Today we get a close look at the dedication of the first responders among us. Our friend, Ben Carbo, is a former Houston Policeman and he tells a tragic tale from those days of duty and shows how these men and women place their lives on the line each day, under danger and extreme pressure, in order to protect and serve their community.
When I woke up on the morning of Thursday, January 30, 1975, I turned on the television news to see what I had missed after signing off at 11:00 p.m. the night before. My heart started racing and I got weak in the knees when I saw Johnny Bamsch’s police identification photo displayed on the television screen. The news commentator was describing how he had been gunned down in the early morning hours while attempting to stop an armed robbery at a 7/11 store in the 4600 block of Yale Street on Houston’s North side.
My mind flashed back to one early summer evening about three years previous. While on routine patrol, I was flagged down by a passing motorist a block from the High School where I had graduated 10 years before. I pulled into a parking lot next to the driver of the car hailing me and I recognized the driver as an old high school classmate that I had not seen since graduation. Johnny told me that he had just graduated from Sam Houston State College with a degree in criminology after serving in the Marine Corp and had applied with the FBI. He went on to say that the FBI advised him that he would need at least two years of law enforcement experience before he could be considered for employment with the FBI.
He asked me how I liked being a Houston Police Officer. I remember telling him that if he became a street cop in Houston he would never consider being a paper shuffler with the FBI. He took my advice and now his photo will join the others on the Wall of Honor at the North Shepherd Police Sub-Station for giving his life in the line of duty. (inset picture – Johnny Bamsch)
From the news, I learned that Johnny’s killer, seventeen-year-old Richard Delain Kyles, was shot by Johnny’s partner, J.D. Ellis and was recovering from wounds while under police guard at the county hospital. The wounds, while not lethal, would guarantee that Kyles would never be able to run very far or very fast because one load of double ought buckshot blew out a knee while another load assured he would never father any future cop killers
However, the other suspects got away. One in particular was Robert Lee Thomas, a.k.a. Bo Thomas, had been identified as the 28-year-old leader of the teenage hijackers and was also Richard Kyles’ uncle. Thomas, an ex con who served time in Louisiana for armed robbery, had a last known address in Acres Homes located in district 6, an area under the jurisdiction of the North Shepherd Sub-Station to which I was assigned.
I arrived at the station early to learn all I could about what caused Johnny’s tragic death and how the hunt for Thomas and the others was progressing. At the station, I found copies of the police report available along with mug shots of Thomas. The roll call sergeant gave us all the latest information on the investigation.
The sergeant told us that Johnny’s partner was driving slowly south on Yale Street and as they passed a 7- Eleven store in the 4600 block Johnny noticed a young male standing with a pistol pointed at the clerk behind the counter. Johnny shouted out to Ellis that a hijacking was going down. As they passed the store they noticed a late model Lincoln Continental with its lights off pulled up next to the store on a side street.
As Ellis turned the patrol car around the Lincoln started pulling away slowly. Johnny told Ellis to drop him off and go after the Lincoln. Johnny bailed out of the patrol car at the corner about fifty feet from the front door of the store. The Lincoln turned north onto Yale Street and began picking up speed as Ellis pulled in behind it. At the same time, Ellis heard gun shots behind him.
As Ellis swung back around into the 7-11 store parking lot he saw Johnny going down shooting his revolver wildly in the air. He also saw Kyles just outside the front door of the store. Ellis grabbed his shot gun and fired at Kyles until he went down. The sergeant also revealed that Johnny was wearing his bullet-proof Kevlar vest, but was standing in a crouched firing position in a shallow ditch. Kyles fired from a higher position just outside of the store’s front door causing his first shot to strike Johnny above the vest and then take a downward trajectory into Johnny’s heart. The weapon used was a 41 Special caliber Charter Arms Bulldog revolver given to Kyles by Thomas to use on his first solo robbery.
After roll call, we all went out on a mission to find Robert Lee Thomas. Between calls for service, most of the North Shepherd evening shift would drift in and out of the Acres Homes area. There were more than the usual traffic stops that day and all the typical gathering places were checked out. There were several arrests as a result of this high intensity dragnet.
I guess the good citizens in the Acres Home community grew weary of the high degree of police presence because at approximately 7:30 p.m. that evening a tip came in to Central Dispatch. The dispatcher working the north radio frequency put out a general broadcast, “ATTENTION ALL OFFICERS, Robert Lee Thomas has just been seen picking up his laundry at the Pilgrim’s Cleaners at West Montgomery and West Little York. Suspect last seen traveling east on West Little York in a green four door Chevrolet sedan, partial Texas license plate number LYM…”
My partner C.P. Buddy Hall and I were sitting at the red light on DePriest at West Little York less than a mile from the Pilgrims location when the broadcast went out. I was waiting for the light to turn green so that I could turn west onto West Little York when a green four door Chevrolet sedan proceeded to make a left turn from West Little York onto DePriest right in front of us.
As the Chevrolet completed the turn, I turned on the red lights, crossed the intersection and fell in behind. The vehicle slowly pulled over and I noticed the license plate number began with the letters LYM. I did not get too excited about this because back then everyone purchased their license plates at neighborhood grocery stores and practically everyone in Acres Home had license plates that started with LYM. However, it was a green four door Chevrolet sedan and was traveling the same direction as reported in the general broadcast.
The street was dark because there were no street lights nearby, only a sliver of a new moon illuminating the scene. I advised the dispatcher of our location and that we were stopping a vehicle which matched the description of the general broadcast.
I approached the driver’s side, my 357-magnum revolver drawn pointed down at my side and shinning my flashlight first on the lone occupant in the back seat. Then I stepped up to the driver’s door and illuminated the driver and front passenger. At this point I began to relax because my first impression was that this was a middle-aged couple out with their twenties something son in the back seat.
I asked the woman driver for her driver’s license and she responded by saying she did not have one. I then asked her for identification and again she responded by saying she had no identification with her. I stopped being relaxed at this point and asked the other front seat passenger for identification to which I got the same reply as I got from the driver. Realizing that this was not the typical traffic stop of a normal middle aged couple my adrenaline was kicking in.
I turned my attention to the back-seat passenger and this time my flashlight revealed a Pilgrims dry cleaning bag on the seat next to him and his right hand under the bag. The Pilgrims Cleaners general broadcast and the Pilgrims Cleaners dry cleaning bag raised my heart rate considerably and also caused my revolver to raise as well – pointing directly at the back-seat passenger’s head, I demanded some identification while fixating on his covered right hand.
His right hand came out from under the dry-cleaning bag empty and I began to think how I was going to answer the inevitable complaint I was would face about terrorizing an innocent man by pointing my revolver at his head. The man in the back seat then opened the door partially and handed me a social security card and I stood in disbelief as I read the name, Robert Lee Thomas.
During this whole time of trying to get identification from the occupants in the car, Hall, a recent graduate of the Houston Police Academy must have listened in class because he had his revolver drawn standing at the right rear of the vehicle. Hall was pointing his 357 at the back-seat passenger with one hand and helping to illuminate the passenger compartment with a flash light in the other hand – just as instructed.
Later, upon reflection I attribute Hall’s actions with saving me from the same fate suffered by Johnny Bamsch. As I reached to pull Thomas out of the backseat, he pushed me back with the door and bolted from the car running down the middle of the street. I fell in behind him and the race was on. As I chased Thomas I threw my flashlight to the ground lightening my load so that I could keep up with the fleeing suspect.
After chasing Thomas for about a half block and staying with him stride for stride (who said white men can’t run) I heard my partner behind me yell, “Shoot, shoot!” I fired two rounds from my 357 Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum before I realized it. I was only eight to ten feet behind Thomas and he turned about the time I fired and he not only got to hear the loud report, but was also blessed with seeing the flame shoot out from the barrel of my Magnum and may have even heard the projectiles whiz by within inches of his head. I was also blessed by missing him. It would have been extremely difficult to explain to a grand jury why I shot an unarmed man in the back of the head. Later, I spoke to Hall about being a little more restrained in what he shouts to his partner in the heat of a chase.
I wasn’t too hard on Hall for his indiscretion especially in view of his excellent exhibit of proper police procedure back at the car and putting the fear of God into Thomas by encouraging me to shoot. While both of my shots missed their mark, they came close enough for Thomas to believe what I yelled as he turned off the street and headed towards a wooded area next to a closed cafe. As Thomas came under a light beside the old wooden structure of the café, I called out to him to stop or I would drop him before he entered the woods.
I guess Thomas preferred life in prison to death by Magnum because he stopped. As I approached him I swung at him, missing and slamming my fist against the wall of the café. That hurt too much to try it again so I grabbed him and threw him to the ground. He did not resist as I had hoped because I was looking for an excuse to inflict on him some bodily pain on behalf of my dead friend and brother officer.
As Hall and I escorted our unmarked handcuffed prisoner back to the patrol car we noticed that the green Chevrolet we had stopped was nowhere in sight. I immediately thought back to Thomas sitting in the back seat with his right hand under the dry-cleaning bag and I knew I had to find that car to see just how close to getting shot I had come.
I got in the back seat with Thomas and told Hall to drive. Even though we had a cage to protect us when transporting prisoners, it could also serve to protect the prisoner from the officers and I didn’t want Thomas to feel any sense of protection as I asked him where the Chevrolet could be found.
As I sat next to Thomas on that dark deserted street I gave him a Miranda warning of sorts. Saying something to the effect, “If you tell me where your friends went I may not put a bullet in your head.” I normally followed textbook procedures in regard to a prisoner’s civil rights, but I wasn’t feeling particularly civil with the piece of garbage sitting next to me who was instrumental in the killing of my friend Johnny. Thomas was most cooperative and said he would lead us to an apartment complex a few blocks away.
After getting what I needed from Thomas I told Hall to pull over so I could get back under the wheel fearing what I might do to the still unmarked Thomas if I stayed in the backseat with him. As I got back in the driver’s seat I keyed the mike advising the dispatcher that we had Thomas in custody and that we were in route to an unknown location to recover the suspect’s vehicle.
My lieutenant immediately got on the air and advised us to wait for back up. I had a problem (that began in Vietnam) with following lieutenant’s orders so I did not respond. I was not in the mood to let that Chevrolet get away without my knowing what I would find under that dry-cleaning bag.
When we came up to the location of the Chevrolet in the parking lot of an apartment complex I ran to the back door and put my hand under the dry-cleaning bag and felt the familiar cold hard steel of a heavy revolver. I was shocked when I pulled it out and found it to be a 357 Magnum, nickel plated, Colt Python, a handgun commonly carried by law enforcement officers. I also noticed a silver-plated butt plate with a name and badge number inscribed on it.
He not only mentored Johnny’s killer, but may have also killed another officer as evidenced by his possession of this weapon and finally the coward would have shot me too if it hadn’t been for my partner watching my back as I checked out the occupants of the vehicle in the initial stop earlier.
I lost it at this point while pondering on these things. I took the Python, opened the back door of the patrol car and started striking out at Thomas with the heavy barrel. After a couple of misses (Thomas by now had acquired an excellent knowledge of the art of ducking and weaving even handcuffed in confined quarters), Lieutenant Finch who had earlier advised me to stand by for back up arrived on the scene and grabbed me and held me until I calmed down.
About this time, Officer J.J. Jezerski was calling our unit on the radio. As I responded, Jezerski asked me to check to see if there was a cold six pack of Schlitz beer in the car. I checked and there it was on the backseat floorboard. Jezerski then asked if Thomas was wearing a sport shirt with a mountain scene and if he had $240 in his pocket. I checked and responded affirmative to both.
Jezerski then advised that a suspect meeting Thomas’ description robbed a convenience store at the corner of Pinemont and Wheatley a short time ago of $240 in cash and a cold six pack of Schlitz beer leaving in a green four door Chevrolet. Thomas had been a busy young man that night. We transported Thomas downtown and booked him without further incident.
The next morning, I had to testify in a state district court downtown on another felony case in which I was the arresting officer. The case was reset for a later date, a common defense tactic, in hopes that the complaining witnesses would get tired of missing work after several resets and not show up causing the case to be dismissed. With a few hours to kill before the start of my shift I headed over to Central Station downtown and checked in with the Homicide Division to find out about the revolver I recovered the previous night.
Since this was a capital murder investigation and due to the fact that Thomas also confessed to a string of robberies under interrogation the night before, a task force of Homicide and Robbery detectives was formed to complete the investigation. I learned a lot that morning about our man, Thomas.
It seems that Thomas and his little gang of juveniles robbed a convenience store on Memorial Drive a week before the Bamsch murder. After sexually assaulting a female customer, they took her late model Lincoln Continental and headed east leaving a trail of several convenience store robberies in their wake.
As they were passing through Livingston, Texas a Livingston Police Officer who apparently thought a carload of young black males looked out of place in a new Lincoln Continental pulled them over. This was 1975 before racial profiling had a name much less a negative connotation. The victims of this gross act of racial profiling got the drop on the officer, disarmed him and emptied the officer’s 357 Magnum Colt Python, yeah that one, at him as he ran for his life. Fortunately, the officer was not struck in the attack. Emboldened by their crime spree in East Texas, the gang returned to Houston and later that night my friend Johnny observed them in the act of another robbery that cost him his life.
Richard Delaine Kyles, Bamsch’s teenage killer went on trial for Capital Murder of a Police Officer and received a life sentence instead of the death penalty because he had no adult criminal convictions due to the fact that he had just turned seventeen. At that time in the State of Texas one was considered as a juvenile under penalty of criminal law until the age of seventeen and Kyles long juvenile record was not admissible in his adult criminal court case.
Robert Lee Thomas was tried for aggravated robbery and also received a life sentence as a habitual criminal having two previous convictions for armed robbery in the State of Louisiana. The last time I checked in 2002, both Kyles and Thomas were still incarcerated. Johnny’s parents had a lot to do with keeping their only son’s killers behind bars attending every parole hearing scheduled until the day they died.
The young Livingston Police Officer who hand his weapon taken from him almost costing him his life resigned shortly after the incident at his wife’s insistence and went to work for a bank in Livingston.
Cindy Bamsch, Johnny’s widow who was also a high school classmate of my wife and me, gave birth that year to the Bamsch’s only child and has never remarried. Cindy has been an active member of the 100 Club, an organization that assists fallen officer’s families with financial aid and scholarships for their children. Through the 100 Club Cindy has served as a leader of support groups for families of fallen officers.
As for me, I went on a crusade in 1975 to arrest every hijacker that dared to strike in Houston’s north side. Before long I got a reputation with the Robbery Division as someone with a passion for catching hijackers and they would feed me tips making it easier to compile an impressive record for clearing robberies and other serious felonies that year.
To demonstrate how hot I was that year, and how very lucky, while driving home from work late one evening just north of the Houston city limits, I observed a vehicle wanted in a robbery I had been investigating earlier that day. I followed the suspect vehicle until he stopped at a business and arrested the driver who met the description of the wanted suspect. Since I was outside of my jurisdiction I called the Harris County Sheriff’s Department who took him into custody and transported him to the HPD Robbery Division.
On February 17, 1976 I was the Northwest Patrol Division’s nominee for the Exchange Club Officer of the Year representing a division of over five hundred officers. Lieutenant W.A. Purdue who nominated me told me that I would be the hands down winner for there had never been a patrol officer with such an impressive arrest record. I did not receive the award because a traffic cop who had stumbled on to (during a traffic stop) the largest heroin cache ever seized in Houston at the time was awarded. The award would have been nice, but I wasn’t in it for an award; I was just tired of seeing the criminal element terrorize innocent people and I did what I could to stop it. I also must admit I had the time of my life doing it.
I apologize to my friends at the ACLU (American Criminal Liberties Union) for any breeches of criminal rights I committed during my crusade for justice as a Houston Police Officer. I fully admit I was too concerned about the rights of innocent law abiding citizens to live their lives in peace without fear than to give a rip about the rights of the likes of low life predators like Mr. Thomas.