer to Bellaire High. Mueller, who weighs in at about 135 pounds, doesn't match up to the image of teen hellraiser in any traditional sense. He put in his jock time on lacrosse fields and in the demanding trails of cross country teams for St. Pius X and Bellaire.

He emits an embarrassed groan when his mother mentions that he also had the lead in St. Anne's student production of the musical Grease.

Of course, that background didn't matter in the avalanche of attention triggered by news of his arrest and charge. In the New Age of Information, reports about the crash ricocheted at the family in real time on the World Wide Web.

Most mainstream news organizations delivered the standard, if sometimes skewed, information. The family was furious at hearing an early KPRC-TV live report announce, "Police say a blood alcohol test showed Mueller was intoxicated." In fact, his blood sample had not even been submitted yet for any analysis.

A few comments posted below the online news coverage called for restraint at what were still only accusations. Many reflected the harsh reality that most of the public didn't want to wait. A sampling of the responses to the Galveston Daily News showed outrage that he'd been released.

One writer fumed that a teen drunk "snuffs out a productive life, and makes bond and is out roaming among us!" Another regretted that police and firefighters couldn't "drag this killer out" to pick up body parts at crash scenes. Social media sites and the Web pages of advocacy groups and attorneys' offices posted the news.

An army of bloggers added their own unique spin. A Maryland-based site called the "DWI Hit Parade" said it all in the caption: "Texas: boozing teen charged with DWI after he killed volunteer firefighter when he drove over the top of his motorcycle." Beneath that was a photo of Norregaard, captioned, "End of Watch R.I.P." Mueller's posted mug shot included his full name, age and identity as "DWI Killer."

"I just stopped looking at any of it," Paola Seehausen said. "But I know Fred couldn't — we could tell. He was so depressed."

But Mueller's parents relied on far more than a family's blind faith. They had grilled him on the ride back home and later about anything he had not revealed to them. He conceded that he was wrong in telling them that there would be adult supervision for the planned Galveston party. Mueller also acknowledged that he took a token sip from a drink offered by another teen. (The U-turn he'd made on Seawall was a traffic violation, although there were no posted warnings to that effect in that area.) "That was it," his father said. "We questioned the heck out of him, but there just wasn't anything more there."

With the prospect of prison time for their son, they quickly retained veteran criminal defense lawyers Dean Blumrosen and George "Mac" Secrest. In turn, they signed on private investigator Ralph Mutchler. He was a former longtime law enforcement officer who retired as Chief Investigator of the Galveston DA's Office. An accident investigation specialist examined the scene and vehicles and concluded that Norregaard, not Mueller, had caused the crash.

Records and reports and related information were not flowing from police or prosecutors in the way that the Houston-based Blumrosen expected. He attributed some of that to differences in the way Galveston County conducts the discovery process of obtaining case information. However, he felt he was clearly being stonewalled on some levels. He subpoenaed Galveston police for their communications and documents, and gained other information through formal record requests to the Medical Examiner's Office and John Sealy Hospital. The results were surprising.

In the offense report, GPD Officer Christopher Sanderson explained how he had determined that Mueller was intoxicated during the field sobriety test. He detected the involuntary jerking motion of Mueller's eyes — a sign of intoxication — when he administered the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) exam. Most damning, though, was Sanderson's litany of standard police phrases used to justify probable cause to conduct the field tests.

Mueller, Sanderson stated, had a "strong odor of alcoholic beverage on breath." The eyes? "red, bloodshot, glassy...droopy." His face was flushed and sweaty and he had a blank or glazed look. The offense report continued on about fumbling fingers, an avoidance of eye contact and Mueller facing away when talking "so the alcohol odor could not be detected." His chewing gum? "Masking agent" for that smell.

The teen had also "staggered when walking," according to the report. So surely he'd flunk the other field tests, the ones requiring him to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line and to balance on one leg while counting? No: The report notes that both tests were "successfully completed."

"Based on the HGN and his supposed appearance, he would have been totally hammered — falling down drunk," Blum­rosen said. "And yet he 'aced' these other tests? That didn't make sense."

That opinion was shared by attorney Brent Mayr, a former chief of the Harris County DA's Vehicular Crimes Section. He was not involved in the Mueller case, but reviewed a summary of the information for this article. Mayr called the HGN test "inexact and highly susceptible to error."

The fact that Mueller passed the other two phases "makes it more likely that the HGN was not performed or interpreted correctly," Mayr said. Officers generally rely on the entire battery of tests. "In short, I'm surprised that this young man was even charged in the first place."

Supplemental reports by other officers at the scene made little mention of any DWI suspicions. Mueller had also been closely examined by hospital doctors and assistants. They had their own documentation on his condition and alertness, and even eye appearance. All of it was described as "normal."

The chief police investigator of the Mueller crash scene was already firmly entrenched in the Isle's insider heritage, even at the young age of 25. Published stories on the family showed Sanderson was a seventh-generation BOI in a lineage stretching back to the 1800s when a German immigrant married a local police officer. Sanderson's mother, Barbara Sanderson, is Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Galveston. Her father was the legendary Oscar Thomas Ekelund Jr., who wore the GPD badge for more than four decades.

Ekelund had been an integral part of bedrock institutions — social, religious, charitable, educational and law enforcement — in his 81 years on the Isle. Chris Sanderson carried that legacy as a pallbearer at Ekelund's funeral last November. He became a jailer for Galveston County while still a teen. Sanderson was a junior lifeguard and then regular member of the county's Beach Patrol. When the Galveston Police Academy accepted him in 2007, Sanderson made news because he was joining his brother Bobby as a trainee.

Since then, he's been praised for saving a drowning teen's life and turning a traffic stop into the eventual confiscation of some $1.5 million worth of homegrown island marijuana. Sanderson organized a sting operation on local convenience store clerks selling cigarettes to minors. In 2008, he confronted a beer-toting minor at a San Luis Resort wedding party. That touched off what police called a riot.

About 30 cops, some with batons and pepper spray and Tasers, waded into what police described as an unruly crowd of wedding guests and hotel bystanders. Among the 13 arrested was then-Astros pitcher Brandon Backe. Charges were eventually dismissed against all but four of them. The minor who had carried the beer — he was the brother of the bride — pleaded guilty to misdemeanor public intoxication. Backe was one of three who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and received deferred adjudication sentences of one day of probation. Several of those initially arrested have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers, including Sanderson. A department investigation ended with 13 unnamed officers receiving discipline that ranged from written reprimands to suspensions of up to seven days.

A tougher fight continues on for the officer. Sanderson was diagnosed in 2009 with a form of sarcoma that returned last year, forcing periods off for treatment and recovery. To help him defray the enormous medical costs, the island community responded with many fund­raising events. They included golf tourneys, beach runs, raffles, auctions and even police-escorted motorcycle rally rides that might have attracted bikers like Chris Norregaard.

From high school to multi-agency swift water rescue training, there were many parallel paths on the island for Norregaard's family and the young cop called to investigate the fatal crash.

Also investigating that crash was Mueller's defense team. They turned to tracking down two independent eyewitnesses that would be pivotal in the case.

A couple from the Colorado town of Montrose had been on contract medical assignments in the Sugar Land area when they decided to take a leisurely Saturday drive to Galveston. Wendy Jones, 52, was a registered nurse. Her companion, Robert "Keith" Hendrix, 49, was a surgical technician.

At Seawall Boulevard, they encountered dusk and the wisps of drifting fog, so she slowed her truck in the right lane to about 35 mph, 10 below the posted limit. Just ahead, in the left lane, they noticed the taillights of a maroon F-150, which had also reduced its speed to match theirs. A left turn signal began flashing on the truck ahead.

She and Hendrix heard the heavy bass sounds of a Harley from behind them. It had suddenly appeared within inches of their rear bumper. The two said they don't believe its headlight was on. The motorcyclist leaned left and accelerated sharply, shooting past them toward the pickup ahead. "He was going way too fast, especially for the conditions," Jones said.

They watched as the rider gunned the engine again, apparently starting to dart left into the turn lane to roar around the truck. Hendrix said he began to tell Jones, "Here's another asshole who is trying to get himself killed." Before he finished, they saw the crash. "I could see the rider upright, flying forward. And I thought, 'This isn't going to be good.'"

Trained in trauma medicine, they pulled over to help. Jones said she and another bystander eased Norregaard's body away from the truck. She couldn't feel a pulse in his right wrist. She moved to the chest and eventually detected a very faint heartbeat. However, CPR was ruled out because chest pressure added to the gush of blood from his mouth, she said. EMTs tried "bagging" — forcing air through a tube into his lungs by compressing a plastic sack-like emergency device, Jones recalled. Instead, the oxygen flowed into his stomach. As they removed the tube, fluid — reeking of alcohol — poured up from his stomach, the nurse said.

Officers quizzed her and Hendrix, who have had training in detecting impaired patients, about Mueller and whether he smelled of booze or looked intoxicated. "And we kept telling the police, 'No, no. He was perfectly sober.' Their later 'take' that he had red eyes and was staggering and so on — that's a bunch of bull," Jones said.

She also tells of hearing the eerie shout from a rescue worker that "He's one of us." Jones said others asked, "Who? Who?" She believes the injuries and blood to his face kept them from recognizing him. The couple insist they clearly told police about the dangerous actions of the motorcyclist, and the cautious movements of the pickup's driver.

"He wasn't your typical teen, you know, driving recklessly," Jones said. "He had been very conscientious. If anything, he was driving like an elderly person — very careful."

They recoiled when they read the later news accounts and comments about a drunken teen causing the crash. That feeling returned weeks later when, they said, prosecutor William Reed called them in for what Hendrix said were leading questions. "It was apparent to me that they weren't interested in divining the truth, but rather to find the young man guilty," Hendrix said. "That was very disconcerting."

Hendrix requested to have his say in front of a grand jury. Jones said her friend became angry. "He said, 'If you are going to ask us questions, then listen to what we have to say. Don't put words in our mouths."

Hendrix speculated that "reputations are on the line once you post charges...so their intent was to prove their charges" rather than confirm information.

Their opinions about Mueller were matched by the long-awaited analyses of the forensic evidence. There was a driver operating his vehicle under the influence of intoxicants — but he was the motorcyclist, not Mueller.

Samples taken by the medical examiner from Norregaard's body showed alcohol levels of 0.153 and 0.188. That was well above the 0.08 legal standard for presumed intoxication. Mueller's blood tested at 0.01.

Norregaard's results also indicated the presence of four restricted drugs in his system. There was oxycodone and the sleeping pill temazepam, the tranquilizer meprobamate and carisoprodol, a muscle relaxant. Federal health sites show that each comes with the warning that consumption in combination with alcohol can increase side effects and impairment.

At the request of the Houston Press, an emergency room physician reviewed Norregaard's toxicology report and concluded that the tranquilizer and muscle relaxant levels would have resulted in serious impairment and could have even approached the point of lethal respiratory depression.

Mueller's lawyers pressed to have him cleared of the charge. However, prosecutors reacted by sending the teen's blood sample off again, this time for drug tests. It was not until May that the Department of Public Safety lab completed that analysis. Mueller was clean. Analyses showed no traces of either pharmaceuticals or street drugs such as coke, meth or marijuana.

After the last of the results were received, the motorcyclist's family opted to take the longstanding offer from Mueller's insurance company. They settled for the maximum coverage limit of $250,000. The agreement stated that Mueller and his parents deny all claims and that any liability was disputed. By settling, "the parties may forever avoid the expense, uncertainties and hazards of litigation," it said.

Secrest and Blumrosen prepared for the first real opportunity to confront GPD investigators. That would be the June 14 administrative law hearing set to contest the DPS plans to revoke Mueller's license. However, on the eve of that hearing, the agency notified Blumrosen it was moving to dismiss the action. No reason was given.

Mueller's lawyers were sure by then that Norregaard's status as a BOI firefighter had been a key factor in the initial charge. They were also confronting a criminal justice system that gave them no early opportunities to go to court to challenge faulty accusations against defendants.

Extended waits are typically part of the justice process, especially when defendants are freed on bond to resume their regular lives. That might apply to most adults — not to vulnerable 17-year-olds like Mueller. He tried to adjust on the first day back to school. "It was all so unreal...It actually hit me in the second period, English class. I didn't cry. I just felt numb." He walked out and was sent home as sick with a cold. Later, even a return to Bellaire High seemed unlikely. An assistant administrator found that, as an accused felon, Mueller had to be farmed out to HISD's alternative school to join other students with the most serious discipline problems. The education code required that, the family was told.

They gained an appeal to Principal Tim Salem. Randy Seehausen said the last thing his son needed was to have his school routine disrupted, and that he would cause no problems. Seehausen said the principal explained that in these situations, the trouble often stems from ridicule or taunting by classmates.

"They left him in, but it was conditional," Seehausen said. "The principal said if anything happens, if we can't maintain control, then Fred's got to go. I assured him that would not be the case with my son." Mueller and his brother Paul, 16, both kept their cool when provoked by other students. Mueller recalled what he had thought was a relatively cordial conversation with another teen before their theater class. "Don't talk to me — you're a killer," she interrupted. "I honestly don't know what started it. She was just like, 'I've read about you — I know what you've done.'"

Galveston County mailed a form letter indicating that it would revoke Mueller's bond unless the family installed an interlock device on his truck that would prevent it from starting if he had consumed alcohol. In fact, the Ford 150 had been handed over to the Galveston towing company — repair and storage costs were more than it was worth. And out of caution, his parents refused to let him drive while the criminal case was hanging over his head. There were curfews and more close monitoring.

As the weeks wore on, the family wrestled constantly with more subtle uncertainties about the perceptions of the community and beyond. Routines had been ripped away. Attending mass at St. Anne's or even dining at nearby restaurants, they felt they noticed changes in how others looked at them, or avoided them.

"I thought, well ignore it. They don't know what happened," Paola Seehausen said. "But I wasn't in Fred's shoes. I could see how he just felt humiliated, and that all these people thought of him as, 'Well, I'm a criminal who has done something really horrible.' They just don't know." Mueller had that reinforced when he was invited to a friend's home. Her mother told him that he had to leave — her husband did not want someone like him in their house.

Mueller said he went through one phase where he couldn't go to sleep, or at least stay asleep until the heavy fatigue of early morning set in. He was haunted by the image of the dead motorcyclist. "I'd just close my eyes and see that face," he said.

One day when his parents were gone, Bellaire police rolled up to the residence and announced to Mueller and a couple of his friends that there had been a noise complaint. They went inside and conducted a thorough search that went on for some 40 minutes. "They looked through trash cans and everything else. They found nothing and finally left," Randy Seehausen said.

Defense lawyers and the family fought back the growing frustration. From the standpoint of legal strategy, the surest approach was to amass all available evidence and prepare for an ultimate trial. But they believed his innocence was already obvious. "Prosecutors wanted to continue their investigation, which is laudable on one level," Secrest said. "But it finally got to the point where it seemed like they needed to make a decision in this case."

Last August 10, Secrest and Blumrosen loaded up extensive records for the trip to the DA's office in Galveston. They were ushered into a conference room with DA Jack Roady, his top assistants and prosecutor Reed. The defense team had made the rare request to be heard by the top tier of the office. Roady had developed a solid reputation for fairness in his career with the Harris County DA's Office. That and his pledges to increase the office's professionalism had been cited in his 2010 election campaign that toppled the two-term incumbent.

"Together, there was more than a hundred years' of collective criminal trial experience sitting in that room," Blumrosen said. "They weren't there to hear clever arguments — the people at this table could spot lawyers' BS a mile away. They wanted the truth. I believe we gave it to them."

Secrest called Roady the "consummate professional. He is determined to do everything he can according to the law, regardless of where that may lead. We walked him and his senior staff through the extensive information we were able to put together. I think it became very clear that this was a case that needed to 'go away.'"

Mueller's lawyers received assurances that their facts would be reviewed. Within weeks, the DA's Office notified them that the charge would be dismissed. That was followed in December by notice that prosecutors would not challenge the formal action to purge that former charge from public records.

There was no response to Press requests for comments from the motorcyclist's sons, the district attorney, the case prosecutor, the lead police investigator of the crash and the Jamaica Beach Volunteer Fire Department.

Capt. Jeff Heyse of the Galveston Police categorically denied the claims by Mueller's family, Mueller's attorneys and the two eyewitnesses that the dead man's standing in the community had affected the investigation and decision to file charges.

"The only thing that influences whether or not we file a charge is whether or not we have probable cause to do so," Heyse said. "There's no bias...We aren't here to put innocent people in jail just because we know somebody." Officers adhere to a GPD "code of ethics that we take as second to none."

Heyse said a review of the reports showed police had reason to believe the pickup driver might have been intoxicated. The prosecutor approved the decision to draw the blood sample and file the charge. After the lab results showed no intoxication, that charge was dismissed, Heyse said. "I understand when people are frustrated, especially when it is themselves or their kids or their loved ones who get charged with a crime," he said. "I sympathize with them. But that's just our justice system" at work.

In the Mueller case, the captain said, "We did it by the book, by the numbers, as we're supposed to do. That's just the way it goes."

The captain said he could not comment about the intoxication of the dead man, because those records were not part of the GPD report. He referred to the legal process available for previously accused people to clear their names. "It's just one of those things that, unfortunately, some of us have to go through in life, right?"

For Mueller, his family and lawyers, the dismissal of the criminal charge brought a fresh wave of initial euphoria. Vindication, though, doesn't automatically mean a happy ending.

By all accounts, the man on the motorcycle had lived a life worthy of honor and respect as a volunteer first responder who had risked his own life to rescue others. Mueller's family and attorneys appreciate the unique allegiances of the so-called Born on the Islanders, and the close bonds between firefighters and police officers.

"I understand that," Secrest said. "I mean, they are out there together, cleaning up society's shit. They would bend over backwards to support each other. On many levels that is to be praised. But then you get down to the bottom line of, 'Okay, folks, what are the objective facts — the honest truth.' That commitment to objectivity was lacking in this case, at least by certain folks...It should have been painfully clear early on that this kid didn't cause the accident. He was just a scapegoat."

Family members cite their religious faith and the good fortune of having the financial resources that enabled them to retain quality lawyers and investigators. Most of all, they are thankful that two credible strangers — Jones and Hendrix — made the choice to get involved.

"I'm all for supporting police and firefighters," Hendrix said. "But they are also supposed to be out there supporting us. If they are treating the general public as second-rate, then the system is broken." Jones recalls seeing the police who monitored parade detour barricades. She tells about the news reports that the motorcyclist had been among his fellow firefighters and police at Mardi Gras festivities. Some of them must have known he was impaired, and yet he was allowed to drive away on the Harley, she argued.

"If we hadn't been there, they would have probably hung that kid," Jones said. "He wasn't responsible. They are responsible — both the police and firefighters. I don't think they want to acknowledge that they contributed to the death of one of their own, let alone a Galveston community member."

The quest to preserve good names goes far beyond Galveston Island and any BOI brotherhood. Online searches still show the same images, media reports and blog smears about an allegedly intoxicated teen charged with killing a firefighter.

"You can clear up the legal side of it...Expunge records, get him back his driver's license and do all of that. But what pops up all over the Internet still wrecks his reputation," his father said. "You can't even tell relatives the true story without wondering how much of it they think we're saying just because he's our son. That's the ultimate tragedy."

"If there is to be real justice, he deserves what he had before all of this began," his father said. "And that's his good name."

What is certain is that the island's Mardi Gras season begins on February 10. There'll be five masked balls, 24 parades, parties, booze and 3 million beads ready to be tossed to 300,000 revelers.

Fred Mueller won't be among them. His first Mardi Gras experience was the kind that will last a lifetime.

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