Houston News & Search
Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle
As grieving family members prepared to bury 24-year-old John Hernandez, a Harris County sheriff’s deputy and her husband were indicted Thursday on murder charges, accused of intentionally choking the Crosby man outside a Denny’s restaurant.
Deputy Chauna Thompson, 45, and her husband, Terry Thompson, 41, also of Crosby, turned themselves in Thursday night. Bail was set at $100,000 each. They could face up to life in prison if convicted.
“We grieve with the Hernandez family,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said Thursday in announcing the indictment. “We believe that this grand jury true-bill is a reflection of our community’s belief that a crime occurred and that crime was murder — and that it was participated in by Terry Thompson and his wife, Deputy Chauna Thompson.”
The grand jury’s decision to indict a law enforcement officer on a first-degree felony — a rarity in Harris County — came just a day after more than 150 protesters marched across downtown Houston proclaiming “Justice for John Hernandez” and “Brown Lives Matter.”
“This is exactly what we wanted,” said Jose Morales, a close friend of the family. “Thanks to all the attention, justice is going to be served.”
The Hernandez family held a family visitation less than an hour after the indictment was announced, and another visitation and rosary are set for Friday. A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Houston.
After the family visitation, more than 100 people rallied late Thursday at the Denny’s, as several community activists thanked the community for supporting the family.
“We have a little bit of hope,” said Melissa Hernandez, a cousin who was joined at the rally by John Hernandez’s father and sisters. “This is a small step in the right direction.”
The rally ended with chants of, “No estan solos. No estan solos.” You are not alone.
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The indictment — announced jointly by Ogg and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez — came after nearly a full day of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses before the grand jury.
Hernandez died of strangulation and chest compression on May 31, three days after he got into an altercation with Terry Thompson outside the Denny’s restaurant. A 50-second cellphone video shows Thompson on top of a kicking and grunting Hernandez.
The dispute began after Thompson pulled up at the restaurant with his children and saw Hernandez urinating in public, according to the sheriff.
Chauna Thompson, who was off duty, arrived in a separate vehicle and called for assistance. She was charged as an accessory to murder, officials said.
Scot Courtney, an attorney for Terry Thompson, said prosecutors rushed the case without giving the grand jury time to consider all the evidence. He said Terry Thompson did not intentionally kill Hernandez.
“I’m extremely disappointed the grand jury chose to indict,” he said. “I don’t believe the evidence shows that.”
Terry Thompson maintained that Hernandez took the first swing after the two men argued, he said.
“It’s disappointing that citizens can simply march on the courthouse and demand somebody be indicted for murder,” Courtney said.
Chauna Thompson’s attorney could not be reached Thursday for comment.
The indictment capped an emotional day of testimony as Hernandez’s widow, Maria Toval, and other witnesses told their stories in the secrecy of the grand jury’s chambers.
Ogg said that every aspect of the case was presented to grand jurors, including the video. Both suspects were offered the opportunity to testify, but declined, she said.
“It is critical to our justice system that there be no rush to judgment,” Ogg said. “This administration must never react in a way that denies due process to those accused.”
Toval declined to comment as she left the grand jury room. Other witnesses, however, told reporters what they’d seen outside the Denny’s, though they are prohibited by law from reporting what they told the grand jury.
Restaurant worker Melissa Trammell, who arrived at her shift as a server about an hour before the 11 p.m. altercation, held back tears as she talked.
“The man was turning purple,” she said. “We begged him to get off the man and he wouldn’t.”
She said she tried to reason with Thompson as he straddled Hernandez and choked him.
“He looked me in the face and said, ‘I’m not getting off him,'” she said.
The sheriff said Thursday he supports the grand jury’s decision.
“I was committed from the beginning to making sure we had as fair and transparent a process as possible — maybe not as fast as some would have liked — but we were confident in our process,” Gonzalez told reporters. “I think we’ve all worked very hard to try to do what was right and at the end that justice would prevail.”
Earlier Thursday afternoon, as the grand jury met, Hernandez’s family gathered on the front patio of their low-slung ranch house in Crosby, filling a row of white folding chairs and recalling the 24-year-old as a bright spirit who loved to dance the quebradita, perform karaoke and fire up a grill.
His four sisters smiled at the memory of their brother singing along to Vicente Fernandez songs. Morales described Hernandez’s love of futbol and his fervid cheers for Chivas, his favorite soccer team. His mother talked about her son’s unshakeable work ethic, the lawn-mowing business he started at 13, the auto glass repair shop he opened about a year ago.
Then their eyes darkened.
A few feet away, a photo of Hernandez was propped on a tabletop altar draped with rosary beads and adorned with a figurine of the Holy Family and a crucifix.
“My son is not going to come back,” said Maria Elena Hernandez, her face sallow with grief.
Now, there was only one thing to ask for.
“Justicia,” repeated Jamileth Hernandez, his 16-year-old sister.
“We want there to be justice,” said Natalia Hernandez, one of John Hernandez’s aunts. “For him, for all the families who go through something like this, for the community.”
The call has been reverberating through the Latino community in Crosby and Houston since Hernandez’s death, as many wondered why Thompson had not immediately been arrested.
On gray tee-shirts with the hashtag “#JusticeforJohn!” At vigils where supporters called on officials to file charges. On messages painted on the windows of cars parked in the Hernandez’s driveway and throughout their neighborhood.
And behind the counter of a taqueria tucked in the back of the Shell gas station that shares a truck stop with the Denny’s.
There, the lunch shift workers — many of whom had known Hernandez for years — expressed what many in the community wondered: What role did race play in the delay in Thompson?
“If a Mexican had killed a white man, he would already have been in jail,” said Karen Velazquez. “No one had the right to take his life.”
“We are Hispanic, but we are human beings too,” said Alma Ochoa, whose children played with Hernandez when they were growing up.
At the Hernandez home, Ignacio Hernandez, too, called for justice for his son. He winced as he recalled accidentally seeing the video showing John Hernandez struggling for breath as Thompson pinned him to the ground.
But at that moment, a few hours before a scheduled viewing, Ignacio Hernandez’s thoughts were on saying a final good-bye to his eldest child. On his son’s many dreams of building his business, of carving out a good life.
“The dreams are finished,” the father said. “Everything is changed.”
Brooke A. Lewis contributed to this report.
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