Remembering Fallen San Jose Police Officer Richard Huerta
On August 6th we remember fallen San Jose Police Officer Richard Huerta. On August 6, 1970, Officer Huerta was killed by gunshots from a pedestrian intent on randomly killing any officer he encountered.
Below is the department’s official account of his story.
Officer Richard Huerta, the fourth San Jose police officer to die in the line of duty, was shot and killed by Emile Thompson on Aug. 6, 1970 while Richard was sitting in his patrol car writing a traffic citation. Although the death penalty existed at the time, Thompson was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
Thompson was scheduled to appear before the Board of Prisons for a parole hearing inApril 24th 2008. The POA and the PBA mailed letters opposing his release to the Board.
In the late 1980’s, Sgt. Dwight Messimer, who retired form the Dept, in 1989 after 22 years of service, researched and wrote the following detailed account of Richard’s death, along with equally detailed stories about the deaths of the first three San Jose police officer to die in the line of duty: Sgt. Morris Van Dyck Hubbard, Officer John Buck and Officer John Covalesk.
August 5, 1970 was a typical warm summer night. It was a Wednesday and, despite the heat, business at the Orange Winzit at 11th and Santa Clara was slow. Shortly before midnight, a man entered, bought a root beer, and left. He returned a short time later and accused the waitress, Marlene Braden, of cheating him by putting too much ice in the cup. The man quickly became irate and threw the ice-filled cup at Miss Braden. Frightened, the girl went to call the police. The man then fled, but he threatened to come back to "mess her up."
The troublemaker was 20-year-old Emile Thompson, a sometimes "student" at San Jose State. Depending upon one’s point of view, Thompson was either psychotic or simply a vicious political radical. His actions a short time later was well as statements made during the following fifteen months tend to support the latter.
The son of an Oakland policeman, Thompson had reportedly been studying "penology" at San Jose State. Earlier that evening he had attempted reconciliation with his ex-girlfriend but had been rejected. That rejection, coupled with his militant radicalism and a deep-seated loathing for his father, apparently came to a head in the early morning hours of August 6. The outburst in the Orange Winzit was the first warning of what was to happen. As Thompson drove off, he hit upon the best way to satisfy his anger. Until then, his only brush with the law had been a couple of arrests for possession of marijuana. By 1:00 a.m., he was intent on committing a vastly more serious crime: he was going to kill a cop! By 1:30, he had selected the officer and began to stalk his victim.
The Car Stop
The light was yellow as the white 1960 Cadillac approached Santa Clara Street on 11th. The driver, John Coldiron. Figured he could make it. He romped on the gas and the car hurtled through the intersection. Coldiron was convinced he had made it just under the wire. But Officer Richard Huerta, eastbound on Santa Clara, thought otherwise and began pursuing the fast-moving Caddy.
As the police car crossed Washington and closed on the Cadillac, Huerta flipped on the red lights and reached for the spotlight handle. The spotlight came up from its face-down position, twisting forward. Huerta’s thumb flicked the switch and a beam of intense white light stabbed through the Cadillac’s rear window, flooding the interior and partially blinding the two occupants. The Cadillac quickly pulled to the right-hand curb and stopped. Huerta’s patrol car pulled in behind. Some distance back, a third car pulled to the curb, its headlights off.
"San Jose, B-three; be ten-seven at North Eleventh at Empire." Huerta’s car was offset to the left in the prescribed manner. Grabbing his ticket book, the officer got out of the patrol car and walked forward.
The driver’s door on the Cadillac opened and the driver got out, shielding his eyes against the spotlight’s hot glare. Huerta stopped at the rear of the car, looked at his watch, noted it was 1:45 a.m. and waited for the driver to approach. He made a mental note that the date had changed; it was not August 6, 1970.
The driver of the Cadillac walked up to Huerta. They exchanged the ritual cop/violator greeting. Then Huerta told the driver to sit in the passenger’s seat of the police car.
Coldiron got into the police car as directed and Huerta slid in behind the wheel. Both men closed their doors, then Huerta switched off the spotlight, twisted to the right, and placed his ticket book on the seat nest to Coldiron. He next flicked on the dome light and dash-mounted reading lamp and bent over the ticket book.
One minute later, Officer Jack Morris rolled by to check on Huerta and, if needed, to fill on the car stop. But the situation looked routine to Morris, and any concern he may have had was allayed when Huerta held up four fingers, indicating that the situation was Code-4: no assistance needed.
As Morris’ police car drove past, Huerta bent down over the citation book and continued filling in the spaces.
Parked at the curb 250 feet behind Huerta and Coldiron was a 1962 Ford, concealed by the darkness and the added gloom of a large tree. The sole occupant who got out held a gun in his hand. His name was Emile Thompson.
As Thompson walked slowly forward, Joe Najera, the other occupant of the Cadillac, got out and walked back to the police car. Leaning against the passenger door, he peered inside and watched the officer write Coldiron a ticket. Bother men were bent over toward the center of the seat, intent on what was going into the boxes and spaces on the citation. Suddenly, Najera was shouldered heavily aside. The abrupt noise and motion caused Coldiron to look up. Over his right shoulder he was an arm thrust through the open window. In the grip of the hand was a gun. As Coldiron threw himself forward an down, the gun exploded.
Emile Thompson fired six times, hitting Huerta with four slugs. The officer apparently never even saw his assailant. The first bullet crashed through the top of his head; the second round hit his right shoulder. Huerta slumped forward just as the third and fourth rounds slammed into his back, near the base of the neck.
With each hit, Huerta’s body jerked and shuddered, blood splashing the car’s interior. But as suddenly as it had started, the attack ended.
Thompson, in his attempt to flee, ran north, then dashed down a driveway, pausing only long enough to try opening a window at 572 North 11th. Failing in the attempt, he ran through the back yard and jumped the fence, headed east toward 12th street.
As Thompson raced away, Najera jerked open the door of the police car and dragged Coldiron out. "Let’s get out of her!" he screamed, pulling the shocked, terrified friend toward the Cadillac. The two youths ran past their car, convinced that the gunman was not on their heels. But when it dawned on them that he had fled, they ran back tot he Cadillac and drove hurriedly away.
Several people in the 500 block of North 11th Street had heard the shots, the shouting and the squeal of the Cadillac’s tires as it sped away. Few gave the disturbance any thought.
Minutes later, Sheriff’s Office Deputies Jaggers and Burnett were crossing Hedding Street on San Pedro when they saw a white Cadillac careen into the Sheriff’s Office parking lot and slide to a stop. Two men leaped from the car and sprinted to the locked front doors of the Sheriff’s Office. Wondering what the flap was about, Jaggers and Burnett wheeled into the parking lot and collared the two men at the office entrance.
Upon hearing the men blurt out that a cop had just been shot on 12th street, the deputies put Coldiron into the back seat of their patrol car and turned Najera over to another deputy who had been attracted by the uproar. AS the Sheriff’s car raced toward 12th Street, the deputies notified County Communications of the report. At 2:01 a.m., a San Jose Police dispatcher put out the first call.
"All units, Via the Sheriff’s Office, report of an officer shot on 12th Street, Unknown if north or south. Units to respond."
Suddenly the summer night’s air was filled with the then characteristic combination of growl, roar and whine that marked the big bore police V-8 going to full power. Every cop in tow was headed toward the scene. But where was the scene? 12th Street was 21 blocks long.
"What the hell is happening? Is it a shoot-out? Is the guy dead or alive? Who is it? Would the S.O., it came from them could be ours?, it’s on 12th Street." A dozen unanswered question. "for Christ’s sake, will somebody tell us something!"
In 1970, the SJPD had two primary radio channels, one for each side of town." San Jose Green" handled routine police traffic on the odd-numbered beats (B-1, B-3, B-11, B-13, B-17, etc.) on the east side, the "San Jose Blue" handled routine police traffic on the even-numbered beats (B-2, B-6, B-10, B-12, etc.) on the west side. A third unmonitored frequency designated the "white" channel – was used primarily for car-to-car communication and, more often than not, by the H-cars. These units were unmarked vehicle manned by uniformed officer working special assignments similar in scope to today’s MERGE units. The two officer working H-1 on August 6, 1970 were Bill Lansdowne and Dominic Borcato.
At 12th and Santa Clara, Officer Bill Lansdowne and Dominic Brocato heard the call and experienced a surge of adrenaline. They were virtually on top of the call. But which way – north or south? Borcato stomped on the accelerator and roared north on 12th Street with Lansdowne straining to locate some sign of trouble. But North 12th was empty.
Radio traffic was clopped and tense’ units were venting their frustration with pointless report that they were responding. But out of the babble, a disembodied voice offered a useful piece of information.
"B-3 had a car stop on North 11th near Washington."
At 530 North 11th, Carmen McKenzie had herd the police car stop someone in the front of her residence. A few minutes later she had heard gunfire, shouts and the sound of a car leaving the area quickly, Curious, she went to her front window and looked out. The police car was alone, its red lights bathing the empty street with red glow. The street was still; there was no sign of life. Carmen "figured he had been shot," and called the police.
H-1, with Lansdowne and Brocato, was approaching St. John Street on 12th when City Communications report the information received from Carmen McKenzie. Turning onto St. John, the two officers increased their response to Code 3. As they skidded around the corner onto North 11th Street, the officer saw the flashing amber light on Huerta’s police car 41/2 blocks ahead. Borcato jammed the accelerator to the floor.
Lansdowne and Brocato were the first to arrive at the scene, but they were quickly joined by many more officers. The scene that greeted them was gruesome. Huerta was slumped toward the center of the seat. The car’s interior was bathed in blood. Huerta’s bloodstained ticket book lay on the seat. His ballpoint pen was still in his right hand.
Huerta’s body was pulled from the car by Officers Lansdowne and Brocato and laid in the street. Sergeant Doug Wright and Officer Stan Kephart teamed up to give the lifeless officer CPR, but it was much too late. Richard Huerta was pronounced DOA at San Jose Hospital. But even before his lifeless body arrived at the emergency room, the search for his killer had been launched.
A textbook example
By now, several uniformed officers and detectives were on the scene. What might have been unmanageable confusion was, instead, a textbook example of coordination and smooth management. While detectives methodically combed the crime scene collecting evidence, Sergeant Clark Randall gave uniformed officer specific assignments to locate witnesses and obtain initial statements. At the same time, he paired canine officers with beat officers and ordered them to carry out a foot search along parallel lines east from 11th Street.
One of the search units was comprised of Officers Joe Ross and Terry Moudakas. With them was Moudakas’ dog, Celto. Working parallel to them were Officers Greg Pinck and Dave Lustig. The canine was named Rex. It belonged to Lustig.
The two teams had worked their way east, yard by yard, scrambling over fences and looking into any likely hiding places – as well as several unlikely spots.
At 3:05 a.m., Pinck climbed atop a large barbecue pit in the back yard of 543 North 13th. The barbecue pit was in the southwest corner of the yard, behind a storage shed. Both the building and barbecue were about three feet from the six-foot fence that ran along the south edge of the property. As Pinck stood atop the barbecue, he looked left and saw a man "laying on his left side looking at me." The events that followed were fast, confused and violent.
Drawing his gun,, Pinck ordered the man not to move. In the adjoining yard, Joe Ross heard Pinck yell, "Don’t move!" he also saw Pinck pointing his revolver at someone who appeared to be hiding. Ross went through the fence, revolver in hand. Pinck’s shout, coupled with Ross’ fence smashing more from one yard into the next attracted the attention of Lustig and Moudakas. As they ran to the scene with their dogs, Thompson shouted, "Okay, man, you’ve got me, I give up."
Then, ignoring Pinck’s don’t-move command, Thompson suddenly stood up. As he did, his jacket lifted, exposing a gun stuck in his waistband. Ross shouted a warning to the other officers: "He’s got a gun." At about the same time, Pinck grabbed Thompson’s hand. Then Lustig grabbed him, and finally, Moudakas’ dog, Celto, lunged at Thompson, hitting him in the chest.
A moment later, the two officers, the dog and the suspect tumbled off the barbecue in a tangle. When Thompson grabbed for the gun in his waistband, Ross hurled himself at the suspect and grabbed the weapon, jerking it away. Then Lustig’s dog, Rex charged into the melee and clamped onto Thompson’s leg. At 3 a.m., a radio broadcast announced that the suspect was in custody.
Thompson, accompanied by Detective Sergeants Dave Brickell and Larry Stuefloten, was taken by ambulance to Valley Medical Center. For three hours the detective stayed with Thompson while he was examined and treated. It was difficult for the two detectives to remain civil during those three hours because of the suspect’s non-stop diatribe – a combination of radical rhetoric and personal vindictiveness. But at 6:58 a.m., their control and even-tempered persistence paid off.
The blanket covering Thompson had fallen off and Stuefloten was covering him up when Thompson unexpectedly asked. "You want to know why" your really want to know way?" Stuefloten said they did, and Brickell moved the tape recorder closer to Thompson’s head. The suspect then launched into another snarling condemnation of the "pigs," justifying his action on the basis that the "pigs" had unjustly hassled" him. Though when asked, Thompson admitted that Huerta was completely unknown to him; he was representative of all "pigs."
"Why did you pick him?" asked Stuefloten
"Cause he was the easiest!" replied Thompson.
"You mean you just walked up to his car and shot him?" Stuefloten asked.
"Yeah. I just …bam!"
Emile Thompson was charged with first-degree murder, a charge that in 1970 carried the death penalty. Motions, appeals and delays dragged on for over a year, and it was not until October of 1971 that Thompson was finally brought to trial.
The three-part trial lasted just three weeks, during which time Thompson shouted abuses at the court, threatened to murder a juror’s child, and attempted to escape. Also during the trial he called his father a "pig." Testimony and evidence were introduced that showed Thompson had stalked Huerta for a least fifteen minutes before shooting him. It was also disclosed that Thompson would have shot Coldiron and Najera too, but his gun was empty.
On October 22 the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. But once again the jury extended to the murderer every mercy that had been so violently denied his victim. On November 5, Emile Thompson was sentenced to life imprisonment. He is now up for parole.
Richard Huerta was given the traditional police funeral. There was, however, no fund started to aid his widow and children. The citizens of San Jose were no more, no less generous than their predecessors were back in 1933 when John Buck dies. But other things had changed with time. Huerta’s death and its aftermath were representative of the shift, after World War II, from community effort to interest group action, and the police were an interest group; they look after their own. At the same time, other interest groups were hard at work attacking the image of the police. The collective effect was to dampen the impact that Huerta’s death had on the community. Nevertheless, two memorials were dedicated to Richard’s memory, in one instance, a city park was named after him, an act that reflected the public’s concern. But the most significant memorial is the relative simple plaque that marks Richard’s favorite seat in the Briefing Room. It is reserved for him today just as it was when he was there (29) years ago.
The plaque reads:
This chair is reserved in the memory of Richard Eugene Huerta, Badge 47, killed in the line of duty, August 6, 1970. Brother Huerta will always answer roll call in our hearts.
UPDATE - PAROLE DENIED FOR RICHARD’S KILLER
Emile Thompson, Richard Huerta’s killer was denied parole on April 24th, 2008. The hearing was held at Vacaville State Prison- California Medical Facility. Some 408 letters opposing Thompson’s release were admitted into the prison file. All of these letters were written for this specific hearing and were from current officers, retired officers and civilians alike. Thompson had three letters of support admitted into the file.
The commissioners ruled in favor of parole denial calling the murder a “premeditated, well thought out, tactical assassination and execution of a law enforcement officer simply because he was wearing a uniform”. They ruled that
Thompson was a menace to society and unfit to assimilate into the outside world. Thompson will be eligible for another parole hearing in 2012.