Just shy of two years after 2019’s fatal Harding Street raid, the families of the married couple killed by Houston Police Department officers during the incident sued the City of Houston and multiple Houston cops for violating their relatives’ constitutional civil rights.
Lawyers for the families of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle each filed federal civil rights lawsuits Wednesday night in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Nicholas family attorney Mike Doyle said he believes the two lawsuits filed Wednesday will ultimately be combined into one case in federal court; Both suits are seeking monetary damages from the city, but didn’t list specific dollar amounts.
Neither suit minced words; Doyle wrote that the City of Houston and HPD “created the custom and practice that killed Nicholas by approving, encouraging, ratifying, defending, or covering up the long history of unconstitutional conduct” within HPD’s Narcotics Squad 15, the unit responsible for the raid.
On behalf of the Tuttle family, attorney Boyd Smith wrote that the Squad 15 officers who carried out the raid used “excessive and deadly force,” and argued that all the officers present that day “are liable for failing to intervene to stop Squad 15 from violating Dennis’ rights.”
“The excessiveness of the force was objectively unreasonable,” Smith claimed.
In a Thursday press conference, the Nicholas family’s legal team and John Nicholas — Rhogena’s brother — said their lawsuit was a last resort to try and get to the bottom of what truly happened during the raid.
John said he knows how hard the past two years have been for his mom, Jo Ann Nicholas, who still doesn’t believe HPD has told their family the full story about her daughter and son-in-law’s killings.
“She says ‘It’s been two years now — are they ever gonna tell us what happened?’... Just about every day I talk to her, [she asks] ‘Have you heard anything from Houston?’ So it’s taken a real toll on her,” John said. “She’s not backing down.”
Since the summer of 2019, Doyle and his colleagues have been pursuing legal action to force HPD and the City of Houston to share crime scene evidence from the botched raid, but city attorneys have successfully delayed those hearings from going forward through a number of procedural challenges.
“The family wanted to do everything possible besides file a civil lawsuit,” Doyle said. “They followed the open records requests, they asked informally… they’ve gone through five different courts.”
“Every step of the way,” Doyle said, “all we ever heard from the city was ‘No, we’re not going to do this. We’re going to keep concealing this information.’ We all need to know, how far does this go?”
In 2019, former HPD officer Gerald Goines was charged with murder for his role in the raid, and his squad partner Steven Bryant was charged with falsifying a government document. The two cops allegedly worked together to fabricate evidence which painted the couples as heroin dealers. That convinced a judge to grant the no-knock warrant for HPD to invade Nicholas and Tuttle’s home, but cops only found small amounts of cocaine and marijuana in the house.
In the Nicholas family lawsuit, Doyle accused HPD’s Narcotics Squad 15 of carrying out multiple other allegedly illegal no-knock raids over the years, and even claimed that Goines “was engaged in a long-term sexual relationship” with a female informant who he’d falsely claimed bought heroin at Nicholas and Tuttle’s home.
Earlier this week, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced that a county grand jury had charged HPD’s Felipe Gallegos with murder for shooting and killing Tuttle during the raid. The grand jury also charged several other HPD narcotics officers for being part of a scheme to falsify records to collect extra overtime pay.
On Tuesday, both Gallegos’ defense attorney Rusty Hardin and Houston Police Officers’ Union President Doug Griffith claimed that Gallegos only shot Tuttle in self-defense after Tuttle opened fire on four other HPD officers at the scene.
That story echoes what Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has claimed went down that fateful day, but the Nicholas family isn’t buying it. An independent forensic analysis commissioned by the family claimed that Nicholas died from a bullet that was fired from outside the couple’s home, which directly contradicts repeated claims from HPD that Nicholas was only shot and killed after she tried to take an officer’s shotgun during the chaotic scene.
“In sum,” Doyle wrote in the Nicholas family lawsuit, “HPD illegally obtained the warrant, illegally entered the house, illegally initiated deadly force by firing their weapons first, and then blindly shot into the home’s wall to kill Nicholas, all with conscious disregard for her constitutional rights.”
Both Hardin and Griffith accused Ogg of conspiring with Doyle to make sure Gallegos’ murder charge came through before the two-year statute of limitations for civil lawsuits was set to pass this week for the Harding Street raid (which took place on Jaunary 28, 2019). They also pointed to the fact that Doyle represented Harris County pro bono in a case against chemical giant Arkema in a 2020 environmental case.
During Thursday’s press conference, Doyle said those claims were “silly.”
“The fact is they do their job, we do our job,” Doyle said. “The filing this week, they’re doing their job… whether it helps our case or not is an open question.”
Two years after his sister and his brother-in-law were killed, John said Acevedo still hasn’t reached out to the Nicholas family to apologize for their loss.
“Why hasn’t he called and apologized? ‘Mr. Nicholas, I’m sorry for your loss, for your mother’ … We haven’t heard anything,” he said.
Both Doyle and Smith’s lawsuits on behalf of the Tuttle and Nicholas families are embedded below:
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