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25 years after bloodshed

Tacoma's Hilltop is a much different place than it was in 1988, when the murder of a Crip gang member led to years of bloodshed

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By Brandi Kruse
KIRO Radio Reporter
Sitting on the steps of a church near the corner of 23rd Street and Sheridan Avenue, Det. John Ringer recalled the days he spent working patrol in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma.

"Very rare was the night that there weren't gunshots, drive-by shootings," he said on a recent afternoon. "You could come upon a group of 30 or 40 gang members conversing, smoking dope, playing dice."

As he glanced across the street, it was as if he was looking back in time.

"Where you're parked there, is where the first gang homicide took place in the city of Tacoma," said Det. Ringer, pointing at the scene of a murder that he would spend 25 years of his career trying to solve.

On August 28, 1988, a Hilltop Crip member named Bernard "Clown" Houston was shot in the head and killed on the corner of 23rd and Sheridan. When police arrived, they found the 17-year-old laying on the ground in front of a silver Jeep Cherokee.

"He was found unconscious and bleeding heavily, a six-shooter clutched in his right hand with five live rounds in the cylinder," read a wire report published in a local newspaper two days after the shooting.

Another man, 18-year-old Michael Jeter, was with Houston at the time and was shot in the right thigh. He managed to hide behind a nearby storefront until police arrived to take his statement.

"Police said Houston and (Jeter) were standing with three other people at a street corner when a brown-and-white Oldsmobile Cutlass and another car pulled up shortly before midnight Sunday," the article read. "Witnesses said gunshots were fired after a passenger in the Oldsmobile said, 'What up, Blood?'"

Police believed that the murder was gang-related and retaliation for a drive-by shooting that happened in Blood territory on the east side days earlier.

The Houston homicide was the first of many such crimes that plagued the Hilltop in the days, weeks and years that followed. A quarter-century later, the arrest of those suspected in his murder is a reminder of how bad things were and just how far the neighborhood has come.

"This case is a reminder of how bad gang violence became, and how much work we've done to reduce the violence," Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said during a recent interview in his ninth-floor office on Tacoma Avenue.

A month earlier, Lindquist had charged five men with first-degree murder in the death of Houston. He compared the case to a time capsule that "reaches back to the early days of gang violence in Pierce County."

Those arrested and charged with the Houston homicide are five men, now in their 40's, who as teenagers and young adults were known to police in Tacoma as Blood gang members.

Brian C. Allen, 46, who was known on the streets as "B," was a resident of Vancouver , B.C., and a Canadian citizen when he was taken into custody for the murder of Houston. He worked at a West Vancouver community center as a personal trainer and was newly married. Tacoma police quietly issued a warrant for his arrest in 2011, and caught a break when he traveled to Mexico for his honeymoon. On April 14, 2013, authorities in Mexico were alerted to the warrant and turned Allen over to police in Harris County, Texas.

Allen's arrest cleared the way for police to take the remaining suspects into custody: Nathaniel W. Miles, 48, Anthony E. Ralls, 45, Darrell M. Lee, 45, and Terris A. Miller, 42. A sixth suspect, Joseph Courtney, had died in prison while serving a 13-year sentence for second-degree murder.

All of the suspects have lengthy criminal histories dating back to the time of Houston's murder.

Miles, who went by the street-name "Tex," was believed to have been working odd jobs as a landscaper in Steilacoom, Wash., at the time of his arrest on April 24, 2013. According to court records, Miles has at least seven felonies dating back to 1988. His adult convictions include unlawful use of a motor vehicle, attempt to elude, and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance. His last criminal conviction was in 2005, when he was sentenced to 57 months in prison on two counts unlawful delivery of a controlled substance.

Ralls, who was known by the nickname "Ant," had no verifiable source of income at the time of his arrest in the Tacoma-area on April 25, 2013. According to court records, Ralls had five separate misdemeanor gun convictions from 1989 to 1993. His adult felony convictions include unlawful possession of a controlled substance, attempted kidnapping, and attempted assault.

Lee was incarcerated in a Washington state prison when he was transferred to the Pierce County Jail on May 7, 2013, to face charges in Houston's murder. According to the Washington State Department of Corrections, Lee was serving a 120-month sentence for a 2008 drug conviction. His prior felony convictions include second-degree burglary, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, second-degree possession of stolen property, attempted unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, forgery, and two counts of bail jumping.

Miller was incarcerated in a federal prison in Michigan when he was transported to Pierce County on July 16, 2013, to face charges in the Houston homicide. According to court records, Miller was serving a 51-month sentence for a 2009 gun conviction. His criminal record includes felony convictions for unlawful possession of a controlled substance, first-degree burglary, second-degree possession of stolen property, criminal conspiracy, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

Among the suspects, Allen had gone the longest without a criminal conviction. He was sentenced to 96 months in a federal prison in 1994 for unlawful delivery of a controlled substance.

Detective Ringer said none of the men expected that the Houston homicide would come back to haunt them so many years later.

"They say, 'But that's 25 years old. I've changed. I've grown up,'" he said. "But at the same time, you want justice for the Houston family. They've been waiting all these years."

In fact, members of Houston's family sat in court to watch Allen, Miles, and Ralls be arraigned for the murder on April 25.

"Never ever did I think this day would come," said Bernadine Sanders, Houston's sister.

"They thought they got away with it, but they didn't get away with it," Houston's cousin, Yvonne Heads, told reporters outside the courtroom. "We just want to thank the police."

Detective Ringer said all it took was "information and opportunity."

Over the years, he and his partner had formed something of an unofficial gang unit (the real thing wouldn't come until the formation of the South Sound Gang Task Force in October 2003, of which Det. Ringer is a member).

"My partner and I focused almost entirely on the gangs," he said. "We would find things to keep busy and so dispatch sort of left us alone to do those things."

Ringer was well known and, more importantly, well respected on the streets. Gang members gave him a variety of nicknames throughout the years, including "Bounty Hunter" and "J-Ringer."

Invariably, when he interviewed a gang member for a drug or other crime, he would ask if they had information on any unsolved homicides. It wasn't long until suspects began talking about who was responsible for Houston's murder.

"They started giving us names," Det. Ringer recalled. "It was pretty common knowledge, apparently, on the east side as far as who was involved. It was all second-hand information, but the same names kept coming up."

Slowly, a picture started to form and Ringer had the names of six potential suspects.

In 2001, Ringer interviewed Miller, Ralls, and Lee about the Houston homicide. According to court documents, Miller and Lee admitted to driving to the Hilltop that night looking to retaliate for an earlier shooting, but both minimized their own involvement in the drive-by that left Houston dead.

In 2009, a man contacted the Tacoma Police Department and asked to speak with a detective about Houston's murder. According to court documents, he told Det. Ringer that he "wanted to get something off his chest."

The man said he had been incarcerated with Brian Allen in 1989 and 1990, and that Allen told him that he was part of the group that shot and killed Houston on Aug. 28, 1988. The man also said he was roommates with Ralls during the same time period, and that Ralls told him a similar story.

Prosecutors believed the case was strong enough to issue a warrant for Allen's arrest. Once he was picked up in Mexico, detectives worked quickly to round up their remaining suspects.

All of the men have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the case and are currently being held at the Pierce County Jail. A trial date is scheduled for November 6.

"We're going to seek justice on a murder case no matter how long it takes, no matter how far back we have to reach," said Lindquist, who added that the prosecution would seek justice not only for Bernard Houston, but for all those who lived on the Hilltop at the time of his murder.

"The victim of gang violence is more than just those who catch the bullet. There's more than one victim in this case," he said. "Mr. Houston is dead, but the entire community was a victim of these gang wars that erupted in the Hilltop during this era."

But, he said, the Hilltop is a much different place than it was in 1988.

Lindquist credits the diligent work of both the South Sound Gang Task Force and the Tacoma Police Department's Gang Unit, in combination with prosecutors who have worked to get stiffer penalties for gang members who commit violent crimes and gun offenses.

"Pierce County and Tacoma have come a long way since the gang wars of the 80's and the 90's," he said. "When we formed our gang unit a few years ago, it was largely to ensure that we never fell back into that extreme gang violence."

Lindquist said gang-related crimes in Pierce County have dropped roughly 40 percent over the past several years.

"The Hilltop has sort of been reclaimed," said Det. Ringer, as he sat on the steps of the church near 23rd and Sheridan. He said he believes gang activity is at the lowest level he's seen since the time of Houston's murder.

More:

"KIRO Radio On Assignment" features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter "On Assignment," email onassignment@kiroradio.com or use our online form.

Brandi Kruse, KIRO Radio Reporter
Brandi Kruse is a reporter for KIRO Radio who is as spontaneous and adventurous in her free time as she is on the job. Brandi arrived at KIRO Radio in March 2011 and has already collected three regional Edward R. Murrow awards for her reporting.
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