Metropolis: Wednesday, July 4, 2002

Local families are questioning Fort Worth’s long list of unsolved murders.


It’s hard for the eyes to resolve the visual battle occurring in Hector Carrillo’s art studio turned war room. Giant charts and maps rage about the racial breakdown of unsolved murders, while Carrillo’s existentialist artwork moans in reds and yellows. An observer who assumed a sticker-speckled map of Fort Worth districts has little to do with the abstract oil paintings would be wrong. For Carrillo, activism and art are simultaneous responses to the murder of his son, a murder he believes could have been solved if Fort Worth police had handled things differently.

Carrillo hesitates to talk about his son, Oscar, but not about the battle with police that ensued after his son was killed in a 2001 drive-by shooting in front of his Fort Worth home. He describes endless meetings with inexperienced or uncaring police detectives, unproductive confrontations with city council members and Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza, and his more recent struggle to document what he deems an excessive number of unsolved murders, especially those involving Latino victims.

Chad Houston’s death is not an unsolved murder — the men who fought with him outside a TCU-area bar were identified, but never indicted. But Robert and Sandy Houston have never been satisfied with the police investigation of their son’s death. Like Carrillo, they have spent thousands of dollars hiring private detectives and presenting cases to prosecutors. Carrillo and the Houstons believe they have now uncovered some startling and troubling patterns in Fort Worth’s record with other murders.

On June 27, their group, Citizens Against Unsolved Murders, bought full-page ads in Fort Worth Weekly and El Informador Hispano, a bilingual weekly, alleging that a third of all Fort Worth murders in the past 20 years remain unsolved. Carrillo plans to unveil a report in a July 27 public meeting of the group, claiming that 48 percent of the murders of Latinos are unsolved. (The Houstons have said before that — as individuals, not as part of the Citizens group — they want to help defeat District Attorney Tim Curry in his re-election bid.)

If the group’s math is right, the police could have some problems. If their math is fuzzy, that might be the city’s fault.

Carrillo and the Houstons relied on freedom of information laws to get records of solved and unsolved murders in the last 20 years. According to the group, Shane Tackett, a public information coordinator in the city records department, first provided an incomplete and erroneous list that he had received from Information Technology Solutions, a city department.

A second request spawned a report that listed 2,069 murder victims, including their gender, age, race, and whether the murder was gang-related. About 750 were listed as unsolved. But this list, too, included mistakes — several high-profile cases in which murderers were sent to prison were listed as unsolved. The media-blitzed case of Amy Robinson, an Arlington girl who was murdered in 1998, was listed as unsolved, although her two killers have been tried and convicted. City records manager Doug Jones said that it will take time to determine why the information is inaccurate, but that the best explanation is that the records were not updated.

Carrillo and the Houstons paid $500 for the information. They chalk up some mistakes to margin of error. Still, the obvious blunders hurt the group’s credibility and may point to problems with the city’s record-keeping.

The police department’s own analysis of murder cases in the past 20 years showed about 500 unsolved — 250 fewer than reported on the city-provided list. Police Capt. Richard D. Reflogal in the criminal investigations division seemed confounded by the list given to Carrillo, saying that some unsolved homicides were left off of it, and some solved cases were mistakenly included. Police officials further defended the department by saying about 89 percent of murder cases in 2001 were solved, compared to 63 percent nationwide.

Carrillo, armed with his statistics, argues that the current process of investigation and prosecution is a disaster, especially for minorities. “This reflects failure of the system at every level,” said Carrillo, local community relations chairperson for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “And [the statistics] are acceptable to [police] because most of the murdered are minorities.”

Police officials speculated that increases in the number of Latino victims could simply reflect their growing presence in the local population. But Carrillo and LULAC members are skeptical about the capabilities and efforts of Fort Worth police in dealing with the Latino community. They say that, too often, victims are stereotyped as gang members or thugs, and so their murderers are not pursued. “The police must distinguish the predators from the prey, but they don’t,” said Al Saldivar, local LULAC president, whose nephew was murdered in 1996.. “It’s possible that the white officers who don’t live here come and create standards for kids whose lives they don’t understand.” He said that police sometimes mistake victims for aggressors because officers disregard the realities of living in tough neighborhoods, such as carrying a knife for self-defense.

Carrillo and Saldivar pointed out that about 64 percent of the city’s police officers live outside Fort Worth, and only 13 percent of the police force is Latino.

Police officers vehemently denied that they take race into account. “A murder is a murder; you don’t discriminate between a kid in a gang getting killed and a prominent citizen,” said retired homicide detective Danny LaRue. “Sometimes there’s less cooperation with gang members in coming forward as witnesses. A lot of cases are drive-by situations that have multiple assailants, and deciphering who is responsible is difficult.”

Current police officials echo LaRue, adding that in some cases Mexican or Mexican-American suspects flee to Mexico. If gang-related cases go unsolved, Reflogal said, it is not because police don’t seek communication with victims and witnesses, many of whom don’t speak English. Fort Worth police said they keep a list of translators, to remedy the situation, but there is only one Spanish-speaking homicide detective.

Carrillo said detectives ignored threats to his son before the drive-by shooting and did little investigation afterward. He succeeded in getting a new detective assigned to his son’s case, but results were the same — the murder remained unsolved and police remained uninterested, he said.

Carrillo said a massive overhaul is needed to fix a legal system that he said gives murderers of Latinos a 50-50 shot at escaping justice. He plans to invite police officials to the July public meeting, which is expected to draw a large Latino turnout. “We are not doing this because we hate the police system, we just want the leaders to be aware of this data,” he said. “You live in a delusional world where you think the system will eventually work. Now we know we have to make it work. We have no choice.”

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