HOUSTON — The Houston Police Department said homicide investigators questioned the customer who shot and killed a man who robbed a southwest Houston restaurant last week.
On Monday, a day after an attorney claiming to represent the customer said his client was ready to talk, HPD said that the 46-year-old man was questioned by homicide detectives. He was not arrested or charged and his name was not released.
HPD said the case will be referred to a grand jury to determine if charges are warranted.
HPD had been looking for the man who was seen on surveillance video shooting the robber, later identified by HPD investigators as Eric Eugene Washington, 30.
The incident happened just before 11:30 p.m. Thursday at Ranchito Taqueria on S. Gessner near Bellaire Boulevard.
Police said an armed man in a mask entered the restaurant and demanded money and wallets from the customers. As he was leaving, one of the customers pulled out a gun and shot the suspect several times.
After the shooting, that same customer collected the stolen money from the robber and returned it to the other patrons, police said.
According to authorities, the rest of the people in the restaurant left the scene before the police got there.
Police later said the robber didn't have a real gun.
“The robbery suspect ... came into the store and was wearing masks and gloves,” HPD Lt. Wilkens said. “He had a plastic pistol, possibly an aero soft or possibly a little BB pistol.”
No one else in the restaurant was injured.
Washington's criminal history
According to court records, this wasn't Washington's first robbery.
In 2013, he and others were charged with capital murder after a man was killed during an armed robbery, according to prosecutors. The charge was later changed to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and Washington was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
It's unclear exactly when he was released, but the most recent time he was arrested was Dec. 16 when authorities said he pushed his girlfriend to the ground and scratched her. Washington was charged with misdemeanor family violence and was released on a personal recognizance bond.
Was the shooting justified?
KHOU Legal Analyst Carmen Roe said the shooting appears to be in self-defense but understands why police wanted to talk to the shooter.
“One of the reasons that law enforcement is seeking out this individual is to find out whether he was in fear for his life or the lives of the people around him because that’s absolutely essential to a self-defense claim under the law," Roe said. “If you’re justified in shooting the first bullet, you’re justified in continuing to shoot until the deadly threat is no longer there."
Nathan Beedle works with the Harris County District Attorney's Office. He said Texas law outlines specific instances pertaining to robbery by threat, or aggravated robbery, where deadly force is presumed justified.
"I can point you exactly where it is in the law: 9.31 and 9.32 of the penal code," Beedle said. "Whether someone uses deadly force in the situation, that is presumed to be correct under Texas law."
Roe said it didn't matter if the gun used in the robbery was fake because the threat was real.
“Everybody in that restaurant clearly believed it was a real gun," she said.
The customer who shot the suspect left the restaurant after the shooting. Many asked if he was legally obligated to stay until the police arrived.
“Staying there to answer questions is important. It’s something that, as a lawyer, I would have advised him to have done, but at the same time, you have no obligation to stay on the scene of a situation like that," Roe said.
Defense attorney Nicole Deborde Hochglaube said that if the shooting is justified under Texas law, it doesn't matter how many bullets were fired.
“My takeaway is the gentleman who discharged the weapon was acting lawfully and it was his right to defend himself and the patrons in that restaurant,” Hochglaube said. “Once you are entitled to use deadly force under the law, you’re entitled to use deadly force until the threat is over.”
Former prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney's Office Joanne Musick said she also sees the shooting as a matter of self-defense.
“This is a man defending himself and others in the restaurant. People are getting sick and tired of crime on the streets,” Musick said.
Musick said she's not surprised that the case is being presented to a grand jury.
“That means that it’s too close to call. That it is a self-defense claim, it is defense of third parties. That the DA is not going to just take it over a phone call or just a simple review of the evidence and file a charge. They’re going to take it before a grand jury -- that’s 12 citizens that sit and look at the evidence and they look at both sides. They analyze if that self-defense was justified,” Musick said.
Houston police want people to know that taking matters into your own hands can have unintended consequences.
“If you’re lawfully carrying a weapon and you’re in an establishment and you decide to take matters into your own hands, you have to also take that into account that if you also hit an innocent person, that you’re accountable for each and every bullet that comes out of that gun,” HPD Detective Jeff Brieden said.
The restaurant owner and employees are calling the customer a hero.
Police are also hoping to question any customers who were at the restaurant that night. Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to call Houston police.