It was a routine Monday at Taj Inn & Suites until manager Sid Gandhi heard two loud bangs. He figured the noise came from the nearby mechanic shop, but after a third and fourth bang, he knew something was wrong.
A bell rang in the lobby. Ghandi got up from the sofa in the back and went to the front office where he saw a man — later identified as Houston police Sgt. Sean Rios — covered in blood.
“’Help me, help me. Call 911,’” Rios said, according to Ghandi.
The manager took a deep breath and dialed. The 47-year-old police sergeant fell to the ground, unconscious, Ghandi said. His chest was soaked in blood. Paramedics pronounced Rios dead at the scene.
Rios, a 25-year veteran of the department, was on his way to a 2 p.m. shift at George Bush Intercontinental Airport when he engaged a suspect in a gun battle near the Interstate 45 service road and Stuebner Airline, according to Chief Art Acevedo. Rios was wearing regular clothes and driving his personal car.
Surveillance video from Taj Inn & Suites shows Rios running from the street into the hotel lobby, said Ghandi, who viewed the video with police before submitting it for evidence. The video does not show the shoot-out, Ghandi said.
The circumstances leading up to the shoot-out remained unclear Tuesday, police said.
The suspected shooter, described as being in his mid- to late-30s with heavy tattoos, remained at large as of Tuesday afternoon. Investigators recovered his blue Mercedes and were searching for a black pick-up truck also apparently connected to the crime, police said.
During a Monday news briefing, Acevedo urged anyone with information to come forward and issued a warning to the suspects.
“We are coming after you,” he said. “We’re going to capture you.”
Rios, a father of four, was the fourth Houston police officer killed in the line-of-duty since December 2019. Arson investigator Lemuel Bruce and Sgt. Harold Preston were each killed by gunfire in October.
The killing also came on a deadly day in Houston involving a string of other fatal shootings.
Lyn Rathburn, owner of Cactus King on Stuebner Airline, said he was working out back, several hundred yards from the road, when he heard three loud cracks that sounded like cars or construction noises.
“By the time I got (up front), police were everywhere,” he said. “I was going ‘What’s going on?’”
He pieced together what happened from news accounts and his employees.
“My heart goes out to the family,” Rathburn said. “I cannot believe something like that would happen right out here. It is Houston and we are on a freeway … that stuff can start across town and end up here.”