Heart of darkness

2007

The story of David Tuck’s brutal sexual assault of a Hispanic teenager made national headlines. Here’s how Houston prosecutors waded through conflicting testimony, a lack of physical evidence, and a defendant’s horrific history to secure a life sentence.

By the time they got home from the Crawfish Festival, Billy Reyes1 was thoroughly stoned. He and his new friend Gus Sons had been drinking vodka, smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, and popping alprazolam “bars” for most of the day. Gus, a small-time drug dealer whom Billy had met at alternative school, had supplied the alcohol and narcotics, and it was his house the boys returned to that night, along with two other teenagers they had met up with at the festival: David Henry Tuck and Keith Robert Turner.

Tuck and Turner were Gus’ friends from the neighborhood. Gus had known Turner for a few months, while Tuck was a much more recent acquaintance. Gus’ nickname for Tuck was “Skinhead David” because of Tuck’s shaved head, bigoted views, and neo-Nazi tattoos. Gus, who was of partly Hispanic descent, kept his ethnicity to himself. Tuck called himself an “independent skin” and made no effort to hide his racial prejudices. A brooding, quick-tempered young man, Tuck had just turned 18 and had recently been paroled—for the second time—from the Texas Youth Commission. He was a man of few words, but when he did speak he spewed venom against minorities and regurgitated the same tired, racist diatribes white supremacists have always used to justify their hate-filled ways of thinking.

Turner was like Tuck’s shadow. He didn’t have any swastika tattoos, but he echoed Tuck’s sentiments on the racial superiority of whites. Turner was 17 years old and he, too, had recently been released from incarceration, but in his case it was for adult misdemeanors committed in Harris and Montgomery Counties. Turner generally followed Tuck’s lead, but every now and then, as he would later that night, he had an idea of his own.

When the four got home from the Crawfish Festival in Old Town Spring, the binge of alcohol and drugs continued unabated. Gus’ 12-year-old sister, Danielle, and a friend were at the house, too, and they hung out with the guys for a while, but it seems a bit of a stretch to call such a happenstance, informal gathering a “party,” as the news media would characterize it later. Danielle’s friend passed out early and went to sleep in a bedroom; she would neither see nor hear any part of the assault. Danielle stayed up with the four guys. By now Billy was so intoxicated he was stumbling around, bumping into furniture and knocking things over. He was not, however, too intoxicated to take offense when Tuck referred to Hispanics as “wetbacks.” A heated argument broke out, and Gus had to step between Tuck and Billy. It was the first and only time he would intervene on Billy’s behalf.

Not long thereafter Gus discovered that his bag of narcotics, some of which he had picked up at the Crawfish Festival, was missing. Upset at the prospect of losing more than $300 worth of drugs, Gus asked Billy about them, and Billy denied stealing the drugs. A short time later, as Gus, Tuck, and Turner were smoking on the front porch, the highly inebriated Billy attempted to kiss Danielle. Danielle reported it to Gus, who then confronted Billy. Tuck accused Billy of stealing the drugs and trying to rape Danielle, both of which Billy denied. Without any further warning, Tuck slugged Billy in the face hard enough to knock him into a dog kennel. Billy just lay there, too drunk and stoned to get up. Sensing easy prey, Tuck and Turner dragged Billy into the backyard. Gus again accused Billy of kissing Danielle, hit him once in the chest, and backed off. That ended Gus’ participation but not the assault. What followed was an attack of horrific violence.

The bloody assault

Tuck and Turner began kicking, beating, and stomping Billy Reyes, Tuck wearing black, steel-toe boots, one of which was emblazoned with a swastika. Yelling “Beaner!” and other racial epithets, Tuck inflicted most of the damage. After one especially vicious kick, Tuck shouted “White power!” and gave a Nazi salute. Unable to fight back or defend himself in any way, Billy just lay there and took it, mumbling and groaning occasionally. Undeterred, or more accurately encouraged by the lack of resistance, Tuck and Turner began stripping off Billy’s clothing.

“If you had any white in you, you would be helping me,” Tuck told Gus. He then pulled out a silver pocketknife. When Gus started to protest, Tuck only glared at him. “Don’t bitch out on me now,” he told the frightened Gus, and began slashing at Billy’s bare chest. He was making superficial wounds, almost as if he was trying to draw something. Detectives would later come to believe Tuck was attempting to carve a swastika.

While Tuck did this, Turner lit up a cigarette, which gave Tuck another idea. Taking the cigarette, he began touching the tip of it to Billy’s bare skin, burning him on the arms, legs, back, and buttocks. Turner lit up another cigarette and joined in. Finally, Turner put the cigarette out right between Billy’s eyes. Tuck chuckled, “Now he looks like a f***ing Hindu!”

Billy lay there motionless, a bloody mess. Tuck had kicked him in the face hard enough that detectives would later find medium-velocity-impact blood spatter on the left leg of Tuck’s khaki pants. If Tuck felt rage inside, its only expression came out in his actions. Gus and Danielle saw few outward signs of anger, just a methodical infliction of pain instead. Billy could no longer speak because Tuck had stomped on his throat hard enough to break one of his tracheal rings. All he could manage was a weak, agonized moan. He lay there a few feet from the patio, naked and helpless. And now it was Turner who had an idea.

Walking over to the patio table where Gus was, Turner grabbed a pipe standing in the center of it. It was a white pipe made of PVC that served as the lower half of some long-forgotten umbrella. Normally it sat in a concrete base under the table. The top half had a joint and hook to hold the upper half with the umbrella. The lower half abruptly tapered to a sinister, conical point. Turner carried it over to where Billy lay facedown on the ground.

Squatting beside him, Turner shoved the white pole between Billy’s buttocks and into his rectum, making sure that the sharp point was inside the anus. He then looked up at Tuck and, holding the pole with the blunt end angled upward, motioned with his head. Taking the invitation, Tuck viciously stomped on the blunt end of the pole with the bottom of his combat boot as hard as he could. Billy moaned sharply. Turner laughed. Tuck stomped the pole a second time even harder. Doctors later estimated that the pointed pipe went 8–10 inches inside Billy’s body, rupturing his bladder and colon in the process.

Tuck and Turner were not finished, however. The two dragged Billy to the far end of the backyard, where a fence separated it from a drainage bayou. Noticing grass near his mouth, one of them grabbed a handful of grass and dirt and shoved it down Billy’s throat, gagging him. While Turner tossed Billy’s shoes over the fence and began burning his clothing in a barbecue grill, Tuck returned to a frightened Gus. “Do you have any bleach?” he demanded. “We’ve got to get rid of the evidence.” Gus shook his head no, but Tuck knew where the laundry room was and went inside to look for himself. He returned with a full bottle and a warning glare for Gus. “If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you,” he said, walking to the edge of the backyard where Billy lay, the pole still inside him. Turner joined him there.

Taking the cap off the bleach, Tuck poured the bottle into Billy’s face, eyes, and open mouth. He poured bleach all over Billy’s naked body, poured it down the pipe and into his traumatized abdomen as well. (Even seven months later at the trial, Billy still had visible areas of skin the bleach had burned off. The physicians who treated him did not think that bleach could account for the reaction they saw in Billy’s immune system. They believe other chemicals, perhaps something like acetone, were poured on and in him.) Grabbing the end of the pole, Turner yanked it out and struck Billy in the ribs with it. He held it out while Tuck poured the last of the bleach on it, cleansing away any blood or fecal material, then Turner tossed it aside, laughing.

And at last, it was over. It had probably been around midnight when the confrontation began. Tuck and Turner had taken their time with Billy, as if savoring each moment of torment. It was now past 3 a.m. Leaving their victim for dead, the two leisurely went inside, warning Gus of the consequences if he reported them to the police. Scared and ashamed, shaking from the drugs he had taken and from what he had witnessed, Gus did nothing. He went inside and passed out on his living room couch. When he came to later that morning, it was around 9:45. Going outside to feed the dog, he saw Billy’s naked body in the backyard, and everything came rushing back. Running inside, he pounded on his mother’s door and yelled for her to call 911. Then he helped Billy inside to the kitchen table. Billy had lain injured in the backyard for at least six hours.

An ambulance came and transported Billy to the hospital. Tuck and Turner had beaten Billy so badly that his own parents could not recognize him. His face had swollen to the size of a pumpkin, with his eyes puffed shut and his lips turned inside-out. Noticing injuries to Billy’s rectum, doctors soon realized they were dealing with not just a severe beating but also a sexual assault. Over the next few days they watched with deepening concern as Billy’s white blood cell count skyrocketed and his organs shut down. Even after 48 hours in the hospital, he was not expected to live. Billy would stay in the hospital for the next three and a half months, undergoing dozens of surgeries to cleanse and repair his internal injuries. To this day he wears a colostomy bag, and doctors can only hope that they can someday repair his colon so that he can use the bathroom normally.

Deputies from the Precinct Four Constable and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department who responded to the scene had little information to work with. They knew they had a badly beaten victim, but there were apparently no witnesses. Gus, who had popped more alprazolam while the police were on their way, lied and claimed to know nothing about the assault. Danielle, who had witnessed the beating from the sunroom and her upstairs bedroom window, also feigned ignorance. Fortunately, as so often happens in our business, the dim-witted perpetrators themselves provided detectives with their first big lead. Alert deputies saw Tuck and Turner skulking around the far side of the back fence, looking for Tuck’s cell phone, which he mistakenly believed he had dropped. They detained the two and soon noticed blood on Tuck’s pant legs. When questioned about it, Tuck requested an attorney. But later, when he overheard a comment by a detective that “that kid sure got the hell beat out of him,” Tuck voluntarily (and not in response to custodial interrogation) admitted that he had beaten up Billy because he had “tried to rape Gus’ sister.”

Detectives would later take two voluntary, video-recorded statements from Tuck in which he admitted that he “lost control” and “blacked out” while beating Billy, and that he had been punching Billy while Danielle Sons sexually assaulted the victim with the pipe. Because of a problem with the legal warnings on the tapes, the trial court would later suppress these statements. The jury would never see them.

Trial preparation

The prosecution of David Henry Tuck presented numerous challenges. Most significant was the fact that the only eyewitnesses, Gus and Danielle, had not been honest with detectives initially and had minimized their own involvement in the offense. Though their account of the assault was basically consistent, the details of their own whereabouts and actions sometimes contradicted each other. Even if they were not outright accomplices, the two siblings had hardly shown a great deal of compassion or humanity toward Billy Reyes that night, both going to sleep with him still lying in the backyard, suffering. But as repulsed as everyone was at their callous indifference, their testimony was absolutely vital. Although the blood spatter on Tuck’s pants strongly suggested he had kicked the victim, there was no physical evidence linking him to the pipe. The only evidence proving what he had done would have to come from Gus and Danielle.

Second, due to the lack of information on the scene, key pieces of evidence had not been collected on the morning of the offense. Some were never collected. Although it is easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, we must remember that many key details of the assault were not revealed by the reluctant witnesses until weeks and months later, long after the evidence was no longer available. The detectives were not even able to interview the witnesses on the day of the offense because they were still too intoxicated.

Third, we would receive no help from the victim. For more than a week, we feared that Billy Reyes would not survive at all and that we would be seeking a capital murder indictment instead of one for aggravated sexual assault. As he gradually stabilized and recovered in the hospital, I held out hope that some memories would come back to him prior to trial. But perhaps mercifully for his sake, Billy had no memory whatsoever of the attack or even the events leading up to it. He could add nothing to verify or contradict what Gus and Danielle said.

Finally, publicity posed a challenge. In the days immediately following the offense landing in my court, the news media was awash in lurid stories about the case. Neighbors of the Sons family as well as Tuck and Turner came forward to put in their two cents, relating not only things that they had witnessed themselves but also rumors that were floating around the Klein ISD about what had “really” happened. As the shocking details of the assault leaked out, along with the racial aspects, outrage erupted. I received furious letters, phone calls, and emails from people all over the country, demanding swift and harsh punishment for the perpetrators. Many groups insisted that the case be prosecuted as a hate crime under Penal Code §12.47. When I tried to matter-of-factly explain that the hate crime statute did not apply to 1st-degree felonies and would have no effect on the punishment, some media outlets portrayed it as a lack of zeal on my part for prosecuting the case, and outrage grew even more. As more and more publications and shows asked for interviews, I finally had to stop talking to the press for fear that the publicity would result in a change of venue.

Privately, I was glad that the hate crime statute did not apply because I was not at all certain that I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that David Tuck had “intentionally selected” Billy Reyes “because of the defendant’s bias or prejudice against a group identified by race.…”2 After all, there were so many unknowns. Was the assault really about race, or was it about Billy’s attempt to kiss Danielle? Or could it be neither of the above? Reading between the lines, I suspected that the missing narcotics had more to do with the attack than anyone was admitting. Even Tuck, in his video statements, suggested the possibility that Gus had “set the whole thing up.” While some groups still pressed us to pursue hate crime allegations for statistical purposes, I was not about to add anything extra to my burden of proof with a superfluous enhancement.

Once it became clear that Billy was going to make it, we did what we could to fast-track the trial. With two unpredictable teenage witnesses, one of whom, Gus, was already on juvenile probation, I wanted to get the case tried before anything else happened to undermine it. The medical examiner’s office completed DNA testing on a huge volume of evidence, verifying that blood consistent with the victim’s genetic profile was all over Tuck’s pants, boots, socks, and even underwear. Nikia Redmond, an analyst with the ME’s office, would later testify that Billy’s blood was on the hips and back of Tuck’s boxer shorts, possibly transferred there when he was pulling up his loose-fitting khaki pants. There was no genetic material of any kind on the pipe, which was consistent with Gus and Danielle’s account of Tuck pouring bleach on it to destroy evidence.

As trial approached, I soon realized that the punishment phase might well involve more witnesses and evidence than the guilt/innocence phase. David Henry Tuck had been in trouble since he was 12, and his record consisted almost exclusively of assaultive offenses, the lone exception being a possession of a prohibited weapon he picked up after bringing a switchblade knife to school—hardly any less alarming than assault. All but one of these cases had resulted in juvenile adjudications, but the jury needed to hear the underlying facts because two of the assaults had been racially motivated. My co-counsel, Denise Nassar, shouldered the burden of interviewing and organizing the witnesses we called at the punishment phase, and I am deeply indebted to her for a job well done.

The trial

On the day of the trial, we called a jury panel of more than 120 people. Almost half of them were excused because of strong opinions they had formed from pretrial publicity. Eventually, the jury of 10 women and two men heard two days’ worth of evidence during our case-in-chief.

Gus did surprisingly well at Tuck’s trial. On the stand, for the first time, he was honest about the fact that he had allowed the assault to happen without doing anything to help Billy Reyes. He agreed on cross-examination to being a “drug-crazed, armed drug dealer” as the defense characterized him, but his passive, remorseful demeanor on the stand enhanced his credibility to me. By no means was Gus likable, but he was at least believable.

Danielle was a different story. Cold and sullen on the stand, her dark eyes showed no emotion whatsoever as she recounted what had happened to Billy. She claimed that Billy’s attempt at kissing her had not upset her, and she denied encouraging or participating in the assault in any way. When asked about how she hurt her big toe, which several witnesses had seen badly bruised the next day, Danielle claimed that she had stubbed it on a curb walking her friend home that morning.

Prior to trial, I had grappled with the ethical dilemma of presenting testimony from Gus and Danielle that I simply did not believe. Their testimony regarding the elements of the offense was credible and supported by physical evidence, but other statements about their own involvment were not. How could I avoid suborning perjury? After consulting with Scott Durfee, general counsel and our office’s ethics guru, I chose to handle this problem by 1) disclosing to defense counsel the portions of testimony I did not believe, including any evidence impeaching or contradicting them, 2) confronting Gus and Danielle about the statements I did not find credible, and 3) phrasing my questions at trial in a way that made it clear I was not sponsoring that particular testimony (e.g., “You are claiming that you never touched the complainant, correct?” and “And your explanation for your hurt toe is what?”).

In the end, the jurors believed enough of Gus and Danielle’s testimony to convict on the basis of it. They were unanimous in their condemnation of the teenagers’ actions, however, and appalled at the lack of parental involvement that allowed for rampant drug abuse right under their mother’s nose.

Billy Reyes testified near the end of the trial. He had no memory of the assault, or of even meeting Tuck and Turner, but he authenticated some photos of his injuries and was able to identify a bloody pair of shorts detectives had found concealed in an upstairs hamper at the Sons house. He added little to the case, but I knew the jury would want to see and hear from him before reaching a verdict.

During the trial, Denise and I used a variety of visual and multimedia aids to present our case, ranging from the traditional (a blown-up checklist of elements and an extra-large board listing the defendant’s criminal history) to the more advanced (a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the evidence against him). After deliberating a little more than four hours, the jury convicted David Henry Tuck of aggravated sexual assault.

Punishment

The defendant’s prior juvenile adjudication and TYC commitment for aggravated assault acted as a prior felony conviction for enhancement purposes, so Tuck faced a range of 15 to 99 years or life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. However, juvenile priors do not affect probation eligibility, so jurors were instructed that they could consider community supervision if they found the enhancement paragraph in the indictment to be “not true.” Fortunately, this would not prove to be an issue, legally or factually.

At the punishment phase, Denise and I presented evidence of Tuck’s history of assaultive behavior. Tuck had committed at least five assaults, two of them felonies and another two racially motivated. At age 12 he had viciously assaulted a teacher at his elementary school. At 14 he was caught with the switchblade, and later, while on probation for the weapon case and along with two other adult skinheads, Tuck had savagely attacked a Hispanic man at a gas station, kicking and stomping the victim with steel-toed boots. This incident ultimately resulted in the federal prosecution and conviction of the adult skinheads for racially motivated federal crimes, and it got Tuck locked up for the first time, but it did not stop the violence. At age 15, after his release but while still on probation, Tuck stabbed a girl at a party, earning himself his first trip to TYC. At age 16, less than three weeks after his release on parole, he assaulted a young Hispanic boy in his neighborhood, shouting “White power!” as he knocked him off his bike. When deputies tried to arrest him for that offense, he kicked one of them as well. Back to TYC he went.

In all, Tuck had been incarcerated for more than three of the last four years, and yet had somehow managed to commit three felonies and four misdemeanors by the time he was 18 years old. He had committed both of his last two offenses just weeks after being paroled from TYC.

At the punishment phase, the jury learned more about Tuck’s extremist views. An expert familiar with white supremacist symbolism testified about the meaning of the different tattoos on Tuck’s body. Some, such as the swastikas and a crudely done “SKIN FOR LIFE,” were obvious; others, such as “1488,” more subtle.3 Tuck’s clothing told an even grimmer tale: The red laces on his black boots meant that he was a skinhead who had drawn blood for the cause of white supremacy. His studded belt with a horned skull buckle could serve as a fearsome weapon, just like the 4-foot tow chain hanging from his wallet. Silver totenkopf skulls, a familiar neo-Nazi motif, appeared as a recurring theme. Everything about the defendant seemed to be devoted to death and violence.

Delving into Tuck’s school and TYC records, we discovered that, in his case, the outer image he projected matched his inner thoughts to a T. In elementary school he had once threatened to “blow up the school,” and his disciplinary records listed him as “incorrigible” as early as age 12. At TYC, he had proudly proclaimed his skinhead identity and had listed “fighting” as one of his “special skills” during his initial assessment. He had always had difficulty controlling his anger. His parole officer testified that Tuck seemed to do well in structured, secure settings, but that in the outside world, he was “explosive.” Finally, during two psychological evaluations at TYC, Tuck had admitted that he liked seeing blood and that he heard voices on a weekly basis telling him to kill people. He told the psychologist that his recurring obsession was to kill and mutilate a girl, squeeze the blood out of her, stitch the body parts back together and have sex with her corpse. During the punishment phase of the trial, I had Tuck’s TYC parole officer read those quotes verbatim from the records as the jurors listened with absolute disgust and revulsion. The oppressive heaviness that fell over the courtroom after he did so was almost too much to bear.

After the State rested on punishment, Tuck’s defense attorneys called his mother to the stand. She testified that he had come from normal, working-class family in the north Houston suburb of Spring. His parents had divorced when he was young, and his mother testified that when Tuck was very small, his father had fired a gun in front of him while in a rage. She also testified that Tuck’s older half-brother, Sammy, a skinhead currently in prison, had influenced Tuck with his white supremacist beliefs. A jail chaplain also came to testify that he was leading Tuck toward Christian salvation and that he had seemed eager to learn about the Gospel. But neither he nor Tuck’s mother could offer any insight or explanation about what had driven him to commit such a heinous offense. How or why he had become such a monster, no one could say.

After both sides had rested, it was time for closing arguments. The defense attorneys, faced with an overwhelming amount of negative evidence about their client, focused on a religious theme, asking the jury to be merciful to the defendant just as Jesus Christ had been merciful to all sinners. It was a low-key argument, conceding the issue of probation and simply asking for some leniency.

For the prosecution, it was time to pull out all the stops. During arguments on guilt/innocence, I had restrained myself from dwelling on too many of the gory details of the offense, choosing instead to logically guide the jury through the evidence and legal issues and to save my righteous outrage for punishment. Now, Denise and I brought the jury face to face with every sadistic thing David Tuck and Keith Turner had done to Billy Reyes. The savage beating, the cruel torture, the brutal sodomy with the pipe—just the offense by itself was more than enough to merit a life sentence. When you considered David Tuck and the type of man he was, with a history of violent, hurtful behavior, it made the appropriate sentence even more obvious. Finally, we reminded the jury that the world, including other skinheads and white supremacists, was watching to see what they would do. What kind of message did they want to send to other potential criminals with hatred in their hearts? What kind of penalty did an offense motivated by such odious beliefs demand? Nothing other than the maximum would be acceptable: A life sentence—with a $10,000 fine if they wanted to send a symbolic message as well.

I asked the jurors not to compromise, which in some cases would have been a dangerous gamble, risking a mistrial just to get a particular punishment verdict. But here I figured it would be a safe bet, and the jury did not disappoint me. In less than 45 minutes they gave David Henry Tuck life in prison and a $10,000 fine, the most they could give him. He took the verdict with the same dull, stoic glower he had worn on his face throughout the entire trial. When asked if he had anything to say before the judge pronounced sentence, his only words were “No, sir.” The “SKIN FOR LIFE” had gotten just that.

Editor’s note: Shortly after the Tuck trial finished, Mike and Denise went to trial on Keith Turner’s case. On December 11, 2006, a jury convicted him and sentenced him to 90 years in prison.

Endnotes

1 Pseudonym.
2 Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42.014.
3 “14” refers to “14 Words”: “We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children” (a popular neo-Nazi slogan coined by David Lane, an imprisoned member of the white supremacist group The Order); “88” refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. “88” = “HH” = “Heil Hitler.”