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‘A powder keg’: What drove Joseph Houston to murder?

Updated April 12, 2024 - 6:00 am

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Longtime friends and colleagues of Joseph Houston II are struggling to understand what drove the proud, “extremely smart” Houston to repeatedly shoot Ashley Prince, his former daughter-in-law, and her new husband, attorney Dennis Prince, before turning his gun on himself in a Monday morning deposition at Prince’s law offices in Summerlin.

“Of all the lawyers in town, I would not have expected Joe to do this,” said John Mowbray, a longtime Las Vegas lawyer and former president of the State Bar of Nevada who had known Houston since he was a law clerk in 1976.

Yet some friends also described a mercurial side to Houston, especially in court.

“Joe was also pretty darn mean in court,” said Louis Schneider, Houston’s friend for the past 20 years who said they nevertheless “fought like caged animals” before a judge when they were on opposite sides in a divorce case.

On another occasion, Houston shoved the son of the late Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan into a chair in court.

Despite these flashes, friends described Houston as a devoted husband, father and grandfather struggling with a difficult battle against cancer. They shared a bewilderment over his final acts.

What, they wondered, would drive their friend to commit murder?

Was it protectiveness toward his son, who was at risk of losing custody of his children in a bitter custody dispute with Ashley Prince? Was it the high emotions that come representing his own son in a dispute over two of his grandchildren? Or was it the physical and emotional toll of a long and painful battle with cancer he’d learned only a few days earlier had returned?

At least some of his friends suspect it was all three.

“He should not have shot anyone,” said Al Marquis, a retired lawyer and longtime friend of Houston. “But these all together explain why he would snap. People want an explanation and to at least understand what led up to it, because it doesn’t make sense unless you understand why someone would snap like this.”

Family man

Houston, 77, was born in 1947, grew up in Las Vegas and earned renown as a youth baseball player, turning down a $50,000 contract to play with the then-minor league San Diego Padres at the urging of his father after the younger Houston had been nominated for admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He attended but did not graduate from the Air Force Academy. He instead earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego and a law degree from California Western School of Law in San Diego.

Houston married Katherine Zorn in October 1981. They have six grown children.

“He was the proudest father I’ve ever seen,” said Louis Schneider, Houston’s friend for the past 20 years who worked with him in the same law office building for 13 years. “His happiest moments were staying at home with the kids. I just enjoyed Joe’s company. He was just a helluva guy.”

When his sister struggled to support her children, Houston had them live with him, bought them cars, paid for their education “and treated them as if they were his own,” Schneider said.

Last year, Houston treated his entire extended family of 12 to a trip to Disneyland, Schneider said. Houston would always fill up the gas tank of his wife’s car so she never had to do it, he said.

He was an avid golfer, a member of the Spanish Trail golf club and liked to go camping and fishing — and sip bourbon — in the fall at Panguitch Lake in Utah, Schneider said.

Aggressive litigator

Schneider, who practices criminal and family law, said he and Houston were fixtures for lunch between court appearances at the Mar Y Tierra Mexican eatery where Houston usually ordered chimichangas.

Houston “was extremely smart” and particularly adept at recalling obscure legal cases, Schneider said.

“Joe was my mentor and one of my very best friends in my life,” he said.

“He was even-keeled, a very good lawyer,” Mowbray said. “With his clients over the years, he did a really good job, even tempered, aggressively represented his clients.”

Houston’s courtroom demeanor got him in trouble once, Schneider said, when a Family Court judge told Houston to quiet down in court. When he did not, he had Houston taken into custody and escorted downstairs to the “control room” — where Houston used his cellphone to order pizza for court employees before he was released at the end of the day.

Houston was also publicly reprimanded by the State Bar of Nevada Southern Nevada Disciplinary Board for refusing to return funds paid in advance by a client in a divorce case after the client reconciled. He only refunded the money until a complaint was filed and Houston was notified he was being investigated.

The disciplinary board cited an absence of a prior disciplinary record, an absence of a dishonest or selfish motive, personal and emotional problems and his cooperation in its decision to pay $1,500 plus the costs of the proceedings.

Entangled

Houston’s family ties and legal career became entangled when his son, Dylan Houston, filed to divorce his wife, Ashley, in October 2021 after four years of marriage, citing incompatibility. Dylan Houston’s attorney in the case was his father, Joseph Houston.

The initial divorce filing was straightforward, but the status of child custody remained in dispute when the divorce decree was issued in November 2021.

Court records show the child care dispute becoming increasingly contentious in the years that followed, including the issuing of a behavioral order in April 2022 that, among other things, included a ban on name calling, foul language in each other’s presence, or selling, damaging, tampering with or destroying any of each other’s property, and prohibiting Dylan from going within 100 yards of Ashley’s work, residence and new residence.

Later court proceedings lifted that restriction on proximity in June 2022 and lifted a supervised visitation requirement for Dylan Houston in September 2022 after he passed drug tests.

The situation became even more complicated when attorney Dennis Prince joined Ashley Houston’s legal team in July 2023. The two had a child together in January 2024 and Ashley Houston changed her last name to Prince.

Mowbray had known Prince for years. “He was a balanced lawyer,” he said. “He was a gentleman. He was a man of his word.

“I wouldn’t call them hotheads or irascible,” Mowbray continued. “Joe was perfectly capable of doing that case.”

At the time of the shooting, Houston’s wife, Katherine Houston, was about to be deposed in Prince’s law offices as Ashley’s legal team disclosed a private investigator’s report suggesting Dylan Houston had driven drunk as they sought to terminate Dylan Houston’s custody rights.

Tipping points

As the stakes rose in his son’s case more than a year ago, Houston was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had metastasized into his bone marrow, his friends said. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatment, losing his trademark mane of white hair, but the treatment seemed to work as his cancer appeared to go into retreat. His hair was even growing back.

That all changed in the days before the deposition in Prince’s office.

The cancer was back.

“He was miserable,” Schneider said. “Joe couldn’t walk the way he used to. He had over a period of years gone from being in incredible shape to — it just really aged him.”

Marquis added that Houston’s cancer was “the most painful thing you can go through. There is no telling what pills Joe was on.”

All while facing off against the husband of his former daughter-in-law and mother of his grandchildren and the deposition of his wife of more than 40 years with the fate of his son’s custody rights in the balance.

No one knows exactly what was going through Houston’s mind that morning, but Marquis said that if Ashley Prince had made Dylan look bad in the motion, “Joe certainly would take that personally.”

“It’s just a powder keg,” said Marquis.

For his part, Schneider did not want to talk about the shooting.

“Other than it’s a tragedy,” he said.

If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, help is available 24/7 by calling or texting the Lifeline network at 988. Live chat is available at 988lifeline.org.

Contact Jeff Burbank at jburbank@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0382. Follow him @JeffBurbank2 on X.

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