Fallen Hero: Officer James Donald Harris

Nelson Zoch

July 13, 1982

James Donald Harris was born in Syracuse, New York, on October 17, 1952. He grew up in the Syracuse-Auburn area and graduated from Auburn High School in 1971. He served his country honorably for three and a half years in the United States Air Force as a military policeman. Harris joined the Houston Police Department in Police Cadet Class No. 74 on March 29, 1976 and graduated on July 16 of that year. His first assignment was to the evening shift at the Park Place Substation. He later transferred to the K-9 Corps. He wore Badge No. 2973.

On Tuesday night, July 13, 1982, Officer Harris and his newly assigned canine partner, a German shepherd, were working the evening shift out of Park Place. Even though nearing the end of their shift, they were still on patrol in the east end of Houston in Officer Harris’ blue and white marked police unit. While in the area of Dumble and Polk, a citizen flagged down the officer to report that he had almost been run over by a recklessly driven automobile. The citizen gave Officer Harris a description of the car. Harris searched the area and found a stalled vehicle fitting this description at the intersection of Walker and Edgewood.

Harris ordered two suspects to get out of the stalled car. Both did so and came toward the officer as ordered. He placed both of the suspects up against his car in order to search them, a procedure used for his own protection. As he was searching one, the other suspect pulled a 9mm pistol and fired at the officer from close range, striking him three times in the head. These men then disarmed the fallen officer. As they were leaving on foot, a citizen, Jose Francisco Armijo (Hispanic male, 33) was driving westbound on Walker. Armijo was accompanied by his three-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son. For some unknown reason, the suspect who shot J. D. Harris fired a round at Armijo’s vehicle, striking Armijo in the head. His daughter received a wound from either flying glass or a bullet fragment.

The suspects fled on foot north on Edgewood toward Rusk Avenue. HPD Sergeant E. Cavazos was off-duty visiting his parents in the 4900 block of Walker. Upon hearing the shots, Cavazos retrieved his weapon and identification from his vehicle and ran west on Walker to investigate. There, he found the mortally wounded Harris and used the downed officer’s handheld radio, to call in an “Assist the Officer.” He also reported the shooting of Armijo. His assistance was invaluable in preserving the scene from the growing crowd of neighborhood onlookers.

The Houston Fire Department ambulance paramedics assessed the officer’s condition and immediately called for LifeFlight Helicopter. Another HFD paramedic team treated the wounds of Armijo as patrol units cleared a nearby baseball field for LifeFlight. When the medical helicopter landed, the doctor on board declared J. D. Harris dead. He was twenty-nine years old. Armijo died from his head wound a week later on July 20, 1982.

Evening Shift Lieutenant R. D. Cain initiated an immediate Homicide response by assigning Detectives Richard W. Holland, Greg T. Neely, Eugene T. Yanchak and Alfred T. Hermann to the investigation. At this time, the Night Shift was coming on duty to assist. In addition, Homicide Officer Shooting Team Detectives Larry E. Webber, Vernon W. West and Douglas R. Bostock were called in for duty.

The Homicide Division Chicano Squad, under the field leadership of Detective Jim Montero, provided their usual able assistance. Assistant District Attorney Terry Wilson, then head of the DA’s Civil Rights Section, also arrived on the scene. None of these investigators could ever imagine how much more involved this tragic event would become. While investigating the original scene, information surfaced that the suspects had fled to 4907 Rusk, just one block north of Walker. As a result, detectives and numerous uniformed officers surrounded this location. This clue produced no immediate results.

The search then moved next door to 4911 Rusk. While these police officials checked this house from the front, Officers L. J. “Larry” Trepagnier, Antonio Palos, Martin Rodriguez and Michael R. Edwards went around to the back. Numerous other officers also were nearby. As officers rounded the corner at the rear of the house, they were greeted by a hail of gunfire that erupted from an open garage-type building detached from the house. Trepagnier, Palos and Rodriguez returned the gunfire. Officer Edwards was unable to fire at the suspect since the other officers were in front of him, restricting his line of fire. Trepagnier was shot five times in the battle, suffering serious wounds.

After the gunfire ceased, the suspect, Roberto Carrasco Flores (Hispanic Male, 27), was dead at the scene from numerous gunshot wounds caused by Officer Rodriguez’ shotgun, Officer Palos’ .45-caliber automatic and Officer Trepagnier’s .357 revolver. An HFD ambulance took Trepagnier, also twenty-nine years old, to a hospital. He was soon listed in critical condition. Found under Flores was a 9mm automatic later determined to be the weapon used to murder Officer Harris.  Stuck in Carrasco’s beltline was the slain officer’s .357 revolver.

As other officers and Assistant DA Terry Wilson began yet another crime scene, Wilson observed movement from under a horse trailer in this garage. The officers then arrested Ricardo Aldape Guerra (Hispanic Male, 20). Near his hiding place was a .45-caliber automatic.

Officer J. D. Harris was survived by his wife Pamela and two daughters, four-year-old Rebecca Brooke Harris and twenty-month-old Megan Annette Harris. Other survivors were his father and stepmother, Nelson and Ruth Harris of Auburn, New York, grandparents Nelson and Gerry Harris and Robert and Carla Pierson of Syracuse, New York. There also were a sister and brother-in-law, Beverly and David Ruetsch, and nephews Jeff and Todd Ruetsch of Marcellus, New York. He was predeceased by his mother, Beverly Jean Harris.

Funeral services were held 10:30 a.m. Friday, July 16, 1982, at the Forest Park Lawndale Chapel with the Reverends Paul Carlin and Brad Ottosen, a former police officer and friend, as well as Police Chaplin Harold Hannah, officiating. Interment was at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery. Pallbearers were Tommy Olin and Officers Woody Phifer, Russel Hoffard, Jack Holloway, Richard Puckett, Ronnie Collingsworth and R. C. Smith.

On the extremely hot summer night of the deadly shooting, blood had been shed at four different locations, only several blocks apart. A fine young officer was dead, another seriously wounded, an innocent citizen received wounds from which he later died and an illegal Hispanic emigrant was dead as a direct result of his own actions. Officer Trepagnier received gunshot wounds that damaged his diaphragm, liver, colon and arm. In addition, he suffered the loss of a kidney. After undergoing a number of major surgeries, his survival was a miracle in itself.

While it was quite evident that the deceased suspect Flores had shot Officer Trepagnier, there was some initial concern as to whether Flores or the arrested suspect Guerra had shot Officer Harris. Diligent work by Homicide detectives produced witnesses who identified Ricardo Aldape Guerra as the suspect who shot the slain officer. The clothing description and different hair length of both suspects left no doubt in the minds of the investigators and prosecutors. The witnesses clearly described the shooter of Officer Harris as having collar-length hair and wearing a green military-type fatigue shirt. This fit Ricardo Aldape Guerra’s description. The dead suspect, Flores, had shorter hair and was dressed in maroon pants and shirt and white and maroon athletic shoes.

There was an absolute clear distinction in the clothing of the two suspects. Even though Flores had the slain officer’s weapon in his possession as well as the 9mm automatic that killed Officer Harris, the witnesses spoke for themselves in this part of the investigation. Ricardo Aldape Guerra was charged with capital murder in the death of Officer J. D. Harris. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story.

Guerra was tried in the 248th Criminal District Court in Harris County for this offense and on October 14, 1982, found guilty and assessed the death penalty. The usual automatic appeal process began and what followed was yet another bitter pill for police officers to swallow.

For whatever reason, Guerra became a cause celebre. History shows it definitely was not his lack of guilt. On May 11, 1992, his conviction was overturned. This case fell into the jurisdiction of U. S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston. Working for Guerra throughout the appeal process were not only the Mexican state department, the Roman Catholic Church, the American Civil Liberties Union and several volunteer legal foundations well known for their “bleeding heart” attitude, but also an HPD Assistant Chief.  Yes, the defense received support from one our own, from one of the leaders of Officers Harris and Trepagnier.

Judge Hoyt severely chastised the District Attorney’s Office and the Houston Police Department for their actions in the initially successful prosecution of this capital murderer. In some instances, the original prosecution witnesses, after developing their own problems in obeying the law, became uncooperative. Also, some of them were harassed by the individuals involved in the joint effort to free Guerra. Eventually, Guerra was released and returned to his native country. He was killed in an automobile accident a short time later.

There were numerous Homicide personnel involved in the massive investigation that covered four separate but related crime scenes. Other officers made important contributions but there simply were too many to mention every name herewith. Two of the primary scene detectives, Richard Holland and Greg Neely, became Homicide Captain Holland and Homicide Lieutenant Neely. Holland served as commander of the Homicide Division from 1994-2004 after serving in the Recruiting and Internal Affairs Division.  In 2007, he was commander of the Criminal Intelligence Division.  Captain Hollland retired in 2009.  He worked in the private sector for several years and recently completed four years of service as Chief Investigator of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Lieutenant Neely retired in 2006.   Lieutenant R. D. Cain was the long-time leader of the HPD Hostage Negotiation Team and was  respected throughout the country for his expertise in that area of police work. He was later assigned to the Helicoptor Division and retired from that assignment.  Detective A. T. “Alfred” Hermann retired from Homicide in 2000 and passed away in 2014.   Detective E. T. “Gene” Yanchak retired from Homicide in 2005 after nearly thirty years of investigating murders and Officer Involved incidents. Detectives Bostock, Webber, Montero and West retired from HPD while actively working murder cases. West died in 2001. Webber passed away in 22009.

Sergeant Eddie Cavazos, who worked out of North Shepherd Patrol Station at the time of this tragic event, retired in 1999 after more than twenty-eight years of service. He went to work in the private sector. In 2002, Officer Antonio Palos was assigned to the Recruiting Division after working a number of years in SWAT. Officer Martin Rodriguez made sergeant in 1982 and worked out of the Northeast Patrol Division. Officer M. R. Edwards remained an ever-present steady street officer assigned to Central Patrol and is now retired.

While many lives were altered on this hot, sweltering July night in 1982, the life of Officer L. J. “Larry” Trepagnier was severely changed forever. After undergoing six surgeries, amazingly enough, Officer Trepagnier remained a Houston police officer. He was assigned to South Central Patrol. As a result of his wounds, Trepagnier suffered the loss of a kidney and eight feet of intestines. Had he not been a young, strapping, strong twenty-nine-year-old, there is no way he would have endured the aftermath of his injuries. While painful for him, he later recounted some details that were not on the original police report.

Trepagnier recalled lying there on the ground and after realizing how many times he was hit, thinking the logical thing: I am going to die right here. Officer Palos said he and another officer were on the scene and found Trepagnier on the ground. Both officers were fond of Vellamints. Not knowing what else to do while awaiting the arrival of HFD and LifeFlight, they used the cellophane wrappers from these candies to cover the “sucking” chest and abdomen wounds of their fellow officer and friend.

In 2002, Officer Trepagnier also shared something very likely unknown to most: As he was lying on the ground, he saw a familiar face above him – that of Sergeant Walter J. Stewart, who had been one of Larry’s training officers. Walter was telling him something like, “Boy, if you are going to make it, you had better suck it up and get tough.”  He got tough all right, and served HPD for another thirty-four years and retired in 2017 and passed away in 2017.

Stewart said he was called out on the shooting of Officer Harris as part of his training assignment as a Northeast Patrol Division Internal Affairs investigator, only to also find one of his previous rookies down and possibly out. A veteran of many Narcotics shootings in the 1970’s, Stewart knew that Larry’s wounds looked extremely serious. He had two gunshot wounds to the stomach and chest and one to an arm. The wounded officer remembered being given the last rites by well-meaning officer friends and hearing the HFD and LifeFlight personnel speak of his diminishing vital signs, even when he was en route to the hospital.

Pamela Harris remarried in 1990 and was a fixture at court proceedings throughout the years. In 2007, she resided in East Texas. Rebecca Brooke Harris is now Rebecca Brooke Marshall and she and her husband, Wayne Marshall, live near Waco. Megan Annette Harris is now Megan Walber and she and her husband, Shannon Walber, live near Harper, Texas.  They have made Pamela Harris Raines and her husband, A.C. proud grandparents of Jace Walber, who is seven months old.   Nelson Harris, J. D.’s dad, died in the 1990s.  Stepmother Ruth, Grandmother Pierson, sister Beverly and nephews Jeff and Todd resided in New York State in 2002. The other three grandparents are deceased.

Pam Harris later spoke of the identity of the New York state trooper who attended J. D.’s funeral. This stiff and starched trooper in full dress wool uniform appeared at the funeral, his identity unknown to HPD personnel. The officer’s widow later explained that he was Jim Campbell, a childhood friend of Officer Harris who had encouraged him to enter law enforcement after his stint in the Air Force. Campbell stayed with the New York State Police and was helpful and supportive of Pam Harris and her daughters throughout the years since his friend’s death.