Houston police had Dexter Ceasar trapped.
On an April morning last year, SWAT team members serving an arrest warrant on Ceasar boxed in the 20-year-old’s car at a south Houston gas station, leaving him nowhere to go. As Ceasar resisted calls to surrender, he FaceTimed his mother and sister, explaining how the police had got him.
“I don’t want to go back to jail,” his sister, Destiny Ceasar, recalled him saying.
With the standoff dragging, police fired two tear gas canisters into Ceasar’s red two-door vehicle. Then, a few seconds after the second canister blasted into the vehicle, somebody fired a fatal gunshot that would kill the Houston native.
The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ceasar died by suicide as police closed in on him. But eighteen months after the encounter, Ceasar’s family members maintain that Houston police officers fired the bullet that ultimately killed him — a claim that hasn’t been clearly proven or refuted by information released to date by law enforcement authorities.
The lingering uncertainty about Ceasar’s manner of death is stoked by pieces of evidence that potentially contradict claims that he shot himself. Gas station surveillance footage that captured the gunshot — the only public video of the moment — does not definitively show Ceasar firing a weapon. In addition, a medical examiner concluded the right-handed Ceasar shot himself on the upper-left side of the head, a finding that seems far-fetched to his family.
In a federal lawsuit filed in August, Ceasar’s mother, Tanisha Moore, says Houston police have covered up the events surrounding her son’s death. She is calling for the officers involved in the attempted arrest to be disciplined or fired.
“Their intentions were not to merely apprehend an individual to take him into custody. They came to the scene looking for a fight,” said Tanika Solomon, a lawyer representing Moore in her suit. “They came to the scene expecting to take a man down, and that’s exactly what they did.”
To date, Harris County prosecutors and Houston Police Department officials have released limited information about the case.
A Houston Police Department spokesperson referred questions about the case to city officials, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Police officials denied a public records request filed by the Houston Landing for documents related to any internal reviews of the matter, citing a state law that exempts the release of records in cases that do not result in a criminal conviction.
Houston police have posted about 20 minutes of officer body-worn camera footage from the scene, depicting various angles of the standoff. But none of the body camera videos show Ceasar at the moment of the gunshot.
A Harris County district attorney’s office spokesperson confirmed a grand jury declined to indict any of the officers involved in the case, but he declined further comment.
The grand jury’s decision doesn’t necessarily mean Ceasar died by suicide. If a police officer fatally shot Ceasar, jurors could have decided that the officer was legally justified due to fear of death or imminent harm from Ceasar. Houston police said officers at the scene knew Ceasar had a gun in the car, and body camera footage shows a firearm in his lap after the fatal gunshot. However, the videos do not show Ceasar holding the gun or pointing it at officers at any point.
Lawyers for the city of Houston and the police officers involved in the case filed a motion to dismiss Moore’s lawsuit, largely arguing Ceasar’s mother doesn’t have the legal standing to sue over her son’s death. The motion references the medical examiner’s suicide finding, but it doesn’t include additional detail proving Ceasar shot himself.
No government agency has released forensic information about the bullet that killed Ceasar.
Nowhere to go
The fatal encounter began with several SWAT officers descending on a Fuel Depot, looking to pick up Ceasar on a felony arrest warrant. At the time, authorities wanted Ceasar on an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge, which stemmed from a woman telling police that Ceasar fired 15 rounds at her home while looking for an ex-girlfriend.
As Ceasar sat in the passenger seat of his vehicle, at least eight officers in tactical gear, some armed with guns, jumped out of several pickup trucks.
Noticing the SWAT officers, Ceasar moved from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. He put the car in reverse, backing into an officer’s truck. Then, Ceasar shifted into drive, moving the car forward at a slow rate of speed.
As Ceasar came to a stop, boxed in by police trucks, a civilian’s SUV and a row of posts, Officer Jaime Vargas fired four shots into the vehicle. An autopsy report suggests that one of the bullets hit Ceasar in the shoulder.
“He was about to hit that person right there. There’s a person he was driving over,” Vargas’ body-worn camera captured him saying. In the video, the woman Vargas pointed to appeared safe behind the posts.
For the next few minutes, Ceasar remained in his motionless car. Through bullhorns, officers called for Ceasar to surrender, telling him that “we have medics ready to help you” and “no one here wants to hurt you.” Body camera footage and surveillance video from the gas station shows Ceasar holding a cell phone in his right hand as he refused commands to surrender.
It’s unclear from the body camera footage released by Houston police how long the standoff lasted. At some point, though, police grew impatient with Ceasar.
Body camera footage shows Officer Jesse Seay firing a tear gas canister into the vehicle. Ten seconds later, as Ceasar shouted that he was “just trying to talk to my sister,” Seay fired another canister.
The gas station surveillance footage shows the second canister stunned Ceasar, whose body lurched forward in the driver’s seat. As Ceasar began to lean back, his body jolted again.
A gun had gone off.
The disputed gunshot
In a statement released a day after the standoff, the Houston Police Department said the encounter ended after “a single gunshot was heard from inside the vehicle.”
Nearly a year later, Harris County Assistant Medical Examiner Roger Milton Jr. finalized his report on the case, determining Ceasar died by suicide from a single gunshot wound to the head.
Ceasar’s family, however, remains convinced of a cover-up, pointing to multiple pieces of evidence and unreleased information.
Relatives have noted a potentially peculiar finding in Milton’s autopsy report: that the fatal bullet entered the top left side of Ceasar’s head, just behind his ear line. For Ceasar to have shot himself, he would have had to use his non-dominant hand, pointing the weapon at a spot high on his head.
Surveillance footage from the gas station also offers some potential support for the skepticism, though it’s not conclusive for Ceasar’s family or police.
The video, which is taken from Ceasar’s right side, does not clearly show Ceasar raising his left arm toward his head. The footage does show Ceasar’s right arm remaining at his side, suggesting he did not shoot himself with his dominant hand.
If police body camera footage exists to disprove the Ceasar family’s theory, Houston police have not released it. While the surveillance footage shows multiple officers facing Ceasar at the time of the gunshot, police did not include those videos in the files released last year.
In addition, Ceasar’s relatives claim Milton initially concluded that Ceasar died of a homicide but later changed the manner of death to suicide, raising suspicions about the reason for the switch.
Moore said Milton informed her of the change during a phone call in February. According to Moore, Milton Jr. made the change after receiving the SWAT officers’ body-worn camera footage.
“He changed his report not because of anything new that he witnessed, saw or observed as a result of the autopsy — any body tissue, any fluids, any ballistics — but because he watched a video, and we believe because he probably received a phone call,” Solomon said. She did not specify who she believed called Milton.
A spokesperson for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office said a case may be reviewed again by pathologists “if additional information or communication is received, especially during ongoing investigations.” In Ceasar’s case, there was “new information presented and reviewed, which caused the determination to be changed before the final autopsy report was issued.”
As her family continues to pursue the federal lawsuit and seek more information, Destiny Ceasar doesn’t like to think about her brother’s last moments. She prefers to focus on how he was a class clown at Yates and Bellaire high schools, always making friends easily.
Ceasar’s mother said her son, known as “DJ” to friends and family, could be strong-headed at times, but ultimately kind.
“We had our differences, but he was strong in his convictions,” Moore said. “What he believed, he believed.”