Families of Slain Couple Sue Houston Drug Squad

Numerous officers have been indicted after Houston police shot and killed a married couple while conducting a drug raid based on a bogus warrant.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo at a June 8, 2020, memorial service for George Floyd. (Courthouse News photo/Cameron Langford)

HOUSTON (CN) — The families of a couple shot and killed by Houston police after they barged into their home looking for heroin in January 2019 brought federal lawsuits Wednesday night against the city and a narcotics squad.

Represented by separate counsel — the Gallagher Law Firm and Doyle LLP —the civil suits were filed in Houston only days after a Harris County grand jury indicted five current and former Houston police involved in the raid on charges ranging from murder to records tampering.

All told, 12 officers have been indicted in connection with the raid, which marks its second anniversary Thursday. After the HPD’s Narcotics Squad 15 executed the no-knock warrant on the home of Dennis Tuttle, 59, and Rhogena Nicholas, 58, on Jan. 28, 2019, prosecutors have also reviewed thousands of drug convictions and dismissed dozens of charges that stemmed from the squad’s work.

Tuttle’s father, son and uncle brought one of the complaints Wedenesday, suing the city of Houston, 11 of the narcotics squad’s members who swarmed into the couple’s home and an HPD lieutenant.

While similar, the other lawsuit from Nicholas’ brother also names the police chief as a defendant, ripping Art Acevedo for backing the drug squad.

“Acevedo professed that he ‘stands with the members of Squad 15,’ who he ‘considers victims.’ Even worse, without any legitimate evidence or basis, Acevedo claimed ‘the facts are going to come out’ to show that HPD ‘had probable cause to be there,’” John Nicholas says.

According to the lawsuits, police were dispatched to the couple’s southeast Houston home on Jan. 8, 2019, after their neighbor Patricia Ann Garcia falsely reported in 911 calls that her daughter was in the home doing “‘crack and heroin’ with ‘Reggie.’ Garcia also falsely stated that the owners had a ‘machine gun.’” 

Though the officers observed no criminal activity, 20 days later the narcotics unit’s leader Gerald Goines signed an affidavit falsely claiming he had witnessed a confidential informant buy heroin from a man at the house, and the informant had told him the man had a bunch of heroin and a 9 mm handgun, Tuttle’s family claims.

Goines gave the affidavit to a judge who signed a search warrant. Around 5 p.m. that day, the officers broke down the front door of the couple’s home and one of them immediately fired a shotgun at their dog and killed it.

“After the initial shotgun blast, the other HPD officers in and outside the house began shooting with semi-automatic handguns and assault style weapons. They fired dozens of rounds, including multiple rounds fired blindly through walls or windows,” the Tuttle family’s lawsuit states.

Tuttle, a Navy veteran, reportedly fired at the officers, four of whom, including Goines, were shot in the chaos.

“The HPD officers shot Dennis at least nine times. They shot Reggie at least three times,” the suit states.

Tuttle’s family says police found no heroin in the home, nor did the autopsies of the couple show they used heroin, as revealed in investigations of the raid by the Houston Police Department, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI,

Goines, who was shot in the neck and underwent several surgeries, and his longtime HPD partner Steven Bryant, retired two months after the raid. 

Goines reportedly admitted he had not sent a confidential informant to buy the heroin. He claimed he had bought it himself from a man at the home.

But the FBI determined he was nowhere near the home as he claimed to be on Jan. 27, 2019, and could not have made the purchase, the Tuttle family says.

Goines, 56, has since been charged with two state felony murder charges and a federal civil rights charge, while Bryant, 47, is facing state and federal document tampering charges.

A grand jury indicted Houston officer Felipe Gallegos on a murder charge Monday for shooting Tuttle.

Gallegos’ attorney Rusty Hardin claims the case is outrageous because Gallegos fired on Tuttle only after the homeowner had shot police.

“Once Mr. Tuttle started shooting, he was not innocent. Felipe was a hero. He saved lives in a situation in which four different police officers were shot,” Hardin said at a news conference Tuesday. 

But Nicholas’ lawsuit alleges Gallegos “shot Tuttle multiple times in the back, possibly while he was lying on the floor,” and another officer shot Nicholas when he fired blindly into the home. It has a diagram showing police fired nearly 30 rounds into the home “based on documented trajectories and recovered ballistic evidence.”

The lawsuits name Goines, Bryant, Gallegos, five current and retired HPD officers who were indicted alongside Gallegos on Monday, and several Squad 15 members.

None of those officers were charged with murder. They stand accused of engaging in organized criminal activity, the result of alleged overtime theft uncovered by the probe.

The families seek punitive damages for excessive force and unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth and 14th Amendment and wrongful death.

If they prove the raid was the result of an official HPD policy they could win a judgment against the city.

The Tuttles say the city is liable for not having HPD supervisors approve no-knock warrants, while Nicholas lays the blame on Acevedo, “a final policy maker for HPD,” for tolerating excessive force.

HPD now requires Acevedo or his second in command to approve all no-knock warrants.

Garcia, the neighbor who reported Tuttle and Nicholas to the police, is not unscathed.

She is facing a federal charge of lying in 911 calls that her daughter was in the couple’s home and they were dealing and using crack cocaine and heroin.

She faces up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 if convicted.

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