Texan a vigilante or a brave law abider?

Times Staff Writer

When he saw two men pry into his neighbor’s house with a crowbar one afternoon earlier this month, Joe Horn did what many people would do: He called 911.

But when police had not shown up by the time the suspects were about to leave, the 61-year-old retiree did something most people probably would not: He stepped outside with his 12-gauge shotgun and killed them.

“I’m not going to let them get away with this,” Horn told the 911 dispatcher, who responded: “Property’s not worth killing someone over.”


Seconds later, the sound of a gun being loaded could be heard on the 911 tape, followed by a warning -- “Move [and] you’re dead” -- and then three bursts of gunfire. Miguel DeJesus, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30, both of whom had small-time criminal histories, died of their wounds.

The six-minute recording of Horn’s anger, frustration and eagerness to take the law into his own hands has made him the focus of a national controversy. Critics condemn him as a vigilante bent on meting out murderous justice. Admirers praise him as a courageous hero whom any law abider would love to have next door.

“Why is he still a free man?” Linda E. Edwards wrote in a letter to the Houston Chronicle.

“Joe Horn gets a Texas ‘attaboy’ from me,” countered John E. Meagher in the next letter. “Justice was served, law or not.”

As the debate rages on talk radio and cable-TV news shows, Horn remains free.

However, his attorney said, Horn was so overwrought with grief and overwhelmed by the media glare that he left his home in this blue-collar suburb best known as the former home of Gilley’s, the honky-tonk bar in the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy.”

“Joe has never been anything but a gentle person. He’s not the type of monster that they are making him out to be,” attorney Tom Lambright told Houston radio host Michael Berry, who played a spoof of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” called “I Shot the Burglar.” yLambright did not return requests for comment.

Authorities are still investigating the Nov. 14 incident, but they plan to let a Harris County grand jury decide whether Horn, a former computer consultant, should be charged.

“This is not an individual who stepped outside and gunned down two pedestrians on the sidewalk,” said Pasadena Police Capt. A.H. “Bud” Corbett. “In a situation where there is some uncertainty about which side of the law someone was on, the best thing to do is assemble all the information and present it to the grand jury.”

Noting Texans’ prevailing populist views on guns and self-defense, legal experts differ over whether a jury of his peers would ever indict him. They also differ on whether one should, given a Texas law known as the “castle doctrine” which permits citizens to use deadly force to defend their homes and vehicles. A bag one of the dead men had been carrying contained a large amount of cash, apparently taken from the house, police said.

Tommy LaFon, a Houston lawyer and former prosecutor who has argued disputed shooting cases before grand juries, said that Horn’s attorneys might be able to claim that he was acting as the de facto defender of his neighbor’s property. “He’s not drunk at a bar somewhere; he’s a guy who intercedes in a situation next door,” LaFon said. “If a jury believes he was standing in the shoes of the owner, that might affect their decision.”

Police caution that although the 911 recording makes for provocative discussion, it fails to answer many questions they must try to answer: Was Horn on his property when he fired or had he ventured into the neighbor’s yard? Were the suspects coming at him? Did he feel threatened?

Critics of the way the case has been handled say the 911 tape is proof that Horn was predetermined to shoot the men before stepping outside with his gun.

Noting that Horn is white and the suspects were dark-skinned, Quanell X, a Houston activist, has accused the authorities of bias. “Mr. Horn did not have to kill those people,” Quanell X said at a protest on the street where the men were shot. “Mr. Horn became judge, jury and executioner.”