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.

"He was always a problem," says a former desk sergeant at HPD's Westside Command Station, where McGowen was assigned. "The guy was an asshole. If there was a problem with a patrol car, he'd tear the mirror off so he wouldn't have to drive it. I couldn't prove it. But every time he got a car with no air conditioning, something would turn up wrong with it. He was a malingering malcontent with crusader arrogance."

The sergeant recalls one occasion when McGowen informed him that he no longer planned to write traffic tickets. According to the sergeant, a new captain at the command station had ended an unofficial quota that called for each officer to write two tickets daily. One evening the sergeant was dispatched to a scene in southwest Houston where McGowen was trying to resolve an automobile accident involving a driver who spoke only Spanish, had no driver's license or insurance, and had rear-ended a woman's car at a stop sign. McGowen refused to issue the man a ticket.

"And I asked McGowen, 'Why not?'," says the sergeant. "And he tells me, 'Conflicting statements.' And McGowen doesn't know any Spanish!

"And I say, 'Well, I think you need to write a ticket.' And he says, 'No, the captain says we don't have to write tickets. As a matter of fact, I don't even carry a ticket book anymore.'"

The sergeant says McGowen further informed him that the woman really had a bad attitude, a remark he believes reflected McGowen's own attitude toward women. It's an attitude that the sergeant would have to deal with once he left his desk assignment and was placed on patrol, where he served as McGowen's supervisor two days each week. According the sergeant, McGowen asked to be assigned to the Galleria area "because that's where the pussy is." And McGowen -- who was investigated by internal affairs on allegations of the sexual harassment of a female officer -- then boasted of his sexual prowess and practices once he finally got his wish to patrol in the Galleria area.

"He got over to the district and was bragging about getting all these women," says the sergeant. "And he said, 'Yeah, I've only had one that made me wear a condom. I finally broke down and wore one. But then it broke, so that taught her.' He didn't think much of women."

And the sergeant didn't think much of McGowen. To his delight, he had the chance to make his opinion official in an exit evaluation he wrote when McGowen resigned from HPD in 1989. In his report, the sergeant said that the only future law enforcement job that McGowen might be suited for would be one where he could work alone, have few responsibilities and no contact with the public.

McGowen reapplied to HPD in 1991, and the sergeant says he was asked to change his exit report, but he refused. One of the county investigators assigned to Susan White's murder says that despite the sergeant's steadfastness McGowen was allowed to take two psychological evaluations when he tried to hire on again at HPD. He failed both. The evaluations -- one conducted by a HPD staff psychiatrist, the other by a doctor at Baylor College of Medicine -- concluded that McGowen had violent tendencies and a disdain of women and minorities, but did get along well with fellow white men.

"I wrote [the exit report] the way I wrote it because I didn't want him back," says the sergeant. "I felt that he was a danger, that if the city took him back, they'd be leaving themselves wide open for anything that happened. Because I really felt that something might happen. I said, 'Somebody's going to die out here.'"

Unfortunately for Susan White, no one at the Harris County Sheriff's Department bothered to read the sergeant's report. Or if they did, they didn't care.

In Texas, peace officers must be certified by the state's Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education. To be licensed by the commission, an applicant must have received 560 hours of law enforcement training. (In contrast, a hairdresser needs 1,500 hours of training for state certification. In the words of one assistant district attorney, "A bad hair day is obviously infinitely more important than whether you are killed by a police officer in Texas.")

To keep the license without having to submit to new psychological screening and drug testing, an officer can't go more than six months without holding a commission -- that is, without having a job, paid or unpaid, with a law enforcement agency. Many former officers who have moved on to other careers are able to retain their certifications by becoming reserve officers -- unpaid volunteers -- usually in small cities or counties that can't afford a large number of paid officers.

In his resignation letter to the HPD, dated December 20, 1988, and effective January 9, 1989, McGowen indicated that his decision was based on his desire to become a full-time student and earn a college degree. Shortly after leaving HPD, however, McGowen applied with the Tomball Police Department to become a volunteer reserve officer, a job that would allow him to keep his state certification.

At first, things went well for McGowen, who was putting in between 10 and 20 hours a week for Tomball. He was even selected as the department's representative on the Harris County Organized Crime Task Force. But shortly after McGowen won that coveted assignment, questions were raised about how much he was charging the task force for mileage, says Leroy Michna, who was then the acting chief of the police department. Nothing ever came it, but Michna says it was about that time that he began to notice other McGowen oddities.

"He was always working on a big case," says Michna, who had retired as a captain from HPD after 21 years of service. "Whenever you talk to policeman wannabes, they're always working on that big one. 'Got a big one fixing to go down tomorrow.'"

Although he was beginning to have his doubts about McGowen, Michna, who is now assistant chief deputy constable for the Precinct 5 constable's office, says there was nothing he could really put his finger on -- that is, until the day McGowen came to the Tomball station to tell Michna there had been a threat on his life.

"He said he had received a page on his pager, returned the call and the man had threatened to kill him," says Michna, who decided to check out the story. The phone number was still in the beeper, and Michna traced it to an oil field supply company in north Harris County. Michna drove there and started asking questions. A nervous 45-year-old oil field equipment salesman denied any knowledge of the calls. Still, Michna says, he knew there was something strange afoot and asked the salesman to call him later.

"Turns out this guy calls me back," says Michna, "and he says, 'Look, chief, I don't want to go to the penitentiary. I'm a businessman. But [McGowen's] daddy is a very wealthy man. And he told me that he wants his son out of law enforcement. And he wanted me to call and scare him. And that's what I did for him. Because his daddy promised me a big order."

Michna says he then presented the salesman's story to McGowen's religious parents. McGowen's father, says Michna, vehemently denied any involvement. McGowen's mother, he says, claimed it was the work of the devil. (The Press was unable to contact McGowen's parents.)

"It was so crazy," says Michna, "that I finally told Kent that I didn't know what was going on in his life, but I knew that he was going to do something that was going to embarrass somebody. And when it happens I do not want the headlines in the paper to say 'Kent McGowen, Tomball police officer.' So I told him I was pulling his commission."

During the next year, Michna says he was besieged with calls from McGowen. One day, he says, McGowen would call and claim to have a job with an area law agency. The next day, Michna says, McGowen would call back accusing him of costing him his new job and threatening to get even. After several such calls, Michna had had enough.

"I told him that I was without influence but that his daddy might be doing this to him," recalls Michna. "Then I said don't ever call me again at my home. If you ever call me at home again, I'll try to file charges. You're crazy and I don't want to talk to you."

After leaving the Tomball department, McGowen worked briefly as a reserve deputy with the Precinct 4 constable's office, but he was dismissed from that job in connection with a civil rights violation complaint against him, acording to the Harris County District Attorney's office, which is in possession of his employment records. Despite his problems there and earlier at the Houston and Tomball departments, by October 1990 McGowen was back in the law enforcement business, this time with the Harris County Sheriff's Department.

There are two kinds of sheriff's deputies: district and contract. District deputies are assigned to various precincts in the county and patrol a wide area. Contract deputies -- usually officers with less seniority -- are paid for by civic associations and generally provide security for upscale subdivisions with low crime rates. It's an assignment that a deputy who considered himself a super cop, one who was always working on a "big case," might find beneath his talents. It was in that capacity that McGowen found himself patrolling Olde Oaks, an affluent subdivision in the northwest part of the county, in the summer of 1992.

Susan White and her 15-year-old son, Jason Aguillar, had settled in Olde Oaks that summer. An attractive and athletic 42-year-old, White joined the nearby Northgate Country Club and for a short time she utilized the club's golf course. But White, according to friends, alienated some fellow club members by obsessively talking about her failing second marriage and her problems with Jason, who seemed to be constantly in trouble.

One person to whom she did turn for support was Helen Bazata. An old friend of White's who was running a modeling agency at the time, Bazata says she and White talked on an almost daily basis. White worked for a finance company but had, with Bazata's help, landed a few modeling assignments. She also enrolled in an acting class.

In addition to unloading on Bazata about her crumbling marriage and her troubled son, White also had begun mentioning that she was receiving unwanted attention from a deputy sheriff who patrolled Olde Oaks. On numerous occasions, Bazata says, White complained to her that a Harris County deputy -- Joseph Kent McGowen -- had once again pulled her over as she drove through the quiet neighborhood in her white convertible BMW.

"He was hitting on her," says Bazata, "and she just wished he would leave her alone."

During that summer White had developed a friendship with Ray Valentine, a man 13 years her senior. Valentine says he and White met at Del Friscos Steak House, a FM 1960-area restaurant, where they had dinner together a half-dozen times during a two-month period before she was killed. Sometimes they would be joined at Del Friscos by C.J. Harper, a captain with the sheriff's department, one of the many local law officers Valentine had come to know in his long tenure as producer of the Shrine Circus in Houston and 53 other cities.

As they got to know each other better, Valentine says, White began telling him about McGowen's persistence and how she was concerned for herself, as well as Jason. Valentine recalls that White, during that vulnerable time in her life, had at first appreciated McGowen's interest, since her husband had moved out, leaving her and Jason alone. However, it had soon become clear to White that the 27-year-old deputy's interest went beyond the normal scope of neighborhood-oriented policing, and her initial appreciation quickly changed to apprehension. Valentine says White informally passed on her concerns to Harper and others in the sheriff's department.

"She was scared to death of him," says Valentine. "I thought she was just hysterical about it. But she told me, 'Well, I guess you and everybody else will believe me when he kills me or Jason or both.' And about 12 days later he did."

On Sunday, August 23, White and Valentine were again having dinner at Del Friscos when they received a call on Valentine's portable phone. On the other end was Jason's girlfriend, calling to let White know that her son had just been arrested by Deputy McGowen. Valentine drove White to the nearby strip center parking lot of Cliff's Hamburgers along FM 1960, where Jason was being accused of selling a stolen gun to one of McGowen's so-called "confidential informants," another teenager who also happened to be Jason's best friend.

Valentine says when they arrived on the scene he introduced himself to McGowen and told him that he and White were there to see how they could help.

"He took his gun and stuck it in my face," Valentine recalls. At that point, according to the testimony of several witnesses at McGowen's murder trial, White, who had apparently been drinking, began shouting obscenities at the deputy. Jason was placed in the back of a patrol car and taken to the sheriff's department's Cypresswood substation, where he was detained for several hours before being transferred to one of the downtown jails. Prosecutors on duty at the jail thought so little of the evidence that they refused to charge Jason with a firearms violation, but they did hold him on two counts of credit card abuse. For much of the next 24 hours Susan White tried to cut through the county red tape to free her son on bond.

It took her until 9:30 on Monday night to finally get Jason out of jail. She had been in contact by phone with Ray Valentine for much of the day as he drove to Wichita Falls in preparation for an upcoming Shrine Circus. Exhausted and a nervous wreck, White called Valentine for the last time around 11:30 that evening. Valentine says White voiced fears that McGowen would show up at her house. The last thing he remembers her saying was that she had taken two Valiums and was going to go to sleep.

"I told her that sounded like a damn good idea," he recalls.
Meanwhile, according to Harris County authorities who investigated White's murder, McGowen was outraged when he learned that the weapons charge against Jason had been ignored. The investigators say a revenge-seeking McGowen concocted a tale to obtain a warrant for the arrest of Susan White -- a warrant that accused her of threatening the life of his in-formant. According to trial testimony, McGowen, after several hours of trying, was able to cajole an assistant district attorney into okaying the warrant, and the piece of paper approving the arrest of Susan White was signed by a judge.

According to trial testimony, McGowen had given the assistant prosecutor the impression that his informant's life was in imminent danger. But rather than immediately arresting White, McGowen went home after obtaining the warrant. The next afternoon, August 24, he returned to work. It was not until after midnight, early on Tuesday the 25th, that McGowen, accompanied by two other deputies, drove to 3407 Amber Forest, ostensibly to finally arrest the woman who he claimed was imperiling the life of his informant.

Around 12:30 a.m. McGowen and the other two deputies began banging on White's doors and windows, ordering her to open up. She refused and, instead, called 9-1-1. Meanwhile, McGowen contacted a sergeant on duty by radio who gave him permission to kick in the back door. As the back door flew open, the burglar alarm sounded, and McGowen -- his gun drawn -- charged inside, heading first through the laundry room, then the kitchen and then down the hallway toward White's bedroom.

With the other two deputies a safe distance behind him, McGowen crossed the bedroom doorway, pointed his 10 mm semi-automatic pistol toward the inside of the room and three times ordered White to drop a gun. (White's .25-caliber pistol was found on the bed by McGowen and one of the other two deputies after the shooting.) In his statement to investigators and later at his trial, McGowen claimed that White turned and faced him and raised her pistol at him with her right hand. When she did, McGowen says, he fired at her three times. Later he would brag to a jailer that he had shot White first in the head and then twice in the torso -- in reverse order of the method recommended in a federal law enforcement training film he had seen. White died on her living room floor, despite paramedics efforts to save her life.

Fatal shootings involving police officers are always strange scenes. The "do not cross" perimeter cordoned off by yellow police tape is always larger. The detectives and other officers are always a little more tense, a little less friendly to reporters. But when investigators arrived at 3407 Amber Forest in Olde Oaks, they found, to their surprise, that there were no reporters or photographers around at all. Hurricane Andrew was about to hit the Louisiana coast and, in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention, newsrooms around the city were stretched thin. But stranger than the absence of the media, the investigators thought, was evidence at the scene that immediately raised suspicions about McGowen's version of what had happened in Susan White's bedroom.

The first odd thing to strike one of the investigators was the fact that McGowen had been executing a "retaliation" arrest warrant when the fatal shooting took place. You just don't see many retaliation warrants issued for people who live in fashionable subdivisions like Olde Oaks. But it could happen, the investigator admitted to himself.

Then there was the picture that McGowen, under questioning at the scene, painted of Susan White and her son being violent and dangerous, machine-gun dealing desperadoes. It just didn't seem to fit. Shortly after they had arrived, the investigators had been told that White had called 9-1-1 -- something you wouldn't expect a criminal to do.

Finally, they just had a bad feeling about the shooting. During the required "walk through" at the scene, in which an officer reenacts a shooting, McGowen seemed to be proud of what he had done.

"I've never seen that in an officer before or since," says one investigator.

Two months after White's death, McGowen was indicted for murder. In addition to the troublesome questions that had surfaced at the scene, other evidence had come to the attention of investigators. McGowen had claimed White pointed the gun at him with her right hand; all of Susan's friends and family knew she was left-handed. On top of that discrepancy, police firearms experts could find no trace of White's fingerprints on the .25-caliber pistol. In the meantime, officers from various law enforcement agencies began to contact investigators with their own stories about McGowen. Among them was Captain C.J. Harper of the sheriff's department, who told them of White's fear of McGowen -- a fear that he and others in the department had failed to take seriously (according to investigators, however, there is no evidence that White ever filed a formal complaint against McGowen with the sheriff's department, as she indicated having done in her 9-1-1 call).

McGowen's indictment angered lawyer Bob Thomas, a former Houston police officer who represented McGowen initially. At the time of the indictment Thomas told the Houston Chronicle that the charges against his client were intended to embarrass the department and Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen.

"It's a big political game," said Thomas, who claimed that the indictment had been returned primarily on the basis of hearsay evidence -- admissible before a grand jury but not in a trial.

Much of the evidence the grand jury heard was, in fact, hearsay and came from witnesses like Ray Valentine and Helen Bazata, who testified about what Susan White had told them, rather than their own first-hand knowledge of what McGowen had said and done to their friend. And, indeed, it wasn't until McGowen's trial that investigators actually realized why McGowen was guilty of murder. The revelation came during the testimony of a crime scene investigator from the sheriff's department. And, in part, it was McGowen's own bragging to the jailer about the order of the shots he fired at White that would play a large part in convincing the jury that he was guilty of murder.

According to the jailer, McGowen had boasted that his first shot had hit White in the head. The crime scene investigator testified that claim was consistent with his findings. However, he said, the first shot was not a direct hit. It had first struck a cable television converter box, and had then hit White. The bullet traveled, right to left, across the bridge of her nose. If White had been directly facing McGowen, as he had claimed, the bullet would not have taken that path.

The investigators now realized what had happened that night. Rather than facing McGowen, White had been on the other side of her bed, near her phone. As she hung up the receiver, she turned her head to see McGowen in the bedroom doorway, and the first bullet struck her across the nose, and lodged in the headboard. As she fell back across the bed she was struck by the second shot in the upper chest, then a third that entered the back of her right arm, traveled through the arm and entered her torso.

From the beginning the investigators had known in their hearts that McGowen was guilty, but only then, as they heard the explanation again on the witness stand, were they sure of a conviction. It was a conviction sealed by damning character testimony from law enforcement officers from across the Houston area. Among the lawmen who took the bold step of breaking the so-called officers' code of silence and told the jury that McGowen was not a man to be trusted was Leroy Michna, McGowen's former boss in Tomball. Michna says he has never seen so many other officers line up to testify against another.

"This is the first time I ever had fear of reprisal for my testimony," Michna says he told the grand jury that indicted McGowen. "I think the boy's crazy. He's very much capable of retaliating against witnesses ... go out there and look at the poor woman who's dead and tell me you don't think he's dangerous to witnesses. If he'd kill her, he'd kill me."

On March 1994, after six days of testimony, McGowen was convicted of murder. However, prosecutors, not to mention White's family, were shocked when the jury sentenced him to just 15 years in prison. Under Texas law, a defendant sentenced to 15 years or less can remain free on bond while his conviction is appealed. At least one juror in the McGowen trial has said that he and other jurors were unaware of that provision of the law, and if they had known they would have imposed a lengthier sentence.

Today McGowen is a free man, pending the outcome of his appeal.
Attorney Clint Greenwood, who represented McGowen during his trial, admits that McGowen's defense team "stayed out of the character issue." But Greenwood is unwavering in his belief that McGowen is innocent.

"If he wanted to commit a murder," Greenwood says, "he wouldn't have brought along witnesses. If you set out to murder someone, you don't do it with a roomful of witnesses."

Greenwood also is confident that McGowen will be granted a new trial on appeal, based on the argument that the defense team was denied the right to make on opening statement.

But the appeal of his murder conviction isn't the only legal hurdle still facing McGowen. White's son, Jason Aguillar, who now lives with his father in Baton Rouge, has filed a $3 million federal lawsuit against McGowen, the Harris County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen (who declined to be interviewed for this story due to the pending civil litigation). Aguillar is represented by Blair Davis, a former assistant district attorney, who says the problems that McGowen had at other law enforcement agencies should have been a warning signal for the sheriff's department.

"It just seems obvious doesn't it?" says Davis. "Clearly, [the sheriff's department's] biggest mistake was the neglect in reviewing Mr. McGowen's record and finding out about Mr. McGowen before they ever hired him. And if they did review it, it's just absurd that they went ahead and hired him."

And the sheriff's department, Davis contends, was also negligent in failing to take Susan White's allegations about harassment of her seriously. Indeed, in closing arguments of McGowen's trial, one prosecutor zeroed in on the fact that White had made her fear of McGowen known to officers of the department.

"Doesn't speak very highly of the sheriff's office, does it?" prosecutor Edward Porter told the jury.

Davis agrees.
"Apparently there were people [at the sheriff's department] who were aware of Mr. McGowen's problem [with White] and very little was done to resolve it," says Davis.

McGowen's murder conviction is just one of several recent cases to embarrass the sheriff's department. In April 1993, a woman filed suit against the county after she was sexually assaulted in a stairwell of the Harris County Criminal Courts building by Deputy Brian Nigro, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to raping four female prisoners, including the plaintiff in the suit.

In October, Ronald Wayne Acreman, 31, a former county jailer, was also sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted on rape charges. Acreman had been fired from his job with the department about a year before the attack on the woman.

In November, 44-year-old Michael Durwood Griffith was charged with capital murder for the October killing of a woman at a northwest Houston wedding chapel. Griffith is also charged with robbery and attempted capital murder in connection with a savings and loan holdup in October, as well as robbery and aggravated sexual assault at a southwest Houston bridal shop the same month. Griffith had been with the sheriff's department for 10 years when he was fired in January 1993, after being charged with assault.

Perhaps it's just a coincidence or an unusual run of bad luck, but the troubling string of incidents involving current or former sheriff's employees has naturally raised questions about the department's hiring practices. One former close associate of Klevenhagen's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes part of the problem has to do with the large number of employees hired to staff the county's new downtown jail at 701 San Jacinto, which opened in September 1991 and where McGowen worked for a time after first hiring on with the department. With a work force of 663, the new jail staff accounts for about 20 percent of the department's 3,334 employees.

"Whenever there was a personnel problem, a problem child as we called them," says the former Klevenhagen associate, "I would say, 'How did this moron get into the system?' And more often than not, this problem child was a product of an open hiring. They had to hire so many hundreds of people to open up the new facility."

The president of the Harris County Deputy Sheriff's Union, Lynwood Moreau, disagrees with that analysis. He believes, however, there is room for considerable improvement in the way the sheriff's department makes its new hires.

"There are 3,000 officers in this department and things like [the White case] are going to happen," Moreau says. "But I do think there needs to be more emphasis on psychological evaluations. The sheriff's department puts too much emphasis on physical evaluations, rather than concentrating on people with sound minds."

On paper, at least, it seems the sheriff's department's hiring standards are stringent enough to keep potential criminals from being hired. "A thorough background investigation is conducted on applicants, and evidence of good moral character and reputation is mandatory," according to the department's guidelines. Among the grounds for rejection is "evidence of mental or emotional insta-bility" or an "unfavorable record ...."

The department also requires that an applicant's past employment record be checked, "including number of jobs and reasons for leaving, as well as employment references ...."

Leroy Michna says he wishes he had talked with the HPD sergeant who completed McGowen's exit review before hiring him at the Tomball Police Department. He says few law agencies take the time to examine personnel files from an applicant's previous job, and the fear of lawsuits makes agencies reluctant to voluntarily pass on such information to other prospective employers.

"If we terminate somebody," he says, "we'll tell [another department] they can come in and look at his file. But ... no, we won't tell anybody, 'Hey, this guy's a nut.'"

Susan White would have been 45 this past October. Today her grave is marked by a small headstone in a cemetery outside of Baton Rouge. Her family members, many of whom live not far from the gravesite, get little comfort from the distant promise of money from a wrongful death lawsuit. And they are tormented by the fact that her killer is still a free man.

"I don't understand these policemen," says 54-year-old Gloria Hamilton, Susan's sister. "I think they get a little cocky. I mean, this guy has taken my sister's life, and she was so dear to my family. And I am not going to quit until he's in jail.

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