After a capital-murder charge was filed against an illegal immigrant in connection with the death of Officer Rodney Johnson, Chief Harold Hurtt firmly defended the Houston Police Department’s policy of not enforcing immigration laws.
“If the government would fulfill their responsibility of protecting the border,” he told reporters Friday afternoon, “we probably would not be standing here today.”
The urgency of the immediate loss highlighted a breakdown prompted by several factors—the loose nets of an immigration system that allowed a deported man to slip back into the country illegally, a hidden gun that Johnson overlooked inside the suspect’s waistband and a means of restraint that somehow allowed the handcuffed man to reach that weapon and pull the trigger.
Early Friday morning, the suspect, Juan Leonardo Quintero, a 32-year-old Mexican national, appeared briefly in the 248th state District Court, where he was informed of the charge against him.
Homicide Sgt. Mark Newcomb said officers “got a full confession” from Quintero.
As the investigation of Thursday’s shooting near Hobby Airport continued, homicide Capt. Dale Brown said Johnson was shot after a pat-down search of Quintero, while the suspect was handcuffed in the back seat of his patrol car.
“The officer apparently just missed the weapon during the pat-down search,” Brown said.
Johnson had stopped Quintero for driving a white Ford pickup at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, Brown said. The officer decided to arrest Quintero for driving without a license or any other form of identification, then handcuffed Quintero, conducted the pat down and placed him in the back of his patrol car.
Johnson then called for a wrecker driver to tow the truck Quintero had been driving.
Quintero had been working for a landscaping company in the Deer Park area and was driving a company Ford double-cab pickup, Brown said.
Brown added that Quintero had concealed a 9 mm handgun in the waistband of his pants. Johnson was fatally wounded by four shots to the head and face.
Although Quintero was handcuffed behind his back, Brown said, he apparently manipulated his hands under his legs to the front of his body so he could fire the gun.
When witnesses arrived at the scene, Brown said, “They saw him with the gun, with the slide open, in front of him.”
A tow truck driver who responded to Johnson’s call was the first person to arrive on the scene, Brown said. The driver approached Johnson’s patrol car, observed him “in some distress” and Quintero then fired one time, missing the wrecker driver, Brown said.
Shortly after that, other officers arrived, Brown said.
The officers who then arrested him placed the handcuffs “behind him,” Brown said.
Brown said the suspect did not tell investigators why he fired.
“Nothing definitive … ,” Brown said. “My personal belief is that he was upset about being arrested rather than being written a ticket. And I believe he was upset, because he knew he was going to be discovered as a deported alien, and that he was going to spend several years in a federal prison before being deported.”
Quintero was deported as an illegal felon in 1999, following a charge of indecency with a child, Brown said.
Court records show Quintero was given deferred adjudication in that case. Brown said Quintero’s previous criminal record included an arrest for driving while intoxicated, for driving with a suspended license and for failing to stop and give information after an automobile accident.
But the arrest of an illegal immigrant renewed debate among local members of Congress over enforcement of immigration laws, in particular Hurtt’s policy of prohibiting HPD officers from questioning suspects about their residency.
Enforcement at issue
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said the shooting highlighted the need to tighten the borders and beef up enforcement of immigration laws.
“We know that 25 homicides a day are committed by people who are illegally in the country and this is one more,” he said.
Poe said police officers should have the authority to arrest people in the country illegally. He said Houston is viewed as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
“The city of Houston has created an atmosphere that it’s a sanctuary for illegals,” Poe said. “They knew that, and that’s why they go to Houston.”
Other lawmakers said that while the shooting was unfortunate, it should not be used for political grandstanding on the eve of a general election.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Johnson’s family deserves justice. But, she added, the incident should not detract from efforts to reform current immigration laws.
“We all are suffering from overwhelming grief for the loss of officer Rodney Johnson (but) this is certainly not the time to make blanket accusations,” Jackson Lee said, “but rather it is a time to unite to fight crime where crime exists. We should seek to solve all other problems or issues dealing with immigration away from this terrible tragedy.”
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said Friday that using the crime for political reasons is unfortunate, especially for the family and friends of Johnson.
“The officer was killed,” he said, “and whether he was a legal resident or not a legal resident the officer was still killed. That’s the tragic part. There’s no doubt that some of my colleagues who only want to do border protection will say this is what we need to do.”
Throughout HPD, officers expressed their mourning with a strip of black across their badges. Flags at all city buildings were flown at half-staff in Johnson’s honor. At the 11 p.m. roll call at some substations Thursday night, photographs of Johnson were posted.
Many officers took time out to remember Johnson’s friendly demeanor and love for his family and fellow officers.
Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal says he is “coming out of retirement” to handle the case against an illegal immigrant who allegedly shot a police officer four times during a traffic stop.
The community is paying its respects today to Rodney Johnson, even while the Mexican government declares it is monitoring every aspect of the trial—and will assist Juan Leonardo Quintero if an appeal is necessary after a trial.
Police have said they obtained “a full confession” from Quintero, who was still locked in the back seat of Johnson`s patrol car—along with a pistol—when officers arrived after the shooting Thursday.
Rosenthal said he could not recall the last time he helped prosecute a case, but guessed that it has been several years.
He said the police officer case is somewhat “bizarre” because Quintero is accused of committing murder even though he was in a situation where he could not escape.