Detective Johnnie Davidson Shot to Death By Prowler; Partner then Kills the Shooter

Nelson Zoch, Contributor

EOW: February 19, 1921

On Saturday night, February 19, 1921, a cold winter night in near northeast Houston, Detectives Johnnie Davidson and Tony Margiotta left the police station to answer a call in the area of Liberty Road and Gregg Street. A citizen had called about a prowler in that vicinity at approximately 10:45 p.m. Detectives Anderson and Blalock recalled later that Davidson and Margiotta were laughing as they left, not having any idea of the danger that lay just minutes ahead.

Upon their arrival at the location, they questioned several African-American males in the area and released them after determining that they had legitimate business in the area. The officers were then approached by a citizen reporter, who directed them to a residence at 3405 Liberty Road. There, upon further investigation, they located the prowler, a forty-one-year-old African-American man named Joe Harris. They told Harris to come with them to the front porch of this house, where they began searching him.

They found several revolver rounds in his pocket. Margiotta was later quoted as hearing Davidson say, “Get the gun, he’s got one.” From this point, Harris began physically resisting the detective’s efforts to arrest him. As Margiotta attempted to hold Harris on the porch, the man pushed away and began firing a revolver. The Houston Post later quoted Margiotta as saying he heard Davidson say, “Oh, shoot him, he’s shot me.” Margiotta saw Davidson a few feet away, blood streaming from his stomach. Margiotta pulled his weapon from underneath his heavy overcoat and returned fire, striking Harris numerous times.

When the gunfire ended, Detective Davidson lay dead, having been shot twice in the abdomen. He was only one week away from this thirty-fifth birthday. Margiotta also had been grazed on the side of the head by one of Harris’ bullets. Harris, who had fired five of the six bullets in his weapon, had five entry and exit wounds to his body. He also was dead at the scene.

Night Chief Dunman and Harris County Detective I. L. Nix arrived on the scene. There they found Detective Margiotta leaning up against the porch, dazed from his grazing head wound. Detective Davidson and his assailant, Joe Harris, both lay dead just several feet apart.

Detective Davidson’s body was taken to the Westheimer Morgue. Within half an hour all police officers who were not on duty had arrived at the Westheimer Company to pay their respects to their slain comrade. Further investigation revealed that one of the crook’s bullets had lodged in the stomach of Davidson while the other had entered his right side, exited his left shoulder and was found embedded in his detective badge, which was pinned to the left side of his coat. Both detectives and Harris were carrying 28-caliber Smith and Wesson revolvers.

Fellow officers described Detectives Davidson and Margiotta as inseparable partners as well as very close friends off-duty. Margiotta said, “Poor Johnny, how I tried to save him” as he gazed at no one in particular at police headquarters after being treated and released from the hospital. “He was a great pal was Johnnie. Everybody liked him. How I wished I could have saved him.”

Margiotta’s face was smeared with blood from a deep gash in his upper lip inflicted by a blow from Harris’ gun. The hair on one side of his head was singed off by the fire from the assailant’s pistol during the scuffle. He received two stitches in his lip. “I yelled for someone to call an ambulance, but it was too late. He killed a good man when he killed my partner,” Margiotta said as his eyes welled up with tears as he recounted the tragic story to investigators.

In an odd legal turn of events, but probably the norm for the day, Justice of the Peace Leon Lusk held an inquest at the scene. He rendered a verdict over the death of Detective Davidson as “death from gunshot wounds inflicted by Joe Harris” and a verdict over the body of Harris as “death from gunshot wounds inflicted by Tony Margiotta.”

Then, strangely enough, a murder charge was filed on Detective Tony Margiotta shortly before midnight that same night. Bond was fixed at $1 and less than a minute after the bond was set, a personal bond was signed by Dr. E. T. Belheze. Detective Margiotta was released on that bond. A grand jury investigation took place and he was no-billed.

Detective Davidson was survived by his wife, who was visiting in San Antonio at the time of his death. She was immediately notified. In addition to his wife, Johnnie Davidson was survived by his parents, W. S. and Susan Stansbury Davidson. Also mourning his sudden death were four brothers, C. A., J. H., C. H. and Julius, as well as three sisters, Lois Davidson, Mrs. A. H. Hancock and Mrs. J. S. Boulle. Brothers C. A. and J. H. Davidson were Houston firefighters at the time of their brother’s death.

Funeral services were held at 5 p.m. Monday, February 21, 1921, at the home of Officer Davidson’s parents at 1805 Preston Avenue. Sid Westheimer Undertaking Company was in charge of arrangements. Police officers served as pallbearers and many officers formed an escort from the home to the burial at Evergreen Cemetery on Altic Street off of Harrisburg Avenue.

Efforts to locate Davidson’s gravesite at Evergreen have proven to be unsuccessful. The years of inadequate care and basic total neglect of this burial ground have taken their toll. Records have been lost or destroyed through several changes of ownership of this cemetery. Likewise, the graves of HPD line of duty death victims Officer Ira Raney (1917) and Assistant Chief of Police William E. Murphy (1910), both interred at Evergreen, have not been located. If there had been markers, they have been destroyed by vandalism or damaged and fallen over because of neglect – a sad situation, indeed.

Johnnie Davidson was born in Louisiana and had been a police officer in Houston for a number of years. He had been on the Houston force on this tour of duty since December 4, 1918. He had seen service on the force prior to that but resigned to work as a deputy under Constable Pat O’Leary. He also had served as a deputy under Harris County Sheriff Frank Hammond.

While he had no children, he left a young wife, parents and seven siblings to mourn his death. No doubt, he also was mourned by a number of his fellow officers.