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Tampa police detective under investigation is fired

Decorated Tampa police homicide detective Eric Houston was fired Thursday afternoon by Chief Jane Castor after she was briefed on the nature of the federal investigation targeting the 24-year veteran of the force.

Though she would not reveal what the federal grand jury investigation is looking into, “It is clear that Houston’s alleged criminal behavior is so egregious that it is necessary to take this step immediately,” Castor said.

Houston was placed on administrative leave on April 3, just after the department learned of the federal probe.

He has been involved in numerous homicide investigations, including several high-profile cases: convicted cop-killer Dontae Morris, who is awaiting sentencing in the death penalty case; his girlfriend Cortnee Brantley, whose federal case may be appealed, and Julie Schenecker, a Tampa mother charged with killing her two teenage children. Her three-week murder trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

State prosecutors gave notice of the federal investigation to defense attorneys in all pending criminal cases in which Houston played a part.

Prosecutors and police are working together to review 19 cases in which Houston played a role. Nine of those cases are pending in Hillsborough courts.

Castor said Houstonw as the lead detective in only three of the cases.

One was a robbery and aggravated battery in which the defendant has been found incompetent to stand trial and is in a mental hospital.

The second is a manslaughter case involving a defendant charged with attacking and killing his roommate in an argument over food. Police currently are interviewing witnesses in their review of that case, she said.

The third case was the death investigation of a person who police said ingested illegal narcotics, then jumped or fell from a seventh-floor balcony.

“We are working closely with the Tampa Police Department reviewing pending cases in which Eric Houston was involved in some capacity,” said Hillsborough State Attorney spokesman Mark Cox in a statement released Thursday. “We will evaluate each case individually to determine whether Houston’s testimony is required in order to proceed with prosecution.

“Because it is common practice in law enforcement to have more than one investigator work each aspect of a homicide or other violent crime investigation, in most cases another law enforcement officer will be able to testify instead of Officer Houston.

“For cases in which Officer Houston is an essential witness,” Cox said, “we will determine how to proceed on a case-by-case basis.”

Castor, who made Houston the eighth officer fired in the past 11 months, defended the department’s integrity.

“His actions do not represent the good men and women of this organization and he does not deserve to wear the uniform of a Tampa police officer,” she said. “It’s unfortunate he chose to disgrace the badge. It couldn’t be any more disheartening to me.’’

Castor said criminal investigations never rely solely on one person. Interviews are always done with others, as is the collection of evidence.

“We have levels of protocols in place that protect the integrity of these investigations,” she said. “Most cases involve a team of detectives and built-in redundancy in the event that an employee is not available during the prosecution. As a result, we do not believe that any of Houston’s cases are in jeopardy.”

The investigation of Houston grew out of the probe of his wife, La Joyce Houston, a Tampa police sergeant who was fired and arrested in October and charged with welfare fraud and grand theft. The allegations against Eric Houston are not related to that case, Castor said, though they surfaced during that investigation.

It was a Tampa police detective who uncovered the evidence against Eric Houston, she said, and presented it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Federal prosecutors aren’t talking about the probe, releasing this statement late Thursday afternoon:

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida confirms that former Tampa Police Department Officer Eric Houston is the subject of an ongoing federal criminal investigation. At this time, no further details are available.”

The police department received a subpoena Thursday to produce all human resources and personnel files for Houston, including any “internal affairs files, complaints, allegations, investigations or any other report of misconduct or personnel actions,” at a federal grand jury hearing.

Houston was a crime-scene investigator who specialized in cold cases. Before his termination, he made about $86,000 a year. Castor said a criminal conviction could affect his pension.

His recent performance evaluation was exemplary, earning all “above expectations” and “excels” in 38 of 40 categories rated.

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