September-October 2012

The mother of all ­demonstrative evidence

Lisa Callaghan

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Tarrant County

Jim Hudson

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Tarrant County

Life-size cutouts help secure a life-sized sentence.

Paper dolls are usually considered kid stuff, but in one recent criminal trial, they helped secure a life sentence for a drug dealer who shot it out with Tarrant County narcotics officers.

    By filling the courtroom with life-sized, cardboard cutouts of eight undercover officers involved in the early-morning raid on Korey Michael Gautreaux’s home, we easily overcame the defendant’s claim that he thought he was firing at robbers in self-defense. In the process, we proved to the jury he was the “poster boy” for a maximum sentence.

    Due to the danger involved with busting armed drug dealers who don’t want to be arrested, narcotics officers train extensively for the safe execution of search warrants. They spend a great deal of time learning how to properly organize a warrant execution so that officers can quickly enter a house and detain its occupants without risking harm to themselves or the people they find.

    Any narcotics officer will tell you they worry about the worst case scenario: an armed drug dealer who decides to shoot it out rather than submit to the officers’ authority during a search warrant. For the officers of the Tarrant County Narcotics Unit, Kory Michael Gautreaux turned out to be their worst nightmare.

The take-down

In 2010, Gautreaux was living in a nice neighborhood in Arlington. He had a big house, nice cars, and a young son living with him. Unbeknownst to his neighbors, however, Gautreaux was also a drug dealer who was moving large quantities of methamphetamine to finance his leisurely life style. Gautreaux had been arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine, alprazolam, and hydrocodone in December 2005 in Arlington. While out on bond, he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine in Shreveport, Louisiana, and was placed on felony probation.

    So when Tarrant County Narcotics Unit (TCNU) officers received a tip in March 2010 that he was dealing large quantities of methamphetamine, Gautreaux had a lot to lose.

    After the TCNU officers developed information that Gautreaux had a large amount of meth in his house on Eden Green Drive, they presented a “no knock” search warrant for Gautreaux’s residence to a local magistrate in the early morning hours of April 1, 2010. Once the search warrant was signed, the officers immediately began preparing to execute it.

    After a quick pre-raid briefing in a nearby parking lot, the officers quietly approached the house on Eden Green Drive. TCNU Investigator Scott Ho was in charge of the investigation and gave each officer specific responsibilities. They were either part of the perimeter team, which was responsible for securing the outside boundaries of the house, or they were part of the entry team, which was to make initial entry to secure the house and occupants.

    The entry team was organized into a “stack”:  a pre-determined order of entry into the house after the door is forced open. That morning, TCNU Investigator Darrin Yarborough was the designated “breacher” and, once everyone was in position, he slammed the battering ram repeatedly against the front door of Gautreaux’s house, causing a racket that seemed to shake the house. The rest of the stack of officers quickly entered the house. TCNU Investigator Ho entered first, followed by TCNU Investigators Jonas Ceja, Tom Bulger, Bryan Laurie, Robert LaPenna, Sgt. James Hailey, and Yarborough. As they swept through the two-story house, all of the officers announced loudly that they were police officers there to execute a search warrant.

    According to the entry plan, Laurie was supposed to help secure the upstairs rooms after making entry; however, Laurie never made it up the staircase. As he entered the house, Laurie caught a glimpse of someone peeking out from behind a refrigerator in the kitchen. The kitchen lights were on and Gautreaux was watching the officers. Laurie abandoned his assignment to address the threat of an unsecured occupant in the kitchen. When Laurie confronted Gautreaux in the kitchen, he saw he was holding a pistol. Laurie quickly identified himself as a peace officer and ordered Gautreaux at gunpoint to put down his gun.

    Gautreaux hesitantly bent down as if to set his gun on the floor while squinting at Laurie’s tactical vest and its “POLICE” lettering. At that point, Laurie decided to take cover behind a pillar to the left of the kitchen bar. Meanwhile, Sgt. Hailey converged on the kitchen area to assist him. Suddenly, Gautreaux stood back up and fired. At the same time, he turned and ran into the laundry room behind him. The officers instantly returned fire at Gautreaux, who fired at officers two more times from the laundry room before disappearing.

    What the officers did not know at that moment was that Gautreaux had fled through the laundry room with his girlfriend (who had been out of sight from the officers) and into the garage. He then pressed the opener button and waited for the door to rise.

    Outside, the perimeter team saw the garage door opening and took their positions. TCNU Investigator Andrea Davis was nearest to the garage door and could hear Gautreaux telling his girlfriend, “Come on, let’s go!” Davis had already drawn her firearm after hearing shooting inside the house seconds before. When the garage door was about halfway up, she saw Gautreaux duck under the door and come out with a gun in his hand. Davis pointed her firearm at him and announced she was a police officer.

    When Gautreaux turned towards Davis and pointed his gun at her, she fired, hitting Gautreaux in the leg. He went down in the driveway with an entry gunshot wound to the left outer leg and an exit wound in the inside of his thigh. Officers from the perimeter team quickly administered life-saving first-aid to stop Gautreaux from bleeding to death while they waited on an ambulance to arrive. Gautreaux’s girlfriend was found hiding in the garage and was quickly detained by the officers.

    Gautreaux was taken to John Peter Smith (JPS) Hospital in Fort Worth, where he underwent surgery to repair the bullet damage to his femoral artery in his leg. He remained under guard at JPS until he recovered enough to be transferred to the Tarrant County Jail. The Arlington Police Department thoroughly investigated the shooting incident and charged Gautreaux with aggravated assault on a public servant. (Though we could’ve charged the defendant with attempted capital murder, we opted for agg assault because it has the same range of punishment but is easier to prove.) Additionally, after the shooting, TCNU officers fully executed the search warrant at the residence, where they found numerous pistols, rifles, and shotguns, as well as 869 grams of methamphetamine and 2,133 grams of gamma hydroxybutyric acid acid (GHB) in the house. Gautreaux was also charged with drug offenses.

The trial

Gautreaux remained in custody until his jury trial, which started on October 31, 2011, in the 297th District Court of Tarrant County. Judge David Cleveland, a visiting judge from Mineral Wells who was standing in for Judge Everett Young, presided. Three defense attorneys (Pia Rodriguez, Richard Kline, and Robert Cady) represented Gau-treaux, while three of us (Lisa Callaghan, Jim Hudson, and Anna Summersett of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office), represented the State.

    It was apparent to us from the beginning that Gautreaux’s most probable defense was going to be self-defense. We thought Gautreaux might argue that he had the right to protect himself, his girlfriend, and his home from intruders and was therefore justified in shooting at the officers. (Indeed, during his opening statement, Kline indicated that Gautreaux had been robbed in January 2010 and believed the people entering his home that morning were robbers.)

    A large part of our strategy was figuring out how to address this slippery defense. As we all know, Texans take the sanctity of the home very seriously. Many subscribe to the belief that people have a great deal of discretion in the defense of their own homes. If the defense made a solid argument that Gautreaux was reasonable in believing he was being robbed at the moment of the shooting, the jury might go along with it.

    We decided our first course of action was to impress on the jury how obvious it should have been to Gautreaux that the individuals entering the home were in fact police officers, not robbers. The Penal Code provides that a defendant is presumed to know someone is a public servant if he wears a distinctive uniform or badge indicating his employment. Our first thought was to use a mannequin, dressed in typical police raid gear, as demonstrative evidence of how officers physically appear during a warrant execution.

    However, as we began our case preparations, we discovered that the Arlington Police Department’s crime scene officers had carefully documented the shooting scene with photographs. All of the officers involved in the shooting had been individually photographed shortly after the incident, wearing their tactical gear. Looking at these dramatic photographs, we realized that we already had the ideal evidence to refute Gautreaux’s claims. To maximize the effect of the photos, we did not think that the usual 8×10 color print would suffice. We wanted to put the jury in Gautreaux’s shoes so that they could see what information he had in front of him when he chose to shoot it out with the TCNU officers.

Life-size posters

To this end, we needed help. Enter Rhona Wedderien, our office’s trial technology specialist. We handed off our idea to Rhona, and she ran with it. After showing her our photos and describing our goals, she asked us to get each of the officers’ height measurements, and she arranged to have each officer’s photo enlarged to the officer’s actual height. She located 8-foot-tall pieces of foam board and found a way to have each officer’s image cropped down to the silhouette of the officer’s body. She then had the cutout posters fitted with simple cardboard props to make them stand up independently.

   The result, frankly, was breathtaking. The life-size posters all depicted the officers in their tactical vests with “POLICE” marked on them in large, white letters. Most of their badges were visually obvious. Several officers also had the word “POLICE” down the arms of their shirts. The physical height of the posters was extremely intimidating.

    The life-size images of the officers, in all of their tactical gear glory, took up quite a bit of space. We stored them in prosecutor Jim Hudson’s office for several days prior to the start of the trial. He found it difficult to even get to his desk (let alone the shock of walking into a room full of officers in raid gear everyday). In the following days, the posters became local celebrities in the office. A lot of people stopped by to see them and, in some cases, have their picture taken with them.

    During the trial, as the officers testified, we had each “announce” his or her identity in court in the same bellowing manner as they did in the defendant’s house that morning. We then had each officer authenticate his or her poster and position it the same distance from the jury box that the officer had been from Gautreaux during the shoot-out.

    There were a multitude of questions from the defense challenging the level of light in the house, suggesting that Gautreaux could not see the officers clearly. However, the life-size posters in the courtroom made it clear at every turn how ridiculous that argument was. The posters took up most of the free space in the courtroom and demonstrated that, even in the lowest lighting, they would have been visible. We made a point of dimming the lights in the courtroom during our PowerPoint slideshows to make sure the jury could see the posters in less-than-ideal lighting.

    After a two-hour deliberation, the jury agreed with our position and found Gautreaux guilty of aggravated assault on a public servant and possession of a controlled substance over 400 grams with intent to deliver. We spent another day in the punishment phase of the trial proving up Gautreaux’s criminal history and his 2005 pending drug cases. Jurors deliberated for another hour before returning a verdict of life on the aggravated assault case and 75 years with a $25,000 fine on the possession case.

    We would like to thank the Tarrant County Narcotics Taskforce and the Arlington Police Department for the job they do in the most difficult of circumstances. Also, a special thanks to our trial technology specialist, Rhona Wedderien. It was a job well done and a case worth posting about.

    And, if you’re wondering about the posters, the narcotics officers kept them as souvenirs at the conclusion of the trial.