There’s quite the catch-22 going on in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit (LMJC) regarding a number of pending child sex cases, as the fate of the cases continues to stall due to the FBI’s ongoing investigation of one of its agents, who happens to be the linchpin to the whole saga.
Cobb County Superior Court judge Grant Brantley was appointed to hear pre-trial motions in the cases in early March 2013 after all four Catoosa County Superior Court judges with the LMJC — which serves Catoosa, Walker, Dade and Chattooga counties — recused themselves from hearing any pre-trial motions in cases known as the “Craigslist Cases.”
Those “Craigslist Cases” are child sex-related cases that were initially handled by the now-disbanded FBI Northwest Georgia Crimes Against Children Task Force, which was headed up by FBI special agent Ken Hillman, who continues to be the main cause for all the delays.
All the cases fell on Hillman’s watch, with the validity of the cases coming into question and falling under subsequent scrutiny in February 2013.
An investigation was launched due to claims that Hillman allegedly abused his power over the course of two years by influencing local officers to look the other way during instances where he was pulled over on suspicion of drinking and driving.
One such incident in Ringgold in October 2012 involving then-Sgt. Tom Evans led to an internal investigation by the Ringgold Police Department and resulted in Evans being fired for driving Hillman and two women out of state to a condo.
That investigation also revealed that one of those women was Hillman’s girlfriend, Angela Russell, and that she had been allowed to work with the task force and even handcuffed suspects in at least one instance.
That series of events, which ultimately lead to Hillman’s suspension from the FBI and subsequent investigation from federal prosecutors, has delayed all 10 of the cases currently hanging in the balance due to the domino effect of Hillman’s alleged transgressions.
In a hearing on Friday, May 8, Brantley heard motions from defense attorney McCracken Poston of Ringgold. He is trying to get the LMJC district attorney’s office disqualified from prosecuting all the cases in question.
There’s a major catch though. The defense needs Hillman’s testimony to show why district attorney Herbert E. “Buzz” Franklin and his office should not prosecute the cases. But Hillman cannot be subpoenaed until the FBI’s investigation of him is complete, according to the order of U.S. District Court judge Harold Murphy in Rome, Ga.
“It’s very frustrating,” Poston said. “We’re waiting on this investigation to be completed, but it’s been over two years now since all this stuff came to light.”
Poston represents one defendant in the cases, Michael Hardy, a U.S. Marine arrested in the fall of 2012.
Initially, Brantley denied Poston’s motion to disqualify the DA’s office, but later it was pointed out that all of Poston’s motions would have to remain on hold per judge Murphy’s order.
“I’m a little confused myself,” Poston said after the hearing. “We’ll just have to reopen those motions at a later date.”
Those motions include acquisition of evidence that defense attorneys have not received yet due to the ongoing FBI investigation.
“We’re waiting on computers and phones used by the task force, and other equipment that we can’t get until the investigation is complete,” Poston said. “It’s hard to proceed when you don’t have all the information.”
The hearing did finally include Russell taking the stand to testify, but was anti-climatic at best, as she invoked her Fifth Amendment right in her response to almost each of Poston’s nearly 50 questions.
Russell stated her name, and then replied “Fifth Amendment” during her subsequent half-hour of questioning.
Poston inquired as to whether Russell “enticed” would-be criminals, how much FBI attire she wore and access she had to databases during here alleged work with the task force, and asked about her extra-marital affair with Hillman, but gained no more information that he started the day with.
Poston claims Russell pretended to be an underage girl attempting to “lure” criminals, and that she later changed the scenario to one that saw her pretending to be a step-parent with access to a young child.
“You set the bait, and you maintained contact to put them at ease, right,” Poston asked. “You also sent child pornography, and insisted that it was all some sort of fantasy role playing, correct?”
The biggest question surrounding all the cases is whether Russell’s involvement and Hillman’s poor judgment taints the cases, and whether the DA’s office aware of all the questionable activity surrounding the stings.
“I understand it’s difficult to disqualify a district attorney’s office from a series of cases, but when there’s a conflict of interest with one person, it affects the whole office,” Poston said. “An assistant district attorney is married to former task force member Tom Evans who was fired as a result of all the conduct by Hillman and Russell…. There was a case a few years ago where the four-county district attorney’s office recused itself completely when an assistant district attorney witnessed a car accident…. This is a much bigger situation than that instance.”
With Hillman not able to be subpoenaed, and with Russell pleading the Fifth Amendment, Poston claims Franklin’s position is vital.
“This is somewhat technical, but all the same a reason for disqualification…. Our elected district attorney (Franklin) interviewed Angela Russell, and since she is now asserting her Fifth Amendment rights, this makes him (Franklin) one of only a couple of witnesses as to her statements about her involvement in the task force.”
Poston also reiterated his stance from the April 20 hearing that assistant district attorney Alan Norton witnessed Hillman perjuring himself on the stand in front of a grand jury.
“Assistant district attorney Norton unwittingly was present when FBI agent Hillman falsely testified to the Catoosa County grand jury, as the assistant DA's witness suppressed Angela Russell's involvement in the task force and claimed her work as his own,” Poston claimed.
Norton testified during the April 20 hearing that Hillman didn’t talk about Angela Russell’s role in the cases during a grand jury hearing.
Norton also stated that if he were aware that Russell was potentially communicating with would-be criminals electronically, he would have questioned Hillman about such activity.
So, what happens now?
Two defendants in the cases, both of whom are represented by lead circuit public defender David Dunn, are slated for trial in July, as both defendants have requested a speedy trial.
Before the May 8 hearing ended, Franklin said the state is ready to proceed with all the cases from their standpoint, which dissolved the earlier agreement by both sides that they’d wait until the FBI had resolved its investigation.
“It’s all just allegations at this point,” Franklin said. “There’s no evidence that he (Hillman) perjured himself. Alan Norton was only answering a hypothetical question during the April 20 hearing. The state is ready to move forward.”