HPD Major Offenders Division works fascinating cases with other agencies, combining crime-fighting ingenuity

Mike Ybanez

In late September 2014, in an apartment complex in Southwest Houston, 10 uniformed and tactically armed “Law Enforcement” Officers conducted a raid on a single family apartment residence. Five “Officers” made entry and confronted the male and female residents while five other “Officers” took up positions outside the residence and kept watch as neighbors poured out of their apartments to view what was happening in the early dawn hours.

While seemingly typical of an early morning warrant search, the problem with this situation was that the armed Officers were in fact not “Law Enforcement Officers” at all but rather members of a Mexican Cartel-related Organized Crime group whose purpose was to in fact, to rob and terrorize the occupants and steal money and valuables.

Multi-agency Investigation

Residents of the apartment complex believed these Robbery suspects to be real police officers based on their dress and actions. The occupants were terrorized and threatened and suffered financial and emotional loss and distress.

This case soon fell to the Investigators of the Houston Police Major Offenders Police Impersonations Unit as well as the Robbery Division. A lengthy investigation soon emerged with cooperation from the U.S. DEA and HCSO Homicide Division as two Robbery crews were suspected in at least 30 home invasion type Robbery cases and at least one Homicide case in the Harris County Houston area.

What emerged at the conclusion of the investigation was a Tactical plan that involved over 100 true law enforcement officers from multiple agencies and Divisions to include SWAT and the District Attorney’s Office which culminated in the arrest of six armed suspects with suspected ties to the Knights Templar Cartel and put an end to the carnage of Home Invasion Robberies plaguing the West and North sides of Houston and Harris County for the time being.

While the Police Impersonation Unit took the lead in this investigation, multiple squads within the division were tasked for assistance as leads continued to flow in regarding Robberies of similar types throughout Texas.

For some of the younger HPD Officers who might not be familiar with the day-to-day working of Major Offender’s groups, here are some history and case examples:

Major Offenders Division as we know it was started in the 1980s when Houston Police Command Staff incorporated Special Thefts and the new Targeted Offenders program (which is now Career Criminals).

Special Thefts was basically Cargo/Fence, Precious Metals and Swindle squads. Targeted Offenders was started when research showed that 20 percent of the population committed 80 percent of the crime. The belief was that if we followed the worst of the worst, we could catch them in the act.

It was a very successful program (mainly because it was on target, but also because of the available overtime and manpower to follow the crooks around the clock). The Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force was added to the Division, which began as a descending 5-year grant (the funding started at 100 percent the first year and went down each year until it was absorbed into the local budget).

Lt. Lisa Bujnoch came on board in 1992 to lead the Inter-agency Task Forces (mainly due to her experience already working with the Federal Law Enforcement through the Asian Organized Crime Task Force and the first Multi Agency Gang Task Force which started in 1988). Then-Police Chief Sam Nuchia decided that ALL Federal Task Forces except for Narcotics and Counter Terrorism should be under one umbrella, which is how they were incorporated in Major Offenders.

Major Offenders started out in the warehouse building next to the old Property Room on Goliad. Basically, a room full of mid-century desks and part of the upstairs. This “open” concept actually helped build camaraderie and enable an “all hands” approach to Targeted Offenders investigations. “When anyone needed help, all they had to do was go in the squad room and see who was available. A big board hung on the wall with the pictures of our targeted worst criminals, and when they were arrested, they were X’d off,” Lt. Bujnoch explained.

Atypical Investigations

Also according to Lt. Bujnoch, the Major Offenders Division worked hand in hand with the District Attorney’s Office with two Officers or Sergeants assigned to the Special Crimes Unit and were called in on most major cases. Notably, a string of Robberies targeting the elderly in River Oaks and Memorial where crooks were targeting well-to-do older women and robbing them, beating them severely.

The whole division worked this investigation and ultimately made arrests and solved multiple cases. Major Offenders helped worked with the Feds on the Railway Killer (Resendiz-Ramirez) who was travelling rail lines throughout Texas, murdering unsuspecting residents along the line. “We probably have more 100 Club Officers of the Year than any other division because of the dedication and hard work of past and present MOD investigators.” Bujnoch said.

In another example of out-of-the-box atypical investigations, Investigator Suzanne Hollifield, now assigned to the District Attorney’s Office, spent two years working with the FBI on an Animal Cruelty case involving persons who would “Crush” small animals of different types and sell the videos online for customers’ sexual gratifications. As a result of her tenacious investigative work, multiple federal charges were filed on two suspects and this first-of-its-kind case is currently pending in Federal Court.

The Major Offenders Cargo Theft Unit recently completed an investigation which tracked stolen liquor loads from the South Houston/Highway 288 area to the woods of Montgomery County near Porter, where multiple loads of stolen liquor items and construction equipment valued at approximately$200,000 were recovered and returned to the rightful owners.

This investigation involved multiple law enforcement and private investigative agencies from Houston and Montgomery County, including the Montgomery County HIDTA Task Force, which resulted in the arrest and charges of three suspects with ties to the Miami Florida area where similar Cargo Theft loads have ended up.

Major Offenders Career Criminals Unit has worked several high-profile cases in the recent past including a “Murder for Hire” complete with fake blood makeup which resulted in arrest and charge of a drug dealer with Mexican Cartel links.

In another Career Criminals Investigation, a major burglary crew from the Dallas area made a foray into Houston and using a James Bond-type roof entry, burglarized numerous Southwest Houston Jewelry stores stealing millions of dollars’ worth of gold and gold bars before retreating back to the Dallas area.

Investigators followed the only clues left at the scene, diamond-tipped cutting blades, and eventually traced these blades back to Dallas area Home Depot stores where they were bought in bulk. Following the paper trail, Major Offenders Investigators and FBI agents were able to identify several participants which ultimately led to the arrest and convictions of several suspects after HPD Investigators were able to get confessions from several of the participants.

Career Criminals Squad takes the lead when major sporting events roll into town and many in the division are tasked to work plainclothes/undercover roles to root out persons selling counterfeit items such as t-shirts and souvenirs and even fake tickets not sanctioned by the governing sport body.

In a final piece of investigative work, Officer Art Mejia was tasked in 2014 to investigate a case where a female complainant was possibly drugged and taken to an empty parking garage by a suspect pretending to be a law enforcement officer.

Assorted Squads

Investigator Mejia worked two whole shifts straight through after being called out to the scene in an effort to recover the needed evidence to insure that this criminal act was not the work of a real police officer and to insure the integrity of the investigation. His superb work led to a male suspect who was familiar with the area of the crime and felt safe in taking the incapacitated female to a place he was sure would not be found out but for the tenacious work of Investigator Mejia, he now stands charged with Aggravated Sexual Assault and is pending trial.

Other Major Offenders Units include:

  • The Fugitive Squad, which is assigned to investigate all Teletype requests from municipal, county, state and federal agencies in locating, arresting and processing fugitives wanted from Out of State Warrant, Extradition Procedure, Warrant Issued Outside of Harris County, but within the State of Texas (Fugitive Outside), Parole Violation Warrant (Blue Warrant). Note: Harris County Warrants (Fugitive Inside) are handled by the Division concerned.
  • Environmental Investigations Squad duties include investigations regarding illegal dumping, used motor oil dumping, water pollution, and air pollution violations and are part of a task force that includes State and Federal agencies.
  • Swindle Squad duties include investigating cases/incidents involving criminal deception which often involve Theft from the elderly.
  • FBI Asian Organized Crime tasked to conduct joint criminal investigations regarding organized criminal enterprises in the Asian community. This includes targeting Asian organized crime groups for proactive investigations, targeting Asian street gangs for proactive investigations, assist other Houston Police Department divisions with investigations/translations involving Asian suspects, assist other law enforcement agencies worldwide with investigations/translations involving Asian suspects, and coordinating investigations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to enhance prosecution at the federal level.
  • FBI Cybercrimes Unit tasked to identify, investigate and prosecute individuals who are using computers and the Internet to access computer systems without authorization, damage and/or impair computer systems, networks, and data, violate intellectual property rights, and commit theft and/or fraud, and identify and lure minors into illicit sexual relationships, produce and/or distribute original images of child pornography, and/or receive, possess, and/or distribute child pornography.

If this type of work is interesting to some officers, Major Offenders often has Officers on rotations from other divisions and invites any officer that is interested to sign up for a 30-day rotation.