5 Years After a Deadly Drug Raid, Houston’s Former Police Chief Might Finally Be Held Accountable
Art Acevedo, Houston’s police chief from November 2016 to March 2021, has bounced around since leaving that job, serving as Miami’s police chief for just six months before he was fired in October 2021, then as the interim police chief in Aurora, Colorado, a job he left on Monday after serving 13 months. Acevedo was in the news this week for two other reasons, neither of which reflect well on his performance as a top cop.
After leaving Aurora, Acevedo planned to take a $271,000-a-year position as an assistant city manager overseeing police in Austin, where he served as police chief for nine years before moving to Houston following a job-threatening reprimand. But on Tuesday, objections from Austin City Council members and the local district attorney, who highlighted a scandal involving rape kits that went untested during Acevedo’s prior tenure, prompted him to reconsider. The next day, the Houston City Council approved an additional $1.7 million to defend Acevedo and the city against federal lawsuits stemming from a lethal 2019 drug raid based on a fraudulent search warrant, raising the total allocated for that purpose to nearly $3 million.
This Sunday is the fifth anniversary of that raid by the Houston Police Department (HPD), which killed a middle-aged couple falsely accused of selling heroin, resulting in a scandal that The Houston Chronicle described as “one of the worst to hit HPD in years.” It was my introduction to Acevedo, who made a bad impression from the beginning.
‘A Big Teddy Bear’
On a Monday evening in January 2019, plainclothes Houston narcotics officers broke into the house on Harding Street where Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas lived. Acevedo said the cops “announced themselves as Houston police officers while simultaneously breaching the front door.” One of the officers immediately used a shotgun to kill the couple’s dog. Police said Tuttle, who according to his relatives was napping with his wife at the time, picked up a revolver and fired four rounds, hitting one cop in the shoulder, two in the face, and one in the neck—an impressive feat for a frail and disabled 59-year-old Navy veteran surprised by a sudden home invasion. The officers responded with dozens of rounds, killing Tuttle and Nicholas, who was unarmed.
After the Harding Street raid, Acevedo put the blame squarely on Tuttle and Nicholas, whom he portrayed as dangerous drug dealers. They were operating a locally notorious “drug house,” he claimed, and “the neighborhood thanked our officers” for doing something about it. Based on a tip from a resident who “had the courage” to report that “they’re dealing dope out of the house,” he said, the HPD’s Narcotics Division “was able to actually determine” that “street-level narcotics dealing” was happening at the house, where police “actually bought black-tar heroin.”
Acevedo praised the officers who killed Tuttle and Nicholas as “heroes,” paying special attention to Gerald Goines, the 34-year veteran who had conducted the investigation that led to the raid. Goines had been shot in the neck after breaching the door and entering the house to assist his wounded colleagues. “He’s a big teddy bear,” Acevedo gushed. “He’s a big African American, a strong ox, tough as nails, and the only thing bigger than his body, in terms of his stature, is his courage. I think God had to give him that big body to be able to contain his courage, because the man’s got some tremendous courage.”
Acevedo’s story began to unravel almost immediately. Neighbors said they had never seen any evidence of criminal activity at the house, where Tuttle and Nicholas had lived for two decades. Police found personal-use quantities of marijuana and cocaine at the house but no heroin or any other evidence of the drug dealing Goines had described in an affidavit when he applied for a no-knock search warrant. Nor did the search discover the 9mm semi-automatic pistol that Goines claimed his confidential informant had seen, along with a “large quantity of plastic baggies” containing heroin, at the house the day before the raid, when the informant supposedly had bought the drug there. And although Goines said he had been investigating the alleged “drug house” for two weeks, he still did not know who lived there: He described the heroin dealer as a middle-aged “white male, whose name is unknown.”
Within two weeks of the raid, it became clear that Goines had invented the heroin sale. Later it emerged that the tip he was investigating came from a neighbor who likewise had made the whole thing up. Those revelations resulted in criminal charges against Goines, the neighbor, and several of Goines’ colleagues in Narcotics Squad 15, including Steven Bryant, who had backed up the account of a heroin purchase that never happened.
The scandal prompted local prosecutors to drop dozens of pending drug cases and reexamine more than 2,000 others in which Goines or Bryant had been involved. The investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which revealed a “pattern of deceit” going back years, led to release or exoneration of several drug defendants who had been convicted based on Goines’ plainly unreliable word. One of them, Frederick Jeffery, had received a 25-year sentence for possessing five grams of methamphetamine. The house search that discovered the meth was based on a warrant that Goines obtained by falsely claiming an informant had bought marijuana at that address. It was the same informant who supposedly bought heroin from Tuttle.
In addition to fictional drug purchases, Goines’ search warrant affidavits frequently described guns that were never found. Over 12 years, The Houston Chronicle reported, Goines obtained nearly 100 no-knock warrants, almost always claiming that informants had seen firearms in the homes he wanted to search. But he reported recovering guns just once—a suspicious pattern that no one seems to have noticed.
After Goines was charged with two counts of felony murder for instigating the raid that killed Tuttle and Nicholas, Acevedo said Goines and Bryant, who was charged with evidence tampering, had “dishonored the badge.” But Acevedo remained proud of the other officers who participated in the raid. “I still think they’re heroes,” he said. “I consider them victims.” Acevedo argued that Goines’ colleagues had “acted in good faith” based on a warrant they thought was valid. He even asserted that “we had probable cause to be there,” which plainly was not true.
Three months later, Goines and Bryant were charged with federal civil rights violations. The indictment also charged Patricia Ann Garcia, the neighbor whose tip prompted Goines’ investigation, with making false reports. Bryant and Garcia later pleaded guilty.
‘Zero Indication’ of a ‘Systemic Problem’
“We have zero indication that this is a systemic problem with the Houston Police Department,” Acevedo said after the state charges were announced. “This is an incident that involved the actions of a couple of people.” He reiterated that take after th
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