Slain Texas officer was ‘the rock’ of police force

Sgt. Kaila Sullivan was remembered as a ‘cop’s cop’ who was focused and compassionate while on the job

Nick Powell and Jay R. Jordan
Houston Chronicle

NASSAU BAY, Texas — Dozens of people gathered outside the Nassau Bay City Hall Wednesday night, with the American flag waving at half-staff, for a vigil to honor a Nassau Bay police sergeant killed during a traffic stop.

Friends and colleagues guarded their candles from the gusting winds and shared fond memories of Sgt. Kaila Sullivan as “the rock” of a small police force, a devoted mother, motorcycle enthusiast, and an advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Sullivan, 43, died after being struck during a traffic stop on the 2000 block of San Sebastian Court about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. The 16-year veteran was among a group of officers attempting to arrest a man wanted on a warrant related to a domestic violence case, Nassau Bay Police Chief Tim Cromie said. Police said that during the stop, the man managed to wrestle free from officers while he was being handcuffed. He got back into his vehicle, and then hit Sullivan as he drove away, Cromie said.

EMS rushed Sullivan to HCA-Houston Clear Lake Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She would have marked 16 years with the Nassau Bay Police Department later this month, Cromie said.

Sullivan was one of two sergeants among 14 officers on the police force in Nassau Bay, a city of 4,000 adjacent to the Johnson Space Center. She is survived by her wife and a son from a previous marriage.

Cromie, who took over as police chief in 2018, described Sullivan as a “cop’s cop” who set a high bar for her colleagues.

“She was a cornerstone here,” Cromie said. “She was a leader, she was one of our two sergeants, she ran our night shift and she was a role model figure for a lot of the officers coming up underneath her.”

The driver, later identified as 21-year-old Tavores Dewayne Henderson, is now facing a felony murder charge in Sullivan’s death. Sullivan is the second Harris County law enforcement officer in the past week killed in the line of duty.

An arrest warrant had been issued for Henderson, who was charged Tuesday with assault of a family member, according to Harris County court documents. He was accused of assaulting a person with whom he had a dating relationship.

Henderson was seen at 1:50 p.m. Wednesday in Missouri City, accompanied by a man only identified as “Anthony,” according to an alert issued Wednesday night from the Texas Department of Public Safety. He was possibly headed to Louisiana, the alert said.

Additionally, Crime Stoppers, The 100 Club and the United States Marshals Services is offering a combined reward up to $20,000 for information leading to his arrest.

“This a nightmare scenario for our city,” Nassau Bay Mayor Mark Denman said, asking for prayers for Sullivan’s family. “The first time an officer has ever been seriously injured, much less killed in the line of duty. We’re a very safe city, we’ll catch the suspect.”

The intimacy of Nassau Bay was on full display at Wednesday night’s vigil. Community members describe a police force that has formed a tight bond with residents, with officers often handing out their personal phone numbers for them to call if they needed assistance.

Sullivan was no exception. Friends and colleagues described her as a warm presence, with a sarcastic sense of humor. Adam Webb, a Nassau Bay resident, said that after Hurricane Ike ravaged the region in 2008 he would chat with Sullivan when she was on duty. He got to know Sullivan well during long talks and were close friends ever since.

“She would come over to our house a lot, I got to know her son,” Webb said. “She was always just funny, sweet, sarcastic kind of, she had a great sense of humor.”

John Kennedy, a retired city manager for Nassau Bay, remembers interviewing Sullivan before she was hired by the police department. Where some young officers might blanche at taking orders, Kennedy said he was struck by Sullivan’s dedication to learning on the job and enhancing her skillset with training.

“Kaila was very eager, she was cautious but a lot of young police officers have trouble with that mix of being cautious, yet aggressive,” Kennedy said. “She got that balance right away.”

Sullivan’s family issued a statement, read by Nassau Bay City Manager Jason Reynolds at the vigil, thanking the community for the outpouring of support.

“Kaila had an infectious laugh accompanied with a beautiful smile that lit up her entire face,” the family said. “Kaila had such a kind and compassionate nature and she also cared for others equally.”

An advocate for victims of domestic violence, Sullivan volunteered at Bay Area Turning Point, a center of care for victims of family violence and sexual assault in Webster, to prepare and serve meals.

Leigh Ann Fry, the president and CEO of the shelter, said staff members had fond memories of Sullivan and shelter residents saw her as a key ally in law enforcement. It was also not lost on Fry that Sullivan was killed by a suspect accused of domestic violence.

“It’s heart-wrenching that the very thing that she helped us do is what took her life,” Fry said. “It just really goes to show there aren’t any boundaries and people that perpetrate crimes of family violence, they’re gonna take out whoever gets in their way.”

Sullivan was also an avid motorcyclist — even building one from scratch — and the national president of the Sisters Eternal Woman’s Motorcycle Club of Texas, a group of women described as her “sisters” that took several long motorcycle trips across the country every year. Many of the organization’s members changed their Facebook profile pictures to a head shot of Sullivan, smiling wearing her Nassau Bay Police Department uniform.

The organization said in a Facebook post: “She was wise beyond her years and we all wish we had more time with her. She is already sorely missed. We will honor her memory every day and know we all have another angel in Heaven watching over us.”

Authorities spent Wednesday conducting a manhunt for Henderson, who is still at large.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office SWAT officers turned up empty-handed Wednesday morning after surrounding Henderson’s mother’s home in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood where he was believed to be hiding. After an hours-long wait, the heavily armed officers entered the home, but Henderson was nowhere to be found.

Devon Williams, a man who lives down the street from Henderson’s mother’s home in Sunnyside, said he saw indications that the 21-year-old had mental health issues.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose,” Williams said of Sullivan’s killing. “That officer can’t go home to her family. And it’s because of his mistake.”

Authorities are now asking for the public’s help in finding Henderson, who is known to have weapons, according to detectives. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is urged to call Houston Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS (8477) or HCSO Homicide at 713-274-9100.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said a search for the suspect was underway and asked residents with any information about the suspect to contact them with tips.

“Our main thing is we’re supporting the mayor and chief as they lift up the community during this difficult time,” said Gonzalez, calling Sullivan’s death a “grim reminder” about the dangers law enforcement officers face.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the tragedy “underscores the profound sacrifice men and women of law enforcement make every day they step out to protect our community.”

The Nassau Bay shooting comes three days after Houston Police Sgt. Christopher Brewster was shot and killed responding to a domestic violence call in Magnolia Park.

Police subsequently arrested Arturo Solis, 25, in Brewster’s death. He faces capital murder charges.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a tweet that Sullivan’s death was a “heart-wrenching loss.”

“Heaven gained a servant doing God’s work. She laid down her life while attempting to arrest a suspect wanted for domestic violence. May Sergeant Kaila Sullivan rest in eternal peace and glory in the presence of our maker,” the tweet continued.

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