Killer Behind the Badge

It was just after midnight on August 25, 1992, and Susan White's worst fear was on the verge of coming true.

With the shrill and panicked sound of her home burglar alarm in the background, White struggled to get her wits about her, to overcome the grogginess brought on by sleeplessness and her ingestion of two Valiums. Outside, three men were running around her house, banging on doors and windows in an effort to gain entrance. One of them, White knew, was Joseph Kent McGowen. She had been telling close acquaintances for weeks that McGowen meant to do her harm, but they didn't believe her. That sounded preposterous, because McGowen was a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff's Department, someone sworn to uphold the law. But White knew some other things about McGowen.

Lying on her waterbed in the downstairs bedroom of her home, White grabbed the telephone and dialed 9-1-1:

Operator: 9-1-1 County. What's your emergency?
White: There's a (unintelligible) here at my door. I've filed several complaints with him for sexual harassment and I need some help immediately ... So you can but get McGowen away from my house. Get McGowen away from my house!

White hung up after a few more exchanges with the operator, but seconds later she called 9-1-1 again:

Operator: Do you need a deputy out to your house?
White: They are trying to break into my house, please!
Operator: What's your address?
White: 3407 Amber Forest.
Operator: Who's breaking into your house?

White (crying): I don't know. They say they are detectives, but I have been threatened by one of them.

Operator: How many is there?
White (her voice sounding more frantic, the burglar alarm wailing): I don't know, but puleeze! They just broke in!

Operator: What are they doing?
White: Okay....
Operator: Ma'am?

White's phone disconnected, and a few seconds later she was shot to death by McGowen, who, along with two other sheriff's deputies, was executing an arrest warrant that McGowen had obtained under false pretenses. Eighteen months later, McGowen would become the first and only peace officer in the history of Harris County to be convicted of murder for actions committed while on duty.

Susan White has been buried in her home state of Louisiana for two and a half years, but her agonized friends and relatives are still haunted by two questions: How did someone like McGowen, a man with a checkered history as an officer, who had previously been fired from two other law enforcement agencies, get hired by the Harris County Sheriff's Department? And why is he still a free man?

On the surface, Joseph Kenton McGowen must have seemed like a model candidate for a career in law enforcement. He had been raised in a religious and affluent ranching family. His father, William, owned McGowen Land and Cattle Co. in Hockley, northwest of Houston. At age 18, McGowen married Michelle Morgan, his sweetheart from Lee High School in Houston. The couple have three children: two boys, ages 8 and 10, and a 6-year-old daughter. But beneath the facade of all-America normalcy lay a troubled marriage and even more troubled man.

McGowen, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story. So did his now ex-wife, who filed for divorce from him in 1989. Almost as reluctant to talk was his former mother-in-law, Doris Morgan, who says since McGowen's murder conviction last March "things have been quiet" in her daughter's life for the first time in 15 years.

"I still live in fear for my daughter's safety," she explains. "He is extremely vindictive."

According to Morgan, McGowen didn't graduate from high school, but later obtained a GED and served in the Air Force for a short time. In the early 1980s, he became a state-certified peace officer and signed on with the Waller County Sheriff's Department as a reserve deputy, an unpaid position that is the law enforcement equivalent of a volunteer fireman. (Waller County officials claim to have no record of when McGowen was actually hired.) While with Waller County, McGowen apparently managed to steer clear of controversy. Unlike many law officers who have known McGowen, Howard Lester, who retired as a deputy from Waller County in 1988, has nothing but good things to say about McGowen and his family.

"It was really a religious family," says Lester. "He was married and had kids. They lived on his dad's place there and worked on the ranch.

"I had a boy who had cancer, and then I had a boy who got murdered, and the family [McGowen's parents], they'd come over and talk with us. They were really religious-type people."

In 1985, McGowen joined the Houston Police Department, where he developed a very different reputation -- that of a slacker with a pronounced misogynistic streak.

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Steve McVicker