Houston LEO connected to deadly raid, shootout relieved of duty
A Houston officer involved in a shooting that left five LEOs wounded has been relieved of duty
Keri Blakinger , St. John Barned-Smith , Samantha Ketterer and Jay R. Jordan
HOUSTON — A Houston police officer has been relieved of duty in light of "ongoing questions" stemming from a botched drug raid that left a couple dead and five officers wounded, police said Thursday.
It's not clear what role the officer played in the Jan. 28 bust at 7815 Harding, but law enforcement sources said his suspension comes amid a probe into questions over whether the sworn affidavit used to justify the no-knock warrant may have contained false information.
It's not clear if the two developments are connected.
Investigators are also reviewing whether internal police policies and procedures were followed during the drug investigation, sources said.
"I know that in addition to the officer-involved shooting itself, many have questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the search warrant," Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday in response to news of the officer's suspension. "All of these questions are part of our ongoing criminal and administrative investigations."
Instead of "releasing piecemeal information," Acevedo said, the department will report findings once they've wrapped up the internal investigation. He declined to identify or release any details about the officer in question and did not specify whether the investigation would focus on the possibility of false information in the affidavit.
"When an officer-involved shooting occurs at HPD, we consider it a legal and moral obligation to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the circumstances leading up to and resulting in the officer-involved shooting," he said. "There is a lot of speculation as to the circumstances regarding this officer-involved shooting at 7815 Harding Street, but we urge everyone to let the investigation take its proper course and proceed to conclusion."
As is standard practice with officer-involved shootings, the Harris County District Attorney's Office will launch a civil rights investigation into the case and eventually turn over findings to a grand jury.
"Our Civil Rights Division prosecutors are currently working with the Houston Police Department's special investigation team to look at every aspect of this incident," District Attorney Kim Ogg said Thursday in a statement. "As is our policy, every shooting by a police officer — in every instance — is presented to a grand jury to determine if any criminal charges are warranted."
Houston Police Officers' Union President Joe Gamaldi dismissed "rumors" about the suspended officer, adding that "nearly all" officers relieved of duty come back to work following an investigation. He said the probe has been hampered by the inability of the case agent to talk with investigators; the case agent was among those officers shot during the raid.
"The department made the decision to relieve the officer of duty while a thorough investigation continues," he said. "Rumors will undoubtedly continue until the case agent is able to be interviewed. Unfortunately, his gunshot wound has resulted in him being incapacitated while surgeries continue. Any assumptions or conclusions made prior to the interview taking place are just assumptions."
The drug probe leading up to the botched bust started on Jan. 8, when officials say an anonymous caller phoned police to complain that her daughter was "doing drugs" inside the Harding Street home.
When officers showed up, they didn't see any suspicious activity, but stopped a passerby to ask if she'd called 911. She hadn't, but — according to what Acevedo told reporters at a Jan. 31 press conference — the woman allegedly turned back to her phone call and said, "Hey the police are at the dope house."
Afterward, police launched a full-on investigation and eventually sent in a confidential informant, authorities said. That buy allegedly netted some quantity of heroin, though officials have never said how much of the drug they recovered.
The next day, police used that purchase as a key piece of their request for a no-knock search warrant at the quiet Pecan Park home. In a three-page sworn affidavit, officers laid out their reasons for the raid.
Before the buy, police said they met with the informant — who'd worked with them on 10 other cases — and searched the informant for drugs before the buy. The informant came out of the house, according to the court filing, and turned over a packet of a brown powder described as "boy," which is slang for heroin.
The informant also warned police of a "large quantity" of drugs inside, packaged in plastic baggies, and a 9mm handgun, according to the court filing.
When presented on Jan. 28 with the police affidavit — written by an officer whose name was redacted in public records — a municipal court judge signed off on the warrant. Hours later, police crashed through the couple's front door, sparking a gun battle that left Tuttle, Nicholas and their pitbull dog dead. In the process, five officers were wounded, including four who were shot.
Ultimately, investigators found small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, but no heroin. They also found two 12-gauge shotguns, a 20-gauge shotgun, a .22-caliber rifle and a second rifle — but no 9mm handgun described in the warrant.
Afterwards, the couple's friends and family pushed back on the idea that 59-year-old Tuttle — a disabled Navy veteran — and his wife could be drug users.
Monique Caballero, a friend of the couple who has been outspoken in her questioning of the official narrative of the raid, gushed with anger and relief at hearing the news Thursday that the officer had been relieved of duty.
"It's about time they look into what needs to be done," she said. "I firmly believe they went to the wrong house and now they're trying to cover it up, and it pisses me off that that head of the union wants to call my friend a dirtbag — you can't retract that. You can't retract and you can't bring back the dead."
Union officials on Thursday pushed back on speculation that the raid took place at the wrong house.
"To be clear, officers were not on the wrong street and entry was not made at random," Gamaldi said, in the union's statement. "We would refer you to the call slip from that location on Jan. 8, over two weeks prior to the shooting."
Ashton Woods, a local activist who criticized the department's handling of the bust as well as the union's fiery response afterward, lauded news of the disciplinary action while still pushing for closer scrutiny.
"This whole situation has been suspicious from the jump," he said. "I'm glad that they're being investigated but it sounds like it's time for Houston police to bring in an outside entity to investigate the case."
Since the raid, the couple's home has been boarded up, with flags, balloons and flowers on the doorsteps and messages and a Bible verse scrawled on nailed-down wood.
"Matthew 6:10-13 RIP", someone wrote on the door. In the Bible, that verse starts, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Neighbor Sarah Sanchez, 42, said she'd been friends with Tuttle and Nicholas for years, and that she'd frequently trusted them to take her kids to school. She never believed the couple was dealing drugs, she said.
"The truth will all come out," she said. "It's not going to bring them back, but it's going to clear their names and bring them justice."
Janie Aviles, 25, said she never knew Tuttle and Nicholas well but always saw them as nice people who waved and said hello when they crossed paths. She never thought her neighbors had drug activity — not enough people went in and out of the house.
"(The police) should have done things differently," she said. "Maybe this wouldn't have happened."
©2019 the Houston Chronicle