Folks in Midland love their police officers. They also love their guns. But what happens when those two feelings come into conflict? More particularly, what happens when a homeowner lawfully defending his family shoots and kills a man he thinks is an intruder—and that man turns out to be a cop?
This terrible series of events came to pass in Midland in the wee hours of March 5, 2019. At 1:16 a.m., police were notified by their dispatcher that an alarm had gone off at the palatial home of David Wilson, a self-made oilman, in a tony area in the north part of the city. Officer Nathan “Hayden” Heidelberg and a rookie named Victoria Allee arrived, walked around the house, and checked a door to the back yard, which they found locked. Then they went to the front, where Allee pushed down the lever on the handle of the nine-foot stainless steel door with glass windows and opened it. A voice alarm sounded and Heidelberg closed the door. By this point, two other officers had arrived. Heidelberg opened the door again, shone his flashlight inside, and announced, “Midland police, come to the sound of my voice.” Moments later a shot was fired, hitting Heidelberg in the wrist and then the chest. He fell and his buddies rushed him away. Unfortunately, the wound was mortal, and Heidelberg died at the hospital an hour later. Wilson, 37, was arrested and charged with manslaughter—with “recklessly” causing Heidelberg’s death.
The two men were popular around Midland. Wilson grew up in Snyder, 88 miles south, where his father was an oilman. He dreamed of starting his own oil company, and at age twenty, in 2003, he did: Unitex Oil & Gas. He married Amy, his high school sweetheart, and the couple had three daughters. The couple taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. And his company was so successful—with 1,500 wells and eighty employees—that he bought a million-dollar 6,985-square-foot mansion on 2.5 acres at the end of a cul de sac.
Heidelberg, 27 at his death, had been with the department for five years. A hometown boy, he graduated from Midland College in 2011. He was a tall, hard-working cop who also attended First Baptist and liked to sit around with friends and play the guitar. Heidelberg became the first Midland police officer to die in the line of duty since 1966; in the aftermath, flags were flown at half-staff and his cruiser was parked outside the police station, where mourners decorated it with flowers. Heidelberg’s boss, police chief Seth Herman, called him “courageous, selfless, ethical and professional”; at the funeral, Herman added, “As much as I try, I will never be as good a man as Hayden.” Governor Abbott presented his family with a Star of Texas Award at the state capitol, and a section of FM 307 near the police department was named the Officer Hayden Heidelberg Memorial Highway.
All through the coronavirus pandemic, the killing was a main topic of conversation in Midland. But according to Craig Anderson, the host of a talk show on conservative KWEL-AM, there was little anger. “Everybody was right down the middle, supporting law enforcement and supporting your right to defend your property.” Gun-friendly Texas has both a “stand your ground” law and a “castle doctrine,” meaning you can, respectively, defend yourself and your home (or castle) with deadly force—as long as you reasonably believe that such force is necessary.
Often cases like Wilson’s don’t go to trial. Prosecutors are loath to bring them against a person who appears to have been defending himself and his home. But Republican district attorney Laura Nodolf seemed determined to bring Wilson to justice. “There was, in my opinion,” she told me on Friday, “a question as to whether or not his use of force to protect himself was immediately necessary, and [whether there] was any time taken to see if there was deadly force being used against him.”
This fall, more than seven hundred potential jurors were called for the jury pool—the largest in Midland County history. Unfortunately, the gathering in a small space led to a COVID outbreak (the judge was hospitalized) and the trial was put on hold. Then, on October 28, Wilson’s team of four lawyers was shocked when Nodolf announced the state was going to re-indict Wilson—this time for first-degree murder. Now the indictment said he had “intentionally and knowingly” caused Heidelberg’s death. “It wasn’t a reckless act,” Nodolf told me. “It was very much intentional. He knew he would harm or kill the person behind the flashlight” that Heidelberg was holding.
The trial, which began November 30, was one of the biggest in years in Midland. Every day the courtroom was packed with visitors and supporters of both families, who heard how the killing had been set in motion by a mechanical error. The initial alarm turned out to have been a false one—an error response interpreted by the security monitoring company as a burglary in progress, which was then reported to the police. But the company failed to alert Wilson that the police were on their way. A minute and a half after police were dispatched, another test was run on the system, and this time there was no error notice. But no one contacted the police to let them know the security system was having issues and there might not in fact be a burglary in progress. (Both Heidelberg’s family and Wilson have sued the monitoring company and the firm that installed the security system.)
On Tuesday, both Wilson and his wife took the stand. Amy said the door alarm tripped by Officer Allee awakened her and she alerted her husband. Then they ran to the bedroom closet, where they kept a Glock 19 on a high shelf, away from their children. Wilson had to lift Amy up to grab it. Both swore that they never heard Heidelberg announce himself (the closet was forty feet from the front door), but that they could see silhouettes through the door windows and hear muffled voices—Wilson even thought he heard one of them speaking Spanish. With pistol in hand, Wilson strode toward the front door and fired one shot at the flashlight held by the figure in the doorway. Then he slammed shut the door and Amy called 911.
On Wednesday, both sides made their closing arguments, and 25 of Heidelberg’s brethren, all in uniform, joined the SRO crowd. But it took the jury only ninety minutes to come to a decision: not guilty. When Wilson heard the verdict, he broke down in tears. “This was not a vote against law enforcement,” Brian Carney, one of Wilson’s lawyers, told me, “this was not a disapproval of the police. It was an endorsement of what the law provides.” He went on to say, “Nobody won. Despite the fact Mr. Wilson was acquitted, he’ll be in a prison of his mind every day. Everywhere he goes, people will say, ‘That’s the guy that shot that cop.’”
The next morning, callers lined up to take part in Anderson’s morning talk show on KWEL-AM. Most of them called the whole thing a tragedy and refused to point fingers. “There’s so much hurt on both sides,” said Anderson. He told one caller, talking about the heavy weight of responsibility that comes with keeping guns in your home, “You’ve got to be so doggone careful.” The caller agreed, saying, “If you see someone in your yard at 3 a.m. with a flashlight, don’t shoot. It could be a lady looking for her dog, or a boy looking for his football, or it could be a cop. But what in the devil do you do when it’s in the doorway? Holy smoke, what a horrible, horrible, horrible . . . it’s just horrible.”
Anderson summed up the Midland state of mind. “Most people are of the opinion, what a terrible thing it was—a lot of suffering on both sides here. You’ve got to be cognizant of the law. A lot of people have guns in West Texas. It puts people in a quandary because people in West Texas certainly support law enforcement—big time. And in the same vein, we all believe in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But of course, if you’re going to have guns, you had better know the law, you had better know what you can and can’t do, and you better know that weapon. There are so many things.”
While all the callers supported the basic right to be armed in your home, not everyone in Midland thinks it’s a good idea. One such person is Sara Spector, a longtime local defense attorney who also served as an assistant district attorney for seventeen years. “I’m very pro–law enforcement,” she told me, “but I’m against stand your ground and the castle doctrine. They can lead to the unnecessary deaths of police officers, the people who are protecting us. When police are called to people’s homes, it’s already a highly charged situation where people’s adrenaline is up and they’re not thinking straight, and no matter how well the police are trained, they know that any one of them could be shot, just like Hayden Heidelberg was, in a very tragic situation. And it will happen again, I promise you it will.”
Carney agrees that there’s a certain inevitability to this kind of tragedy in a community like Midland, where so many people have firearms. “If you walk into someone’s home uninvited at night in Texas,” he told me, “bad things happen.” That, of course, is just part of the way of life in many parts of the state. The real question, he said, is this: “If this had been anybody other than a cop, would we even be having this conversation?”