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Moody Park Riot (1978)


Sound | 1978

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  •  Looted storefronts 
  •  KPRC newsman Ron Stone speaks with the owner of a store in the Fulton Village shopping center adjacent to Moody Park. Several stores in the area were looted and set on fire.  
  •  Stone asks about the delay in emergency response. Abe Weiner, owner of a department store in the same shopping center, reportedly said that it took the fire department over and hour to respond to calls for help after rioters set buildings on fire.  
  •  Police in riot gear 
  •  Firemen respond to a burning building 
  •  Making an arrest 
  •  Police command center 
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This unedited footage from Houston’s KPRC-TV captures the scene on Fulton Street after a Cinco de Mayo celebration in adjacent Moody Park erupted into riots on the night of May 7, 1978. By May 1978, tensions between law enforcement and the local Mexican-American community were exceedingly high. Cinco de Mayo marked the one-year anniversary of the police-involved death of José Campos Torres, a 23-year-old Mexican American and Vietnam War veteran. That the officers responsible for Torres’ death faced only a yearlong probation and a dollar fine provoked further outrage. So when police arrived at the Moody Park celebration to make an arrest for disorderly conduct, attendees retaliated. Some threw rocks and bottles at law enforcement officers, while others overturned police cars. The situation escalated as more officers in riot gear arrived on the scene. Stores across a 10-block area around Fulton Street were looted and set on fire. One police officer suffered a broken leg after being struck by a car, while a KPRC reporter and cameraman were assaulted by a hostile crowd. The violence ended by the early morning hours of May 8, after 22 people were arrested.
On the night of May 5, 1977, Houston police officers arrested José Campos Torres, a 23-year-old Mexican American and Vietnam War veteran, at an East End bar for disorderly conduct. Rather than transport him to jail for booking, the six responding officers first took Torres to “The Hole,” an isolated area behind a warehouse along Buffalo Bayou. There, they brutally beat him for several hours. By the time Torres arrived at the jail, authorities refused to book him due to the extent of his injuries. A desk sergeant ordered the six officers to take Torres to Ben Taub General Hospital for medical treatment. Instead, they brought him back to the Hole. Following another beating, officers pushed Torres off a raised platform into Buffalo Bayou. Torres subsequently drowned. His body was found on May 8—Mother’s Day. On June 28, a Harris County grand jury indicted two of the officers, Terry Denson and Steven Orlando, for murder and a third, J. J. Janisch, for misdemeanor assault. The state granted immunity for two others, Glenn Brinkmeyer and Lewis Kinney, in exchange for their testimony. Following a month-long trial, an all-white jury convicted Denson and Orlando on a reduced charge of negligent homicide—a misdemeanor—on October 6. State District Judge James Warref of Walker County sentenced them to one year probation and a $1 fine. The US Department of Justice subsequently conducted its own investigation. All six officers were found guilty of violating Torres’ civil rights, and given a ten-year suspended sentence. Denson and Orlando were also convicted of assault and sentenced to nine months in prison. The case and its verdict outraged the local Mexican-American community, sparking protests outside the Harris County Courthouse and police headquarters. On the one-year anniversary of Torres’ death, the simmering social unrest erupted into riots. When police attempted to make an arrest at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Moody Park, attendees began throwing rocks and overturning police cars. The Torres case prompted the Houston Police Department to create its Internal Affairs Division in 1977.