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Texas man is cleared in fatal shootings

He gunned down two burglary suspects who were leaving a neighbor's house.

July 01, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A grand jury here Monday cleared a Pasadena, Texas, man in the shooting deaths of two suspected burglars as they left his neighbor's house -- a case that stirred a national debate over whether he was a vigilante or a hero.

Joe Horn, 62, shot the men on Nov. 14 after he called authorities and declared his intention to open fire on the suspects with his 12-gauge shotgun.

The 911 audiotape captured multiple warnings by the dispatcher, asking Horn to stay inside and telling him that "property's not worth killing someone over." However, Horn grew agitated because the men looked to be getting away before police arrived. As the tape rolled, Horn went outside, shouted "Move, you're dead!" and fired his weapon.

The incident in Pasadena, a city of about 140,000 east of downtown Houston, outraged some activists, who staged protests in the neighborhood.

They argued that if Horn -- who was not arrested -- were not white and his victims not dark-skinned, he would have been taken to jail immediately.

The controversy grew when authorities disclosed that the shooting victims, Diego Ortiz, 30, and Hernando Riascos Torres, 38, were illegal immigrants from Colombia.

"Joe would be the first to tell you that he wasn't acting as a vigilante," Horn's attorney, Tom Lambright, said outside the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where Horn testified before a grand jury for 40 minutes last week. "He wishes these individuals had found a different line of work so that he wouldn't have gotten caught up in this whole fiasco."

Harris County Dist. Atty. Kenneth Magidson said that he understood "the concerns of some of those in the community regarding Mr. Horn's conduct," but added that the grand jury had thoroughly reviewed the evidence and testimony before deciding not to recommend any charges.

Many defense lawyers had predicted that a grand jury indictment would be unlikely in Texas, where many citizens strongly believe in their right to fire weapons in defense of home and property.

"This office will continue to aggressively prosecute anyone who illegally engages in the use of force, deadly or otherwise, against another," Magidson said in a statement. "In this case, however, the grand jury concluded that Mr. Horn's use of deadly force did not rise to a criminal offense."

Horn, a computer consultant, reportedly received death threats after the shootings, even as some callers on talk radio were praising him as a courageous role model.

He had expressed remorse about the shootings from the outset, and claimed that he was surprised when he ventured outside and saw how close the men were to him.

Ballistics tests suggested that at least one of the men had been shot in the back, raising questions about Horn's story.

But a plainclothes detective who witnessed some of what took place later told investigators that the men did not stop when a visibly nervous Horn pointed a shotgun in their direction, and that at least one man appeared to be moving toward Horn when Horn fired.

Lambright, a friend of Horn's for four decades, said he found it hard to reconcile the shooter with the man he knew. He defended Horn's right to step out his door and confront the suspects, but added that he hoped other neighbors would never find themselves in Horn's shoes.

"He is absolutely not the person you hear on that 911 tape," Lambright said of Horn. "Joe is quiet, humble."

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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