Arbery murder case adds sad chapter to SE Ga. law and order

By: - May 13, 2020 7:55 am

The men charged with murder in the Glynn County killing of Ahmaud Arbery made a virtual court appearance at their preliminary hearing last month. Wednesday, Georgia lawmakers voted down a bill to make online court appearances more common. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder Hundreds gathrre

BRUNSWICK – Caroline Small. Stephen Wayne DeLoach. Katie Kettles Sasser. These are familiar names to people who live in this coastal town of a little more than 16,000 because the local system of law and order failed them.

Before the Ahmaud Arbery slaying in late February drew national notoriety, five people died in the past decade in highly publicized confrontations with local law enforcement that eroded the public trust in Glynn County Police Department and the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

A Glynn County grand jury, days after Arbery was shot while jogging in a Brunswick neighborhood, issued an unrelated indictment of police Chief John Powell, former Chief of Staff Brian Scott, and former officers David Haney and David Haslett for failure to do their jobs. The grand jury was presented with a long list of potentially illegal and unethical activity revealed during the investigation of the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement team.

And calls grow louder by the day for Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson to resign. It was Johnson who quickly recused herself from an investigation into whether two white men should be charged in Arbery’s killing.

Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday to hear state lawmakers and local leaders demand action from  the steps of the Glynn County Courthouse. State House Minority Caucus Chairman James Beverly, of Macon, said Johnson and Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill should not only be removed from office, but also prosecuted for obstruction of justice.

Savannah Democrat Sen. Lester Jackson went a step further and called for the governor to suspend the district attorneys who declined to bring charges.

“They did not do their jobs, and that alone disqualifies them from being able to continue to hold office. The integrity of public service is at stake here in coastal Georgia. The integrity of justice is at stake here in coastal Georgia. Millions of Georgians will not feel safe anymore or protected under the law of these individuals. We cannot allow them to remain in office.”

State Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat, said it wasn’t until a third prosecutor, Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden got involved that two white men, Greg McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, were arrested in the shooting of the black jogger. A fourth prosecutor, Cobb Judicial Circuit District Attorney Joyette Holmes, now leads the case after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr appointed her this week to tap into the more robust resources her metro Atlanta office can bring to the investigation.

When the video of the unarmed black jogger went viral last week, the rest of Georgia, the country and much of the world learned of a dysfunctional law and order system on the coast that locals grew weary of long ago. Unjustified police shootings, rogue cops allowed freedom to kill despite a history of domestic violence and the recent indictments of Glynn police leaders created one mess after another for the courts to clean up over the past decade. Three deadly police decisions are especially notorious.

A decade of law and order injustices on the coast

Caroline Small

In 2010, Glynn County police officer Cory Sasser shot Caroline Small following a pursuit, part of which involved Small hitting Sasser’s patrol vehicle. Sasser and fellow officer Todd Simpson fired a total of eight shots at Small. Officers said Small tried to run over them.

Johnson said at the time she wasn’t going to decide whether to prosecute the officers until she had all the evidence. A grand jury declined to indict the officers. U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled in favor of the officers in a civil suit brought by Small’s family. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed the ruling.

Wood wrote, “Based on the record evidence, two conclusions are clear: Was her death necessary? No. Was it unconstitutional? No.”

Katie Kettles Sasser

A Glynn County police lieutenant shot his estranged wife and her boyfriend in a McIntosh County home in 2018 before he fatally shot himself. Cory Sasser had a history of stalking Katie Kettles Sasser after their separation and Glynn County police knew a court order prohibited him not to possess firearms or have any contact with her.

A lawsuit filed earlier this year by Katie Kettles’ family against the county says the police department and several officers said it was their fault Sasser was able to kill Kettles, her friend John Hall Jr. and himself in June 2018.

“There is an ongoing culture of cover-up, failure to supervise, abuse of power and lack of accountability within the administration of the Glynn County Police Department,” the lawsuit says. “The fact is that the Glynn County Police Department is in crisis, it has been for years and people are dying as a result.”

The suit says Powell, the county police chief, knew Sasser might have committed simple battery, criminal trespass, obstruction of law enforcement officers, and disorderly conduct and stalking.

Despite this information about a fellow officer, Sasser was allowed to remain free, even after he threatened to kill himself more than once, once during a lengthy armed standoff with fellow officers. The lawsuit says Sasser’s fellow officers withheld pertinent information with the District Attorney’s Office to protect their colleague’s freedom.

Stephen Wayne DeLoach

Stephen Wayne DeLoach died as a passenger in a vehicle fleeing Glynn County police on I-95 in February 2018

According to courtroom testimony about the incident, Glynn County officers gave $1,000 to a confidential informant to use to buy methamphetamine. Glynn County officers trailed the informant south far out of their jurisdiction as he was driven through Camden County and into Florida, where they say they saw DeLoach make a drug transaction. The police followed them back into Georgia and through Camden County.

Only when the informant crossed back into Glynn County did the police alert the Georgia State Patrol to join the chase, one that ended with a wreck, causing DeLoach to suffer fatal injuries.

Choosing up sides

The cycle of crises between prosecutors and the county police created fallout for both. Glynn County legislators teamed up on a bill that stalled this year to let county voters disband the county police through a referendum, with the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office to take over law enforcement.

The Glynn County Commission, investigating allegations of rampant misbehavior by the police force, blamed problems on Powell’s predecessor.

County Manager Alan Ours wrote in a November 2019 report, “When John Powell became chief of the Glynn County Police Department, there were prior instances of a culture of cover-ups, failure to supervise, abuse of power, and lack of accountability within the Glynn County Police Department. Chief Powell has made a concerted effort to hold GCPD employees accountable for their actions and to eliminate the issues cited above.”

Local tension is only growing in the wake of the Arbery slaying and the harsh national attention it is drawing to this port city. County commissioners issued a statement May 9 that said Johnson’s office advised police investigating the Arbery shooting not to arrest the McMichaels, that they were not flight risks and more information needed to be gathered first. The father, Greg McMichael, is a former Glynn County police officer and former investigator for the Brunswick district attorney.

Barnhill, the Waycross district attorney, wrote that Arbery’s shooting was a justifiable homicide and he didn’t find probable cause for arrests.

The commissioners say they don’t agree.

“From the beginning, the Glynn County Police Department has sought justice in this case. Glynn County followed the direction of DA Barnhill, Sr., and officers were advised not to publicly release information in reference to the case that could impact future prosecution.”

Johnson said in a statement Friday night said these accusations were false and “an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible.”

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Wes Wolfe
Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Brunswick, where he recently wrapped up more than three years with The Brunswick News.