The family of a 72-year-old man fatally shot in his garage by Fort Worth police two years ago — after officers responded to the wrong house on a burglary alarm — has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, former police chief and several officers.
The suit, filed Tuesday, alleges that an officer admitted that he never identified himself as an officer before shooting Jerry Waller, that police moved Waller’s body after the shooting, and that investigators questioned the officers involved in a way to “provide a defense to the police shooting of an unarmed innocent man.”
Filed on behalf of Waller’s widow, Kathy, and two children, Angie and Chris, the lawsuit seeks $6 million in damages.
“The whole incident was handled so badly,” Kathy Waller told reporters at a noon news conference Tuesday inside the office of the family’s Fort Worth attorney, Art Brender.
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“… It’s just a whole nightmare. My husband did not deserve this. Nobody deserves it and I don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
The shooting occurred on May 28, 2013, and Fort Worth police were widely criticized for the circumstances surrounding the incident.
The lawsuit alleges that officer Richard Hoeppner trespassed on the Wallers’ property, used excessive force against Waller, and destroyed or altered evidence to make it appear as if Waller was armed and posed a threat.
Brender alleges that Waller, a father and grandfather, had been standing in his own garage, unarmed and with both hands in the air, when he was shot and killed by Hoeppner.
In addition to Hoeppner, the suit also names as defendants Hoeppner’s then-partner on the call, Benjamin Hanlon, former Police Chief Jeff Halstead, investigators Dana Baggott and Merle Davon Green, and officers B.S. Hardin and A. Chambers.
Hanlon was later fired from the department for falsifying a report on an unrelated case.
City officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the lawsuit. A police spokesman said the department would not be commenting. Halstead also declined to comment.
Police officials have previously said Hoeppner shot Waller after the man pointed a gun at the officer.
A Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict Hoeppner in January 2014.
Halstead, who has since retired, told the Star-Telegram at that time that 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.
But Brender said Tuesday that police relied largely on “junk science” and that the autopsy and crime scene photographs indicate that Waller was unarmed and would have had his hands up at the time he was shot. He released a video Tuesday of a forensic reenactment of the shooting that he said is supported by evidence in the case.
Brender accuses investigators of using leading and suggestive questions in “a clear attempt to explain away the number of discrepancies in the officers’ statements and provide a defense to the police shooting of an unarmed innocent man.”
“It’s the old circle the wagons. Don’t ever admit that you’re wrong about any of this stuff,” Brender told reporters Tuesday.“I think that was the intent from the beginning.”
‘He wouldn’t hurt anyone’
According to the lawsuit, Jerry and Kathy Waller had spent May 27, 2013, having a Memorial Day barbecue with family members at their home at 404 Havenwood Lane North and had gone to bed about 11 p.m.
About two hours later, a neighbor across the street, who had recently undergone surgery, was showing her caregiver how to work her security alarm system when she accidentally set it off.
The lawsuit states that Fort Worth police dispatched two probationary officers to the home — Hoeppner and Hanlon — to conduct a welfare check on the woman.
The officers used GPS to find the street but not the exact address, either because they didn’t know how to operate the equipment or had not been properly trained how to approach and investigate such a call, the lawsuit alleges.
Brender said the officers failed to note number markings on a mailbox and curb that would have showed they were at the wrong house, and began prowling in the back yard of the Wallers’ residence with their flashlight for several minutes.
Woken by her barking dogs and seeing the lights, Kathy Waller said she believed her husband’s car alarm had gone off and awoke him. She said he went to turn it off but never came back.
Kathy Waller said she had gone into the garage to investigate after hearing loud bangs and found her husband lying face down on the floor, his hands to the sides of his shoulder as if he were doing push-ups.
She said police refused her pleas that they pick her husband up and would not allow her near him. She said she was physically taken by officers to a patrol car, where she was prevented from talking to anyone.
The lawsuit alleges that Chambers falsely imprisoned Kathy Waller by forcing her to stay inside a patrol car after the shooting and not allowing her to see her husband, retrieve her medication from the house, nor immediately receive medical attention.
Kathy Waller said police would tell her nothing at the scene about what had happened to her husband that she only learned he was dead from an EMT.
She said she did not know an officer was behind the shooting until being told by a detective at the hospital, where she had been taken for her high blood pressure.
Waller said her husband used to be a safety officer in the military, respected police, and even donated to law enforcement charities.
“He wouldn’t hurt anyone, especially a policeman,” she said. “With everything we have checked out, I know he didn’t. I’m just glad the truth is coming out and I hope we can prove it in court.”
In a police report on the shooting, Hoeppner said Waller had a “very standoffish attitude with us” and that “in my mind he was going to shoot and kill me.”
‘Stories are fabrication’
Brender said he believes Waller had walked into his garage and opened the garage door when he was blinded by Hoeppner’s flashlight.
“The event that took Jerry Waller’s life occurred in probably less than 10 seconds,” Brender said.
Brender said Hoeppner told investigators that he had shouted at Waller to put down the gun three times.
“The officer who did the shooting admits he never identified himself as a police officer,” Brender said.
Brender said he believes Waller had put the gun down on the trunk of a car inside the garage but never picked it up again as Hoeppner and Hanlon alleged.
Hoeppner, according to the police report, said he didn't “understand what he [Waller] was doing, he was holding the gun, I told him several times to put the gun down. He set it down then he grabbed it and pointed it at me.”
Brender said both officers gave conflicting statements about how Waller grabbed the gun from the trunk and where he was in relation to Hoeppner.
“Didn’t happen. Impossible. Their stories are fabrication,” Brender said.
Brender said he believes Waller may have moved when Hanlon rounded the side of the house, prompting a skittish Hoeppner to shoot.
“He was nervous, poorly trained and started shooting,” Brender said.
Brender said crime scene photographs show Waller’s body was “moved considerably” after the shooting — a violation of state law. He said Hardin’s claim that he had removed a gun from a pool of blood under Waller’s body after arriving on the scene could also not be true as no blood was found on the gun’s grip.
“The only thing i can think of is they were trying to position the body, before they called the medical examiner, in a way that would somehow fit their goofy theory,” Brender said.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655