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Suspect in Houston doctor's slaying kills self during confrontation with HPD

Chron logo Chron 8/3/2018 Samantha Ketterer, Houston Chronicle

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The man accused of fatally shooting a Houston cardiologist last month in the Texas Medical Center killed himself Friday morning during a confrontation with police, authorities said.

Joseph James Pappas, who was charged a day earlier with the murder of Dr. Mark Hausknecht, shot himself in the head near Brays Bayou just over two weeks after the killing that shocked the city's tight-knit medical community.

"It's a sad day all the way around," Houston police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters. "This doesn't bring anybody back but it does bring closure."

The slain doctor, who once treated former President George H.W. Bush, was shot in broad daylight last month as he biked to work during morning rush hour. For two weeks, the case baffled investigators. Then on Tuesday, a tipster helped identify the suspect, and authorities launched a manhunt for the gunman harboring a 20-year-old grudge after his mother's death.

Despite a late-night false alarm on Thursday, it wasn't until Friday morning that police finally found the man they wanted.

It started just after 9 a.m., with a suspicious person sighting in southwest Houston. A Parks Board member called police to say he was chasing someone. Four minutes later, he called back to report that the suspect was near the Jewish Community Center and that it may be Pappas.

Houston Police Department chief Art Acevedo releases a photo of Joseph James Pappas, the suspect in the murder of Dr. Mark Hausknecht, during a press conference at HPD headquarters Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Houston.

Houston Police Department chief Art Acevedo releases a photo of Joseph James Pappas, the suspect in the murder of Dr. Mark Hausknecht, during a press conference at HPD headquarters Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Houston.
© Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle

A few minutes after that, the man called again to say that he'd been checking a graffiti hotspot for possible vandals when he spotted the suspected killer sitting down.

When the Parks Board member approached, Pappas started walking away - but he left behind his wallet. The Parks Board member called out to him, yelling out that he was just looking for vandals.

Pappas motioned with his arms, then turned to walk away again.

The board member drew nearer to where Pappas had been sitting, picked the wallet off the ground, opened it up and immediately recognized the name.

He phoned police, who arrived just after 9:30 a.m. somewhere in the area of the 8800 block of Bob White.

The first officer on the scene approached the wanted man, who was wearing body armor and mentioned suicide. He refused to comply with orders, so the officer took shelter behind his patrol car.

When another officer arrived on the scene, Pappas took out a .22-caliber snub-nosed revolver and shot himself in the head, police said.

Acevedo expressed relief that the confrontation didn't have a worse outcome.

"You normally don't put on a bulletproof vest when you're planning to commit suicide," he said. "I'm convinced if we had not had that second officer arrive from a different angle we might have had a shoot-out."

The 62-year-old suspected killer was a former lawman and expert marksman, who'd been working as a real estate agent.

In recent months, he'd amassed a detailed file of intelligence on his target's life, routine, job and home. On one sheet of paper, he had a list of two dozen names of other medical professional and Texas Medical Center workers. Acevedo wouldn't call it a hit list, but said the Texas Medical Center had been informed.

"We can't put much into that other than to say it was a very extensive list of names," he said. A Texas Medical Center spokesman declined to comment.

"Why he was going to do or did this, we'll never know 100 percent," Acevedo continued. "The only connection we can find despite all the speculation is that Dr. Hausknecht operated on his mom over 20 years ago."

It's not clear what, exactly, Pappas had been doing in the days since the July 20 killing. He accessed four houses in the area using his real estate agent key, and police said he may have been camping somewhere.

At one point - five days after the crime - he apparently listed a number of guns, tactical vests and ammunition for sale online. It's not clear when he last visited his house in Westbury, but he barricaded the door and cleared out the living room except for a single chair. In the kitchen, he left a "Last Will and Testament," according to court records. In the garage were three boxes of ammunition.

After police announced Pappas' death, Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement praising police and thanking the public for their help cracking the case.

"The potential threat to the City from an accused murderer considered armed and dangerous is now over, closing another chapter of this horrific tragedy," Turner wrote.

"And once again it involved heroic acts by frontline officers of the Houston Police Department, which has my gratitude for how it has handled this case and so many others."

Todd Ackerman contributed to this report.


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