HOUSTON (AP) — The families of a couple killed in a 2019 drug raid by Houston police have alleged in newly filed lawsuits that the deaths of their loved ones were the tragic result of a narcotics unit that for years was rife with corruption and no accountability and now has many of its members under indictment.
Relatives of Dennis Tuttle, 59, and his wife, Rhogena Nicholas, 58, said on Thursday that filing the federal civil rights lawsuits is the only way they will get answers from police and city officials about how the couple was killed and will be a way to restore the reputations of their loved ones, who they say were falsely accused of being drug dealers.
“The hardest part, I think, is to my momma. She still wants to know exactly what happened. She said her daughter was no drug dealer. She helped all her neighbors,” John Nicholas, Rhogena Nicholas’ brother, said at a news conference Thursday.
At the time of the Jan. 28, 2019 raid, police had accused Tuttle and Nicholas of selling heroin from their home.
But prosecutors have since alleged one of the officers that led the raid, Gerald Goines, lied to obtain the warrant to search the couple’s home by claiming a confidential informant had bought heroin there. Goines later said there was no informant and he had bought the drugs himself, they allege. Police found small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in the house, but no heroin.
An audit made public in July of the narcotics unit found officers made hundreds of errors in cases, lacked supervision and overpaid informants for the seizure of minuscule amounts of drugs.
Mayor Sylvester Turner, said on Thursday the overwhelming number of Houston police officers are doing an “outstanding job.”
“You cannot tarnish, stain the entire force of any organization because of the acts of a few,” Turner said.
Goines was indicted last year on two counts of felony murder in the deaths of the couple. Another officer, Felipe Gallegos, was indicted on Monday for murder in Tuttle’s death. Goines and another officer, Steven Bryant also face federal charges after a civil rights investigation by the FBI.
In all, a dozen current and former officers tied to the narcotics unit have been indicted, with most for charges related to lying on search warrants, putting false information on offense reports and lying on time sheets as part of a scheme to get overtime.
Since the raid, prosecutors have been reviewing thousands of cases handled by the Houston Police Department’s narcotics division and have determined at least 150 cases should be dismissed because of Goines’ involvement
During the raid, officers used a “no-knock” warrant that didn’t require them to announce themselves before entering. Police say the couple’s dog attacked them and they were met by gunfire from Tuttle. Four officers, including Goines, were shot, with one being paralyzed. Another officer was injured.
Michael Doyle, one of the attorneys for Rhogena Nicholas’ family, said questions remain about how the couple was killed as police have refused to release ballistics reports and other evidence about the shooting.
An independent forensic review by the families’ attorneys has suggested Nicholas was fatally shot as she sat on her couch and the bullet came from an officer who fired through a wall from outside the home.
In their lawsuit, Tuttle’s family raised doubts that Tuttle, whom they described as disabled and frail, ever fired on officers and if he did, it was because he believed his home “was under attack by violent criminals.”
Each family filed its own federal lawsuit against the city and 13 officers. Police Chief Art Acevedo was named a defendant in the lawsuit by Nicholas’ family. The lawsuits did not specify monetary damages.
The police department has distanced itself from Goines and Bryant, who’s accused of helping Goines cover up the faulty warrant. But Acevedo has stood by the other officers in the raid, saying on Monday they “had no involvement in obtaining the warrant and responded appropriately to the deadly threat” they encountered.
“What happened was not an accident by two bad apples. This was the culmination of years and years of preying on our communities,” Doyle said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70