Forty-seven years ago, I witnessed – and played a very small role in – a police chase along this stretch of Beaumont Highway (old U.S. 90), just outside of Houston Texas.
I was 16 years old that summer and was at work at my very first job.
That summer of 1968, somewhere over on the right side of this picture, there was an old gas station, a two story white building with a two-bay garage on one side and a one story former café on the other side. In the back was a very small one-story apartment. The old gas station also boasted a small inventory of auto parts.
Not only did I work there, but we lived there. My mom, step-dad, sister and I occupied the rooms above the gas station and the small one-story apartment behind. My step-dad was a truck driver. The owner of the gas station, Mr. Haley, had given me a job, pumping gas, changing oil, fixing tires, selling parts and more.
On June 26, 1968, on the busy West Loop freeway, Houston Police Officer Ben Gerhart (below, left) pulled a Buick over in a routine traffic and littering stop.
Gerhart obtained the driver’s license from the driver, Roderick Isaacks, a 23 year old white man, and took him back to Gerhart’s blue and white police car. Gerhart briefly interviewed Issacks and then returned to the Buick to speak to the female passenger, Monica Isaacks, who told him her husband had a gun.
Not long before, Monica Isaacks had left Roderick because of physical abuse and had filed for divorce. Roderick had found Monica and forced her to come back to live with him. When they were stopped by Officer Gerhart, they were in the middle of a volatile domestic argument. Four days earlier, Roderick Isaacks had purchased a handgun.
Officer Gerhart went back to his car, got Isaacks out of the car and searched him. Finding no weapon, Gerhart started toward the Buick, probably to search there for a gun. As Gerhart walked toward the vehicle, Roderick Isaacks ran past him and grabbed his gun from under the front seat. Turning toward Gerhart, who had just pulled his weapon, Isaacks fired one shot, hitting the police officer in the face. After Gerhart fell to the ground, Isaaks grabbed the officer’s weapon, ran back to the Buick and sped away north on the West Loop.
Several private citizens observed all or part of the encounter. One got on the police car radio and reported what had happened, including a description of the Buick and a license number. Officer Gerhart was taken by ambulance to Memorial Northwest Hospital, less than a mile away, but he was dead on arrival.
The Isaacks’ Buick was spotted headed east on Old North Loop Freeway by a two man Traffic Enforcement Unit, Officers J.A. Shirley and C.F. Squyres in a six-cylinder Plymouth. They began pursuit and, shortly after, Accident Officer Bobby L. James (below, right), in an eight cylinder cruiser, joined the chase, pulling out between the two officers and the fleeing Buick.
With Officer James in close pursuit, the chase reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, heading east on the North Loop and then onto Old Beaumont Highway, with more and more officers and vehicles joining the chase.
I don’t recall seeing the Buick or the first police chase vehicles. I probably did, as sirens and flashing cop lights were not all that common out our way and I generally looked to see what was up.
The sheer number of cop cars, marked and unmarked, certainly got our attention – and seared the event into my memory. In 1968, a railroad spur crossed the road, leading to the power plant behind us. The fast moving vehicles squatted and surged as they hit the tracks, moving though a road repair area at the tracks without slowing down appreciably – except for one.
An unmarked cop car rolled into the station with a flat on the right rear tire. I ran and got the floor jack and rolled it out and under the car. By the time I got it jacked up, my stepdad was there and we got to work getting the tire changed. One of the two cops in suits – probably detectives – popped the truck so we could get the spare and, while it was open, the cops got what I think were shotguns. We had the flat off and the spare on far faster than I ever changed a tire. The flat was so hot I nearly burned my hands picking it up and putting it in the trunk. When one of the officers reached for his wallet, I waved him off and said something like, “That’s alright. Just go.” I didn’t know what was going on, but it sure seemed important.
Near Talcott Lane in Sheldon, Isaacks rear-ended a Ford occupied by three adults and four children. The collision caused both vehicles to spin around, ending up crossways to traffic.
Following close behind, Officer James was faced with a split-second decision – hitting one of the cars or taking his chances and going into the ditch on the right. Choosing the latter, he hit a three-foot high culvert and was killed instantly.
A widely held belief in the Houston Police Department was that James gave his life to avoid the possibility of hitting the Ford.
Roderick Isaacks fled on foot, firing at officers. Cornered in a small clump of woods, he continued to shoot at his pursuers. Sgt. Stephens and Officers Jeffcoat, Robbins, Shirley and Squyres returned fire, killing Isaacks.
Information for this post came from an article on the Houston Police Officer’s’ Union website, Fallen Officers Remembered: Officers Ben Gerhart and Bobby James.