Monday, December 11, 2017
News Roundup

Fired Tampa detective wants job back amid secret federal investigation

TAMPA — Fired Tampa police Detective Eric Houston, the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry who helped investigate several prominent murder cases, is fighting to reclaim his job.

Houston maintains his innocence, said Owen Kohler, the Police Benevolent Association general counsel who signed a grievance as his representative.

"Detective Houston denies that he committed any policy violation," the document states.

The city said otherwise when terminating Houston, asserting he had violated two policies. One requires city employees to obey laws. The other doesn't allow personal motives to influence police decisions on duty.

The grievance calls police Chief Jane Castor's decision to fire Houston "arbitrary, capricious, excessive and not progressive in nature."

Houston seeks reinstatement, back pay and reimbursement for lost benefits. The city's next step will be to schedule a hearing.

Nearly three weeks have passed since Castor convened a news conference to announce that Houston had been fired amid a grand jury investigation. She called his alleged behavior "egregious" but did not reveal the nature of it.

His criminal defense attorney, Wade Whidden, did not respond Tuesday to inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times.

Kohler, who represents Houston solely in the employment matter, said Houston still doesn't know why the grand jury is investigating him.

"He can't make a statement on the nature of the charges because he doesn't know what he's being investigated for," Kohler said.

In that respect, Houston has plenty of company.

On Tuesday, a defense attorney for convicted killer Dontae Morris expressed frustration in state court over the secrecy surrounding the Houston investigation.

Morris is scheduled to be sentenced May 30 for the shooting deaths of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on a traffic stop in 2010.

Houston supervised the crime scene back then and his court testimony filled more than 80 pages in a transcript of the trial.

Byron Hileman, who represents Morris in the death penalty case, wants Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente to delay the sentencing to see whether the federal investigation of Houston might impeach his credibility.

"I can't know if it's relevant or not," Hileman said. "We shouldn't be put in the position of having to guess."

Already, Morris' ex-girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, won more time for an appeal because of the investigation of Houston, whose testimony helped convict her in federal court of failing to alert authorities that Morris was a felon with a loaded gun.

Morris' defense attorneys began Tuesday's hearing with a request for a six-week delay.

But Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said he had learned that the U.S. Attorney's Office would not wrap up the grand jury investigation of Houston before Labor Day.

He discounted the importance of Houston's testimony at trial, citing examples of its corroboration by others or by evidence such as photographs.

He said he had been told by superiors at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and by the Tampa Police Department that the federal investigation "does not have anything to do with his work on this case or the Rodney Jones case."

Morris was also convicted of murdering Jones, 42, in 2010.

Judge Fuente said he would rule by the end of the week on the request to delay sentencing.

The police department has reviewed several cases that Houston helped investigate. Among them, he helped investigate the case against Julie Shenecker, currently on trial on charges she murdered her two children.

Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]

Correction: This story has been revised to correctly identify Police Benevolent Association general counsel Owen Kohler. His first name was incorrect in an earlier version.

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