The Houston narcotics officers who invaded a middle-aged couple’s home on January 28, serving a no-knock drug warrant based on a fraudulent affidavit, claimed they killed Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas in self-defense. A recent forensic inspection of the house, commissioned by the couple’s relatives, casts doubt on that account and reinforces the suspicion that at least some of the four officers who suffered bullet wounds were shot by their colleagues.
According to the cops who served the warrant, which was based on a “controlled buy” of heroin that apparently never happened and authorized a search that found no evidence of drug dealing, Tuttle began shooting at them with a .357 Magnum revolver immediately after the first officer through the door used a shotgun to kill a dog that confronted him as he entered the house. They say the officer with the shotgun collapsed on a couch after a round from Tuttle’s gun struck him, at which point Nicholas moved to disarm him, prompting the cops to shoot her twice. Tuttle continued firing, we are told, until he died in a hail of bullets that struck him at least eight times.
Even taking this account at face value, the officers started the gunfight by breaking into the house without warning and shooting the dog, a reckless entry that invited confusion. It is not clear that Tuttle knew the armed intruders, who were not wearing uniforms and did not announce themselves before storming into the house, were police officers. Nor is there any body camera footage of the raid that might shed light on that question.
But there is physical evidence at the house, which seems inconsistent with the story told by the narcotics officers. Houston Chronicle reporters Keri Blakinger and St. John Barned-Smith say a forensics team that the Tuttle and Nicholas families hired, headed by Mike Maloney, a retired supervisory special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, “found no indication that any of the guns Tuttle owned were fired toward the front of the house at incoming police.”
While Maloney has not completed his analysis yet, “the initial bullet trajectories appear to be somewhat contradictory,” Chuck Bourque, an attorney representing Nicholas’ family, told the Chronicle. “We see no evidence that anybody inside the house was firing toward the door.”
Blakinger and Barned-Smith report that “some of the bullet holes outside the house appeared at least a foot from the door.” That suggests one or more of the officers who fired at Tuttle and Nicholas did so blindly. “You can’t see into the house from there,” Mike Doyle, another attorney hired by Nicholas’ relatives, told the Chronicle. “You’re firing into the house through a wall.”
Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith told me he can’t answer any questions about the ballistic evidence, or even explain why the revolver that Tuttle allegedly used was not listed on the search warrant inventory, until after HPD has completed its criminal and internal affairs investigations of the raid, which is also being investigated by the FBI and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. But Maloney’s team found that police left behind a lot of potentially relevant evidence, including two teeth, a men’s shirt with bullet holes and an evidence tag, a shotgun shell casing, and about a dozen .223- and .45-caliber bullets in the walls and floor, which apparently were fired by police.
Sam Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told the Chronicle the HPD’s haphazard evidence collection raises questions about its investigative practices. How many people have been convicted over the years as a result of sloppy investigations which failed to collect evidence that was there that would have exonerated the suspect?” he said. “If they do it in this kind of a homicide case, what do they do in other kinds of investigations?”
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