December 26, 2013

Neighbors await answers in death of man shot by Fort Worth police

Questions remain after a homeowner was fatally shot by a police officer.

Seven months after police fatally shot a Woodhaven homeowner in his garage, a lack of information surrounding the incident continues to frustrate some of the man’s neighbors.

Jerry Waller, 72, was shot seven times — three times in the chest, once in the right abdomen and left hand, plus two grazing wounds to the left wrist and forearm — after confronting two rookie officers checking out a reported burglary.

Waller’s death has sparked two investigations — one by the Police Department, another by the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office — but definitive information has been released only intermittently, with each new revelation seemingly raising more questions.

“The Waller case is tragic, no matter how it happened, and certainly there are going to be lessons learned from it,” said Fort Worth City Councilman Danny Scarth, who lives in Woodhaven. “But just like we hold our citizens accountable, we are going to hold our public servants accountable for their actions.”

Becky Haskin, a former councilwoman who lives on Waller’s street, said the lack of information has caused some of her neighbors to mistrust the department.

“This case has become a lot more clear-cut as time has gone by and as some information has been released,” Haskin said. “It makes people not trust the Police Department when people are thinking that you can shoot an innocent man on his own property in his own garage and there is not a word.”

The shooting

Rookie officers R. P. Hoeppner and Benjamin Hanlon were responding to a burglar alarm at 409 Havenwood Lane shortly before 1 a.m. May 28 when they “inadvertently began searching" across the street at 404 Havenwood, Waller's home, according to police.

Suspecting a prowler was outside, Waller, armed with a gun, apparently had gone to investigate, the family said. The officers, using their flashlights, initially said they encountered Waller near the corner of the home, according to an affidavit.

An initial search warrant said that the officers identified themselves as police and ordered Waller to drop the gun but that he instead pointed his handgun at Hoeppner, prompting Hoeppner to fire.

Waller was pronounced dead at the scene.

Family members accused the police of misrepresenting the facts, saying that Waller never stepped outside his garage and died just feet from his kitchen door.

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead fired Hanlon in October, saying he provided false information for an arrest warrant affidavit in an unrelated case. Halon stated that drugs were found on a suspect during a traffic stop when they were actually found when the suspect was booked into jail, Halstead said.

Because Hanlon was fired before his probationary period had expired, he has no avenue of appeal under civil service statutes.

Hoeppner has returned to patrol duty after being placed on routine administrative leave after Waller’s shooting.

Police turned over the investigation to the district attorney’s office in August and will not comment pending a grand jury review, said Sgt. Kelly C. Peel, a police spokesman.

The district attorney’s office launched its own investigation into Waller’s death and expects to present the case to a grand jury next month, according to Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

Public questions

“One of the witnesses has been branded a liar and fired by the Police Department,” Haskin said. “The neighbors are asking if I’ve heard anything and why hasn’t the grand jury heard the case, and I don’t know anything to tell them.”

The pairing of two rookie officers on the call and the inadvertent search of the wrong property are just two problems with the case, Haskin said.

“In the past few months, there have been a lot of questionable police shootings all over the region, not just in Fort Worth,” Haskin said. “They all seem to have a connective thread of a lack of training for these officers. People are noticing it more and more, and the media is drawing more attention to it.”

Bill Carter, who also lives in the Woodhaven neighborhood, said there seems to be a consensus among neighbors that mistakes were made during the call. But Carter, a former state representative who championed gun owner rights, also allowed for the possibility that Waller made a mistake.

“Waller certainly had the right to protect his own home,” Carter said. “But he did not have the right to point a gun at officers.”

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