05/08/2007

Woman with knife lunges at officers inside Houston PD

By MIKE GLENN
The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON, Tex. — A distraught woman wielding a knife called for police to take her life early Sunday, charging at officers inside the Houston Police Department's downtown headquarters, officials said.

Crying out, "Shoot me, kill me. I want to end this," the woman, identified Sunday night as Marnell Villarreal, 42, lunged at the officers shortly after 2 a.m. inside the lobby of HPD's main office at 1200 Travis, police said.

One officer fired a pistol at Villarreal when a Taser failed to subdue her. She was struck once in the chest and later pronounced dead at Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center, HPD officials said.

Officers A.B. Clay and E.D. Smith were assigned to the security detail in the lobby when Villarreal came inside the building. She dashed through the metal detector, setting off an alarm.

"She basically came rushing in with a knife in a clutched fist, overhead," said Sgt. Nate McDuell, a Houston police spokesman. Both officers repeatedly told Villarreal to drop the knife, but police said she ignored their commands.

Smith, who joined the department in 2002, was behind the desk while Clay, a 17-year HPD veteran, was standing in the lobby's open area.

"He (Clay) was the one that she focused her attention on," McDuell said.

Villarreal came within a few feet of Clay when Smith deployed his Taser at her.

"We're not sure if the (Taser) darts made contact. It didn't appear to have any effect on her," McDuell said.

Clay later told investigators he feared for his safety as Villarreal continued moving toward him. He stepped back, then fired a single shot from his service revolver.

With the incident unfolding in seconds, HPD officials said there wasn't enough time to summon officers trained in crisis intervention.

"She was extremely emotional (and) she was charging officers with a knife in her hand," McDuell said. "There was really no time to call for anyone else."

Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said officers are trained not to hesitate when their lives are in danger.

"But, human nature kicks in. If there's another alternative, they would like to use it," Clark said. "Officers oftentimes put themselves at risk unnecessarily trying to avoid using deadly force."

Villarreal tried to come into HPD headquarters earlier to speak to an investigator about a case in which she allegedly was involved. The officers turned her away, however, after entering her name into the front desk computer.

"It (her name) was flagged as an individual who had attempted to bring weapons inside the building in the past," McDuell said.

Which case Villarreal was referring to was unclear late Sunday. "I don't have access to those reports," McDuell said. "But, it does appear that she had made claims in the past of being victimized."

Officers later saw Villarreal wandering along the street in front of the HPD building. They also refused her later request to use the bathroom, police said.

Sunday's shooting appears to be a case of "suicide by cop," Clark said. In such cases, someone presents an imminent threat to an officer, who is then compelled to use deadly force.

"What drove this person to do this? Now it's on some police officer's conscience," Clark said.

Villarreal was convicted in November of unlawfully carrying a weapon, and a psychiatric examination was ordered at that time, according to Harris County court records.

Clay and Smith, who are assigned to HPD's Crime Analysis and Command Center division, were not injured. They will be placed on three-day administrative leave, which will include mandatory counseling.

"But they are not on any type of suspension or relieved status," McDuell said.

Detectives with HPD's homicide and internal affairs divisions are investigating the shooting. The Harris County District Attorney's Office also has launched an inquiry — a standard practice.

Sunday's shooting happened about two weeks after a Harris County grand jury chose not to indict a Houston police officer in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man whose parents called for help during an incident at their home.

Officer Rodney D. Chaison Jr., fired at Omar Esparza, 21, during a Jan. 7 confrontation at his family's home in the 5000 block of Curtin. Police said Esparza was shot after he charged at officers with a hammer.

Chronicle reporter Jennifer Leahy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

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