Blood in the Streets

As a photographer documented Houston homicide detectives at their grim work, an eruption of violent crime left 39 people dead in twenty days. Now, while the killing continues, the city lives on in fear.

November 1991By Comments

Nineteen ninety-one may well be remembered as the year most Texans came to expect that they would become victims of violent crime. People went to sleep at night listening for the sound of breaking glass and watching for shadows on the walls; no longer oddly reassured by the old saw that most murders are committed by people known to their victims, Texans became afraid of people who passed them on the street, of people in convenience stores, of people on city buses. This year, the fear had an obvious source: Day by day, people all over the state seemed to be dying at the hands of violent and unrepentant strangers.

In each city, certain crimes stood out for their randomness. In Austin a young musician was hospitalized after a brutal attack by five strangers. In San Antonio a young mother was stabbed to death while jogging with her baby in Olmos Park. In Dallas, a Wisconsin tourist was murdered in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant for refusing to give up his wallet. A Houston executive was followed home and shot in his own driveway. Readers of big-city newspapers memorized police response times and soaring murder rates. Such rituals reflected a new but essential truth: “In the past a greater amount of murder victims were people into drugs, gambling, and prostitutes,” Houston police sergeant Tom Ladd told photographer Stephen Shames, who followed homicide detectives with the Houston Police Department for twenty days while chronicling the violence shown on these pages. “People thought if you went to work and went home and lived an ordinary, decent, law-abiding life you could feel relatively safe. I don’t think they feel safe anymore,” Ladd said.

Nowhere did people feel less safe than in Houston, where there were over five hundred murders by the end of October, and violent crime is up 19.2 percent over last year. Houston is a city not unaccustomed to violence—1981, a great year for the economy, also holds an as-yet-unsurpassed record for murders. Nor has Houston been historically intolerant of violent crime, which for generations has been a curiously acceptable by-product of the city’s infatuation with personal freedom and wild West myths. In Houston, people even take perverse pride in the kind of showy crime figures who have made-for-TV-movie potential, from Dr. John Hill, who may or may not have murdered his society wife and whose subsequent murder may or may not have been ordered by his father-in-law, to Wanda Holloway, who just this year was found guilty of trying to hire a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival.

But Shames’s pictures capture a different kind of violence and in turn reveal a new and different Houston. Shames wanted to investigate the kind of random homicides that are now plaguing the nation, and Houston did not disappoint: In the twenty days he spent with the homicide squad last summer, there were 39 murders. Shames slept on office couches during the night shift and accompanied officers to crime scenes and investigations; he was present in hospital emergency rooms and at the funerals of victims. His photographs are stills from the larger drama that played nightly on Houston’s TV screens. The drama had stars, regulars, and cameo roles; it had familiar props and familiar scenes—teenaged suspects who covered their faces with T-shirts, corpses shrouded with blankets from the Kashmere Gardens Funeral Home, and weeping mothers who were sometimes related to the victim and sometimes related to the perpetrator. HPD’s homicide detectives became the series regulars, and an ever-present prop was the yellow tape of police barricades, which swiftly replaced the yellow ribbons of the Persian Gulf War as the symbol of the moment.

For a time, though, say, in early spring and summer, Houstonians tried to cope by affixing orderly morals to what were clearly random events. When a sixteen-year-old pregnant woman and a sixteen-month-old baby were killed in separate incidents at convenience stores, the moral became Stay out of convenience stores. When the immigrants who often work in convenience stores were murdered in growing numbers, the moral became Life was better in Mexico or Vietnam or Pakistan. When Antonio Renteria was shot in the head while trying to stop a burglary, the moral became Mind your own business. When four-year-old Monique Miller was raped and murdered by a homeless parolee, people complained about the failure of the criminal justice system, but the moral was Don’t let your children go anywhere alone. Only when the killings continued and the lessons became more and more difficult to discern—when it became Don’t step outside to smoke a cigarette—did people see the futility of moralizing and realize that everyone was vulnerable.

Earlier in the year, for instance, most crime victims had been poorer people living in neighborhoods with traditionally higher crime rates. But the murder of Bob Kaim, a consultant with Gerard Hines Interest, signaled a change. Kaim was murdered in his Galleria-area home by two men who followed him there and demanded his wallet. They killed him when he failed to give it up. The moral was, of course, Surrender your wallet; do not resist. But Kaim’s death, coupled with the subsequent murder of Cecile Ham, sent a message to a class of people who up to that point had remained largely immune from such crimes. Ham was the wife of Bill Ham, the manager of Clint Black and ZZ Top. A parolee named Spencer Corey Goodman, 22, abducted Ham and her bright-red $35,000 Cadillac from a parking lot in far west Houston. “That car,” police officers told the papers, “is what it was all about.” And so one moral could have been Do not drive an expensive car (Kaim had driven a Mercedes) or, in more expanded form, Don’t show off-a virtual impossibility in Houston- but the larger message was this: that the crime spree, as it was now called on television, included everyone. The notion that average Houstonians were up against people who killed without provocation or remorse and who were not punished for their actions became the litany of the summer, recited with fervor by policeman, politicians, and eventually citizens.

For the media, the crime spree provided the opportunity for redemption and, not coincidentally, higher ratings. Channel 13’s Eyewitness News, for instance, had been criticized for running reports on spectacularly lurid crimes of Houston’s past, titled The Evil Among Us. But as the murder rate increased, the present provided more opportunities. The Evil Among Us was replaced by a series of town meetings called Imprisoned by Fear, in which reporters badgered befuddled politicians about the various causes of the current crime wave. The newspapers supplied readers with countless well-meaning stories on personal safety, admonishing them to “be aware of their surroundings”—a standard bit of advice that, given the circumstances, came to require a level of vigilance far beyond the abilities of the average Houstonian.

As the crime coverage became more emotional, it became more feverishly personal. After banker Paul Broussard was murdered on the Fourth of July by ten young men from a prosperous suburb- it was categorized by the media as a “gay-bashing homicide” as opposed to the now-usual “robbery-homicide”—Houston Post columnist Juan Palomo wrote about the perils of silence and confessed his own homosexuality. When Post editors refused to run his confession, Palomo went public with his story and caused a flurry of national attention. This was the only time that the issue of individual rights surfaced; certainly no one was worrying about the rights of criminals. “You’d better not be innocent and charged with a crime now,” one defense lawyer cautioned.

Crime came to dominate Houston’s political agenda. Judge Michael T. McSpadden came out in favor of castration for violent criminals. City council members made guest appearances at victims’ funerals, and assistant district attorney Don Stricklin became almost as ubiquitous on TV screens as the homicide detectives. Most important, crime provided an issue for opponents of Mayor Kathy Whitmire. In commercials, opponent Bob Lanier, whose early campaign had been based initially on his opposition to a rail system of public transportation, posed with police officers. “It’s really simple,” he declared of a situation that clearly was not at all simple. “We can build a monorail or add more police.”

Throughout the summer the hope lingered that the crime wave was somehow a product of the heat, and there was amazement when the killings continued into the fall. As in the early spring, senseless fatal violence erupted between teenagers—a high school honor student shot a football star after borrowing a gun from a friend who had made her promise “not to do anything crazy with it.” As in the early summer, the weekend death tolls were numbing—seventeen murders occurred during the weekend of September 20. More people joined neighborhood-watch groups; Nights Out Against Crime became known as Crimeouts.

Houstonians were not in the mood for big-picture discussions about the failure of the social, criminal, or judicial systems. “There’s no solution,” one criminal defense attorney declared. “That’s why we’re catching all this shit.” People put away their good watches and decided against buying flashy new cars. They lost the sense of their city as wide open and welcoming and instead built fences, put in alarm systems, and learned how to shoot. (When a local alternative weekly, the Houston Press, published its “Best of Houston” issue, the readers’ “Best solution to stop crime” was overwhelmingly to buy a gun.) In short, Houstonians stopped being Houstonians, because for this year at least, the Houston they had known was gone.

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