Pubdate: 26 Mar 1999
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 1999 Houston Chronicle
Author: Steve Brewer
Section: Front Page


Slain man's family `was not surprised'

A jury took about 70 minutes Thursday to acquit the only Houston police
officer charged in connection with the death of Pedro Oregon Navarro, who
was killed July 12 in an aborted drug bust that turned sour.

James Willis, 29, sobbed after a jury in the courtroom of Harris County
Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Neel Richardson acquitted him of misdemeanor
criminal trespass.

Flanked by relatives and attorneys after the verdict, an elated Willis
called the shooting, the resulting investigation and the trial the "worst
ordeal of my life." He was the only one of six officers to be charged,
although all were fired.

"I know the media is going to be the media, and they're going to have to
report what they hear, and unfortunately they only heard one side of this
story for many, many months," Willis said. "But now it's time to hear the
other side, what really happened. It's time that the whole truth comes out.
You always have doubts, but I feel in my heart that what happened was, we
were right, all along we were right."

Defense attorney Brian Benken said public officials and others who have
vilified Willis should now back off. A grand jury cleared him of wrongdoing
in Pedro Oregon's shooting, Benken said, and now a jury has cleared him of
misdemeanor charges of illegally entering the apartment of Pedro's brother.

"Jim Willis is not a criminal," an emotional Benken told reporters. "This
was simply just crazy."

Benken said Willis was a victim of the controversy surrounding the case,
stirred up by public officials, who knew nothing about the evidence, trying
to curry favor with voters.

Attorneys representing Oregon's relatives in a multimillion-dollar federal
civil-rights lawsuit against the city, and others who have argued that the
shooting was not justified, reacted quickly to the verdict.

They said trying Willis on a mere misdemeanor was a farce, and there was no
validity to evidence that emerged during the trial that Pedro Oregon and
his brothers were dealing drugs.

"The Oregon family was not surprised by the verdict today," said attorney
Richard Mithoff. "The intent of the district attorney appeared not to be
consistent with getting all the facts out."

In a news conference, Mithoff said the Oregon brothers were not drug
dealers, and evidence that would have proven that claim was not presented
by prosecutors. But some of Mithoff's contentions were contradicted by
evidence introduced in the trial or could be explained by previous
revelations about the case.

Mithoff attacked prosecutors for going forward with the misdemeanor case
and the way they handled it. He hinted that they tailored their case to
tarnish the Oregon family.

Aaron Ruby, a member of the Justice for Pedro Oregon Coalition, agreed with
Mithoff: "This trial was a dirty campaign of slandering the Oregons. It had
nothing to do with prosecuting Willis. It was about turning victims into

Prosecutors said they accepted the verdict, but continued to say that they
believed that Willis broke the law when he and the other gang task force
officers entered the southwest Houston apartment of Pedro's brother, Rogelio.

Willis and the others were at the apartment because of a tip given to them
by Ryan Baxter, who was arrested by Willis and his partner on July 11.
Baxter, 28, was on probation on drug charges and had been arrested after a
night of drinking beer and smoking crack. He later told the officers he
would swap his drug dealer's identity for his freedom.

Baxter testified that Rogelio Oregon, who did not testify at Willis' trial,
was his dealer and had been for three years. Baxter said he bought drugs
from Rogelio, Pedro and another Oregon brother at the apartment, and that
sometimes the drugs were kept inside and sometimes outside.

Two attempts to set up a drug purchase through Baxter failed. A third
attempt resulted in a firm deal, Willis and Baxter testified, and the
officers went to Rogelio's apartment early July 12.

Willis said the officers didn't have enough evidence for a search warrant,
so they wanted Baxter to knock on the door, then get down so they could ask
Rogelio Oregon for consent to search the apartment.

When Baxter went down, Willis said, Rogelio bolted into the dark apartment.
Thinking Rogelio was either going to get a gun or destroy evidence, Willis
said he followed his partner into the apartment.

Benken argued that when Rogelio bolted, it gave Willis and the others all
the legal reason they needed to go inside. Prosecutor Ed Porter countered
that the officers had not done enough legwork on the drug case, were
relying too heavily on Baxter's word and had perhaps staged the raid in
such a way as to ensure that Rogelio Oregon would run.

While Willis and his partner were in the front of the apartment, the other
officers went to the back and confronted Pedro Oregon. That's when one
officer accidentally fired his weapon and hit another officer. Thinking
Pedro Oregon had fired, the other officers -- but not Willis -- opened
fire, hitting Pedro Oregon 12 times, nine in the back.

Some of the officers have said Pedro Oregon pointed a gun at them. He did
have a stolen gun, but it was not fired and no drugs were found in the

After a lengthy investigation, Harris County grand jurors indicted only
Willis, on the misdemeanor charge.

When that inquiry ended, the FBI and federal grand jury probe began and the
multimillion-dollar federal civil-rights suit was filed.

The jury of four women and two men declined to comment after their
deliberations, but Porter said members of the panel told him they were
convinced that Willis had no choice but to follow his partner into the

Porter said jurors also had an interesting opinion on the media's coverage
of the case.

"They said after listening to all the evidence here that it bore little
resemblance to what has been reported so far," Porter said.

Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. said some reporters and
public officials who had no access to grand jury testimony were on a
feeding frenzy that created several misconceptions about the case.

Holmes brushed aside comments from the Oregon family's attorneys that the
case was only brought to trial to validate his view of the shooting. He
said it was simply a "fortuitous byproduct" of the trial that the public
now has a clearer picture of the incident.

"It would be silly to think that I'm not glad the facts came out in this
case," Holmes said. "Of course I'm glad. It's not healthy for people to
think you got six cold-blooded killer cops running around." 
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MAP posted-by: Mike Gogulski