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APD ignored key Kathryn Johnston witness for 9 days
Atlanta police inexplicably waited nine days to question a key witness to officers’ misconduct in the 2006 killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, according to a new investigative report. Instead, police focused on locating an informant who the officers wanted to use as an alibi.
Johnston’s death in a bungled drug raid and the ensuing FBI investigation exposed a pattern of corruption and deceit in the APD narcotics unit: fabricating evidence, padding of expense vouchers and forcing property owners to pay officers for protection. Five ex-cops are serving federal sentences for crimes uncovered in the aftermath of the shooting.
Now, Atlanta’s Citizen Review Board has released the first of several investigations of police misconduct related to the Johnston raid, based on information in the still-confidential FBI file. APD’s internal affairs unit is nearly done with its own investigation; once it becomes public, the FBI’s investigative findings may also become available.
The CRB report — written by Cristina Beamud, the board’s director — questions the conduct of three unindicted officers and calls for the two who remain on the APD payroll to be fired. (See related story.) Atlanta Unfiltered obtained the report through the Georgia Open Records Act.
The report discusses supervisors’ “nonfeasance” in investigating the Johnston raid, noting confusion over who was responsible for securing the scene. It notes that Lt. Stacie Gibbs, then commander of the narcotics team, directed a detective to “guard” a small-time drug dealer at the scene with instructions not to talk to him.
A narcotics detective had rousted the dealer a few hours earlier, planted marijuana near him and pressured him to give up a bigger dealer if he wanted to stay out of jail, according to testimony in federal court. Fabian Sheats pointed out Johnston’s home, apparently at random. Detectives could not legally use Sheats’ claim to get a warrant, so they lied and told a judge that they had watched registered APD informant Alexis White buy cocaine there from a man named “Sam.”
Sheats stayed with the officers and was outside Johnston’s home as the narcotics team burst in that evening with a no-knock warrant. Johnston, thinking she was the target of a home invasion, got a gun and fired one shot as police came through her front door. She died in the flurry of return fire.
According to the CRB report:
Generally, The Homicide Unit takes charge of a homicide investigation. However, in this case, Lieutenant Gibbs responded to the scene of the shooting and observed Fabian Sheats in the back of a police raid van. She instructed Detective Schiffbauer to guard Mr. Sheats and not to talk to him. Detective Schiffbauer transferred Mr. Sheats into his van and guarded him for about three hours before he was allowed to call a transport unit to take Mr. Sheats to jail.
Sheats sat in jail for five days until a homicide detective interviewed him Nov. 26 about the shooting. The detective did not ask Sheats the obvious questions about the identity of “Sam” or about drug activity at the Neal Street home, the CRB report said.
On Nov. 27, White said publicly that detectives trying to cover up their own misconduct were pressuring him to lie.
No investigator asked Sheats what he might know about that until Nov. 30, “despite the fact that it was clear that Mr. Sheats was present and an eyewitness to the investigation that led up to the shooting of Ms. Johnston,” the CRB report said. “Indeed, he was the only person who was not involved in the misconduct who was present for the entire time.”
The CRB report concluded:
The fact that no one interviewed Fabian Sheats in the immediate aftermath of the shooting is troubling in view of the time and energy that was consumed trying to locate Alexis White. This example of nonfeasance is difficult to understand. It is unclear whether the commanding officer for the Homicide Unit or the commanding officer for Narcotics should have ensured that Fabian Sheats was properly interviewed concerning the events of the entire day; not just whether he observed the shooting.
APD command also failed to detect “longstanding, repetitive and ongoing” misconduct by narcotics detectives and has taken far too long to complete its internal investigation, the CRB report said:
The misconduct cannot be characterized as isolated events. The city continues to employ two of these officers. This is also a symptom of a system of internal oversight that is slow to investigate and discipline, and this undermines the ability to ensure that officers are performing in a constitutional, legal and ethical fashion. When the dispensing of discipline is not swift, it hurts both morale within the police department and the credibility of the department with the public. It is also a mistake to characterize the misconduct as the few acts of “rogue officers” or “bad apples.” It is evident that there was enough misconduct to indict and convict five (5) officers. It is a mistake to characterize the behavior as rogue because that allows an organization to avoid looking at systemic problems. It also absolves the collective organization from any responsibility.
The report calls on the chief of police to determine which commander was in charge of the scene of the Johnston shooting and why Sheats was not interviewed promptly. “Also,” the report said, “there should be some clarity about why so many people were trying to locate Alexis White … when the most obvious witness was in police custody.”
Beamud presented her report to the Citizens Review Board, created by the City Council in response to the Johnston shooting, on May 13. The board is expected to discuss the findings at its June meeting.
A footnote: The CRB report does not say so, but pleadings in federal court allege that Lt. Gibbs turned a blind eye to her detectives’ corrupt tactics prior to the Johnston shooting.
Lawyers for Johnston’s estate allege that “supervisors working within the Narcotics Unit, including Sgt. [Wilbert] Stallings, Major [E.R.] Finley, and Lt. Gibbs knew that the narcotics officers were falsely creating evidence and obtaining fraudulent warrants as well as regularly violating policies to achieve quota requirements.”
“When confronted with this reality,” the lawyers wrote, “Lt. Gibbs routinely stated, ‘I just don’t want to hear it.’ “
Both allegations, based on an affidavit by former Detective Gregg Junnier, are contained in a “statement of undisputed facts” filed with the court in December. Former Detective Jason R. Smith, in a separate affidavit, corroborated Gibbs’ hear-no-evil comment, the lawyers wrote. Both Junnier and Smith are now in federal prison.
Gibbs has also testified that Smith’s initial report on the fabricated drug buy at Johnston’s home landed on her desk because it “was incomplete and contained blanks,” according to the same filing. “Lt. Gibbs then helped Officer Smith draft a revised report and destroyed the original report that Officer Smith had prepared.”
It is unclear whether police dispute those allegedly undisputed facts. Gibbs’ deposition, cited as the source of those statements, has been filed with the court under seal, as has city attorneys’ written response to the allegations.