TAMPA — The federal criminal investigation of a Tampa police homicide detective has forced prosecutors and police officials to review cases in which Det. Eric Houston played a part, including high-profile cases involving convicted cop killer Dontae Morris, his girlfriend Cortnee Brantley and Julie Schenecker, who is scheduled to go on trial next week on charges she killed her two teenage children.
Tampa police relieved Houston of his investigative duties and placed him on administrative leave on April 3 after the investigation began, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.
She said police met with the U.S. Attorney's Office and were notified that Houston was under investigation. The nature of the probe remains a mystery, she said, to most within the department.
Also unclear Wednesday was whether the investigation will have any effect on the integrity of evidence provided by Houston in homicide prosecutions, though Brantley's attorney already has said he might ask for her case to be put on hold while the investigation into the detective is underway.
Hillsborough State Attorney spokesman Mark Cox said his office has notified defense attorneys on all open cases in which Houston is a witness.
“Once we become aware of an investigation such as this,” he said, “we have an obligation to identify open cases within our office and notify defense counsel of the investigation.”
Then it will be up to defense lawyers whether to challenge evidence Houston provided in those cases, Cox said.
In the Schenecker case, the state filed a “Notice of Exculpatory Information” with the court on April 11 stating that Houston “has been put on notice by the Tampa Police Department that he is the subject of an active federal investigation.” The prosecution “has confirmed that Officer Houston is the subject of a federal criminal investigation, but no additional information regarding the federal investigation is available at this time,” the notice stated.
Brantley's lawyer, Grady Irvin, said he was scheduled to file an appeal brief in her case on Monday but said he might ask the federal appeals court to stay the case while the Houston investigation is sorted out. Irvin said he had no information about the investigation but is concerned it could affect the reliability of Houston's testimony against Brantley.
Houston testified about the location of Brantley's car after she was involved in the traffic stop in which Morris fatally shot Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Brantley was convicted last year of concealing information from authorities that Morris was a felon in possession of a firearm. Morris is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of murdering the officers.
Houston is a crime-scene investigator who specializes in cold cases and has solved several old homicide cases. “We are reviewing with the state attorney every case he was part of,” police spokeswoman McElroy said.
She said Houston was immediately removed from investigating homicide crime scenes when the police department was told he was under federal investigation.
“He's on investigative leave and has been since the investigation began,” she said.
She was unsure how many cases were being reviewed.
Assistant Chief John Bennett said the department “is working hand in hand with the (Hillsborough) State Attorney's Office” reviewing cases Houston helped investigate,” but didn't know how many cases there were.
He said he didn't know the nature of the federal grand jury investigation and couldn't comment other than to say Houston “was pulled from his police duties. He's doing no police work pending the completion of the investigation.”
Houston, who makes about $86,000 a year, will continue to draw a paycheck pending the outcome of the probe. He has been in contact with the Police Benevolent Association for representation for the labor/discipline part of the process, saied Owen Koehler, general counsel with the Tampa PBA.
As for the federal investigation, Koehler said: “I don't know anything about it. A lot of times in these investigations, we don't know anything until the end.”
He confirmed Houston is still on the department's payroll.
“We represent him in his labor-related matter,” Koehler said, but that's all.
In October, Tampa police arrested and fired Houston's wife, La Joyce Houston, who was a sergeant with the department. She was charged with two counts of welfare fraud and one count of grand theft.
At the time of La Joyce Houston's arrest and firing, police Chief Jane Castor said it appeared that Eric Houston wasn't aware of his wife's alleged criminal activity. The couple were married in 2007, according to public records.
The case against La Joyce Houston, who made $90,000 at the time of her dismissal, began last summer when police were investigating Rita Girven, who was in the Hillsborough County jail. Girven was recorded on a call telling Houston where to find her food stamp card. Houston later used the food stamp card to buy $365 worth of food at a Gibsonton Wal-Mart.
Houston then gave the card to a family member to make more unauthorized purchases. That relative paid Houston 50 cents on the dollar for the food stamp money, and Houston put that money into Girven's jail fund, investigators said.
The Houstons and Girven have long known each other. The Houstons have had custody of Girven's daughter since she was born. They legally adopted her in 2009.