Harris County DA: Pasadena Police Told Us It Was an Accidental Death

Harris County DA is placing blame on Pasadena PD for telling them that it Pedro Gonzales Jr’s death was accidental. Thus, no investigation occured following the report.

Aug. 18, 2007, 9:47AM
Told the ‘guy tripped,’ DA didn’t probe Pasadena jail death
Investigators were unaware of any struggle with Pasadena officers
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office did not go to the Pasadena Jail on July 21 after Pedro Gonzales Jr. died there because its investigators were told by the Pasadena Police Department that the death was the result of an accident, an official said this week.

“They said, ‘The death looks like the guy tripped,’ so we decided not to go,” said Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby, head of the DA’s police integrity unit. “Had we known there had been a struggle (between Gonzales and two officers) we might have gone out” to investigate.

Gonzales, 51, was found dead about 7:30 a.m, five hours after Officers Jason W. Buckaloo and Christopher S. Jones used force to arrest him on suspicion of public intoxication.

While the DA’s office goes immediately to scenes of all officer-involved shootings, it rarely visits locations in the crucial moments after prisoners or others die in the custody of law enforcement.

The main reason, Owmby said, is that most in-custody deaths are from natural causes or pre-existing conditions. Harris County law enforcement agencies reported 12 fatalities among the 35 officer-involved shootings last year, while there were 36 in-custody deaths.

That policy is misguided, said Randall Kallinen, a Houston attorney who has filed at least 100 civil rights lawsuits against local police.

“The reason for going to a scene is to see if a crime had been committed by officers,” he said. “In these incidents, officers are potential suspects, so why would you take their word, especially when someone has died?”

Owmby said the officers who reported the incident may not have known that force was used to subdue Gonzales and thus would not have told his investigators that he could have been injured. He did not say which officers reported the death.

“They provided us with information they had at the time,” he said. “I don’t recall when we had a better picture of what went on. It certainly was not days or weeks before they told us.”

Kallinen thinks the DA’s police integrity unit might have gathered important details had they seen Gonzales’ body in the jail cell. Autopsy photos released to the Houston Chronicle this week through a Texas Public Information Act request showed the body had bruises and cuts on the hands, knees, wrists, back and head, as well as what appears to be blood splatters on the jeans and T-shirt.

Owmby said his investigators always immediately visit officer-involved shooting scenes to “take part in the walk-through when the officer first explains what happened.”

Kallinen said a walk-through with Buckaloo and Jones could have helped explain what happened to Gonzales.

Pasadena police last month said preliminary autopsy results indicated Gonzales died from internal bleeding from a pinhole perforation of the lung due to a bone splinter from a rib fracture. Two days after his death, police told the media that Gonzales may have suffered injuries when he tripped and fell in a parking lot as police escorted him to a patrol car after arresting him at 2 a.m.

The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office has not released the official cause of death, in part because officials are awaiting toxicology and histology test results, said spokeswoman Beverly Begay.

Gonzales’ sister, Elvia Garza, said police initially told her family that her brother likely died of a heart attack or stroke. His death and the changing stories by police have angered the family and activists, who called on the FBI to conduct an investigation.

Others also questioned why police supervisors did not dispatch a unit to investigate a report of police brutality at the time and location where the officers arrested Gonzales.

Owmby expects to present the case to a grand jury by the middle of next month. The FBI Houston office has also opened a preliminary inquiry that will eventually be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Greg Cagle, the Texas Municipal Police Association attorney representing Buckaloo and Jones, said the officers will be cleared of wrongdoing.

“It was thoroughly investigated and both officers did everything asked of them,” Cagle said. “I’m not aware of them engaging in any misconduct.”

FBI and Justice Department officials said they will monitor the local investigations and wait for the state justice system to respond to the case before they pursue it further.

Owmby said officers are rarely indicted or tried on charges related to the deaths of suspects during arrests because grand juries and jurors tend to sympathize with officers who must make snap decisions to protect themselves and others.

In the past five years, only two officers have been tried in the shooting deaths of citizens. One was found not guilty and the other, former Houston officer Arthur Carbonneau, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the fatal 2003 shooting of a 14-year-old boy.

The police integrity unit, however, has prosecuted nearly 50 law enforcement officers since 2003 for everything from aggravated assault to official oppression and murder.

Kallinen said he would like the unit to file more cases where prosecutors believe a crime was committed. The unit accepted 191 cases last year, but only eight officers were prosecuted and only two cases went to trial.

Chronicle reporter Paige Hewitt contributed to this story.



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Filed under Corruption, Pedro Gonzales Jr., Police Beatings, Regional

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