HOUSTON (AP) — When police fatally shot a couple during a raid of their home in a working-class Houston neighborhood, friends and family members angrily dismissed allegations that the two were selling heroin and had fired on officers while defending an illicit business.
Authorities have not cleared their names, even after alleging that an officer lied about the crime to obtain the search warrant justifying the Jan. 28 raid. The officer, Gerald Goines, has been suspended and more than 1,400 of his former cases are under review amid a civil rights investigation by the FBI.
Police Chief Art Acevedo said that until the investigation is complete, Dennis Tuttle, a 59-year-old Navy veteran, and his wife, 58-year-old Rhogena Nicholas, known to close friends as “Regi”, will remain drug suspects.
“We exonerate them prematurely and the next thing you know, we find something,” said Acevedo, who has kept in close contact with Tuttle’s family since the raid.
But the couple’s family and friends maintain the two, married for 20 years, were not criminals. They portrayed the couple as animal lovers who had lived quiet, simple lives and were dedicated to each other.
“They’re trying to throw my friends under the bus and act like they were these horrible people which they weren’t and they’ve … slandered my friends all based on lies,” Monique Caballero said.
Police say undercover narcotics officers were met by gunfire after they entered the couple’s home. Four officers were shot and wounded, and a fifth injured his knee.
Authorities began investigating the home after receiving a 911 call on Jan. 8 from a woman who said her daughter had been doing drugs there. In a search warrant affidavit that was used to authorize the raid, Goines said that a confidential informant had bought heroin at the home. But police now allege Goines lied in the affidavit as the informant told investigators no such drug buy ever took place. The heroin allegedly bought at the home had been obtained elsewhere, according to investigators.
According to the police account, the couple was killed after Tuttle engaged in a firefight with officers and Nicholas tried to grab the shotgun of one of the officers who entered the home. But their friends have suggested the couple might have thought they were being attacked by intruders.
Acevedo said investigators are still determining whether the guns recovered at the couple’s home had been bought legally.
Police used a “no-knock” warrant that didn’t require them to announce themselves before entering. Such warrants were criticized after the raid and in response, Acevedo said he or someone he designates must now approve all such warrants.
Acevedo also announced that body cameras will now be worn by SWAT team members and by officers who execute search warrants. Officers involved in the drug raid did not wear body cameras.
A review of court records in Houston showed that only Nicholas had any prior criminal history, a misdemeanor charge in 2010 related to a bad check for $100. The charge was dismissed after restitution was paid.
Elizabeth Ferrari, Tuttle’s sister, told KPRC-TV this didn’t sound like the brother she knew and that a week before the shooting, she had spoken with him and they had “a great conversation.”
Miguel Prats, who had known the couple for at least 20 years, said the two were “warm and fuzzy” kind of people.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many dozens of times I’d been in their house, and I never, ever saw any dope dealing going down,” Prats said.
Tuttle, who grew up in Houston, had worked as a machinist. Nicholas was originally from Mississippi. Both had dealt with various health problems in recent years and were on disability. Tuttle had suffered some work-related injuries as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service, according to friends. Nicholas had health problems related to hepatitis and was battling cancer, Caballero said.
“They did stay to themselves. But they were the most caring, loving people,” she said.
Caballero said that on the day of the drug raid, she had sent Nicholas a funny animal video. Nicholas texted her about 20 minutes before the raid happened, saying of the video, “LOL. That’s funny.” It was the last exchange the two friends would ever have.
Police have said officers immediately faced gunfire after they forced open the home’s front door. The first officer through the door was charged by a large pit bull, which he shot and killed.
The couple’s friends say they believe Tuttle and Nicholas likely thought someone was breaking into their home.
“You crash somebody’s door down and shoot their dog in Texas, you damn well better be prepared to get shot back at,” Prats said.
Police have said while no heroin was found in the home, officers recovered 18 grams of marijuana, 1.5 grams of a white powder believed to be cocaine, two shotguns and two rifles.
Prats said the weapons likely belonged to Tuttle as he used to go hunting. He said the drugs found were very small amounts that were likely used for medicinal purposes to treat pain.
But Caballero said because of the problems that have emerged about the raid, she doesn’t trust anything police say about what they found at the home.
She said the officers involved in the raid need to be held accountable for what happened to her friends.
“They cared about everyone else other than themselves. They are not drug dealers. They are not drug addicts and they did not deserve to die that way,” Caballero said.