The defendant said she wasn’t in her right mind when she claimed in frantic 911 calls her neighbors were holding her daughter hostage. But a federal judge said he believes she meant to cause harm before handing her a 40-month sentence.
HOUSTON (CN) — A woman whose false statements in 911 calls led Houston police to fatally shoot her neighbors in a raid was sentenced Tuesday to 40 months in federal prison.
Houston police started investigating Dennis Tuttle, 59, and his wife Rhogena Nicholas, 58, after their neighbor, Patricia Ann Garcia, called 911 three times on Jan. 8, 2019, and pleaded for police to come get her fictitious daughter “Melissa” out of the couple’s home.
Garcia, 54, told the 911 operator the couple were heroin dealers, and she could see them messing with her daughter through their home’s windows.
She also claimed they had a machine gun and would not answer their door if police knocked.
“She wanted officers to barge into her neighbors’ home with their guns drawn to take her daughter out, her daughter who did not exist, who was not there,” federal prosecutor Alamdar Hamdani said Tuesday in Garcia’s sentencing hearing.
“On the night of Jan. 8, 2019, when she dialed 911 she intended to use those three numbers as a weapon,” Hamdani added.
He urged U.S. District Judge George Hanks to sentence Garcia to 48 months, an upward variance from sentencing guidelines that called for Garcia to receive 10 to 16 months based on her criminal history, the circumstances of her crime and her guilty plea.
Garcia has been detained in a federal prison in downtown Houston since December after her bond was revoked, which occurred after she hit a car while driving under the influence and tested positive for cocaine.
Garcia’s attorney, chief federal public defender Marjorie A. Meyers, focused on Garcia’s long-term struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.
She urged Hanks to sentence Garcia to home confinement where her family could help her with these problems and she could care for her elderly mother.
Meyers said Garcia had a protracted dispute with Nicholas, so intense that they often argued on their neighborhood street.
Garcia dialed 911 amid a drug-infused haze, Meyers said. The defense attorney said the government had requested an upward variance based on the tragic events that happened 20 days after Garcia made the calls.
“Ms. Garcia is not responsible for what happened. What happened was some rogue and corrupt police officers created false information, executed a search warrant and killed her neighbors,” Meyers said.
Garcia’s statements led Houston police to open an investigation that culminated with them barging into the couple’s home on Jan. 28, 2019, with a no-knock warrant.
Several officers opened fire, exchanging gunshots with Tuttle, a Navy veteran.
They hit Tuttle and Nicholas multiple times, killing them, and even killed their dog with a shotgun blast, according to court records. Four officers were shot in the chaos.
The raid has tarnished the reputation of the Houston Police Department, revealing deep dysfunction in an HPD narcotics squad whose leader, now retired Officer Gerald Goines, 56, is facing state murder and federal civil rights charges after investigations by HPD, local prosecutors and the FBI reportedly revealed he had obtained the warrant by lying in an affidavit he had witnessed a confidential informant buy heroin from a man at the couple’s home.
In addition to Goines, 11 retired and current Houston police have been indicted in the fallout from the raid.
Garcia was only civilian to be charged over the raid. A federal grand jury indicted her in November 2019 for false information and hoaxes.
She made a short statement during Tuesday’s hearing conducted via videoconference software.
“When I made the false phone calls to 911 … I wasn’t in my right mind,” she said. “I made a bad decision. I’m sorry for it. I never meant for anyone to die the way they did. I’m so sorry for my 911 telephone call, my false phone call that I made, your honor. That’s it.”
But her apology fell flat with Hanks.
“I don’t believe that what you did was just a thoughtless act, I think it was very callous and I think it was a very sophisticated attempt to use 911 as a weapon,” the judge said. “It didn’t happen that day that the neighbors were killed and injured, but there’s no question in my mind, Ms. Garcia, that you wanted something bad to happen to them.”
Hanks said what spoke most tellingly of Garcia’s intentions was she told the 911 operator her neighbors would not answer their door for police.
“If you didn’t intend for harm to come to your neighbors as a result of this event you would have called in and said, ‘They’re parking in my driveway,’ or ‘They’re harming my cat,’ or ‘They’re trespassing on my property,’” he said.
The judge also agreed with prosecutors, who described Garcia’s crime as a “classic case of swatting,” that her sentence should deter others from this type of conduct.
The Texas Legislature just passed a bill increasing the penalty for swatting — placing fake emergency calls intended to trigger an aggressive police response — to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. It is awaiting Governor Greg Abbott’s signature. The penalty increases to a third-degree felony, with a maximum 10-year state prison sentence, if a person is seriously injured or killed as a result of the hoax call.
“I don’t believe you are truly remorseful for what you’ve done,” Hanks told Garcia.
He sentenced her to 40 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered her to undergo drug and alcohol counseling.
While the first criminal trial for the law enforcement defendants involved in the raid is not scheduled to start until this fall, retired HPD officer Steven Bryant, 47, pleaded guilty June 1 to a federal records tampering charge and his sentencing is set for Aug. 24.
Bryant, who retired from HPD two months after the raid, is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors in their cases against the other defendants and is expected to receive a federal sentence of no more than four years, but he is also facing state records tampering charges.
In the federal indictment, Bryant was accused of lying in an offense report supplement that he had helped Goines with Goines’ investigation of Tuttles and Nicholas the day before the raid.
The slain couple’s families also filed federal civil rights lawsuits, which have been consolidated, against the city of Houston, former HPD Chief Art Acevedo and the narcotics squad officers involved in the raid.