six from HPD of homicide
1 cop indicted on trespass
October 19, 1998, 09:53 p.m.
By STEVE BREWER Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle
One of six Houston police officers under investigation in the death of Pedro Oregon Navarro was indicted Monday on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge, while the others were no-billed on all charges.
The indictment of James R. Willis, 28, who has been an officer since December 1992, ended the Harris County grand jury's extensive eight-week investigation into the July 12 shooting.
Oregon, 22, died in a hail of bullets fired by officers following up on a tip from an informant that drugs were being sold in the southwest Houston home.
Willis' attorney, Brian Benken, said he wasn't sure why only one officer was indicted and not the others, but that his client will post bail and await his day in court.
He said he was relieved the officers were cleared of more serious charges and praised the grand jury.
But the jury's decision was quickly characterized as "disgusting" by attorneys for Oregon's family, who vowed to proceed with their planned civil suit and demand a federal civil rights investigation.
Mayor Lee Brown said he will ask Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate whether Oregon's civil rights were violated. Mayoral spokesman Don Payne said Brown would formally submit that request today.
Prosecutor Ed Porter said the jury, which has been investigating the case since late August, has seen all the evidence and was given several possible options, from no-bill, to lesser offenses to murder.
Prosecutors finished addressing jurors about noon Monday and the panel reached a decision after a little more than three hours of secret deliberations.
The man who gave police the tip on July 12 was not a registered confidential informant and he was not handled by narcotics officers. The officers who entered the apartment where Oregon lived were in a gang task force in HPD's Southwest Patrol Division and had no search or arrest warrants.
The officers have contended that Oregon pointed a gun at them. Police officials have said one officer fired his weapon, hitting another officer in his bullet-resistant vest and knocking him to the floor. The officers apparently thought that shot came from Oregon, and they opened fire.
They fired about 30 rounds, 12 of which hit Oregon. Nine struck him in the back, one in the back of the head, one in back of the shoulder and one in the back of the hand.
No drugs were found in the apartment and Oregon had not fired at police, though his gun was found nearby. Oregon also had no drugs or alcohol in his system and had no criminal record.
The job status of the officers involved was still unclear late Monday.
Besides Willis, the officers involved are David R. Barrera, 28, a five-year veteran; Lamont E. Tillery, 30, a two-year officer; Pete A. Herrada, 28, a three-year officer; David Perkins, 30, a four-year officer; and Sgt. Darrell H. Strouse, 34, who has been with HPD for 12 years.
Strouse has undergone grand jury scrutiny before. In 1992, he was no-billed by a San Jacinto County grand jury looking into an icehouse brawl involving him and two other off-duty Houston police officers and their civilian friends. All three officers were no-billed.
"The department is not in a position to say anything about
the grand jury's decision yet," HPD spokesman Robert Hurst
said of the Oregon case. "The six officers will remain relieved
of duty with pay pending the outcome of the department's internal
Porter said grand jurors heard from about 25 witnesses, including the officers, with connections to all facets of the case. Prosecutors said attorneys for Oregon's family and the officers were also invited to suggest potential witnesses to grand jurors, a common practice.
"We've done an extensive investigation," said Porter, who presented the evidence to the panel. "This has been the longest presentation I've ever been involved in and quite frankly, as I recall, the longest presentation that anyone can remember around here. We have taken our time. We have questioned the witnesses thoroughly to try and make sure all the facts were before this grand jury."
Porter said the investigation basically concerned two areas -- the entry into Oregon's home and the shooting.
Grand jurors chose not to indict on any charges connected with the shooting, clearing the officers of any murder charges, Porter said. They also chose to no-bill five of the officers on any charges connected to the entry.
But Porter or Benken would not speculate on why Willis was charged for the entry. They would not say if Willis was the officer who handled the informant or if he was the first person to go into Oregon's home.
That one indictment was insufficient for attorneys representing Oregon's family, who said they will file a federal lawsuit within 30 days.
Richard Mithoff said, "I am struck by the tragic ironies, considering a few weeks ago a Hispanic killed a cop and was almost immediately indicted for murder and here we have six cops killing a Hispanic and two months later it's a trespass?"
Nugent added, "I'm not surprised, but I'm disgusted."
He said when the federal lawsuit is filed he will be allowed to question the officers aggressively, which he could not do during the grand jury proceedings.
"I can't understand the logic, where only one officer is indicted," Nugent said. "When we file, we will vigorously cross-examine, investigate and question these officers on why they repeatedly shot a man who was on the floor of his apartment."
Nugent said he's sure the Justice Department will show interest in Monday's decision because it was motivated by some kind of "double standard" for police officers.
"If this had happened in the suburbs, where police broke into a house and killed the owner, there would be an outcry," Nugent said.
Porter and Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. defended the panel's work and said the decision came down to the facts and the law.
"The bottom line is that nobody knows better what the facts are in the case than those 12 (grand jurors)," Holmes said.
Benken, attorney for Willis and the other officers, said the six have been portrayed unfairly in the media as "rogue and renegade cops."
Porter said any perception that evidence was kept from the panel to protect the officers or that there was a double standard are unfounded.
Holmes said while the officers should clearly have obtained a warrant and exercised better judgment with the informant, state law says that no one can use force to protect themselves from an arrest or search by the police -- even if it is illegal.
Holmes and Porter said the legal system provides non-violent remedies for such situations.
The law allows an officer -- or any person -- to use deadly force if he perceives a reasonable threat to his life, Holmes said. In this case, prosecutors say the officers felt there was such a threat.
The charge against Willis is a Class A misdemeanor and if convicted he could receive up to a year in the county jail and a $4,000 fine. The case has not been assigned to a court yet.
Chronicle reporters Julie Mason, Jo Ann Zuñiga and S.K. Bardwell contributed to this story.
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