Russell Rios was 19, attending college, and working at a bank. He was also accused of stealing two iPhone cases from a Conroe Walmart in the early evening on July 31.
Conroe Police Sgt. Jason Blackwelder wasn’t on duty. He was in plain clothes but carrying a gun. When Rios broke away from Walmart staff and ran into a wooded area beside the store, Blackwelder chased him.
There, Conroe police say the two got into a “violent struggle” in which Rios choked Blackwelder until he was afraid he would pass out.
“This young man, he’s five-foot-seven, 140 pounds,” says Cade Bernsen, a lawyer for the Rios family. “String bean. And this cop is about six-foot, 190, 200 pounds. [Conroe police] said, ‘Oh, you know, he was choking the officer and the officer had to fire in self-defense.’ I just don’t see any scenario where that happens.”
Especially, Bernsen says, since Rios was shot in the back of the head.
“We have photos. That’s the only hole in his body. It’s not like there was an entry and an exit wound and you could get confused as to where he was shot,” Bernsen says. “The bullet actually went through his head and hit his forehead but didn’t come out. The bruise is on his forehead. You can see the bullet mark.”
Bernsen says he only has the photos because the funeral director who received Rios’s body that night “called the family and said, ‘Something is wrong. I’m telling you, something is strange. Do I have permission to take photos of the body before they do the autopsy?’ Which is also strange, because the body went from the scene to a funeral home and from the funeral home to a medical examiner.”
A grand jury in Conroe agreed. On Friday, it indicted Blackwelder on three counts, including second-degree manslaughter, felony tampering with evidence, and making a false report.
Blackwelder’s indictment may come as a surprise to regular readers of Dateline Houston because the last time a Harris County grand jury indicted a police officer for a shooting was in 2009. That officer—who shot an unarmed man three times in his own front yard mere seconds after arriving at a scene where no crime had occurred—was found not guilty of assault by a public servant.
Tragically, that’s not because Houston police rarely shoot unarmed people.
In June, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict the Houston police officer who shot and killed Brian Claunch, a one-armed, wheelchair-bound man with mental illness who threatened the officer’s partner with a ballpoint pen.
Last August, a grand jury cleared the Houston police officer who killed Blake Pate in events similar to the recent death of Jonathan Ferrell, a man shot by police in North Carolina as he sought help after a car accident. On Christmas Day of 2011, Pate was in a wreck while leaving his family’s home. He was unarmed, sober, and had no criminal record. A lawyer for Pate’s family told the Houston Press, “Blake appeared to be disoriented because he’d just been in a car accident. He started to the nearest streetlight. Along the way, Sergeant Curtis Hampton of the Houston Police Department intercepted him.” Hampton says a struggle ensued, he ended up on his back, and, fearing for his life, shot Pate three times.
A Texas Observer investigation found in the last six years, not a single Houston police officer has been disciplined for shooting a person or animal. It also found that although most complaints against HPD come from other officers, very few officers are punished, most punishments are written reprimands, and HPD officers—even those like Curtis Hampton—are almost impossible to fire.