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Galveston SWAT team wrecks wrong house in search for wrong suspect


Members of an island family assert they were injured and traumatized and their house wrecked by a SWAT team searching for a homicide suspect who wasn’t there and who was later cleared of involvement in a shooting death.

The police department argues the team was only following its training when it raided a house in the 5300 block of Avenue O, shattering windows with “flashbang” devices, kicking in doors and ripping out wires.

Erika Rios, her 16-year-old son, her 18-year-old daughter and her daughter’s 16-year-old friend, were asleep about 2 a.m. Sunday when the children awoke to the megaphone-amplified sound of Galveston Police Department’s SWAT unit announcing its arrival, Rios said Thursday.

“I had taken melatonin and I was in a deep sleep,” Rios said. “My children were trying to wake me up. They were terrified.

“That’s when they started throwing flashbangs into our home,” she said. “We later found 15 of them that had been used.”

Rio’s children and the teenage family friend left the house with their hands up and were not allowed to put shoes on, she said. They walked across shattered window glass, got shards in their feet and had to get tetanus shots and take antibiotics, Rios said.

Rios said she was dragged from her home, handcuffed and detained with her son in a police car.

“We were all so confused,” Rios said. “When they dragged me out, I was left with a bruise and scrape on my right thigh.

“The police told us they were searching for Cameron Vargas, my son’s friend, but he left before midnight and went home. He doesn’t live with us.”

Vargas, 17, of Galveston, had been briefly charged with murder in the Jan. 20 shooting death of Malik Dunn, 25, in the 3900 block of Sealy Street, according to police.

The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office dropped those charges Wednesday after police learned a supposed eyewitness to the Dunn shooting had falsely identified Vargas.

Rios estimated the SWAT raid did at least $2,000 in damage to her home.

“We have eight double-paned storm windows that they shot through, which will cost at least $1,300, a broken-down fence and a heater that won’t work because they tore up the wiring in our attic,” Rios said.

After police had cleared the house of all occupants, officers continued to break garage windows with a wooden stick, Rios said.

An officer ripped out two cameras in her living room and kitchen, but she still had one that captured the whole raid, Rios said.

“When the officer found the other camera, he started laughing and said, ‘who keeps cameras in their living room,’” Rios said.

“I’ve been left with traumatized kids, no heat in my home and busted windows, all because they were looking for somebody who didn’t even live there, who was also innocent.

“I’m trying to repair what I can and heal my kids, but it’s hard as a single mother. It has been a whirlwind and it was all so unnecessary.”

Before the raid, Rios had picked up her son and Vargas from their job, she said. On the way home, police pulled her over and the officer asked her son and Vargas for their names and ages, Rios said.

“I think that is the reason they thought Cameron would be with us,” Rios said. “I thought I was being pulled over because of car trouble I’d been having. My father met me and drove home with me and he noticed an unmarked police car following me. It all made sense later on.”

Vargas surrendered himself to Galveston County Jail on Monday.

“This is an unfortunate situation all around and we are doing what we can to help Erika out with repairs,” Michael Vargas, Cameron’s father, said. “The arrest warrant was not even filed until later in the day after they raided the home.

“I raised my son to respect the police, but this situation goes against everything I taught him.

“I am not mad at the whole department, but this was just a frustrating situation.

“I can’t imagine what happens to kids who don’t have a parent advocating for them.”Tactics the SWAT team used were part of its training, Galveston Chief Doug Balli said Thursday.

“SWAT is trained in a specific way to raid a home, which includes working from the outside in,” Balli said. “They need to ensure there is no threat to themselves.

“Police work is inherently dangerous and anytime we have a warrant, we do a threat assessment and since this was related to a murder case, the risk to ourselves increased.”

The Rios family could contact the department or the city, Balli said.

“They can contact us, but if they do not want to, they would go through the office of risk management and the city manager who would investigate,” Balli said. “The police are not allowed to be involved; it is up to the city to rectify it.”

Balli was unclear about whether legal action would be taken against the person who falsely identified Vargas.

“We do not want to deter citizens reporting things to the police, but if it was done maliciously, they could be charged with providing a false statement to police,” Balli said.

Trace Harris: 409-683-5247; The Daily News or on twitter at TraceH_news