A Fort Worth police officer will not face charges for fatally shooting a 72-year-old Woodhaven homeowner while investigating a burglary call at the wrong house, a Tarrant County grand jury decided Wednesday.
The decision not to indict R.A. “Alex” Hoeppner in the death of Jerry Waller came a week after prosecutors began presenting the case.
Waller died May 28 after being shot multiple times by Hoeppner as the officer and partner Ben Hanlon searched for a possible suspect after being dispatched to a burglary alarm call across the street.
Hanlon, who did not fire his gun, was dismissed from the department in October in an unrelated matter.
Police Chief Jeff Halstead said the grand jury made the right decision.
“I think it was proven through the autopsy and evidence that a gun was pointed directly at officer Hoeppner and he was forced to make his decision ” Halstead said, explaining that the trajectory of Waller’s wounds shows that the homeowner had his arm outstretched, as if pointing a gun.
Relatives have said Waller, suspecting a prowler was outside, grabbed his gun and went to investigate. Documents indicate that Waller was shot after he refused officers’ demands to drop the gun and pointed it at Hoeppner.
“If you don’t do this job, you always want to think, ‘Well, couldn’t he hide behind a tree or a brick column or talk him out of it?’ ” Halstead said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. “The evidence was very clear from the autopsy that a gun was leveled at the officer.”
He said he doesn’t expect to discipline Hoeppner.
Waller’s family declined to comment.
But a neighbor, former Councilwoman Becky Haskin, said it’s clear that Hoeppner was not well-trained and that the city “should step up and put some closure on this.”
“Nothing is going to bring Jerry back,” said Haskin, who was among those testifying before the grand jury. “But someone needs to apologize to this family. It’s an accidental death at the hands of an untrained police officer.”
‘Serious emotional impact’
The Police Department — especially Halstead — had been criticized for not releasing more details about the shooting or commenting publicly on the case.
“I’ve been doing this career for 25 years — five years here as chief — and nothing has weighed so heavily on my conscience because the pain that this family is going through,” Halstead said. “I wanted to give them answers immediately and if they’re frustrated or mad at us, we only waited out of sincere respect for them and the investigative process.”
Halstead said Hoeppner thought the officers were at the house “where there was a panic alarm and a possible burglary in process” and didn’t realize they were at the wrong address until a major-case detective told them after the shooting.
“Once he learned he was not at that house, it was an extremely serious emotional impact on him,” Halstead said.
Jim Lane, Hoeppner’s attorney, was having lunch with the Fort Worth officer when he received the call that the grand jury had no-billed Hoeppner.
“I looked at him and said, ‘The grand jury no-billed you.’ He just hung his head and took a big sigh,” Lane said.
Lane said the case has weighed on Hoeppner.
“Officer Hoeppner comes from a police family,” Lane said. “This has been a heavy burden on Hoeppner and his family. I think one of the first things he wants people know, especially the Waller family, is he sends his sympathies to them.”
Lane said Hoeppner went through the Police Department’s academy and was properly trained.
“It’s a tragedy, but Hoeppner was doing actually how he was trained when confronted with the facts that he was confronted with,” Lane said.
Haskin, however, said that both officers were rookies, that they were not adequately trained and that Hoeppner is “a victim of his own inexperience.”
“I think he panicked,” Haskin said. “He just unloaded his gun in rapid fire. That’s what I heard. It woke me up. I thought it was in my back yard — just rapid fire, one right after the other, in succession. There wasn’t any hesitation.”
25 hours of testimony
Both Lane and Deputy Chief District Attorney Jack Strickland said the grand jury was thorough.
“They left no stone unturned. They wanted to hear from everyone. In fact, Hoeppner testified twice,” Lane said.
Lane said Hanlon was also called before the grand jury twice.
Hanlon’s credibility had been questioned because he was fired in October on allegations that he provided false information in an arrest affidavit stemming from a traffic stop Aug. 9.
Grand jurors heard more than 25 hours of testimony over four days before voting to no-bill Hoeppner, according to a news release from the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
“This was a very thorough and conscientious grand jury, who spent many hours scrutinizing the evidence and testimony in the case,” Strickland said.
Lane applauded the DA’s system of having all officer-involved shootings reviewed by a grand jury since such panels have subpoena power, are chosen by judges and have no agenda in their decisions.
“I think the community can rest assured that this was the correct decision and Hoeppner is a fine young officer,” Lane said.
Art Brender, the attorney for the Waller family, released a short statement Wednesday afternoon on behalf of Waller’s widow and children.
“Kathy Waller and the Waller family do not have any comment to make on the Grand Jury decision concerning the Fort Worth police officer who shot and killed Jerry Waller in his garage this past Memorial Day at this time,” Brender wrote. “They will comment at the appropriate time after the completion of the investigation being undertaken on behalf of the Waller family.”
Details slow to emerge
Police officials had said little after the shooting, sparking mistrust among some residents and leaving the media to glean morsels from documents obtained through open-records requests.
Halstead said Wednesday that he ordered the silence to protect the investigation and to respond to a news conference given by Waller’s family the day after the shooting.
“You could feel their pain and their tragedy through their short press conference, and I never will forget the words that they said, that they just wanted the Police Department to stop talking,” Halstead said. “From that day forward, we did not say another word.”
A search warrant affidavit, released to the Star-Telegram in July, described the encounter this way:
Hoeppner and Hanlon responded to a burglar alarm at 409 Havenwood Lane shortly before 1 a.m. May 28 but “inadvertently began searching” outside Waller’s home across the street at 404 Havenwood, partly because of poor lighting.
Waller, suspecting a prowler was outside, went to investigate. Officers encountered the armed man near the corner of the home, the affidavit states.
They identified themselves as officers and ordered Waller to drop his gun, but he pointed it at Hoeppner, prompting Hoeppner to shoot, according to the affidavit.
In radio transmissions later released by the city through an open-records request, Hanlon can be heard telling dispatchers “shots fired” and asking for an ambulance.
“I don’t know who the guy is,” Hanlon told dispatchers. “The guy came out with a gun. He wouldn’t put the gun down. He pointed it at Hoeppner. Hoeppner fired.”
Waller was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy revealed that he’d been shot seven times.
One question remains
Waller’s relatives have accused police of misrepresenting the facts, stating that Waller had never even stepped out of his garage when he was shot multiple times just feet from his kitchen door.
“He was shot multiple times in the chest only a few steps away from the doorway to his kitchen,” Waller’s son, Chris Waller, told the Star-Telegram the day after the shooting.
Halstead said information provided to the media by a spokesperson after the shooting was based on a quick briefing by a supervisor.
Halstead said he has no doubt that officers identified themselves as police before Hoeppner shot.
“In fact, in the first set of interviews, it was heard by the wife that they were yelling ‘police,’ ” Halstead said.
In addition, he said, both officers were using flashlights and the garage light was on, casting light toward where Hoeppner was standing.
“It was very loud, very clear, and the lighting could show the police uniform,” Halstead said.
Now that the grand jury has made its decision, Halstead said, he is not opposed to having the city release the police investigation file on the case.
Halstead said the main unanswered question is why Waller would point his gun at the officer.
“It’s troubling because we don’t have any other person to ask why,” Halstead said. “I think that’s the biggest question we cannot answer is, ‘Why did that happen?’ ”