Fallen Heroes: Officer Elston Howard

Nelson Zoch

July 19, 1988

Elston Morris Howard was born on September 18, 1963, in Houston. He attended Betsy Ross Elementary School, Burbank Junior High School and graduated from the Houston Contemporary Learning Center in 1982. He served the City of Houston as a community service officer before joining the department in HPD Cadet Class No. 111, taking the oath as a Houston police officer on June 10, 1983. After working Radio Patrol at North Shepherd and Central for two years, he transferred to the Vice Division on July 3, 1985.

On Tuesday, July 19, 1988, Officer Elston Howard and his partner, Officer Milford Sistrunk, worked the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift out of the Vice Division. At about 11:15 p.m., they went to the Empire Adult Bookstore (also known as “Mr. Peepers”), located at 4330 Richmond, in the Galleria area of west Houston just inside the Loop 610. Officer Sistrunk entered the business and paid the clerk for admission to the video booths, knowing in advance that this particular establishment did not possess a current City of Houston arcade license. This location was a repeat violator of the arcade ordinance.

After Sistrunk was admitted, Howard entered the establishment and advised the clerk that he was under arrest for not having an arcade license. The clerk also was advised to call someone to take custody of the premises. Officer Howard was in plainclothes, but for the purpose of this arrest, was attired in a marked Houston Police Department raid jacket. The officer had placed his hand-held radio on the counter after calling the dispatcher for a patrol unit to make the “wagon call.”  He then proceeded to complete an arrest blotter while waiting for this unit.

The plan was for Officer Sistrunk, also in plainclothes, to exit the store so he would not be recognized as an officer, thereby allowing him to make future cases on the business. Sistrunk was to wait outside for Howard to complete the arrest and have the uniformed unit pick up the prisoner. While Sistrunk was outside, he had radio contact at some point with his partner, who also called the Vice Division desk officer to obtain an incident number.

Sistrunk went outside to use the pay phone and then next door to contact Howard by police radio to make sure everything was proceeding smoothly. In doing so, he heard Howard speaking by radio to Vice. He then asked him to go to Channel 8, but received no response. After Sistrunk contacted the Vice Division, he was advised that Howard had just been in touch.

While Sistrunk waited outside, he noticed a black male leave the bookstore. Several minutes later he saw a Houston fire truck pull up in front of the building. His immediate thought: Something bad happened. He quickly entered the store and found Officer Howard lying on the floor, bleeding from the head. Houston Fire Department EMS personnel treated Officer Howard at the scene and transported him to Ben Taub General Hospital. Despite a valiant effort, Officer Elston Howard was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. July 20, 1988. He was only twenty-four years and ten months old.

Officer Howard was survived by his parents, Alcano and Era Mae Howard, daughter Tyesha Victoria Boudreaux Howard, and two sisters-Sheila Howard Agee and Alvonda Michelle Howard, half-brother Eugene Howard, and half-sister Virginia Howard Lane. Also, his fiance, Carolyn Ann Thompson, survived him.

Visitation for Officer Howard was held on Friday afternoon at the Lockwood Funeral Home at 9402 Lockwood from 2-5 p.m. and then from 7-9 p.m. at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, 2801 Conti Street at Jensen Drive. Funeral services were held at this church at 11 a.m. Saturday with the Reverends C. L. Jackson and Victor Archer, a fellow HPD officer and friend, officiating. This is a very large sanctuary but too small to accommodate the estimated crowd of 2,000, which appropriately included Mayor Kathy Whitmire and Police Chief Lee P. Brown. Burial followed at the Forest Lawn North Cemetery (now called Calvary Hill Cemetery) at 21723 Aldine Westfield Road.

Homicide Lieutenant Greg T. Neely, who supervised the scene investigation and the follow-up, directed an in-depth investigation – unquestionably an all-out effort by Homicide. Neely assigned Sergeants Ted C. Bloyd, Dennis J. Gafford and John J. Silva to begin this “whodunit” capital murder of a police officer investigation. Sergeant Terry M. Ross was assigned to conduct the hospital investigation.

Crime Scene Unit Officer Dee S. Wilker conducted the evidentiary segment of the scene investigation, carefully documenting all physical evidence from the store. CSU Officer Tory Tyrell assisted him. Firearms Examiner Charlie Anderson made the crime scene investigation as did Latent Fingerprint Examiner W. C. “Chuck” Sheldon. Sergeants L. B. “Boyd” Smith and John Swaim were on call on this particular night and were summoned in to begin the follow-up investigation.

Officers learned from the store clerk that while Officer Howard completed his paperwork at the counter dressed in clearly marked HPD raid attire and with a police radio on the counter, the suspect walked directly toward him and fired three shots from close range. The bullets struck him in the head and neck area. He was never able to draw his service weapon from his ankle holster to return fire. As he struggled toward the front door to get away from his assailant, he fell to the floor. The suspect then stood over the seriously wounded officer and fired once more at the officer’s head.

The suspect then calmly forced the store clerk at gunpoint to empty the contents of the cash register and took the clerk’s personal belongings. He then left the store.

Meanwhile, information surfaced that there had been a series of recent robberies of adult bookstores in Southwest Houston. While at the scene, Sergeant Gafford received information from Patrol Sergeant Eddie Day that a similar robbery with a suspect of the same description had happened earlier this same night at another bookstore in the area. Lieutenant Neely assigned Homicide Sergeant J. M. Castillo as well as Sergeants Smith and Swaim to begin a crime analysis on these robberies. They learned that there were in fact five other robberies with similar descriptions of an African-American suspect, as well as several in which he was accompanied by a white male.

Later the first morning after the murder, Homicide Captain Bobby Adams took command of the investigation, assigning Lieutenant G. A. Mason of a dayshift Murder Squad to coordinate this investigation with Lieutenant Neely. Also assigned to assist were Homicide Sergeants Tom Ladd, Mike Kardatzke, Jim Ladd and Eric Mehl. Working closely with Homicide was Robbery Sergeants W. H. “Bill” Lawrence and Johnny Clinton, who was investigating several of the previous robberies. Others that assisted in various segments of the investigation were Homicide Sergeants Ted Thomas, Rueben Anderson, Roy Ferguson, George Dollins, Jim Ramsey, George Alderete and Phil Trumble and Robbery Sergeant Joe Levingston, as well as a number of others who performed investigative duties as needed.

This same day, Officer M. R. Edwards of Central Patrol came forward with information regarding the robbery of an establishment known as the Kindred Spirits on Richmond Avenue. This robbery happened on July 8, 1988. Officer Edwards’ information was that one of the witnesses to this robbery personally knew the black male suspect as Robert Jennings. The description of Jennings also fit that of the suspect who murdered Officer Howard. Further investigation revealed that Robert Jennings (African-American, 30) had previously been assessed a thirty-year sentence for robbery but had been paroled in May 1988.

Based on this information, investigators wanted to again interview witnesses in the July 8 robbery. They made it a top priority. Sergeants Smith, Swaim, Clinton and Lawrence began to locate these individuals. The witness who claimed to know Jennings, however, was at this time “unable” to positively identify Jennings’ photo. After several other witnesses positively identified this suspect as the individual who had robbed them at gunpoint at Kindred Spirits, the original witness finally admitted that he was afraid of Jennings and reluctant to make the identification. However, he eventually made positive ID.

Investigating officers took sworn written statements from these witnesses and obtained a probable cause warrant for the arrest of Robert Jennings on the earlier robbery. The investigation progressed in a positive direction with an all-out search for Jennings.

Later on Wednesday evening, while searching for Jennings, investigators learned from a relative of his that he had been shot in the hand and was presently in Ben Taub General Hospital being treated. Homicide Sergeants Tom Ladd, Mike Kardatzke and Eric Mehl immediately went to Ben Taub to arrest Robert Jennings on the probable cause warrant in connection with the Kindred Spirits robbery.

They found Jennings and gave him the proper legal warning. After a series of denials of any involvement in any robberies, the suspect admitted to robbing the Kindred Spirits along with a man identified as David Harvell (White Male, Age Unknown), whom Jennings said was also the one who shot him in the left hand. Investigators contacted several other robbery complainants and witnesses who picked Jennings out of photo spreads. As a result, more robbery charges were filed on him in order to keep him in custody while the capital murder investigation progressed.

On Friday, July 29, Jennings was released from Ben Taub and brought directly to 61 Riesner where a live lineup was held with the numerous witnesses from the Empire Book Store, the scene of Officer Howard’s murder. After this lineup and positive identification by several witnesses, Jennings was again warned and questioned. He soon admitted to detectives that he shot a man during a robbery of the Empire Book Store. Investigators also determined from doctors at Ben Taub that the bullet in Jennings’ hand could be removed. Jennings signed a consent-to-search his body for this bullet. Doctors later recovered it upon the suspect’s return to the hospital.

Basically, Jennings said that his partner in crime was David Harvell, whom he had met in prison. Recently they had just by chance met up in the “Gulfton ghetto” area on the Southwest side and began hanging out, drinking, doing drugs and pulling robberies together. On the night of Officer Howard’s death they were in Harvell’s car. Harvell stayed outside to act as the lookout while Jennings went in to rob the place. He previously had been inside and knew the layout. After shooting the officer, he and Harvell ran back to the car and when he told Harvell that he had “screwed up really bad and shot a security guard,” Harvell grew angry. He picked up Jennings’ gun and shot him in the hand. Jennings jumped out the car window and fled.

Meanwhile, other detectives began the search for Harvell. His criminal record showed his mother lived in Euless in North Central Texas. It also showed that he had served time in the Texas Department of Corrections for robbery, having been paroled in February 1988 to Harris County until 1998. A probable cause warrant was issued for his arrest on the robberies. On Saturday, July 23, after Euless authorities were alerted that Harvell’s mother lived there, they arrested the second suspect.

Within several hours of receiving this information, while the funeral of Officer Howard was being held, Lieutenant Neely and Sergeants Tom Ladd, Eric Mehl and Boyd Smith left for Euless, which is located between Dallas and Fort Worth.

After going over the details of the arrest with Euless police officers, Harvell was warned and questioned regarding his involvement in the robberies and the murder of Officer Elston Howard. Harvell told basically the same story as Jennings, adding that after he shot Jennings, he and his girlfriend left for San Antonio, where they spent the night. They then left west on Interstate 10, driving aimlessly to El Paso, trying to figure out how to handle his latest problem with the law. Harvell then decided that he would leave for Euless, where he could lay low at his mother’s house.

Harvell said that on the way back from El Paso, he drove a short way out into the desert and buried the .38-caliber pistol used in the Officer Howard’s murder and the wounding of Robert Jennings. After interviewing Harvell, his girlfriend and his mother – who verified parts of his story – investigators needed to put into place the next piece of the crime’s puzzle. They contacted the Texas Department of Public Safety with the gun information and DPS officials provided a Cessna airplane. While Lieutenant Neely and Sergeant Mehl drove back to Houston with stolen property recovered with Harvell’s arrest in Euless, Sergeants Smith and Tom Ladd put Harvell onto the plane and flew to El Paso. There they met up with several Texas Rangers who drove them east on Interstate 10 where, miraculously, Harvell was able to show them where he buried the murder weapon. They recovered it.   Harvell was returned by airplane to Houston along with the recovered pistol. Firearms Examiner Charlie Anderson matched this weapon’s ballistics to the bullets recovered from Officer Howard’s body and Robert Jennings’ hand.

Newspaper accounts revealed that the criminal history of Robert Mitchell Jennings dated back to 1972, when at the age of fourteen he was declared a juvenile delinquent. In 1973, a court ordered him sent to a trade school in New Waverly. When his errant conduct continued there, he was sent to a Texas Youth Council Reformatory. His adult criminal record began in 1975 at age eighteen with arrests for burglary and theft and was followed by a five-year robbery conviction.

He was released early in 1978, when he promptly went on a crime spree in the South Park-Griggs area of Houston’s south side. According to newspaper accounts of this spree, he committed four armed robberies and several burglaries within five days. He pled “no contest” to three of these charges and was given three thirty-year sentences, which were to run concurrently. Mysteriously, that thirty-year term became ten years and Harvell was paroled to Harris County in May 1988. His early parole led to the brutal capital murder of Officer Elston Howard.

While David Harvell did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed Officer Howard, his criminal history paralleled that of Jennings. Harvell went to the Texas Department of Corrections in 1979 and served six years of an eighteen-year sentence on robbery and theft charges. Getting out in 1985, he went back in 1986, supposedly to do five years for aggravated robbery. He did two of the five and was back out on the streets with the likes of Robert Jennings.

In July 1989, after several days of jury selection, the capital murder trial of Robert Mitchell Jennings began in state District Judge Thomas Routt’s criminal court. Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes took personal charge of the prosecution, ably assisted by veteran Assistant DAs George Lambright and Bob Stabe. Defense attorneys Connie Williams and Grant Hardeway represented Jennings.

On July 11, 1989, a jury took just more than an hour to convict Robert Jennings of capital murder in the Officer Howard’s death. The trial then commenced to the punishment phase and Holmes’ prosecution team paraded a number of robbery victims and witnesses before the jury to share their knowledge of Jennings’ criminal escapades. On July 13, the jury came back with the verdict acknowledging that Robert Mitchell Jennings was a continuing threat to society and assessed him the death penalty.

Jennings languished on Death Row, slowly exhausting his rights to appeals. Officer Howard’s dying appeals to Jennings not to shoot him anymore were not heard, but Jennings’ own appeals for his life were processed through Texas’ criminal justice system. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard Jennings’ appeal and ordered a new trial in the Criminal District Court of Judge Denise Collins.

In 2002, David Lee Harvell was in the Telford Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in New Boston, having pled guilty in 1989 and receiving a fifty-five-year sentence. Even though his sentence extends to 2043, his first parole eligibility date was April 21, 2002.  Houston police officers and the family of Elston Howard hope he serves his full time but didn’t hold their breaths.

Long-time Homicide Captain Bobby Adams retired in March 2002 after forty-three years with HPD.  Captain Adams passed away in 2011.   Lieutenants Mason and Neely stayed in Homicide, supervising murder squads. They retired in 2005 and 2006, respectively.  Sergeants Gafford and Silva both made lieutenant in the early 1990s. After returning to Homicide for a short time as lieutenants, they both moved on to different assignments. In 2007, Lieutenant John Silva worked in the Criminal Intelligence Division and Lieutenant Dennis Gafford is assigned to the Narcotics Division.

In 2007, Sergeants Ted Bloyd, Tom Ladd, Jim Ladd, Jim Ramsey, Phil Trumble, Ted Thomas, George Dollins, Reuben Anderson, and John Swaim are all retired.   Eric Mehl is assigned to the Homicide Division Cold Case Unit. Sergeant Mike Kardatzke retired in 1989. Robbery Sergeant Clinton retired from the Robbery Division and Robbery Sergeant W. H. Lawrence made lieutenant and headed the Forgery Detail out of Burglary and Theft from where he retired.   Sergeant John Castillo left HPD.  Sergeant Boyd Smith died in a shooting accident in 2003.  Roy Ferguson works in the Recruiting Division and George Alderete is in an Administrative position.  Joe Livingston is a Lieutenant over the Family Violence Unit.

Officer Dee Wilker retired in 1999 and Officer Tory Tyrell worked in Narcotics. Sergeant Terry Ross retired in 1993 and served as a justice of the peace in Fayette County. Firearms Examiner Charlie Anderson retired in 1998 and Fingerprint Examiner Chuck Sheldon retired in 2005.  Officer M. R. Edwards stayed in Central Patrol and Sergeant Eddie Day later made lieutenant and was assigned to Burglary and Theft.

When Homicide Sergeant Ted Bloyd made the scene investigation that night at 4330 Richmond, while taking his notes he observed that Officer Elston Howard wore Badge No. 2818.  It took him only an instant to realize that this was the HPD badge number assigned to him during his six years as a patrol officer from 1975 to 1981 before becoming a Homicide detective.

While this investigation progressed rapidly with some very important (and lucky) breaks along the way, an investigation of this type demanded a tremendous amount of detail in preparing a case that would withstand the rigorous defense put forth in a capital murder case. This was an outstanding piece of work, especially considering the number of Homicide and Robbery investigators involved in coordinating it and working for one common goal – identifying and convicting the persons responsible for the murder of one of their own, one of Houston’s finest.

Officer Sistrunk worked Vice for several years following this offense, and in 2002, was assigned to the dayshift of the Special Operations Division.

After the death of their youngest child, Mr. and Mrs. Howard, as well as Elston’s two sisters, half-brother and half-sister, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, had to go on with their lives. Mrs. Era Mae Howard confirmed that her statement that she and her family could not have endured this tragedy without their Christian faith. While they – as do many of us – become discouraged with the slow pace of the final earthly disposition of this case in the criminal justice system, she held out the hope that justice for the tragic death of her son will ultimately prevail.

In 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Howard still resided in Houston, with Mrs. Howard no longer working outside the home but baby-sitting for three great-grandchildren. Sister Sheila Agee and her husband were the parents of Michael Jerrod Agee, twenty-nine, now a Houston Police Officer assigned to the Jail Division.    Their daughter is Ashlie Renee Agee, nineteen, a graduate of SFA University.  Sister Alvonda Howard resides in Austin, employed by IBM. The officer’s half-brother Eugene and half-sister Virginia both resided in the Houston area.

Officer Howard’s daughter, Tyesha Howard, will be graduating from SFA this year.   Her mother kept her close to the Howard family through the years since Elston Howard was killed. In addition, Officer Howard had three aunts and five uncles and their families who also were survivors of this tragedy.  The only update to this family available at this time is in 2012, Officer Michael Agee is assigned to the South Central Patrol Station.

The original marker for Officer Howard consisted of an upright monument which read:

HOWARD, OFFICER ELSTON MORRIS

Sept. 18, 1963-July 20, 1988

AN INSPIRATION TO ALL WHO KNEW HIM

(ALSO BADGE #2818 AND A CITY OF HOUSTON LOGO

 

A 100 club DEATH IN THE LINE OF DUTY marker has also been placed to honor his memory and the manner in which he met his death.