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"Shots fired, one down," a thin voice crackled over the police-band radio at 12:30 on a muggy Houston night. Immediately the call went out, as it always does when a cop shoots a civilian. Ambulances, squad cars, a crime-scene unit, Internal Affairs investigators, and representatives from the district attorney's office all converged in the quiet neighborhood of expensive brick homes amid towering pines bordered by manicured lawns.
By the time Assistant D.A.s Don Smyth and Edward Porter arrived, Susan White, a forty-two-year-old former mortgage broker, was being barreled through the night in the back of an ambulance, one paramedic pounding on her chest as another forced oxygen into her lungs.
Outside, in the backseat of a squad car, White's son, Jason, watched. Seventeen, but small for his age, he'd awakened to the shrill scream of the burglar alarm. Moments later, the pop of gunfire and two uniformed deputies rousted him from bed and pulled him down the stairs and past his mother's darkened bedroom, where another deputy stood above the outline of her thin body covered by a bloody sheet. Despite the summer heat, the boy shivered, his eyes saucer-wide.
Smyth, a wiry man with a ruddy complexion, glanced at the boy, then cornered the detective in charge. "Who's the shooter?" he asked.
The detective pointed to a uniformed deputy in his late twenties who stood jawing with a cache of others. "Kent McGowen," the detective said. "He was with two other deputies, serving a retaliation warrant. She'd threatened a police informant. The deputies told her they had a warrant, but the woman wouldn't open up. They brokedown the door. She pulled a gun, McGowen shot her."
It all seemed simple enough, but. "Retaliation?" Smyth repeated. Something didn't smell right. He eyed the house and figured it was worth a quarter million, easy. Retaliation, making verbal threats against a police informant, was a third-rate felony, with a bond of $2,000. Where was the urgency? The woman wasn't a flight risk. Why would they break down a door in the high-rent district in the middle of the night to serve a warrant on a trash-heap charge like retaliation?
Smyth pulled Porter to the side. "Cover it like a blanket," he whispered.
Porter nodded and Smyth guessed his gut was acting up, too. They were a team Smyth was chief of the D.A.'s Civil Rights unit. Porter worked under him. It was department policy: When a cop shot a civilian, someone from Civil Rights made the scene. They'd done a lot of these investigations together, too many, and too often irk the middle of the night.
While Porter, a balding man with a round face and brown eyes that appeared perpetually skeptical behind half-moon glasses, interviewed witnesses, Smyth analyzed the scene. On a pad he sketched the layout of the house, noting the back door splintered off its hinges and a black shoe print where someone had kicked it in. He found no signs of a struggle in the kitchen or the den.
In the living room, Smyth noted blood smears on the plush pale gray carpeting and torn, bloody gauze discarded in the adrenaline-pumping -flush of attempting to save a life. Is she dead or alive? the prosecutor wondered.
Smyth made his way past the crime-scene officers into the bedroom. It was a jumble: clothes strewn on the floor; scribbled-on yellow legal pads piled on the desk; a half-empty Burger King drink cup sweating on the headboard; black-and-white photos scattered on the dresser-modeling-type photos of an attractive, tall, blond, athletic woman in her early forties. He noted the name printed across the bottomSusan Whitethe shooting victim.
Next Smyth inspected the waterbed, awash in blood; a fine, deep crimson spray fanned the wall behind it. White must have been in bed when McGowen pulled the trigger, sending a bullet careening through her profile. Another sliced through her chest. A third shattered her right arm.
Moments later, Smyth met on the front lawn with Porter, McGowen, and an attorney supplied by the policemen's union.
"Is he willing to tell us what happened?" Smyth asked. He sensed the young cop wanted to talk. He'd been pacing the front lawn, recounting his story for nearly everyone on the scene. Twice Smyth ordered the offier deputies to contain McGowen. "Put him in a squad car and tell him to shut up," he'd cautioned. He wanted McGowen quiet, thinking about what had happened, wbecting his thoughts.
"He's ready," McGowens attorney answered.
Smyth had conducted hundreds of walk-throughs in his nearly a decade of investigating cops. But this time he looked at Kent McGowen and did something he'd never done before: He pulled out a tape recorder and switched it on. His instincts whispered, Cross every t, dot every i.
The walk-through began at the front door, McGowen detailing for Smyth, Porter, and the others how he'd knocked and ordered the woman to open. up. The woman was a major turd, he charged. Her son was involved with big-time gun dealers who trafficked in automatic weapons. McGowen had arrested the kid two nights earlier, using a C.I., a confidential informant. It was the C.I. White had threatened to kill.
We needed to get her off the street," McGowen said, nodding confidently at Smyth and the others. They were, after all, part of the same club-law enforcement, the good guys. This Susan White, he disdainfully implied, was one of them, one of the bad guys.
Like so much else about the scene, the jowly young deputy's demeanor rang wrong to Smyth. McGowen grinned, bragging, relishing his story, as if he'd saved a school bus full of kids or captured the head of an international drug cartel. Suddenly, McGowen said something that propelled Smyth's curiosity into overdrive: Susan White called 911 when the deputies kicked down her door.
What kind of a criminal calls the cops for help? Smyth wondered.
Just then word came over the radio: Susan White was DOA, dead on arrival at the emergency room. No reason to dispatch anyone to the hospital, Smyth decided when he heard the news. She won't be talking, except ...