Monday, October 20, 2008

The time I covered a mass murder that you probably never heard about

This is the time I covered a mass murder that you probably never heard about.

One Saturday, we were called out late to a murder scene. An entire family, husband, wife, and three kids were found shot to death in a far northeast Houston neighborhood. (see it on Streetview) This was one of the strangest neighborhoods I’ve ever been to in Houston (city of strange neighborhoods). There was block after block of nicely paved streets, but 90% of the lots had never been developed. There are other places like this, like parts of Acres Home and some areas of the third ward, but I’ve never seen a place quite like this. Tall trees and overgrowth mixed with various mounds of urban trash covered most of the land, leaving only 2 or 3 houses per block. This was obviously a place the illegal dumpers frequented. There would be random piles of construction debris, stripped cars, household trash, a bunch of clothes and junk that I would guess was what someone tossed from the car they’d just stolen… When I first parked the truck and got out, I was parked next to a ditch full of hundreds of mason jars full of rotting canned vegetables. Yum.

The “house” where the murders occurred was actually a compound of small homemade buildings surrounded by a high wood fence with a gate to the driveway . I never really got to see inside it because it was the only house on the block and the police had blocked off both ends; we couldn’t see through the gate. A couple photographers had attempted to trudge though the overgrown lot across the street to get a shot through the gate, but had beet turned back by mud, brambles, or yells from the cops. The family was “Mexican”, meaning I don’t remember what country they were from, but they were Spanish-speaking immigrants… legal? I don’t know. The only people that seemed to know them were their nearest neighbors, a black family who’s land bordered theirs around the corner. All the TV stations interviewed the same family. They said how the family “kept to themselves” for the most part, but they’d come over a few times for 4th of July cookouts or whatever, and were very nice, and the wife was very nice but didn’t speak any English, and the kids seemed happy.

So what had happened? Apparently the family had been dead for several days, at least. The bull had gotten out, and the neighbor came over to tell the guy. The black family had horses, I think, and the bull had gotten out before. Did I mention nearly every house in this neighborhood had farm animals?

The neighbor could see what appeared to be a body through the gate, and called 911. . When the police arrived, they searched the compound and found the bodies of all the family members. They had all been shot. The father’s wound appeared to be self inflicted. Blood trails showed some of the victims had struggled with their attacker. Of course the police didn’t come out and say it, but it was pretty obvious the father had killed his family and himself. The neighbors remembered hearing shots a few nights ago, but in this neighborhood, they didn’t think much of it.

What struck me about this story was how soon it was forgotten. Sure, it was the top story on the local news that night, and maybe the second story the next day, but once the workweek started it was completely forgotten. If this had been a white suburban family, Nancy Grace would have been talking about it for weeks. But I doubt it even made the national news, barring a few AP wire stories. Why?

Surely there were stories to be found if one cared to look. The man surely had coworkers. The family surely had relatives, if not locally, in their home country.

Here’s a few possible reasons:

1) The family was Spanish speaking immigrants, and possibly here illegally.

2) They had no close relatives or acquaintances to cry in front of the tv cameras.

3) It happened on a weekend.

Well there it is. There’s a quick lesson in why a story gets big coverage or doesn’t.

Here’s some news stories a found about it:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Time I Was Chased By a Cop in His Personal Vehicle

I was driving the big obnoxious tv truck on a busy street in North Houston at 10:00 at night. At a light, a guy in a small car starts blasting his horn and waving at me and yelling through the window. Now you have to understand, when you drive a big obnoxious tv truck, this kind of thing happens all the time. People randomly flip you off. People throw things at you. People reach out of their cars to pound on the side of the truck. People try to ram you off the road. Once I got a full, hairy moon out the window of an SUV at 80 mph. There's a lot of strange, angry people out there.

You get used to it. You ignore it.

But the guy in the car was persistent. He got behind me and started flashing his lights. Beeping his horn. Waving out the window. At some point it turned from trying to ignore the guy to actively trying to escape from him. I floor it down the road and start weaving, trying to get some other cars between me and him. Finally I'm blocked in at a light. He's a few cars back. I see in the mirror, he gets out of the car and starts running up to the truck. Oh shit. I start looking around the cab for a weapon within easy reach. How much damage would a iPod to the head do? Damn, I just bought that thing.

Just when I'm contemplating weather the situation warrants me smashing into the car in front to get away from this guy, I see that he's waving something at me. It's a Houston Police Department jacket. Apparently the guy's a cop.

Though I still wasn't sure if I was about to get the crap knocked out of me, I was kind of relieved. Enough to roll down the window to see why the hell an off duty cop has been chasing me down the street.

He turned out to be a nice guy. "Sorry, buddy! I have some stuff for one of your reporters. You'll save me the drive downtown."

So we both pulled into a parking lot, and he handed me a sheaf of papers after digging them out from under a pile of automatic weapons and body armor in his trunk. I apologized for trying to escape from him, mentioning the questionable people who are always trying to flag me down. He said no problem, the same thing happened to him when he drove a squad car. Huh.

I originally wrote the kind of car the officer was driving when I wrote this, but I guess I don't want to "out" the guy on the internet. I never asked what was in that file, but if an off-duty cop is handing off papers to an investigative reporter at 10:00 at night, its probably not a press release for the Police Department barbecue. So that's how those reporters get those juicy stories, I remember thinking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Time I Was Politely Ordered to Leave Tom Delay's House

Now here's a story that, with google's help, I can precisely date. On April 3, 2006, rumors were flying around the newsroom that Tom Delay was about to announce his resignation from the House of Representatives.
So late in the evening, maybe around 9, they send me to Sugarland, an upscale Houston suburb, to find his house. I'm given a vague address, and I'm supposed to meet up with the reporter and photographer. I guess we were supposed to yell questions from the sidewalk? I don't know.

So I get to the street. Its a pretty nice street. I mean, its Sugarland. Small, two-story condo-looking things, all nearly identical, 10 feet of space between each one, with well-pruned shrubs and no yard.

I call the desk. "Well, I'm here. But there is no FREAKING way Tom Delay lives on this street." It was just a normal suburban street. I don't know what I was expecting... a giant estate with lawn jockeys and a guard shack? A palace draped in giant American flags? A red glow radiating up through the soil? Not this.

By then the reporter & photog had arrived, and they had an exact address. We found the number. A normal looking house, right on the street, no fence, no guard dogs, no ravens perched on the eaves.

We discussed the situation. "There's no way this is Tom Delay's house. Maybe a mail drop or something to keep his residency active. But there's no way one of the most powerful men in the world actually LIVES in this house." They pretty much agreed, and set about on the phone trying to convince the desk of the wild goose being chased. I don't recall if the reporter ever went up and knocked on the door. He probably did. So after 10 minutes or so, I'm ready to roll out and hit the Whataburger on the drive home. Suddenly, an unmarked black sedan, black windows, lots of antennas, comes rolling around the corner and pulls up behind me.

Well. What do you know. It IS freaking Tom Delay's house.

A guy in a sharp suit (was he wearing sunglasses? It would be awesome if he had been wearing sunglasses at 10:00 at night.) strolls up to my window, badge and ID cards already out. Calm and professional. "Hello sir, I'm Lieutenant so-and-so with the US Capitol Police. Mr. Delay has requested that you leave his house so he and his wife can get some sleep."

Heh. Cool. "Um, ok. No problem." You just know not to argue with a guy like this. He probably sleeps in his suit, standing up. And those bulges under his coat aren't cigarettes and a fat wallet. I thought the US Capitol Police thing was kind of odd, but it turns out they are responsible for security for members of Congress throughout the country. "I think we were just leaving anyway."

I started the truck and rolled over to the crew. "We gots to go, boys."
So after expressing our amazement that this was actually Tom Delay's house, and realizing the unlikelihood of Tom appearing on his balcony to serenade us, we left.

Now I loathe Tom Delay as much as the next thoughtful American, but I have to admit being impressed that he actually lives in a normal house in a normal neighborhood. Obviously he has the security guys on speed dial, but he wasn't surrounded by them.

The event did leave me thinking... You just assume a guy like Tom Delay is loaded. I know members of congress don't make much more than the average business executive, but with all the things that guy has his hands in... I mean, what's the point of kissing all that oil execs ass and getting cherry tax breaks for your constituents if you're just gonna live on a normal street in Sugar Land? He couldn't have spent it ALL on plastic surgery. Damn, Tom, am I gonna have to show you how to enjoy life?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Time I Walked In On the Police Interrogation

So I was at some Sheriff’s station, Sunday night, and they were supposed to be having a press conference about some guy they’d just captured. When I pulled up, I saw all the other tv guys trucks out there, so I knew I was in the right place. The front door was locked, so I went around to a side door. Open. I walked in, but the place was empty. I wandered up and down the hallways a bit, looking for where everyone was.

The only voices I heard were coming from a room with frosted windows and a closed door marked “conference room”. I could hear a guy speaking in a strong, loud voice, and could see movement through the windows. I guess this is the place.

So I opened the door. If you’ve ever seen “The First 48” tv show, you can imagine what I saw. There’s a guy in a chair, hands cuffed in front of him. Ashtray of cigarette butts, half full paper cups of coffee. A large plainclothed cop is hunched over the suspect guy, one foot up on a chair. Another guy is taking notes. I’m not totally sure if those details are accurate, or I’m just thinking of The First 48. But anyways…

The big cop’s head snaps around to look at who opened the door. Maybe the suspect wouldn’t confess to murdering the kids (or whatever it was), or maybe he was playing the “bad cop” that day, or maybe that’s just the kind of guy he was, but this cop was PISSED. Already. Before douchebag me opened the door.

So I say “Um… Is this where the press conference is?”
He replied, “GET… THE FUCK… OUT!”
I interpreted that as “No”.
“Larry (or whatever)! Lock that fucking door!”

So that was pretty much it. I hightailed it out of the police station and hid away in my truck. The crew called to ask where I was, but I refused to go back in the building. “I don’t think they like me in there” I said. I never did find out why I couldn’t find the right room.

Also I never did find out if the suspect I walked in on was the guy the press conference was about. It probably was, considering there was no one else in the building. I always wondered if it dawned on the guy that they were about to have a press conference about him, and how that might have affected the interrogation.

And that’s the time I walked in on the police interrogation.

the time I found the gun

So it was an auto parts store in north Houston, just blocks from my house, actually. Armed robbery. Guy tied up and beaten, but not shot. I was meeting the photographer there to feed back tape of the scene. When I got in the area, I noticed police officers walking up and down the street with flashlights, obviously looking for something. I pulled into a parking lot next door, and went to talk to the photographer. He gave me the scoop, mentioned that the suspect was in custody but they couldn’t find the gun he’s used to beat the guy. He said he’d be done in a few minutes.

I went back to the truck to set up. I walked around to the side of the truck and said to myself… “Well look. THERE’S a gun.” It was a large pistol lying in the parking lot about three feet away from my truck. I don’t know how I didn’t see it pulling in. Next to it was a black ski-mask, the kind with the three holes that doubt I’ve ever even seen since I moved to Texas. Well, damn. I looked around… 20 or so officers were still over in the crime scene next door. A few guys were still kicking through the weeds with flashlights. “Maybe this is a gun from an unrelated crime,” I briefly considered. “Damn, I should take a cel phone pic,” I briefly considered. But I decided to do the right thing and go tell the cops that he gun they were looking for was 50 feet away in plain view in the parking lot.

Of course I had to tell the photographer first. Trying not to run (protip: running near an active crime scene is not a good idea), I hurried over and said “Go by my truck and start rolling! I just found the gun!” He looked a bit confused but went along. I didn’t want to yell at the cops (protip: cops don’t like to be yelled at), so I sauntered up to a guy who glared at me with a familiar “Get outta mah crime scene” look and said, “Are you looking for a gun? Cuz there’s a gun right over there.”

Now its not like it was a bomb, or an active shooter, or a kitten stuck in a pipe, or something else demanding immediate action, but damn if three of those cops didn’t start running toward where I pointed screaming ”Where!! Where!!” over their shoulders. So I’m running after them trying to point it out, and explaining “There’s a pistol! And a baklava! (puff puff) (I’m running, see) A balacava! (puff puff) One of those ski mask things!”

He finally sees the gun and the mask, and of course pushed me and the photographer (we’d all kind of arrived at the same time) back behind the truck, like you know, in case the gun exploded or something. So even though I found the damn gun, we never even got a good shot of it.

Later I had to give a statement to a detective. He was nice. I don’t think they even used any of our video in the news that night. It was just an armed robbery, with no deaths, like 20 others in Houston that day.

Later I heard it was actually just a fancy BB gun.

Question: If you’re gonna rob a store, and you need a ski mask, and you’re in Texas in the summertime, where do you go to get one?

about this blog

From 2000 to 2008, I worked as a live truck engineer for KHOU news in Houston, Texas. This job took me to literally all corners of the city and beyond, and allowed me to witness places, people, and activities that other people never see. I always seemed to have good stories to tell my friends about my day at work, while they naver had any. At first I just thought they were lame, but it turns out that most other people's jobs don't involve accidentally contaminating crime scenes, being threatened with arrest by college RA's, attempting smalltalk with people whose family has just been murdered, discussing the state of American politics with crackheads -- yet this kind of thing was just another day at the office for me.

As I have now moved on from that job, I have started this blog to tell some stories, mainly so I'll remember them. If you like them, tell me what you think.

--Nick DiFonzo