HOUSTON – Prosecutors say an illegal immigrant accused of intoxication manslaughter in the death of a Houston police officer is an admitted member of MS-13 – a claim the defense denies.
Johoan Rodriguez, 26, appeared in court Wednesday morning for a probable cause hearing, at which a judge denied him bond.
Rodriguez, a twice-deported illegal immigrant, was arrested early Sunday morning after police say he struck and killed Officer Kevin Will, 38, at the scene of a motorcycle accident on the North Loop near Yale.
Prosecutors said police had the freeway blocked off while they investigated the accident and interviewed witnesses, but Rodriguez ignored the barriers and tore through the scene at a high rate of speed.
One of the officers at the scene hopped in a cruiser and attempted to pull Rodriguez over, to no avail.
"This defendant proceeded going at a high rate of speed, he did not slow at all. He struck Officer Kevin Will, who was speaking with a witness, killing him instantly and dragging his body for a long distance," Prosecutor Catherine Evans said to the judge.
Evans said when police took Rodriguez to the hospital, he was not aware that he’d been in an accident.
She said his blood-alcohol level came back at a .238 – three times the legal limit, and officers found .3 grams of powder cocaine in a baggie in Rodriguez’s pocket.
Defense attorney Eric Clay admitted that his client had been living in the country illegally, but said he’d been here for most of his life and even attended – but did not graduate from – Sam Houston High School. Clay adamantly denied the prosecution’s allegations that Rodriguez was a gang member.
"He’s been in the country for 20 years, came over as a 6-year-old child. Went to high school here. And he is not a gang member. He is not affiliated with MS-13. That’s a falsehood," Clay said. "He says he has never been affiliated with a gang, especially MS-13."
Clay said Rodriguez works in construction, building homes, and that he’s never been arrested before.
"My client would like to express his sincere condolences to the family of Officer Will, prayers, best wishes to his family," Clay said.
Court records show that after one of his deportations, Rodriguez tried to gain entry to the U.S. in Hidalgo County.
A federal court document noted that he was "claiming that he had been born in Houston, Texas. The defendant presented a Texas driver’s license to back his claim."
Prosecutor Evans said it was "personally disturbing" that someone like Rodriguez could have a validly obtained Texas driver’s license.
The Texas DPS said Rodriguez’s license was issued in April of 2007 – one year before the enactment of the "legal presence" statute that requires proof of citizenship to obtain a license.
When asked if Rodriguez should have been in the country at all, Clay said that wasn’t up to him.
"That’s for the federal government to decide, not me," he said.
Wednesday’s hearing was attended by a large number of police officers, among them Officer Don Egdorf, who arrested Rodriguez after the accident.
"It’s not any easier today than it was the other night. It’s been a hard process. It was a hard scene to go up and work. It’s difficult to see your friend out there like that," Egdorf said. "We have to be here to show our support. Kevin’s family can’t be here today, so we have to be here for them."
Rodriguez’s mother and stepfather also attended the hearing, and she wept openly while waiting for an elevator, saying she was sorry in Spanish.
"They’re very distraught. They’re very upset about this. We met with them at length yesterday, and it’s going to be a tough road for them, as it was – and will be – for Officer Will’s family," Clay said of his client’s family.
Evans said she had yet to speak with Will’s family and was waiting to do so until after the funeral, out of respect.
Will, who was sworn in with HPD in September of 2009, is survived by a wife and two children, aged 6 and 10. His wife is six months pregnant.
"Officer Will was a very, very respected officer, young, energetic, his co-workers cared about him and he got along with everybody," said HPD Chief Charles McClelland.
Evans said after Rodriguez became aware of the seriousness of the charges against him, he quit volunteering information about his activities on the night Will was killed.
She said investigators are hoping the public can help shed some light on that.
"We’re very interested to know where this particular defendant had been drinking earlier in the night, where he had purchased alcohol earlier in the night and if there was anybody that he was drinking with, we’d certainly be interested in talking to those folks and hearing what they have to say," Evans said.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Harris County District Attorney’s Office at 713-755-2958.
Evans said, if convicted of intoxication manslaughter of a peace officer, Rodriguez could face five to 99 years or life in prison.
"I can assure you we will be prosecuting this to the fullest," she said.