HOUSTON — Nobody disputes the raid’s grisly toll. Four officers were shot, and two people inside the home were dead, along with their dog, after narcotics officers broke down the door of a house in the outskirts of Houston.
Police had been given permission to sweep the house by a judge on the suspicion that heroin trafficking was taking place inside.
But disclosures in the months following the Jan. 28 raid have raised questions about the evidence used to justify it, the events that took place that afternoon and the motivations of some of the officers involved. These are questions police have struggled to answer, as national attention homes in on Houston amid a larger debate over policing tactics.
The police officer who led the raid retired abruptly in March, about a month after the police chief accused him of lying to justify it. Another officer retired around the same time. And questions about the integrity of these two officers were so significant that local prosecutors decided to review 14,000 incidents they were involved in, including 2,200 criminal cases — an unusual step reserved typically for questions of severe misconduct.
On Thursday, the family of the married couple killed in the raid, disabled Navy veteran Dennis Tuttle and his wife, Rhogena Nicholas, filed initial paperwork for a lawsuit against the city and police department.
“What this obviously raises is not just troubling questions about what was happening in this case and how easy it was for [the officer] to do what he did,” said Michael Patrick Doyle, the Nicholas family lawyer, “but how long and how many other Houstonians have been affected by this kind of conduct.”
The filing, a petition to take depositions to investigate the family’s claims, lays out more facts in the case. A private forensic investigator hired by the family says he does not believe the couple fired at the police at all. And new evidence calls into question the entire raid’s timeline.
Four wounded, two dead
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo briefed the news media twice in the 24 hours after the raid, and his story was consistent. He said police executed a search warrant — one that allowed them to force their way into the house without knocking — and were shot at as soon as the officers breached the door.
The first officer inside killed a pit bull after it charged, he said, before a man on the property came from the rear of the house and shot the officer in the shoulder with a .357-magnum revolver. After the officer fell, the woman in the house made a move for his shotgun, Acevedo said. The other officers on the team entered the house and fired on the woman.
Joe Gamaldi, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union, stood near Acevedo and unleashed an angry tirade when it was his turn to address the media.
“We are sick and tired of having dirtbags trying to take our lives when all we’re trying to do is protect this community and protect our families,” Gamaldi said. “If you’re the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, just know we’ve all got your number now, we’re going to be keeping track of all of y’all, and we’re going to make sure that we hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers.”
Police said they found 18 grams of marijuana and a gram and a half cocaine in the house, along with three shotguns and two rifles, but they did not find the heroin that the search warrant was written for. National media reports focused on the number of police officers who were injured.
Friends and family of the couple killed questioned the entire premise — the narrative that they were selling drugs.
“I don’t buy it at all,” Tuttle’s sister told the Houston Chronicle. “Not one hot minute.”
Neither Tuttle nor Nicholas had a criminal record of note before the raid.
Acevedo distanced himself from Gamaldi’s comments, calling them “over the top.” He also unsealed the search warrant for the raid. The affidavit, written by Gerald Goines, the narcotics officer who led the raid, said a confidential informant in regular use by the department had bought heroin at the house, which the informant gave to an officer. The informant also told the officer there was a handgun in the house, according to the affidavit.
A week later, one of the officers involved in the raid was removed from duty. The reason for the removal, according to the police union, was that a key officer was still in the hospital, and the department had questions they could not answer without his knowledge.
Documents from the department’s internal investigation into the raid that were released in mid-February, showed that the informant cited in the affidavit told investigators he or she did not buy drugs at the Tuttle-Nicholas house, nor had he or she done any work for the police leading up to the raid.
Acevedo went in front of reporters again, this time saying the search warrant, which was prepared by Goines, was based on “some untruths or lies.” Acevedo said he expected criminal charges in the case. It was a stunning admission that drew another round of national attention.
An aggressive tactic
No-knock raids have been in wide use since the 1980s, as police ramped up efforts to apprehend drug dealers.
Joseph L. Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York City police detective sergeant, said the tactic, which requires a judge’s approval and is usually employed for late-night or early-morning raids, is meant to enhance safety for police officers searching for drugs and weapons.
By catching suspects off-guard, officers are better able to make arrests and seize weapons or contraband before any of it is destroyed. “The idea is to be a total surprise and catch people off guard, and don’t have time to prepare to fight you or get rid of evidence,” Giacalone said.
No-knock raids that have resulted in the deaths of officers or civilians have long made them a target of criticism from some police-reform advocates and civil libertarians.
In New York in 2003, a 57-year-old woman died after police broke down her door and threw a flash grenade into her apartment. They had the wrong apartment. In Atlanta in 2006, two police officers were convicted of felony voluntary manslaughter charges after a 92-year-old woman, Kathryn Johnson, was killed in a raid carried out with information the officers knew to be false. In 2008, an officer was killed by a 28-year-old man, Ryan Frederick, during a no-knock raid. Frederick said afterward that he believed his house was being broken into.
In Houston, local activists pressed the department to end the practice. As uproar about the raid grew, the department amended its policy for no-knock warrants to reduce, but not eliminate, their use. Acevedo promised that tactical teams and others serving search warrants would be outfitted with body cameras, as well.
The FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the Houston raid in late February. The Harris County district attorney’s office announced it would review all 1,400 criminal cases that Goines was involved in during his more than three decades of police work in Houston.
The conduct of Steven Bryant, another officer who was also involved in the raid, has also come into question: notably discrepancies between stories Bryant told investigators and information in Goines’s affidavit, according to the Associated Press.
In March, the district attorney’s office said it would also be reviewing 800 cases Bryant worked on.
Goines and Bryant retired within weeks of each other that month, each with a full pension and benefits. Two other narcotics officers, including Goines’s longtime partner, retired from the department around that time, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The family investigates
Investigators hired by the victims’ family found evidence left uncollected by law enforcement at the house, including bullets, pieces of shotgun shells, two teeth from one of the victims and blood from the pit bull that police shot, which was about 15 feet away from the front door. They also said they found no evidence the couple fired toward police when they entered the house.
On Thursday, the family’s lawyer released cellphone video, recorded by a neighbor, that includes the sound of two lone gunshots at 5:02 p.m. Acevedo, when he first described the raid, said it began at “about 4:30, shortly before 5.” Doyle, the lawyer, says he believes the gunshots occurred about 30 minutes after the raid was over.
The petition filed by the family on Thursday said the investigators found that Nicholas was struck by a bullet that was fired by someone outside of the house who could not have seen her at the time she was shot — potentially contradicting the police claim that she was shot after lunging for an officer’s weapon. The police department has denied that any of the officers were hit by friendly fire.
Nicole DeBorde, Goines’s lawyer, said in a statement that the allegations were the result of a “one-sided filing by a civil lawyer seeking a civil payout.”
“Goines wants a thorough investigation conducted by people with no other agenda than to get to the truth,” she said, noting that federal and local investigations continued of the raid. “A civil lawyer seeking a settlement from the city and taxpayers is not a neutral investigator.”
Kim Ogg, the Harris County district attorney, continues to review the raid and present evidence to a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges are warranted against any officers.
Ogg’s office in April moved to dismiss 27 pending criminal cases, mostly around drug sales or possession, connected to Goines and Bryant.