The Police NewsBy Retired Houston Police Detection Wayne Wendel
Making Detective in the 70’s
The idea of becoming a big city homicide detective actually began when I was in high school. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and watching Dragnet on TV. The job looked like it was fun and challenging. However, there was little opportunity to be a detective where I lived. The small East Texas town of Vidor where I grew up had little employment opportunities. Little did I know that an opportunity would present itself in a few short years. Military service was one way out of a small town. The other option was college. I didn’t have the money to go to college, so I put the idea of being a police detective on the back burner and chose the military.
I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1966. The USAF was the fulfillment of another life’s dream. I was following in my mom and dad’s footsteps. They were both in the Army Air Corps in World War II. While in the Air Force, I took advantage of educational opportunities at the air base where I was stationed and I was able to get 60 credit hours of college. I was working toward a degree in accounting because everyone said I could make a good living as a CPA. Business and accounting became my college course of study.
After four years in the USAF I was honorably discharged and I moved to Houston to continue working on my accounting degree. After several classes in business and finance I realized that I was just not cut out to be an accountant. I found myself with over two years of college in a field that I hated. My grades were above average but my heart was not into sitting in an office all day working numbers or working in a corporate environment.
My life changed dramatically when a uniformed Houston Police sergeant walked into the Gibson’s camera store where I was working part time. He had a roll of film to be developed. I asked him about becoming a Houston police detective and he kind of chuckled told me that the City of Houston was looking for fine young men just like me. He gave me the address and phone number of the recruiting desk at the HPD Police Academy. I decided to look into this opportunity and I made arrangements to go in person the next day.
At police headquarters, I met an officer in recruiting and I told him that I was there to apply for detective. He smiled and laughed a little bit. He then told me that I had to start as a police officer and after a few years I could take the promotion exam for detective. I said ok, when can I start. I was going to do something that I had only dreamed of doing as a boy.
I was able to get my paper work in, and pass my polygraph test, and I had my physical exam done in a week. I was accepted into class 52 beginning November 15th, 1971. We started with 70 cadets. The HPD Police Academy was sixteen weeks of academic and physical training. We lost a few cadets in training and Class 52 graduated 52 Probationary Police Officers. I finished second in my class and graduated in early March of 1972. I was assigned to the Accident Division, evening shift, 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm.
It was a great beginning but I had my heart on making Detective. To be eligible to take the detective exam in 1972 you had to have at least two years as a Police Officer. That meant it would be two and a half years of waiting to take the promotion test. In those two to three years, I decided to get my B.S. degree from Sam Houston State. I changed my major to Criminal Justice and graduated in 1974. That was one goal achieved and it made the next one even more desirable. I was ready for the challenge to become a Houston Police Detective. But first, I would get a taste of what it was like as an accident investigator.
While working the evening shift Accident Division, I got
called to a one car fatal accident in the East End. The accident turned out to
be a robbery-murder after finding a bullet hole in the driver’s head. The deceased driver was known to cash checks
for laborers in the neighborhood and his wallet was missing. I called Homicide and I talked to a Detective
Joe Reed. He told me that all the
Detectives were tied up on shootings and I would have to make the scene
myself. I swallowed real hard and said
ok. I took my own photos, interviewed
the witnesses and drew a diagram of the scene and handled the disposition of
the body. Detective Reed instructed me come up to the 3rd floor, Homicide
Division. and he helped me write the report from the official HPD Homicide
outline. It was my first homicide scene and I was not even a Detective yet but
it made me even more motivated to get promoted.
The City of Houston Civil Service finally announced the Detective exam for the summer of 1976. Along with the announcement of the date of the test, the source material that the questions would be taken from were listed. The four books were; The Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure of the State of Texas, The Houston Police Rules Manual, Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation by O’Hara and Community Policing, sarcastically called the “green bible”. I already had two of these books, Rules Manual and Penal Code, from the police academy and I got the other two the next day. Looking at the four books and all that material was intimidating. Some doubt began to “throw rocks” at my dream of making detective. I asked my supervisors in the Accident Division, Sgt. E. J. Smith and Sgt. Emil Sliva how they studied for the Sergeant exam. They both told me the same thing read the books, then read them again and then read them again. I took their advice. My confidence returned and I was determined to be ready for that Detective exam.
I read each book at least three or four times. I could almost tell you what was on any given page of each book without looking at it. Then it hit me! The Civil Service person who would make up the one hundred questions from these four books was not any smarter than me. He had to open these books and select facts and topics for questions as any average person would do. I began going through each book and wring down questions on index cards with the answer on the back. By the time I had gone through the four books, I had over a thousand questions with the answer on the backside. I was going to be prepared for the test.
Word spread in the Accident Division that I was studying for the Detective exam and George Buehler, a Police Officer and Class 52 classmate asked if we could study together. It would be the beginning of a long friendship that would last for years. George and I would get together on our days off and we would study together asking each other questions from the index cards. The time finally arrive for the detective test. I was confident I had done everything possible to get ready for it.
The Detective exam was given in the Albert Thomas Convention Center. There were over two hundred officers who took the test. The test was 100 questions from the four books. I went quickly through the questions and I had no problem with the test. I think I was one of the first ones to finish and then I had to wait. The Civil Service test monitors graded the test immediately. I missed 10 questions that I should not have missed. I knew the correct answer and I just misread the question. I was really mad at myself for missing so many.
Promotion in the Houston Police Department in the 70’s was from a list of eligible candidates. Your ranking on the promotion list was based on three criteria; your test score, efficiency score and your seniority in grade. My test score was 90. Efficiency scores were given by each officer’s supervisor and it was generally a score of your job performance. However, it had more to do with your seniority and little to do with your effectiveness as a police officer. My efficiency score was 26 out of a maximum of 28. Your seniority score was based on the years in grade at your present rank. My seniority was the minimum, 2, with the maximum being 10. I had a total score of 118 and by the end of the day after all the scores had been tabulated, I finished in the top twenty on the Detective list. At that point I didn’t know if I would make Detective or not.
There was no assurance that I would make detective from this list. It would depend on the number of retirements by detectives in the HPD and promotions of detectives to lieutenant. The list would expire in one year. The one thing I didn’t think would happen, and it did, was the creation of many more detective positions by the City Council.
I had my heart set on becoming a homicide detective and I decided to do some politicking when it looked like I would be promoted. I made an appointment to see the Homicide Division commander, Captain L. D. Morrison. I remember walking into his office and seeing his desk stacked with so many cases I literally could not see the top of the desk. I told him of my desire to work in the Homicide Division and to my surprise he said, “Well, let me talk to some people,”. I never heard any more from him and I was afraid I had blown it trying to circumvent police policy. I later learned that he had called my immediate supervisors for their opinion of me as a police officer.
As the year 1976 progressed, a number of police officers were promoted to detective and by March 1st I found myself at the top of the list. I was finally notified that I would be promoted to Detective on March 31st, 1977. Sgt. Sliva told me that I would be going to the Homicide Division. I was so relieved and proud at that moment I let out a big, “All Right!”
On March 31st, 1977, I found myself in the Chief’s office
along with new detectives, Wayne Jones and Hipolito Galano. Chief Pappy Bond gave each of us our new
badges. I was handed my Detective badge,
D688. I recall a sense of pride and relief at that moment. I had actually made it. I was told to report to the Homicide Division
at 11:00 pm that Friday night.
I didn’t wait until Friday night to go to the Homicide Division on the 3rd floor of 61 Reisner St. I was ready to start working. I immediately walked down to the third floor and met Lt. Breckenridge Porter, Day Shift Lieutenant. He welcomed me to the Homicide Division and then told me to go home. He didn’t have anything for me to do at that moment. Lt Porter said that I would be working the night shift, 11:00pm to 7:00am and my partner would be Detective David Collier. I went home and got ready for my first night in the HPD Homicide Division.
The Homicide Division was the only Criminal Investigation Division that detectives rotated shifts on a monthly basis; days to evenings then to nights and back to days and so on. In addition, days off were also rotated monthly along with shifts. It was a crazy place to work. My first month I worked nights with Tuesday and Wednesday off. But it really didn’t matter at that point. I loved the job and never regretted going to work. I was finally a big city homicide detective.
My first night on the job was unforgettable. Friday night finally arrived and I got to work a little early and met some of the detectives on the night shift and Lieutenant H. W. Kersten, night shift supervisor. I learned that Detective Collier was in Austin attending the Texas legislative session. Collier was a HPOA director and he was lobbying for the Houston Police Officers Association. Lt. Kersten assigned me to ride with Detectives Doug Bostock and Danny Spurlock for the night. I was supposed to ride along and observe.
Lt. Kersten handed me three murder reports, cleared cases. He told me to read each one. I was to learn how to write murder reports by reading cleared cases. The Homicide Division had a 5X7 card with an outline how to write a homicide case. I began reading a recently cleared case that was over an inch thick by Detectives Jim Tucker and David Massey. These guys could write. Everything was described in intricate detail. It was like seeing a photograph with words. It began with Introduction; where they were when they were assigned the case, from whom they were assigned and time of the call, etc. The offense report covered every facet of the case from lighting to weather to witnesses to suspect interrogation. About 11:15pm I was halfway through the case when Bostock said, “Put that up we have a scene, a shooting DOA on Wirt Rd.” It was time to go to work. I rode in the back of their 1972 Dodge Cornet to the scene in northwest Houston.
As we arrived at the scene, Bostock asked me to do the diagram and he and Spurlock would handle everything else. I got to work. I had a rough diagram drawn and I was finishing taking measurements when Bostock said let’s go. To my amazement they had their entire scene notes on the back of a 3x5 index card! I thought to myself, these guys have a really good memory.
I thought we were headed to 61 Riesner St, but we continued on to the east end and pulled into the D & D Ice House on McKinney and Milby. Not wanting to be an odd ball I went in with them. I was surprised to find most of the night shift Homicide inside having a cold refreshment, playing pool or cards. I got a coke and tried to look invisible. In the words of Sgt. Shultz on Stalag 13, “I know nothing, I saw nothing, I heard nothing.” We returned to the 3rd floor of 61 Riesner and I finished my diagram on a supplement report.
In my early days in HPD Homicide we had no computers. Reports were typed on manual Remington typewriters. There was one IBM electric typewriter, but someone was always using it when I was ready to do my report. It was at that point that I was so grateful to have taken typing in high school. It was the one high school class that actually applied to my job. I learned to bang out offense reports with the best of them.
Dave Collier would eventually return to work from his HPOA duties and I rode with him until September of 1977. The day shift primarily conducted follow-up investigation requests outlined on an inner office memo called a “yellow sheet.” I would later get paired with Detective Johnny Bonds whose partner, Eli Uresti, went to the newly formed Internal Affairs Division. Johnny and I would ride together for over a year. We often traded our months of night shift or day shift with officers who like nights. Bonds and I liked working evenings because of traffic. Rotating shifts and rotating days off ended when Captain Bobby Adams took over the Homicide Division. Everyone was glad that was over. I would eventually work the day shift, 7:00 am to 3:00 pm in Murder Squad 11 for the remainder of my police career.
A Houston Homicide detective in the 1970’s was a jack of all trades and master of none. We had no crime scene units (CSU) to photograph, diagram or collect evidence. In addition, the scene detectives had to write a description of the scene from his or her notes and take measurements of everything. We could call for an officer on a Print Unit to lift latent prints. If the case was a real “who dunnit” we could ask the Lieutenant to request the HPD Crime Lab to make the scene. I began to carry my own camera, tape measure and paper and plastic bags for evidence collection. In the early 80’s Detective Bruce Frank was instrumental in the creation of the Homicide Division, Crime Scene Unit. The CSU Police Officers were highly trained in crime scene investigation and made the life of being a homicide detective much easier. The CSU took all photographs, measurements, collected evidence, drew a scene diagram and submitted evidence to the appropriate lab. Scene detectives could concentrate on handling witnesses and/or the suspect if he was still at the scene.
My time in the HPD Homicide Division would span 28 years. During my career, I had the privilege to work with some really great detectives as partners; Johnny Bonds, Jim Hall, John Kitto, Waymon Allen, Mike Peters, Fred Hale, and Mario Rodriguez. In addition, Day Shift, Squad 11, was filled with top notch investigators which are too many to name.
In 1984 the City of Houston eliminated the rank of Detective. We all became Sergeants. There would be no more Detective exam. Everyone got a Sergeant’s badge. We were also issued uniforms, a duty holster, handcuff case and belt with keepers. We would still work plain clothes; however, we were told to keep our uniforms handy in case the City needed more uniformed officers. Likewise, we were now eligible work extra jobs in uniform. Police Officers began transferring to the Homicide Division and they were paired with Sergeants to work cases.
I retired from the Houston Police Department in 2005 after 33 years of service. I told my wife I’d retire when it wasn’t fun anymore. I had finally decided to leave the job I truly loved doing. I’ve been asked more than once why didn’t I try to make Lieutenant. The simple fact is I loved being a Homicide Detective. There is nothing like hearing your handcuffs click on a murder’s wrists or walking him down to the jail intake and hear that big metal door clang closed and you know your suspect will never see the light of day again. Supervisors didn’t do that.
I feel blessed to have worked in an occupation that is not like anything else. It is complex, challenging, frustrating at times, but so rewarding when you clear a case. I always looked forward to going to work and face another challenging case. One of my partners once told me, “Someone has to represent the dead and God chose us.” I thank God for calling me to such a career and the inspiration to achieve the rank of Detective. As we used to say in Squad 11, “In God we trust, all others are suspects.”
Promotions within the Houston Police Department have really changed since the 1970’s. Police Officers can apply to work Homicide and they just transfer to the Division and learn to work murder cases. Promotion from Police Officer is to Sergeant only. There is no Detective rank.
I don’t know if officers have to study as hard for Sergeant as I did for Detective. I assume that it is. I’ve been told the promotion criteria has changed to allow more candidates to get promoted. I hope it is as rewarding to work there as it was for me. Rest assured there are plenty of Police Officers and Sergeants in the present-day Homicide Division who are working cases and after the bad guys just like my old retired friends. My only advise to them is to make us proud, be persistent and clear that case.
PS: Any success I had at a Houston Police Homicide Detective/Sergeant I owe to the men and women I worked with through the years. That includes my partners and other officers in Squad 11. I also worked for for some great leaders; Greg Neely my Lieutenant for many years, Richard Holland, my Lieutenant and then Captain of the Homicide Division.
As homicide investigators we see the worst in humanity and often wonder how someone could do that to another human being. Through the twenty-eight years of dealing with the violence, I never lost faith that God would right things and that He would see me through it.