Mom: Police report isn’t the truth about my daughter
By: Keri Blakinger and St. John Barned-Smith © Houston Chronicle (article republished with permission)
NATCHITOCHES, LA. – It was a chilly afternoon with bad weather in the forecast when Rhogena Nicholas called her mother for the last time. The two hadn’t seen each other for more than a year. Jo Ann Nicholas was in her 80s and couldn’t make the drive from northwest Louisiana to Houston anymore. But they talked all the time, and every morning, Rhogena sent her mother a prayer. Jan. 28 was no different. “Thank you for a new day and week ahead that is full of promise and possibilities,” Rhogena wrote in a text just before 8 a.m. As the day wore on, with forecasters calling for sleet in Natchitoches, Rhogena phoned to make sure her mother didn’t venture out to the nearby Walmart to stock up for the bad weather. They said their I love yous, then Rhogena hung up.
Less than an hour later, police burst through the front door of her Pecan Park home, setting off a gun battle that killed Rhogena and her 59-year-old husband, Navy veteran Dennis Tuttle. Authorities said they’d been looking for a pair of heroin dealers, but the botched raid netted few drugs and lots of questions, and has blossomed into the biggest scandal to hit the Houston Police Department in decades. Weeks later, it’s still not clear who shot whom or whether the confidential informant used to justify the raid even exists. Amid allegations of police misconduct, the FBI, Houston police and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office launched probes of the raid, the warrant and the case agent behind the failed operation.
This week, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Rhogena’s mother told her slain daughter’s story, voicing questions publicly for the first time. She wants answers to all the unknowns, and for the department who vilified the slain couple to make things right. Both families are adamant the couple was not dealing heroin. “I want them to clear her name,” she said. The move to Bayou City The daughter of a Lebanese dentist and a Southern housewife, Rhogena was born in Ackerman, Miss., in 1960.
The small town offered enough work to keep the family going, but two years later her father landed a job someplace bigger: the city of Macon, about 40 miles away. Popular and dark-haired, Rhogena made plenty of friends in her years at Central Academy, the local private high school. She didn’t want to be a cheerleader and wouldn’t touch a musical instrument, but she joined the band as a majorette. She had a boyfriend and a social life, but still brought home good grades.
After graduation, Rhogena headed to Atlanta to study merchandising at Bauder College, a fashion and etiquette school. In the meantime, her parents moved to Florida, where their only daughter joined them after college. When they moved to Shreveport a few years later, Rhogena followed, taking a job at the local motel and rekindling a relationship with Wayne Osborn, a man she’d met in Fort Walton Beach.
The young couple grew their romance long-distance. In the late 1980s, she moved in with him in Houston. She worked at Shell and Budweiser, and kept in close contact with her family, driving north to visit every couple of months. Over time, she drifted away from the man who had drawn her to the Bayou City in the first place. “She didn’t want anybody telling her what to do,” Jo Ann said. Instead, Rhogena found Tuttle. Decades later – Jo Ann doesn’t remember exactly how they met – the two had fallen in love and married in the late 1990s in a simple courthouse wedding.
“He was good to her, they got along good and everything,” she said, shrugging. “His mom loved her to death.” John Nicholas, Rhogena’s brother, remembered Tuttle as a quiet, easygoing man and a skilled machinist, but who was prone to seizures because of an accident in the military. By the time of the Jan. 28 raid, he couldn’t work anymore and rarely left the house. Rhogena took care of him – just as she also took care of her ex. Osborn, who lived about 15 miles away in northwest Houston, paid Rhogena to help him manage his affairs. He didn’t drive, but let Rhogena borrow his blue Mercury sedan. Nearly two months later, the car still sits where Rhogena parked it in the driveway of her home at 7815 Harding The morning after the raid, Jo Ann was still in bed, watching the news, when she heard a knock at the door. It was 5:30 a.m., and she hadn’t yet made coffee.
She padded down the hallway of her neatly decorated single-story home and found a police officer at the door, asking to come inside. “You better sit down,” the officer said, guiding her to a tan recliner in the living room. “I’ve got this number to call in Houston.” Her hands began to shake. “What happened to my daughter?” she asked. The officer didn’t know, but the Harris County medical examiner had answers. Numbly, Jo Ann took in the news: There’d been some sort of shootout, an exchange of fire with police. Rhogena and her husband were dead, and it wasn’t clear what had happened. Everything blurred as the elderly widow’s life turned into a torrent of phone calls and cards, punctuated by moments of quiet grief. “I sit here,” she said. “I stare into space.” ‘Doesn’t make sense’ Two months later, the Nicholas family doesn’t talk much about the raid. But they have questions and many doubts. They roll the details over in their minds. Police burst in the front door, toting weapons and a no-knock warrant.
Tuttle, armed with a .357-revolver, rushed to the noise and started shooting. One of the wounded narcotics officers collapsed on the couch, and Rhogena allegedly reached for his weapon. In the ensuing struggle, she was shot twice and five officers were injured. Though police said they suspected the couple was selling heroin, officers found only 18 grams of marijuana and a little over a gram of cocaine. To John and Jo Ann, the idea that Tuttle could have shot five officers with a revolver doesn’t make sense – nor the thought that Rhogena tried to wrangle away an officer’s weapon. “They said she wrassled with the police – she wasn’t big enough to wrassle with the police,” Jo Ann said. “If they would have told her, ‘Police, open the door,’ she would have done it. She respected the police.” Even more concerning, they say, is police insistence that Rhogena and her husband were selling drugs. Jo Ann said she stayed in close contact with her daughter; she’s sure she would have noticed something amiss. On Tuesday, lawyers for the Nicholas family sent a letter to Houston police requesting a “correction of public statements.”
“You and other members of your department have made factually incorrect, but globally disseminated, statements about Rhogena Nicholas and her husband, Dennis Tuttle, from the date of their deaths and going forward,” attorney Michael Doyle wrote. “These statements have not been publicly corrected or retracted to date.” In the coming weeks, he plans to file a motion to investigate – a move that would allow the court to give him the right to depose witnesses and ask for more evidence in the lead-up to a possible lawsuit. “I’m upset just like everybody else, but maybe they’ll wake up and say, ‘We messed up and we need to change our ways of doing things,'” John said. “Clear her name. And hopefully, it won’t happen again.” Pearls and ashes In the aftermath of the shooting, Jo Ann decided not to have a funeral for her only daughter. Weeks later, a package arrived in the mail – Rhogena’s watch, a pair of pearl earrings and the silver crucifix she wore around her neck. The necklace now sits on her mother’s dining room table. Her ashes are in the bedroom, still in the box from the crematorium.
Every day, Jo Ann misses her daughter’s voice, the ping of her morning texts. At night, she has trouble sleeping. “I wake up to her calling ‘Momma.'”
keri.blakinger@chron¬.com st.john.smith@chron.¬com © Houston Chronicle