By Aswad Walker
Defender News Paper
Late October and early November is viewed by many as the beginning of the holiday season, with children excited about Halloween, and families gearing up for Thanksgiving, and all that comes after. On October 31, 1989, however, there would be no treats for Ida Lee Delaney, a 50-year-old grandmother who was gunned down while on her way to work by drunken, off-duty Houston Police Department (HPD) officer Alex Gonzales. Neither would there be any holiday cheer for 24-year-old Byron Gillum, who just days after Delaney’s death, while driving home from his job as a security officer, was shot eight times and killed by HPD Officer Scott Tschirhart under suspicious and dubious circumstances.
As the 20th anniversary of their passing draws closer, those who joined seeking justice remember and reflect.To understand how the weight of Delaney’s and Gillum’s deaths hit the Houston community, one needs to understand the context within which their deaths occurred. In 1987 New York, a young African-American teenager accused a white police officer and district attorney of rape, only to be ridiculed and called a liar, with her efforts for legal redress dragging out for years. Closer to home, the 1977 death of Jose Campos Torres, who was beaten and drowned in Buffalo Bayou by three HPD officers still festered like an open wound with members of Houston’s Latino and African-American communities.
Moreover, in 1989, Clarence Brandley, a janitor at Conroe High School, who had been wrongly convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to death in February 1981, had a Houston-based coalition fighting to win his exoneration and release from prison. Yet, evidence linking two other Conroe High School janitors, both white, to the crime was still no guarantee that Brandley would ever get off death row.
It was within this powder keg of community distrust of the police that Delaney and Gillum met their demise. In the predawn hours of October 31, 1989, 24-year-old Alex Gonzales, after a night of drinking at an establishment notorious with HPD for its illegal and rampant drug activity, rode as a passenger in a vehicle with two other off-duty officers. Delaney, on her way to work at the Houston Post reportedly abruptly pulled in front of their vehicle.
Enraged, the officers chased Delaney down a 13-mile stretch of freeway. In fear for her life, with no way of knowing that the men were police, she fired several shots before finally pulling over. A standoff ensued with Delaney wounding Gonzales, and Gonzales killing Delaney.
On his way home from work on November 15, 1989, Gillum was pulled over by Tschirhart for speeding in front of the Burger King on Scott and in the shadow of the University of Houston’s Jefferson Stadium. Gillum reportedly angered Tschirhart by suggesting the stop was harassment and that the officer should be chasing down “real criminals.” After returning to his police car, Tschirhart told dispatchers he was dealing with a subject with a “bad attitude” and urged them to find him a reason, through checks for warrants, to make an arrest. There were none.
Upon returning to Gillum’s car, Tschirhart said he suddenly saw the guard’s .357 Magnum service revolver in the front seat, and immediately ordered him out of the vehicle. A fellow officer, who witnessed the shooting that ensued, corroborated Tschirhart’s version of events, while community members near the scene provided a vastly different retelling. Suffice it to say, Tschirhart fired four shots into Gillum in his first volley, with the first one inflicting a fatal downward wound through the guard’s chest. From about 60 feet away, another officer saw the dying guard spring out of his vehicle’s right window and sprint away. The final four shots, fired across the roof of Gillum’s car, struck him in the back. Community witnesses say they say Tschirhart shoot Gillum three times in the back as he attempted to crawl away.
Gillum was the third Black man slain by Tschirhart in seven years as a Houston policeman. No-billed by grand juries in those killings, Tschirhart was no-billed three different times, with the final taking place in July 1990, for the fatal shooting of Gillum.
The white cross that sits across the street from the Burger King at Scott and Cleburne serves as a reminder of an incident most know nothing about now. Others need no such reminders.
Former members of the Ida Delaney/Byron Gillum Justice Committee that formed to seek the convictions of the officers involved say it doesn’t seem as though 20 years has passed since that fateful fortnight. Former Houston City Council Member (District D), Ada Edwards was one of three co-chairs of the Coalition.
“It was really a coalition of ad-hoc people,” said Edwards. “The way I got involved was I was at SHAPE Community Center whining about why nothing was being done about Delaney’s murder. DeLoyd Parker (founder of SHAPE) said ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And I did,” said Edwards.
“Also, I received a call from an HPD officer that told me someone needs to look into Delaney’s killing because it didn’t go down like it was being reported. If I remember correctly the news was saying she was gunned down fleeing a drug bust,” added Edwards.
The other co-chairs were Cassandra Thomas who represented the Houston Area Women’s Center and Rose Upshaw who represented the Clarence Brandley Coalition. Upshaw would eventually meet the man who would become her husband, Carmichael Khan, at the Coalition meetings and events.
“I was part of the Black Student Union at San Jacinto College at the time, and wanted to get them more involved in community issues,” said Khan, who led his charges to participate in the Clarence Brandley Coalition.
“It appeared victory was nearing in the Brandley case, and we were looking to continue our efforts for justice when Ida Delaney was murdered,” added Khan.
Khan said it was almost organic how the community shifted its focus to Delaney and how the women of the Coalition and the community in general began to take charge.
“Ada took up the torch of leadership, along with other sisters, many of whom had done the grunt work for the successes of the Coalition but who had never received their just due. People like Sherry Clausell, Evelyn Jones, Gloria Rubac, Suzie Calloway, Deirdre Rideaux, Munirah Olabisi, Carol Body and others; the sisters were amazing, the energy and passion they brought. And what was beautiful as well was the new blood, the young college students and others who were drawn in, like Rick Lowe the artist Anthony Freddie and others. Then days later, Gillum was murdered, and we began organizing for both cases,” said Khan.
And comforting both families.
Khan said members of the Justice Committee adopted the Delaneys and Gillums to help them not only in their fight for justice, but to work through their grief. Still, the Committee had very specific goals, including having Tschirhart and Gonzales fired and convicted of murder, HPD becoming more ethnically diverse, HPD officers receiving more sensitivity training and creating a powerful civilian review board to investigate police matters.
“Ada also wanted to start a Justice Fund so that funds would always be ready in case another such incident occurred. We had the skill set. We now knew how to get the media’s attention, stage street actions, and we possessed the conviction that we were doing the right thing—standing with families grieving due to injustice via the HPD,” said Khan.
Warned by some of Houston’s Black elite to keep quite so they wouldn’t make Houston’s African-American police chief, Lee Brown, look bad, the Coalition pressed on and was able to win some minor victories.
“At that time, there was no mandatory debriefing for a police officer after shooting someone. Now its standard operating procedure,” shared Edwards.
“Thanks to our efforts, both Tschirhart and Gonzales were fired from HPD. Neither served jail time, however. Gonzales was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received two year’s probation. Tschirhart’s case never went to trial. He was eventually rehired as a law officer in an East Texas city and promptly shot and killed three Latino men while on duty, again under dubious and suspect circumstances. Some say that’s amazing. I say it’s not amazing; it’s Texas,” added Khan.
“We must remember Ida Delaney and Byron Gillum 20 years later because folk being killed in the same manner seems to have become the norm. We haven’t policy and institution-wise made the necessary changes. That behavior is still rampant,” stated Edwards.
“Alex Gonzales had been stopped by the University of Houston Police before he killed Ida Delaney for the same behavior—chasing down a woman in his vehicle. No charges were filed against him,” added Edwards.
“We didn’t get the goal of officer accountability. They do what they want to do and if something happens they tell us they made a mistake. But if you have that kind of extraordinary authority, you need that kind of extraordinary accountability that comes with an independent body possessing subpoena power and investigative power. In some places that have such Civilian Review Boards, their actions are not all punitive. They are fighting to get raises for police doing good work. Everybody wins,” added Edwards
“It is imperative that we remember Ida Delaney and Byron Gillum because the police still serve the interest of the economic community rather than the people. Those relationships haven’t changed. As long as they keep crime out of River Oaks it’s cool. Let the people on MLK shoot themselves,” said Khan.
“I wonder what would have happened in the Delaney and Gillum cases if the community had not stepped up. [Tschirhart and Gonzales] never would have been charged with murder. Also, we have to address how police deal with the mentally challenged. In addition, we have to realize that this is not just a black/white thing; it’s a policy thing. Daniel Webster [killed by police] was white. It’s a procedural issue,” said Edwards.
“The problem is that people don’t know how to move policy and procedures. Policies are not Mosaic Law. They were written by humans and can be changed by us. We have to decide what laws and policies we need to enact to create a more just society,” added Edwards.