The Harry Caldwell watch kept tabs on just about every discouraging situation involving Houston’s Hispanics that any expert could list in a book.
Not only were Hispanic leaders deeply hurt and disgusted with the Joe Campos Torres affair, but they were also anxious about the growing number of crimes affecting their people.
“In 1979 we were having so many Hispanics murdered and had no way to communicate with the witnesses,” recalled Homicide Captain Bobby Adams in his retirement years. “One weekend we had twenty-one homicides. We didn’t have the personnel to keep up with it and no time for follow-up. That’s why we had formed the Hispanic Squad. The news media named it.”
The special squad was needed so quickly that there was no time for much training. Caldwell assigned twenty-one people at one time to work Homicide. The officers may not have had the necessary experience, but they could speak Spanish and communicate with the people HPD had been unable to effectively serve. “We needed them so fast we didn’t get to pick ‘em,” Adams said.
“They came all at once. Some were great. Some are still there after twenty-five years. That’s what boosted Homicide. Before, we were barely making the scenes and not doing follow-ups. Homicides peaked out in 1981 at, I think, 701. You just couldn’t keep up with the cases individually. There were just too many. The budget was going crazy. I recall one year we spent $l.3 million on overtime and $40,000 on Polaroid picture film. We needed a lot of it to ensure that we had the scene.”
The Moody Park Riot was a Cinco de Mayo celebration on Sunday, May 8, 1978 violently manipulated by a few members of the Communist Party to keep live an awareness of the death of Joe Campos Torres while in custody of five Houston police officers. Many members of the Hispanic community were incensed with the verdict returned by a Huntsville state court jury on October 6, 1977.
The trial had been moved to the town best known for housing many state prison units, including Death Row, on a change of venue. The jurors found former officers Terry Wayne Denson and Stephen Orlando guilty of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. The two received probated sentences and ordered to pay fines of $1 each.
The Moody Park Riot itself began as a Cinco de Mayo celebration on a Sunday afternoon, complete with beer and food. The park is located at the corner of Fulton and Collingsworth just a few blocks east of Interstate 45 in what in 1978 could be described as a barrio. A portion of the crowd in the park had grown unruly early Sunday evening and began throwing bricks, rocks and bottles at any police officer they could spot.
The first reporters at the scene, Jack Cato and Phil Archer of KPRC/Channel 2,
learned that no one at the scene, including police officers and firefighters, were safe from flying bricks and getting their cars turned over, burned or both. The rioters in the crowd had set fire to several businesses in a nearby strip shopping center. The relentless news reporters headed toward a burning car, obviously the most desired video in their upcoming report, despite warnings that the crowd had been incited toward violence and might not spare men with cameras.
Flying rocks hit Cato in the face and three young men jumped Archer, grabbed his camera and started stomping it. Both men were stabbed, Cato in the back and Archer in the lower left buttock – both wounds with the capability of causing the victims to bleed to death. Initially, paramedics couldn’t get through the crowd. Archer explained what happened under these possibly life-threatening circumstances:
“The officers thought I had been stabbed in the crotch, so they laid me on the hood of a patrol car. A female officer who had been a nurse ripped open my pants and began checking to see if I’d been castrated. About that time a cameraman from the ABC station showed up and began taping. His tape played on all the networks. My first network exposure was very compromising!”
Police Chief Caldwell was out of town during the Moody Park riot. Those handling the situation were not as decisive as the chief would have been. Cato analyzed the case after having covered more historic HPD police incidents than perhaps any other TV newsperson in history. “Herman Short would have moved in with a show of force like he did in the TSU Riot in 1967, when only one police officer got killed,” Cato said.
“One officer in Moody Park almost lost his life. Tommy Britt was hit by a car. Six or seven businesses were torn up. There was no law enforcement there when that happened. They had pulled back. Caldwell was out of town. Who was in charge? They just didn’t handle it correctly. The whole experience taught me my favorite slogan: When the blue coats leave, I’m leaving. They were the greatest protection I had. If they were gone, I was gone.”
Both before and after the event, Caldwell worked night and day trying to improve the department’s relationship with the Hispanic community and the U. S. Department of Justice’s opinion of the changes he instituted. The chief often spent the night in his office after working hard during the daylight hours.
“Harry Caldwell used to dictate from the bathroom,” Sue Gaines, his secretary in the years before he was chief, remembered. “He talked loud enough. He’d holler at me. ‘Sue, take a letter.’”
The chief wasn’t always nice and once provoked Mrs. Gaines into picking up her purse and going home before quitting time. “Oh my God, I thought, I just walked out on the chief! The next day we pretended nothing happened,” she said. Usually, the day after a Caldwell blow-up he would put a candy bar on the desk of his target, whether it was Gaines or another member of his clerical staff. “That’s how he made up with his secretaries. He laid a candy bar on their desk and everything was okay. That’s a nice way of making up.”
Sue Gaines was like many other long-time members of the HPD civilian clerical staff – they were around so long they knew so-in-so when he was a Patrol officer, a sergeant or lieutenant. In 1969 and 1970, Caldwell was in charge of the police academy. Gaines wanted to graduate from the civilian level up to the uniform level. “When I wanted to go into the police academy, I went to Harry Caldwell and asked.”
“Baby,” he said, “I love you. But we don’t take midgets.” Gaines stood 4-feet-10 ½. She remained a civilian and knew Caldwell better than most HPD personnel when he became chief in June 1977. “When the chief was mad at me it was ‘Miss Gaines,’” Gaines recalled. “But when he was in a better mood it was ‘Baby, sweetheart or Susie.’ It was how the guys talked to you.”
Command Staff members grew to know the routine and developed a way to gage the boss’ mood. When Deputy Chief Floyd Daigle came into the chief’s office, the first thing he did was look at Sue Gaines and ask, “What’s your name today?”