Trial in first Tacoma gang killing of the 1980s is underway

A dark time from Tacoma’s past surfaced Tuesday in a Pierce County courtroom, where three men went on trial for what’s thought to be the first killing tied to the city’s gang troubles of a quarter century ago.

Brian Clement Allen, 47, Anthony Eugene Ralls, 45, and Nathaniel Miles, 49, are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Bernard Houston, who was 17 when he was gunned down on a Hilltop street corner Aug. 28, 1988.

The three men and two others were arrested and charged last year after decades of police work implicated them in Houston’s death.

The other two co-defendants, Terris Miller and Darrell Lee, took plea deals that required them to testify for the state.

During his opening statement, deputy prosecutor Jesse Williams painted Houston as an innocent victim who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a pack of gang members were prowling the Hilltop neighborhood looking for someone to attack in retaliation for previous shootings on the East Side.

“They are hot-headed. They are street-minded,” said Williams, who is prosecutor the case with colleague, Greg Greer. “They saw Mr. Houston’s vehicle, and, at this point, the ambush is on.”

But defense attorneys Brett Purtzer, Barbara Corey and Sunni Ko contended Houston, who was armed with a six-shot revolver the night he died, was a gang member himself and fired first. Any other shots came in self-defense, they said.

“It was when that shot came that the problems ensued,” Purtzer, who represents Allen, said during his opening statement to the jury. “When you lead a violent life, sometimes you wind up with a violent death. Mr. Houston reaped what he sowed.”

The shooting came at a time when California street gangs were immigrating to the Tacoma area and its virtually untapped market for crack cocaine. Street fights over turf, including drive-by shootings, were becoming commonplace, but Houston is thought to be the first fatality.

Williams told the jury that on the day Houston died there were at least two shooting on the East Side that riled gang members who claimed it as turf.

Lee is expected to testify that several known gang members, including Ralls, Miles and Allen, wanted to retaliate by going to the Hilltop and finding a rival gang member to attack, Williams said.

“You do something to us, we do it right back to you,” the deputy prosecutor said.

Six young men, including those on trial, in two cars spotted Houston, a friend of his and two young women sitting in a Jeep Cherokee near South 23rd Street and South Sheridan Avenue just before midnight and moved in, Williams said.

Houston was shot in the head after getting out of the Jeep. His friend was wounded in the leg as he tried to run away. The women were unhurt.

Williams said Houston got off a shot but it wasn’t until the other group opened fire on him.

“Mr. Houston had every right to defend himself in this ambush,” the deputy prosecutor said.

The men responsible fled and remained at large for decades.

But defense attorneys disagreed with prosecutors about how the shooting unfolded.

“Mr. Houston, without a doubt, fired the first shot,” said Corey, who represents Ralls.

What’s more, she said, the prosecution’s key witnesses have changed their stories over time or are testifying to avoid lengthy prison sentences or to otherwise curry favor with prosecutors and detectives.

“Testimony in this case has been bought and will be paid for,” Corey said.

Ko made an effort to paint Houston as the aggressor in the firefight that eventually took his life.

She said one of the women who was in the Jeep with him would testify Houston called the men in the two cars a derogatory name when he saw them turn his way and reached under the seat to retrieve what most likely was the revolver.

“This was no ambush,” Ko said. “He was preparing for a shootout.”

The trial is expected to last for several weeks.