Torres, Joe Campos (1953–1977)


By: Jesús Jesse Esparza

Type: Biography

Published: June 15, 2022

Updated: June 16, 2022


Joe Campos Torres, military veteran, victim of police brutality, and symbol of the Chicano movement, son of Margaret (Campos) Torres and Joe Luna Torres, was born in Houston, Texas, on December 20, 1953. Torres’s 1977 beating and murder by officers from the Houston Police Department serves as one of the most notorious examples of police misconduct in the city’s history and ignited an intense period of protest over the next several years. The guilty officers were convicted of violating his constitutional rights but received only a one-year and one-day prison sentence from the trials that ensued.

Joe Torres, one of seven children, grew up in the Denver Harbor and Second Ward sections of Houston. According to U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs records, he enlisted as a private in the U. S. Army on November 1, 1974, and was discharged on November 3, 1976. After his discharge, he returned to Houston and found work as a laborer with Sash & Door Company, a local business that made doors.

On May 5, 1977, Torres was arrested after an altercation with the bar manager at the 21 Club, a popular drinking establishment in Southeast Houston. He was handcuffed and en route to the city jail, when police officers Carless Eugene Elliott, Jerome Skolnick, and Stephen Orlando made a detour and transported him to the “hole,” a secret spot along Buffalo Bayou where cops often took those they arrested to beat on them. Officers Terry Wayne Denson, Joseph Janish, Louis Kinney, and Glenn Brinkmeyer joined them at the “hole.” After severely beating Torres, they took him to the city jail but were ordered to take him to Ben Taub Hospital instead. The arresting officers left with Torres, supposedly on their way to the hospital, but instead, they returned him to the “hole” to commence with a second round of beating. Afterward, they forced Torres into Buffalo Bayou where he drowned as he was too injured to swim or stay afloat.

Back at the police station, the officers informed their sergeant that they had released Torres. But rookie officer Eugene Elliott broke his code of silence and eventually told his father, a former police officer, what had happened.

The next day, Torres’s family searched for him and eventually submitted a missing person’s report with the Houston Police Department. On May 8, 1977, precisely three days after his arrest and beating, Joe Torres’s body was found floating in the bayou. The autopsy report revealed several bruises caused by blunt force trauma, and the medical examiner subsequently ruled Joe’s death a homicide and concluded that he died from asphyxia due to drowning.

In response to these new developments, Chief of Police Byron Glenn Bond suspended the other officers involved with Torres’s murder. He also established an Internal Affairs Division in the police department. However, on June 10, 1977, Chief Bond resigned, and his successor, Harry Caldwell, terminated the police officers involved. Harris County District Attorney Carol Vance brought charges against the officers as did the Texas Attorney General John Hill. Orlando and Denson were charged with murder, while Janish, Kinney, and Brinkmeyer received misdemeanor counts. No charges were filed against the rookie Elliott, and he returned to duty.

Torres’s murder galvanized the Mexican American community. Young militants took to the streets with marches and rallies throughout the city. Groups such as Barrios Unidos en Defensa held several demonstrations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), the American G.I. Forum, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) also rallied behind this tragedy. Activists formed several multi-racial and multi-generational coalitions intent on seeking justice.

Before the trial, the defense successfully had the case moved from Houston to Huntsville and claimed they wanted to ensure an impartial jury. At the trial, the prosecution struggled to prove that the officers had an “intent to commit murder.” Additionally, the defense effectively convinced the jury that Torres was an alcoholic with a predisposition for violence. According to them, he was “a drunk with a chip on the shoulder” who attacked police officers and forced them to respond in self-defense.

In October 1977 the jury prepared for deliberations. They convicted Denson and Orlando of negligent homicide and sentenced them to probation with a fine of one dollar. It amounted to no more than a misdemeanor.

News of the decision angered the Mexican American community, and they took to the streets. Groups such as the Brown Berets, the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), and La Raza Unida Party organized countless protest marches. Other groups in protest included the Justice for Joe Torres Committee and the People United to Fight Police Brutality. News of federal indictments of the officers brought a sense of relief to the community. A federal trial began on January 23, 1978, in the Fifth Circuit Court in Houston. Denson, Orlando, and Janish were found guilty of violating Torres’s rights. But as before, the penalty did not match the crime, Judge Ross Sterling, who oversaw the case, added an extra day to their one-year prison terms. The streets of Houston were quickly becoming a powder keg.

Moody Park was a popular green space for Mexican Americans from the north side who used it regularly for outings and cultural celebrations. On May 7, 1978, a year after the arrest, beating, and murder of Joe Torres, hundreds of people, hoping to distance themselves from the year-long trauma they were experiencing, poured into the park for Cinco de Mayo festivities. But the celebration did not last long. Responding to an alleged altercation among park-goers, several HPD officers entered the park and began arresting people. Their presence angered many people. Alarmed, officers armed with riot gear, formed a perimeter around the park, and mayhem ensued. The disturbance escalated and spilled onto the surrounding area. Several businesses were destroyed, including six stores and a gasoline station. Damages amounted to millions of dollars. At least twenty-eight people were arrested. Many were hurt and needed medical services for their injuries.

Following this incident, three activists, Travis Morales, Mara Youngdahl, and Thomas Hirschi, were charged with instigating a riot and threatened with 140-year prison sentences. The people, however, came to their aid through a coalition called the Moody Park Three Defense Committee. The defendants were set free on bond, and none saw prison time.

What transpired in Houston in 1977 were not isolated events but part of a historical pattern of police brutality and miscarriage of justice. Also historical was the response by the people to that injustice. Following Torres’s murder, activists of different racial, socioeconomic, and generational backgrounds supported each other’s efforts and formed some of the most impactful grassroots-based civil rights coalitions in Houston’s history.

Beginning in 2015 Janie Torres has led an annual commemoration march each May in honor of her brother. On June 27, 2021, the new Houston police chief, Troy Finner, apologized to the Torres family for Joe Torres’s murder and promised a monument to be erected in his memory. As of 2022 plans were in place to dedicate a plaza, trail, and mural honoring Joe Torres. The plaza and trail along Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston will lead to a mural on the back of a building, in the center of the Criminal Justice District, where judges, police officers, lawyers, and other city officials can see the mural daily.

Joe Torres was interred at the Houston National Cemetery. He was twenty-three years old at the time of his death. Nearly 300 people attended his services. Because he was a veteran, he was buried with full military honors. Today, Joe Torres is regarded as a martyr of the Mexican American civil rights movement and an inspiration in the fight for social justice.

Arnoldo De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: A History of Mexican-Americans in Houston (University of Houston Mexican American Studies Program, 1989). Grisel Gómez-Cano and James Ross-Nazzal. The Spirit of Magnolia Park: Ethnic Pride in a Mexican Barrio, 1909–2009 (Boston: Pearson, 2013). Houston Chronicle, May 11, 12, 19, 1977; June 11, 16, 1977; September 24, 1977; October 6, 10, 16, 1977; May 8, 13, 24, 1978; June 28, 2021. Houston Post, May 15, 1977; June 7, 10, 14, 1977; September 20, 1977; October 4, 12, 1977; May 8, 1978. “Joe Campos Torres,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3125996/joe-campos-torres), accessed June 8, 2022. Moody Park Riots Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.  Dwight Watson, Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930–1990: A Change Did Come (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005).

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Victims of Mob Violence and Police Brutality
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jesús Jesse Esparza, “Torres, Joe Campos,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/torres-joe-campos.

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June 15, 2022
June 16, 2022

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