TAMPA — Eric Houston investigated cold cases for the Tampa Police Department.
As a cop, he learned this: First appearances can be deceiving.
Now he is on the other end of scrutiny. Houston, 53, is a target in a federal grand jury investigation. He has not been charged, but a court document released in May suggests that he used law enforcement databases to obtain identities for tax refund fraud.
In his first public comments since April 24, when police Chief Jane Castor called his alleged conduct "egregious" and fired him, Houston told the Tampa Bay Times that he expects to be vindicated.
"I have faith that the U.S. Attorney's Office will conduct a competent and thorough investigation which will confirm that I have not committed any crime," he said.
His attorney, Wade Whidden, wouldn't let him address specific accusations.
But in written exchanges with the Times relayed through the attorney, Houston provided glimpses of how he views his days at the Police Department.
He's proud of his service, he said. And he misses his friends and colleagues.
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He's the Alabama-born son of a Navy veteran of World War II.
The Houston family moved to the Tampa area when he was about 10. His father ran a small business and his mom stayed home with five children.
Early on, Houston did automotive and construction work. Then he said a robber put a gun to his head. That's when he started thinking about police work.
"I know what it is like to have your life hang in the balance," he said.
He was 29, the married father of two children, when he became a cop.
He patrolled neighborhoods east of Florida Avenue, eventually getting assigned to the X-ray Squad, which policed the now-demolished Ponce de Leon public housing complex and the surrounding College Hill area.
There, sometime around 1994, he estimates, he first met Rita Monique Girven. She would have been about 12, close in age to his own daughter and son.
Now 31, Girven is a central figure in the federal tax fraud investigation. The government has also examined the database searches of former Tampa police civilian employee Tonia Bright. But, according to a court record, Girven — who often assists police as an informer — was linked through an Internet address to claims for $894,394 in fraudulent refunds.
Houston remembers the days when Girven was a child in public housing.
"We often went out of our way to look for the neediest among them," he said. "It was not uncommon for us to purchase clothing, shoes, food and Christmas gifts for the neighborhood kids. … It was during this time that I met Rita Girven."
Girven's official encounters with police began around that time, too. She was arrested 13 times before her 18th birthday, often accused of stealing or breaking into cars.
Houston lost track of her in 1996, when he joined a street-level anti-narcotics unit called the QUAD Squad.
She reappeared in 2004 as a woman in her 20s who was expecting a baby, her third.
Houston recalls that she had information to share about an 8-year-old girl who had disappeared. She knew the girl.
Houston's life had taken its own turns. A 20-year marriage had ended. He began a relationship with LaJoyce Caldwell, a fellow officer he remembers meeting in a courtroom as both waited for cases to be called.
He had graduated to the homicide squad, which he calls "the fulfillment of a lifelong dream."
Girven, meanwhile, was pregnant by Henry L. Safford, a cocaine dealer serving time. In February 2005, four months after Girven delivered a girl, she called police to say that Safford, out of jail, had come to her home demanding to take the newborn.
"He picked up the baby carrier with the baby inside of it," the police report states. Girven "grabbed the carrier as well and a struggle ensued over the baby."
In the infant girl's first year, her father was arrested four times and her mother was arrested three times. Girven accused Safford of pulling a gun on her in a bar. Someone accused Girven of beating a witness in a fraud case.
"It was clear that her lifestyle and environment were not conducive to successfully raising a child," Houston told the Times.
"Rita appreciated this fact and shortly after (the baby) was born, LaJoyce and I took her into our home and began to raise her as our own."
The couple married in 2007. Houston said they formally adopted the little girl in 2009. It was widely known at the Police Department that they had taken custody of her. He had pictures of her on the wall behind his desk.
"A lot of officers regularly asked how she was doing," he said. "Chief Castor was well aware of the adoption of my daughter."
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Houston, meanwhile, was working at his dream job, combing through the relics of unsolved homicides and finding answers for survivors.
Co-workers thought he seemed suited to the work. He has been described as methodical and deliberate, inclined to study each element of a case in isolation.
"We often had to sift through rumors, innuendo and false leads to find the truth," he said, "as initial appearances can be deceiving."
He doesn't have a degree in criminal justice but has lectured on crime scene reconstruction and cold case homicides at colleges in the area.
He says he got above-average performance reviews that, in part, lauded his willingness to teach investigative techniques to newer officers and detectives.
The Times was not granted access to his employment file to confirm any of that or to see whether he had previously been the subject of internal affairs investigations.
The file, a public record in Florida, was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has given no indication of how long it intends to keep the record from public view. According to police spokeswoman Laura McElroy, the Police Department did not retain a copy.
Before Houston's recent troubles, the agency had at times touted his successes.
Among the more challenging cases he solved: the 2000 rape and murder of Laquetta Chael White, 15, who vanished after leaving her Grant Park home for a dentist appointment on Davis Islands. He matched DNA from a later sexual battery case.
There were others. He reran DNA from a South Tampa apartment where Dorothy Mink, 71, was found raped and beaten to death just before Christmas in 2007. It brought the conviction of Michael Lord Owens.
"Knowing that he's not out there and not hurting anybody — it's resolved," said Mink's daughter, Penny Hammock, 52, of Tampa. "I don't know if I'll ever find closure."
She works for the city of Tampa. She was stunned to learn that Houston was under suspicion in a federal investigation.
So were others, Tampa's mayor among them.
"I've ridden with Eric Houston back in the Quad days," Bob Buckhorn said. "I've known Eric Houston for 20 years. I was shocked."
Whidden, Houston's attorney, said his client is cooperating with the investigation.
Police internal affairs investigators began looking at Houston last fall, after his wife and Girven were overheard on a jail phone call apparently planning food stamp fraud.
News researcher John Martin and staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382.