Years of work reunites teens accused of ’88 gang shooting

Staff writerMay 19, 2013 

Bernadine Sanders, center, tears up as she talks to media about her twin brother, Bernard Houston, 17, who was murdered in Tacoma in 1988. Sanders, along with Houston's older sister Leslie Burt, right, and cousin Yvonne Heads, speak with the media April 25, 2013, following the arraignment of three men charged with the murder.

JANET JENSEN — Staff photographer

The key was patience, with a dash of cunning.

John Ringer, a longtime Tacoma police detective and gang expert, knew what went down the day 17-year-old Bernard Houston was killed.

He knew six rival gang members in two cars boxed Houston in at a Hilltop intersection and gunned him down. He knew where they were seated in the vehicles, what they said before shots rang out and that the drive-by was retaliation for a prior shooting.

Knowing it and proving it are different, though.

And with a case stretching back to Aug. 28, 1988, Ringer needed the men involved to admit their roles because physical evidence was limited to slugs removed from the victim and a tire.

“I was confident I knew what happened. I knew there was enough to get a charge,” Ringer said in a recent interview. “You have to be patient and get it in order.”

Nearly a quarter-century after Houston died and became the first gang homicide in Pierce County, Ringer got it in order.

Pierce County prosecutors last month charged five of the men allegedly in the cars that day — Brian Allen, Anthony Ralls, Nathaniel Miles, Darrell Lee and Terris Miller — with first-degree murder. The sixth, Joey Courtney, died in 2008 of a medical condition.

“Something they’d left behind caught up to them,” Ringer said in his typical no-nonsense manner.

STALLED UNTIL 2001

Police didn’t have much to go on right after Houston was fatally shot.

Witnesses recalled seeing a white Chevrolet Monte Carlo and a white-and-brown Oldsmobile Cutlass flee the scene. They heard the shooters bragging about being Bloods, but nobody stepped forward with names.

The first credible tip came a month after Houston’s death. An anonymous caller claimed Miller, Miles and “Joe” shot at the teen from a Monte Carlo owned by Miller’s mother. Detectives verified that Miller’s mother owned a Monte Carlo that had changed license plates shortly after the shooting, but that’s as far as it went.

The case languished without leads until 2001, when another headline-grabbing homicide revived it and Ringer took control.

In March, two men tried to rob a newlywed couple and shot them after they refused to hand over money. Chica Webber, married less than three weeks and three months pregnant, was killed. Her husband was wounded.

Rashad Babbs, who eventually was convicted for Webber’s death, fled Tacoma. The FBI received a tip five months later that Babbs was in Illinois. Agents searched 14 straight hours before finding him in rural St. Clair County in the southern part of the state.

Ringer, who caught that case, flew to Jacksonville, Ill., to interview and extradite Babbs. While there, he interviewed Miller, whom Babbs lived with while on the run. Bringing up the old Houston shooting, the detective told Miller what he thought happened that day.

“He’s sweating. Visibly, he was drenched — and we were in air conditioning,” Ringer recalled. “He’s nodding. He admitted he was there, but he minimized his part.”

Miller told Ringer the six jumped into cars to go look for the Hilltop Crips who had shot at some Bloods earlier that day. He said he was too drunk to drive so he got in the front passenger seat of his mom’s Monte Carlo. Miles drove and Courtney sat in the back seat. Lee, Allen and Ralls got into the Oldsmobile.

Miller, who denied having a gun, said gunfire first came from the Oldsmobile and that he saw Miles get out of the Monte Carlo and shoot. He claimed he dived for cover and hid until the Bloods sped away.

Ringer jotted down notes during the interview but didn’t arrest Miller. He still needed more.

Five days later, the detective found Lee back in Tacoma and questioned him at the police station. Lee gave the same general account that Miller had, Ringer said, admitting he was there but denying he fired a weapon.

The case was building, but slowly.

It was another five years before Ringer talked to Miles after he landed in the Pierce County Jail on drug charges in 2006.

Miles changed his account several times about what happened the day Houston died, Ringer said, and ultimately said he fired at Houston’s friend, who was shot in the leg.

He insisted he wasn’t “trying to kill anyone,” according to court documents.

“I was getting the same general account,” Ringer said.

Courtney was the next suspect Ringer found. He corroborated what the detective already knew, Ringer said. Like the others, he downplayed his role but didn’t deny being present.

The detective’s confidence was building. He finally had what he needed: acknowledgements from the men themselves that they were involved.

“You don’t generally get this much information to go into an interview with,” Ringer said.

Also in 2009, a man who served time with Allen and once lived with Ralls came forward with information about Houston’s slaying.

It was yet another piece in the puzzle that was coming together.

ALMOST OUT OF REACH

At that point, investigators had enough of a case to warrant arrests, but they wanted to bring all the men into custody at the same time so they couldn’t hide.

The problem was Allen had been released back to his home country of Canada in 2000 after serving a brief sentence on a federal drug case. He was untouchable for the time being.

In 2011, Ringer turned the case over to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office for review, and an arrest warrant was issued only for Allen.

Last month, Ringer got the call he’d been waiting for. Allen was in custody. Acting on the American warrant, Mexican authorities had stopped him on his honeymoon and turned him over to police in Texas.

“His bad luck,” Ringer said. “If he would’ve stayed in Canada, we couldn’t have touched him.”

Police moved fast once Allen was locked up. They picked up Miles, Lee and Miller without incident, but they couldn’t find Ralls because his listed address was wrong.

That’s where the cunning came in.

An officer figured out what type of car Ralls drove and called him, claiming he needed to look at the vehicle because a car matching its description had been involved in a hit-and-run collision.

Ralls directed detectives to the tavern he was at. When they got there, they arrested him.

Prosecutors allege Houston and a friend drove by and shot at several Bloods, including Allen and Ralls. In response, the six men drove around until they found Houston parked on a Hilltop street. Ralls and Allen got out of the Cutlass and shot Houston, striking him in the head and killing him, prosecutors contend.

Houston fired only one shot, if any, court records show. A gun was found in his hand.

Miles, Miller, Lee, Ralls and Allen have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

WHERE THEY’VE BEEN

The men were all teenagers when Houston was gunned down. They are now in their 40s.

At least two of the men gave at least the appearance of turning their lives around since the shooting. During their arraignments, Allen and Ralls told the court they had jobs, though it’s unclear what those jobs were.

Miles reportedly has 18 children with different women, and Allen now is a husband and a father.

None of the six kept out of trouble.

Before Courtney died, he was convicted of second-degree murder for a nightclub shooting.

Miles, who lived in Steilacoom and reportedly worked cutting trees and removing brush, has multiple felony convictions for rape, assault and drugs until 2005. Miles was shot and wounded in the stomach in 2002 outside a nightclub. That caused him to pull slightly away from a life of crime, police said.

Ralls’ criminal record includes convictions for drugs, attempted kidnapping and attempted assault. A jury found him not guilty of murder in a 2002 case.

Miller’s rap sheet shows convictions for robbery, possessing heroin and criminal conspiracy.

Lee last found himself in court in 2009 for unlawful possession of drugs and has at least nine prior drug convictions.

Now, they’ll soon be in court together to face charges of a payback shooting that killed a rival gang member a quarter of a century ago.

And when a jury returns with its verdict in Houston’s death, Ringer will be there, making sure things are in order.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 stacia.glenn@ thenewstribune.com

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