Criminal Justice

Robert Soliz acquitted of murder in fatal shooting of off-duty Houston PD Sgt. Sean Rios

Rios, a 47-year-old sergeant for the Houston Police Department, was on his way to a shift at Bush Intercontinental Airport — but not in uniform and not in a patrol vehicle.

HPD Sean Rios
Houston Police Department
Houston Police Department Sgt. Sean Rios died Nov. 9, 2020.

A man who fatally shot an off-duty Houston police officer during an apparent incident of road rage was acquitted of murder this week by a Harris County jury.

Robert Soliz, 26, was found not guilty in the Nov. 9, 2020 shooting death of Sean Rios, a 47-year-old sergeant for the Houston Police Department who at the time was on his way to a shift at Bush Intercontinental Airport but not in uniform and not in a patrol vehicle.

Soliz's defense attorney, Wade Smith of Houston-based law firm Looney, Smith & Conrad, called it a "pure self-defense case from the very beginning." Smith also said he and his law partners could not recall a similar acquittal in the Houston area or elsewhere.

"It's extremely rare," Smith said. "We can't think of another case where someone has been acquitted in the shooting death of an officer, whether off-duty or not."

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner and the Harris County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, both said in statements they were "deeply disappointed" with the jury's verdict.

Soliz was previously convicted of multiple misdemeanor crimes and remains in jail on multiple, unrelated felony charges, including two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from incidents earlier in 2020. Smith said he could not speak to those cases, having only represented Soliz in the murder case.

"We saw the evidence differently than the jury, and though we cannot agree with the jury's decision, we appreciate their time and service," David Mitcham, the first assistant to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, said in a statement. "Our hearts remain with Sean Rios' widow and four children, who will now grow up without their father. Officer Rios spent his time here on Earth serving and protecting the people of Houston, and he gave his life in that noble effort. He will always be remembered for the hero that he was."

Smith, citing testimony from Soliz, said his client and Rios were both driving north on Interstate 45 in North Houston on the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2020, when they nearly collided and gestured toward each other. Soliz exited the freeway at Gulf Bank Road and was followed by Rios into the parking lot for Cactus King Nursery, which is just east of I-45 and Stuebner Airline Drive.

Rios got out of his vehicle and approached Soliz's car while holding a gun, according to Smith, who said Soliz then grabbed his own firearm, got out of his car and walked to the front of it, putting the vehicle in between the two men. Shots were subsequently fired, with Soliz then running into the nearby nursery.

"We don't know who fired the first shot," Smith said. "It's possible that maybe Robert may have fired first. If he did, Mr. Rios was already pointing his gun at Robert."

According to synopses of recorded witness statements filed in Harris County court, witnesses saw Rios walk toward the entrance to the nursery, fire shots inside and then walk to Soliz's car, where he got behind the open driver's side door. Soliz then came out of the nursery and walked toward Rios, with a shootout ensuing and Rios being struck in the chest, according to court documents.

Rios then ran toward the I-45 access road and into a nearby motel, where he was bleeding and asked the staff there to call 911.

There were no indications to witnesses that Rios was a police officer, according to the synopses of their recorded statements.

Smith said prosecutors tried to argue that Rios suspected Soliz of criminal activity and was intervening as a law enforcement officer, and that Soliz was the instigator in their encounter.

"This was an incident between two citizens," Smith said. "It was not an incident between a police officer and somebody else. Mr. Rios was in a personal vehicle and in personal, plain clothes. He was not on duty and never identified himself as a police officer.

Finner said in a statement on Twitter, "Our focus has been and will remain on Sergeant Rios' surviving family members. We will continue to love and support them in this especially difficult time."