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Sunday, November 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Police Slaying Of Mexican Raises Furor In Houston

The Washington Post

HOUSTON - Pedro Oregon Navarro died on the floor of his bedroom last summer. He had nine gunshot wounds in the back. Two other bullets had entered his head from above and another, the 12th round to hit his body, went through his left hand.

All the shots were fired by Houston police officers, who unleashed a barrage of 21 more bullets that peppered the walls and windows of his room, knocking down a religious calendar, grazing a soccer trophy that was Oregon's pride and smashing into the weightlifting bench where the 22-year-old Mexican immigrant hardened himself for life in the United States.

The six police officers, members of an anti-gang task force, committed "egregious misconduct," their superiors allege, and they were fired. But a grand jury declined to bring them up on any criminal charges in the killing.

Now, the Justice Department will have to decide whether the police violated Oregon's civil rights, picking him out as an easy target because he was poor and because he was a foreigner.

The police officers maintained Oregon was holding a gun when they burst in on him, and a gun - unfired - was found in the room. According to the local district attorney, John Holmes Jr., the police officers were entitled to act in self-defense even though they were conducting an illegal search at the time.

A perennially popular elected official who has sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in the country, Holmes recently excused the dozens of shots fired at Oregon, saying, "If it is OK to kill a guy dead, it is OK to kill him dead, dead, dead."

Mayor wanted investigation

Despite widespread complaints of excessive force in the Oregon case, Holmes made no recommendation to the grand jury that on Oct. 19 cleared the six officers in Oregon's killing, indicting just one of them on a misdemeanor trespass charge.

The next day, Houston Mayor Lee Brown wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno, asking for a federal investigation. The grand jury's failure to act, he said, has "raised community concerns about the justness of the criminal-justice system."

Within hours, the FBI was on the case.

Although the facts seem straightforward, the Justice Department faces complex challenges in the case. Successfully prosecuting a criminal civil-rights case against a law-enforcement officer can be so difficult that, although many allegations of police violence prompt federal investigations, only a fraction lead to indictments.

In Chicago, for example, a recent study found that between 1992 and 1996, federal prosecutors reviewed 95 cases of alleged police brutality but deemed only six cases worthy of prosecution.

Soccer player also coached kids

Oregon left a farm in central Mexico in 1991, entering this country without documents. He had applied to become a legal immigrant, said his mother, Claudia Navarro.

Like many other newly arrived Latinos in Houston, he ended up in the Gulfton neighborhood, a tightly packed warren of low-rent, low-rise apartment blocks. For the past four years Oregon had worked steadily as a laborer for a major landscaping company. "He liked planting," his mother said. "Pedro liked to say, `I left Mexico for the United States, but I never stopped being a campesino.' "

Oregon's major pastime was soccer. He was a star goal-scoring forward in one of Houston's well-established immigrant leagues, and he helped coach a girls' team sponsored by a Roman Catholic parish.

On the night of July 11, a Saturday, Oregon went to bed early because he had a big soccer match the next day, Navarro said, and by midnight a brother and a brother-in-law who shared the small two-bedroom apartment with him had also gone to sleep.

Two blocks away, two police officers pulled over an automobile occupied by three young men, arresting one of them on suspicion of public intoxication, according to the Police Department's account of the events.

The young man, on probation for a drug-possession charge, quickly offered police a deal: He would give them the name and address of someone who had sold him crack cocaine earlier that night if they would let him go. The officers agreed, and together with other members of the anti-gang task force, made a plan to bust the alleged dealer. The address they were given was Oregon's.

The officers, who had already violated several department policies on the use of informants, did not seek a search warrant.

About 1:40 a.m., the six officers moved quietly through a courtyard of mangled boxwoods, weeds and cracked concrete, and up a wood-plank stairway to a landing illuminated by a bare light bulb. The informant knocked on the door and it was opened; the officers rushed in.

What happened next is disputed.

Two versions of events

According to the police officers, Oregon ran to the back bedroom and locked the door behind him. When they forced the door open, he pointed a gun at them. Simultaneously, one of the officers, David Barrera, 28, accidentally fired his gun, hitting another officer in the back. The bullet struck the officer's protective vest, and he went down without suffering serious injury.

At the sound of the gunshot and the sight of a colleague falling, two other officers, Pete Herrada, 28, and David Perkins, 30, assumed that Oregon had fired on them; they opened up on him. Barrera joined the fusillade, emptied one magazine from his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol, loaded another and kept firing.

Oregon's family says the official account is not plausible. "If he had been standing up, facing them, holding a gun, when the police opened fire, Pedro would have been blown apart from the front, but that is not what the medical examiner found," said Paul Nugent, an attorney for the family.

According to Nugent, Oregon's brother-in-law says that when he opened the front door of the apartment, the officers rushed in and while one of them held him down, the others rushed to Oregon's bedroom, where he was asleep with the lights off, and kicked in the door. Holes in the walls show that least two shots were fired from the hallway into the bedroom. Oregon was already on the ground when three officers opened up on him, Nugent said.

Six slugs were removed from the floor beneath Oregon's corpse, and an autopsy report traces a slanting trajectory for most of the bullets that struck him, indicating that he was shot from the doorway as he lay face down on the ground. There are no entry wounds on the front of his body.

The police department has reported that blood-splatter evidence on the gun found in Oregon's room indicates the weapon was "most probably" in his hand when he was shot. Oregon's family has not disputed that he owned the gun, which had not been fired.

No drugs or any trace of drugs was found in the apartment and blood tests found no indication that Oregon had recently consumed any drugs or alcohol.

The police have produced no reports to indicate that he was ever involved in the drug trade or any other criminal activity.

Neighbors angry but also afraid

As word of Oregon's death spread among his neighbors, there was anger at the perceived injustice of the police action, "but there was even more fear, because many in this community are undocumented, and even those with papers feel they have no rights and no voice with which to protest," said Omar Velez, director of programs at the Gulfton Area Neighborhood Organization.

Gulfton became a port of entry for the surge of Latino immigrants who came north starting in the 1980s, and it still serves as a transit zone where new arrivals remain only until they can move off to somewhere more desirable.

"If this had happened in one of the older, well-established Latino communities, you might have seen more displays of outrage, but Gulfton is a place where people are just struggling to get by," said Nestor Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston.

Since the grand jury failed to act in the case, Mayor Brown, who was the police chief here and in New York and served as head of the White House drug office during President Clinton's first term, has taken the lead in demanding action.

In addition to seeking the Justice Department's intervention, the mayor pressed for an internal review that concluded the six officers had violated numerous Police Department policies and may have committed criminal violations.

Oregon's family, backed by two of the city's most prestigious law firms, filed a $35 million civil suit last week against the department.

Meanwhile, FBI agents have scoured the apartment and are reviewing the ballistics evidence to reconstruct the trajectories of all the bullets fired that July night. But even establishing that the police intentionally and unjustifiably killed Oregon would not be enough to justify a federal prosecution, which requires a finding that the police sought to violate Oregon's civil rights. That would require showing that the officers targeted Oregon because he is a Latino or other evidence of a specific intent to deny him his constitutional rights.

Justice Department officials say they can recall cases, with facts just as startling as this one, in which federal agents spent months, even years, searching for proof of specific intent and ultimately failed. In the Oregon investigation, the probe may be even more complicated because two of the three officers firing on him were Latinos, too.

As an alternative to a criminal indictment, Reno could invoke new powers, authorized by Congress in 1994, to bring a civil action that would seek a settlement with the Houston Police Department to remedy policies that have led to civil-rights violations.

However, these cases typically play out slowly and secretly, and no public admission of wrongdoing is required.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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