An FBI agent shot and killed a kidnapping victim during a predawn operation in northeast Houston Thursday.
HOUSTON — An FBI agent shot and killed a kidnapping victim during a predawn operation in northeast Houston, hours after the Conroe man was bound with duct tape and pulled from his home by gunmen who later demanded ransom.
The man — still bound — was hit by gunfire as the FBI burst into the Trinity Gardens home where he was being held with at least one woman and some children inside, officials said.
Details remained murky late Thursday as multiple law enforcement agencies continued to investigate at the small home still trimmed with Christmas lights.
“The system failed,” Conroe Police Chief Philip Dupuis told reporters during an emotional press conference Thursday afternoon. “We do this job to help people and it doesn’t always go our way.”
Two men and a woman were arrested Thursday at two different locations on first-degree felony charges in connection with the case. A fourth person — the wife of one of the accused — was questioned but not charged, police said.
“We’ve got the bad guys,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon. “Even though it’s good work on behalf of Conroe Police Department, it’s still a tragedy.”
Nicholas Chase Cunningham, 42, and Jimmy Tony Sanchez, 38, were charged with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery. Sophia Perez Heath, 35, faces one count of aggravated kidnapping, according to authorities.
The FBI agent who fired the fatal shot is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation, according to agency spokeswoman Christina Garza.
“In the interest of protecting the investigation’s integrity, we cannot comment regarding investigative details,” she said in an emailed statement.
The chaos that ended early Thursday started the day before at a Tyler Lane home in Conroe the man shared with his 12-year-old son and brother.
About 8 a.m. Wednesday, the boy heard a knock on the door. The brother was at work at the time, but the father answered the door and two men rushed in with guns, Conroe Police Sgt. Jeff Smith said.
“They were demanding money they were owed that nobody knew anything about,” Smith said.
They tore the house apart and took some property, then bound the boy and his father with duct tape before deciding to take the father with them.
The attackers ordered the boy not to call police. But at some point after the assailants fled, the boy broke free and ran to a neighbor’s house, Smith said.
The neighbor called police, who launched an investigation and began interviewing the child and the brother.
As authorities worked to unravel what happened, the brother got a call to his cell phone from a man who demanded a ransom and claimed to be with a cartel. At that point, Conroe police called in the FBI, who obtained a federal warrant that helped them track the suspects’ phone to a hotel in the Webster area, Smith said.
“At that point we had full FBI resources,” he said. “This is not something that happens every day. You get kidnappings but not movie-style where there’s people bound and removed, ransoms demanded.”
When federal investigators forced their way into the hotel room around midnight, they detained and questioned three people, including Cunningham and Sanchez. From that, authorities were able to trace the victim’s location to the Trinity Gardens home in the 7300 block of Elbert.
After the shooting, the victim was rushed to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, where he died, Garza said.
Smith stressed there was no indication any of the suspected kidnappers actually had cartel connections.
“There are oftentimes claims of a cartel connection just to place a fear factor,” Smith said. “It appears somebody connected to the family was involved.”
The cartel link, he said, “was just used as a threat” to better extort money.
All three suspects could face life sentences, and Ligon said he may consider harsher charges as well.
“There’s a possibility of filing a felony murder because the defendants put this into play,” he said. “We will anticipate seeking a no-bond for the incident.”
Sanchez has a long criminal history dating back to at least 1997, ranging from burglary to retaliation. One of Cunningham’s prior arrests included aggravated robbery, a conviction for which he was still on parole, according to Texas Department of Public Safety records.
Ligon said he fought to bring the suspects back to Montgomery County to deliver “the most justice possible.”
Because the shooting took place in the Houston city limits, Houston Police Department will investigate, along with the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The outburst of violence sent shock waves along the quiet street of modest homes.
“This is not what happens on Elbert Street,” said Flora Henry-Smith, who grew up there.
Monique McKnight, who lives nearby, recounted waking up to the sound of gunfire.
“It sounded like an explosion,” she said.
Another neighbor described hearing four shots in the dead of night.
It’s not clear who lived in the single-story home at the center of the early morning activity, but according to neighbors the household including two adults and two young children who’d all been there about a year.
McKnight said investigators questioned her about the children. Other neighbors said they didn’t see much of the family but were “shocked” at the turn of events.
“Everybody gets along,” said one woman, who asked not to be named.
Sharon Ettinoffe stayed the night in her 91-year-old mother’s home just around the corner — and woke to federal agents pounding on the door, asking for information.
She didn’t have anything to offer, and the federal officials at the door wouldn’t give out details on what happened, she said.
“Your neighborhood will be safer now,” one agent told her.