Thorough investigation into police shooting of homeowner underway

Posted Sunday, Nov. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It has been five months since 72-year-old Jerry Wayne Waller was shot to death in the garage of his Woodhaven home by a Fort Worth police officer, one of two who were supposed to be responding to a burglar alarm at a house across the street.

The accounts of what happened have left more questions than answers, and Waller’s family, friends and neighbors — indeed, many in the larger community — naturally have grown impatient waiting for the results of the official police investigation and for the case to be presented to a grand jury.

Understandably, some have become suspicious that police and the district attorney’s office are dragging their feet in this case, perhaps even trying to protect the two officers involved and the Police Department as a whole.

But before you rush to judgment, Deputy Chief District Attorney Jack Strickland told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Friday, you should know that there is a thorough investigation underway by the district attorney’s office and that the case is being prepared for presentation to a grand jury, perhaps as early as December, but maybe in January.

The death of Waller, a respected man in his neighborhood and the community, is a painful and agonizingly troubling incident that would upset any caring person. Everything possible must be be done to uncover the truth of the circumstances surrounding the May 28 shooting, Strickland said.

What we know is that the two rookie officers who arrived on the scene in separate police units somehow ended up at the wrong house in the early morning hours.

Shortly after their arrival, officers Benjamin B. Hanlon and R.P. Hoeppner reportedly saw Waller at the back of his house armed with a handgun.

In a search warrant affidavit released in July, police said the two officers “inadvertently began searching” across the street from the address of the burglar alarm report when they encountered Waller.

The affidavit said the officers identified themselves and ordered Waller to drop the weapon, but he pointed it at them. Hoeppner began shooting.

An autopsy report obtained this week by the Star-Telegram showed that the homeowner had been shot seven times. It also states that he was “shot in garage of residence,” consistent with what Waller’s family has said.

It is important that the case not be tried in a court of public opinion, and that amateur detectives leave the investigation to the experts.

The district attorney’s office received the case from the Police Department in early August, but there was a month and a half to two-month hiatus because it was assumed the Waller family was seeking an outside investigation, Strickland said. He said he learned about 30 days ago that the family was OK with the police and the DA’s office proceeding.

Strickland noted that there was another holdup when the second officer on the scene, Hanlon, was fired from the force after an internal investigation found he had lied in an arrest warrant affidavit about a traffic stop in August.

“We don’t want to pre-judge his credibility, but his credibility is in question,” Strickland said, noting that he has requested all of the officer’s personnel and internal affairs records.

The prosecutor said he has put together an investigative team that includes noted crime scene and forensics expert Max Courtney and that he has requested additional testing on some evidence.

Strickland said it will be “a no-holds-barred investigation,” and the presentation to the grand jury will be “not a 30-minute presentation,” but one that takes the better part of a week.

“It is important that people know nobody is trying to sit on this or stall,” he said. “Everybody wants to get a right result, not a quick result.”

That’s true, but five months for an investigation like this is not quick. There is need to be careful and thorough, but there is also need for answers.

Those answers can only come from a grand jury. Sooner would be better than later.

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