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Joe Campos Torres, 22
Houston, Texas
May 05, 1977

Agencies: Houston Police Department Texas

Last updated: 7 months ago

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It's been 40 years since 23-year-old Vietnam War veteran Joe Campos Torres' body was found washed up on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou.

On May 5, 1977, Campos Torres, was arrested at a bar for disorderly conduct. Instead of being taken to jail, police took Campos Torres to "The Hole," an isolated area behind a warehouse along Buffalo Bayou where Houston Police Department officers could write reports, question suspects and sleep.

Campos Torres was beaten by six officers for hours before they took him to the city jail. Once there, officials refused to book him because of the extent of his injuries, and ordered that he be admitted to a hospital. The six arresting officers instead took him, once again, to The Hole.

Following another beating, Campos Torres was pushed off the raised platform and fell 20 feet into the Bayou, where his body was found three days later.

"We never got justice," his sister Sandra Torres told the Houston Chronicle in 2011. "All those cops, they just got a slap on the wrist, and you know what? Where's my brother? He's gone. The cops got to go home to their families while he was floating in the water for three days."

Of the six, initially only officers Terry Denson and Steven Orlando were charged with murder. An all-white jury found them guilty of negligent homicide—a misdemeanor—and sentenced the officers to a year's probation and a $1 fine.

Houston's Chicano community found the fine especially hard to swallow, with chants of "A Chicano's life is only worth a dollar," reverberating through the neighborhood and throughout the country's Mexican-American communities.

The officers were eventually sentenced to nine months in prison, but tensions simmered for a year until they boiled over on the anniversary of Campos Torres' death.

In 1978, the Cinco de Mayo celebrations at Moody Park erupted into riots. Police attempts to break up the crowd were met with waves of retaliation by the attendees.

"What happened was when the police came in to arrest some people, and actually took somebody, people said 'No,'" then-rookie cop Harold Barthe told Houston Public Media in 2008. "'You're not going to take him and do what you did to Joe Campos Torres."

"People rose-up and started throwing rocks and bottles at the police, overturning police cars and shouting 'Justice for Joe Torres' and 'Viva Joe Torres,'" Barthe said.

"The community had this insurrection in the face of the brutality of the Houston Police Department," Carlos Calbillo, a community historian and filmmaker who made a documentary about the Torres case, told the Houston Chronicle in 2011.

More than 40 people were arrested during the riots, which became nationwide news and led to the creation of HPD's internal affairs department.

Today, Campos Torres' family is working to erect an official marker to commemorate his death and the riots.

"There has never been anything to mark (Torres' death) in a positive way," Torres' nephew Richard Molina, told the Houston Chronicle in 2014. "No parade, no day of remembrance. It's never had its own day, but is definitely something that should be remembered, a lesson of Houston history and among Mexican-Americans."