Fallen Heroes: Officer John Salvaggio

Nelson Zoch

John Anthony Salvaggio was born in Houston on July 23, 1951. He received his early education at Sacred Heart and Oak Forest elementary schools and later at Black Junior High School. He graduated from Waltrip Senior High School in 1969 and attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos for a year. Salvaggio joined the Houston Police Department by way of HPD Cadet Class No. 120. This class began its training on April 2, 1984, and upon graduation, the graduates took their oaths of office on August 4 of that year.

The new officer wore HPD Badge No. 2521. During his six and a half years on the force he worked mainly on the night shift in Radio Patrol-Northwest Station except for a short stint in the Accident Division several years before his death.

On the Saturday night of November 25, 1990, Officer John Salvaggio reported for duty on the night shift at the Northwest Substation. He went on patrol riding a one-man unit and, using radar equipment, he stopped a motorist, Gus Mayer, for speeding in the 8500 block of the Katy Freeway. While the speeding violation had occurred in the City of Houston, by the time Officer Salvaggio had stopped the violator he was near Bingle Road, which is in the jurisdiction of the Spring Valley Police Department.

Following the proper procedures, he stopped this vehicle in the far right emergency lane. As he was trained to do, he parked to the rear and to the left of the violator’s vehicle to provide a small amount of protection for him as he approached the man in the car. Officer Salvaggio also utilized his patrol car’s emergency flashing lights. As he had just approached the driver’s side door, when according to Mayer, a second vehicle struck the officer and Mayer’s car.

Mayer was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I thought I was hallucinating. As soon as I felt the impact, I saw his body thrown about twenty feet in front of my car and then I tried to get a look at the car that did it. It couldn’t have been more than ten seconds after he came to my car. I didn’t even have time to get to my glove compartment before I was jolted by the impact.” The vehicle sped off, leaving the officer lying critically injured on the side of the freeway. The impact Mayer described was his vehicle being struck on the left side by the right side of the suspect’s vehicle.

A number of vehicles passed without stopping, apparently oblivious to what had happened. Shortly after the officer was struck, an off-duty HPD sergeant, Michael K. Riehl, happened along. Sergeant Riehl stated that he was en route home from an extra job. When he saw the flashing lights of the patrol car, he looked as a matter of routine to see if the officer was all right. Not seeing any officer, Riehl pulled over and backed up. It was then that he saw Officer Salvaggio on the ground. He checked the officer and then took the keys to the violator’s car. He described Mayer as being totally out of it as if he were in shock. Of course, the sergeant did not exactly know at this time what had happened. He then called for assistance on Officer Salvaggio’s police radio. A LifeFlight helicopter was called and Officer Salvaggio was transported to Hermann Hospital. However, he was dead on arrival at age thirty-nine.

Officer John Anthony Salvaggio was survived by his wife, Marybess, and three children: daughters Cathy, fifteen, and Virginia, twelve, and a son, ten-month-old John Anthony Salvaggio II. Also mourning his sudden death were his parents Guy and Catherine Salvaggio, his in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Grizaffi, and his grandmother, Mrs. Mary Salvaggio. He was also survived by his brothers Charles (wife Elizabeth) and Jack T. Salvaggio, and one sister, Tammy Martino (husband Joe).

Vigil for the deceased was held at 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 26, 1990, with a Rosary by the Parish, Neo-Debs, and La Amiche Club at the Earthman Hunters Creek Chapel, 8303 Katy Freeway in Houston. Funeral Mass was conducted at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the St. Michael Catholic Church at 1801 Sage Road. The Reverends Adam McClosky and Frank Fabj served as Con-Celebrants. The Rite of Committal was held at the Calvary section of Forest Park – Westheimer Cemetery.

Pallbearers were HPD Lieutenant Jerry L. Driver, Sergeant Robert Schields, fellow Officers Dan Starr and Ron Freeman, and friends and/or cousins Yance Montalbano, Johnny Whites, Michael Marino and Tony Salvaggio Jr. Honorary pallbearers were listed as all members of the Houston Police Department, his cousins, and classmates of the Waltrip High School Class of 1969.

With this offense taking place in the City of Spring Valley, their Police Department had jurisdiction in this case. However, HPD’s Accident Division immediately offered the services of their experienced Hit and Run Detail, an offer Spring Valley PD graciously accepted. HPD Accident Sergeant J. E. Bickel was on the scene. This being a whodunit officer fatality case, a Hit and Run Detail callout was initiated. Hit and Run Sergeant J. Montemayor was summoned as well as Officers Pete Araiza and I. M. Labdi.

Spring Valley Police Lieutenant Gary Finkelman was assigned to the case from his agency. The investigation went forth as a joint effort of both departments with one goal in mind – bringing the hit-and-run driver to justice.

From the physical evidence left at the scene, investigators suspected that the wanted vehicle’s right headlight and windshield were damaged. They also felt that the right side might have gray or light blue smudges from striking the Mayer vehicle. The glass of Mayer’s driver’s side mirror was missing and the mirror was flattened against the car. Lab examinations were already being conducted while preparations were being made for the services for Officer Salvaggio.

Accident Lieutenant E. J. Smith was the lead supervisor in this investigation and was assigning additional investigators as leads surfaced. The physical evidence from the scene as well as the deceased officer’s clothing was submitted to the HPD Crime Lab where Chemist Reidun Hilleman was assigned to perform this phase of the investigation.

At 4 p.m. Monday, November 26, two attorneys showed up at 61 Riesner and told authorities where to find the wanted vehicle. The attorneys did all the talking but provided little more than the vehicle’s location. They did, however, identify their client as Bill Byrd. They did not explain his knowledge or involvement. Officers S. A. Galbiati and R. J. Salinas were assigned to locate and recover this vehicle.

HPD spokesman Richard Retz, himself an officer, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “It’s kind of like they said ‘Here’s the vehicle’ and the rest is up to us. They left it up to us, and we’ll do it.” And, in the true fashion of HPD, whether in the Accident Division or the Homicide Division, wheels began turning and it became a high priority to determine who had “struck and killed one of our own.”

Immediately after this information surfaced, investigators went to an apartment complex near Westview and Blalock, where a gold and cream colored Ford Grenada was located. As suspected by these veteran Hit and Run investigators, damage to the suspect vehicle consisted of a windshield smashed inward in a spider web of cracks, the right rear view mirror dangling over deep gashes and the right side and passenger window dotted with blood spatters. Also, the right front headlight was broken out and the right front fender was dented in nearly to the tire. Scrapes and dents along the right side were discolored by blue paint. Additionally, dark blue and light blue fabrics were discovered on the fender and windshield. The damage was consistent with what was suspected.

This was the vehicle.

Evidence was carefully recovered before the vehicle was towed under guard to the HPD Vehicle Examination Building for more extensive examinations. A computer check of the registration showed the Ford Grenada to be registered to a William Byrd. It was discovered that this suspect had been involved in a previous failure to stop and give information (FSGI) offense in 1988. However, as is the case in nearly every hit and run investigations, proving who was behind the wheel and driving the vehicle at the time of the tragedy became an extremely difficult legal issue.

Hit and Run Officer Pete Araiza, HPD’s lead investigator, and Spring Valley Lieutenant Gary Finkelman continued their investigation at the location of the vehicle’s recovery. The apartment project was thoroughly canvassed for anyone who may have information about Byrd. This proved to be fruitful. One occupant had seen a man drive into the project in a damaged vehicle shortly after the accident. She said he also could testify that this driver came in alone. This after-the-fact witness later picked Byrd out of a photo array as being the man she saw drive into the project.

Investigators determined that Byrd frequently visited a female who lived in the project. Upon arriving at the complex shortly after the accident, investigators produced an individual who stated that Byrd had knocked on the door of another resident and asked for permission to park his car there, as he had been involved in an accident. The case was beginning to take shape.

The investigation continued and at 3:40 a.m. Tuesday, August 27, William E. Byrd (White Male; Age 51) was arrested on a charge of failure to stop and render assistance (FSRA) in the death of HPD Officer John Salvaggio. This arrest took place at Byrd’s home in the 1200 block of Cedar Post, less than three miles from where Officer Salvaggio was killed. Under subsequent questioning, Boyd responded in the presence of his attorney, whose strategy was for Boyd to plead not guilty. Byrd did not deny driving the Grenada and only said that he knew a collision happened. He just did not know what or how it all happened. He was released on a $2,000 bond.

After the arrest, the crime lab investigation continued. After a thorough and professional examination of the evidence, Chemist Reidun M. Hilleman was able to determine that the dark and light blue cloth samples from the Grenada was consistent with the blue uniform worn by Officer Salvaggio as well as its weave pattern, fiber composition and dye components. Additionally, a large paint chip and several smaller chips recovered from the officer’s uniformed pants were microscopically and chemically indistinguishable from known paint chips from the collision area of the Ford Grenada.

For a number of years John Salvaggio yearned to be a Houston police officer. The food service business was a part of his upbringing. His parents managed the restaurant portion of the Del Mar Bowling Lanes on Mangum Road. The desire to be an officer intensified during the years 1974-1977. It was during this period that John and his brother Charles managed the cafeteria in the basement of 61 Riesner. Eventually, John fulfilled his dream and became not only a police officer but also an exceptionally dedicated one.

A supervisor and friend, Lieutenant Jerry Driver, one of Salvaggio’s pallbearers, described the officer as a very likeable man, the kind who would spread a little sunshine wherever he was. Driver was quoted in newspaper accounts as saying, “I had spoken to him about being safe out there, especially on the freeway. John’s response was that he knew people got killed on the freeways, but that he was going to do his part in making the streets a little safer for the citizens. He was determined to do his part.” The lieutenant later described Officer Salvaggio as one of those individuals who really needed no supervision. He knew what to do and was self-motivated. He just went out and did his job.

Officer Salvaggio’s former partner, Officer Dan Starr, described him as a wonderful partner and friend. The two rode together for two years prior to Starr taking an assignment on a night shift fingerprint unit. He mentioned John’s unique sense of humor, stating that one night prior to roll call at the station, they were looking at a physical wellness chart based on height and weight. When John located his weight on the chart, he jokingly commented that he had no idea that he was six-foot-nine.

John also was a devoted family man, cherishing his wife, two daughters and young son, whom he had just recently videotaped taking his first steps just days before his untimely death.

In 2007, Marybess Salvaggio, a University of Houston graduate and for many years a dedicated elementary school teacher, was on temporary leave taking care of her elderly mother as well as her first grandchild, five-year-old Anthony. Daughter Cathy Birden graduated from the University of Texas in Austin and is now a fifth grade teacher. She is married to Jerry Birden.   Daughter Virginia Manlove, a University of Houston graduate, is married to Jason Manlove. They are the parents of Anthony Manlove and two-year old Adrianna Manlove. Son John Anthony Salvaggio II, who was ten months old and just learning to walk when his father was taken from him, is now seventeen and an athlete in several sports at a Cypress ISD high school.

Salvaggio’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Guy Salvaggio, live in Houston. The grandmother, as well as the father of Mary Bess, Mr. Grizaffi, died in the early 1990’s. Mrs. Grizaffi resides with Marybess. Sister Tammy lives in Houston, the mother of Joseph, fourteen, and Anna, eleven, who was born after her uncle’s death. Officer Salvaggio was the oldest of four children and his two brothers, who are twins, both live in the Houston area. Charles and his wife Elizabeth are the parents of Stephanie and Charlie. Jack also lives in Houston.

In January 1991, less than two months after Officer Salvaggio’s death, a plea bargain agreement was near to being approved in this case. However, at the last minute, Byrd and his attorney decided that they could not agree with the summary of the incident as documented in the court charges against him. This summary said that Byrd left the scene knowing that he had struck Officer Salvaggio and knowing that the officer needed assistance. Byrd would only plea that he knew that he had hit something, but he didn’t know it was a person.

Consequently, prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal, who would later become district attorney of Harris County, decided to take the case to a grand jury for indictment for failure to stop and render aid, a felony punishable up to five years in confinement. Under the tentative plea agreement, Byrd would have been sentenced by a state district judge pending an extensive background investigation. Basically, Byrd and his attorney were ready to take their chances.

In September 1991, as this case lingered on, Byrd was arrested again, this time for attempting to obtain illegal prescription drugs. He was actually charged with possession of blank prescription forms for narcotics. When he was arrested outside a West Gray pharmacy, he had the forms in his wallet. Marijuana, methadone and other unidentified pills also were recovered. He was jailed without bond.

Finally, on March 23, 1992, Byrd was sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the scene after striking Officer John Salvaggio. This was the maximum under the applicable 1990 Penal Code. Unfortunately, newspaper accounts further indicate that on or about March 23, 1994, Byrd was to be released from prison after only serving two years of his five-year sentence. He was then to be placed on ten years’ probation under the supervision of a probation officer. Byrd went free, but he died on March 23, 2002, at the age of sixty-two.

In 2004, Lieutenant Jerry Driver works in the Jail Division. Sergeant Robert Schields, a good friend and high school football opponent, was retired. Officer Dan Starr still works out of the Northwest Station. Officer Ron Freeman works the Night Shift at Westside Patrol. Yance Montalbano was a nephew and close friend, Michael Marino and Anthony Salvaggio were Officer Salvaggio’s cousins, and John T. Whites was a good friend.

Lieutenant E. J. Smith retired in 2002 after nearly forty-four years with HPD. Lieutenant Gary Finkelman still works with the Spring Valley PD in an investigative capacity. Accident Sergeant Bickel is now a K-9 unit supervisor for HPD. Sergeant Montemayor is assigned to the Hit and Run Detail, as is lead investigator Pete Araiza and Officers Salinas and Labdi. Officer Galbaiti is assigned to Central Patrol and Sergeant Riehl is an investigative sergeant in the Burglary and Theft Division. Chemist Reidun continues to do her usual professional job in the Crime Lab and has been a mainstay in that division through some rough times.