Probe into Atlanta drug raid unveils widespread corruption
By GREG BLUESTEIN
ATLANTA — It started as a federal probe to determine how a botched police raid led to the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman but it has now expanded into a sweeping investigation into possible corruption in the Atlanta Police Department.
Federal indictments released Thursday assert that Atlanta narcotics officers - including others not implicated in the shooting case - repeatedly lied to judges in order to obtain search warrants, falsely claimed confidential informants purchased drugs and falsified warrants so they could meet goals set by police brass.
The allegations were part of the plea deals negotiated by prosecutors with narcotics officers Gregg Junnier and J.R. Smith in the killing of Kathryn Johnston, but they have implications beyond the three officers charged in the woman's death.
"When you look at the facts as they've developed so far, you have multiple officers involved in multiple actions on multiple occasions," said Gino Brogdon, one of Junnier's attorneys. "And that is systematic."
Federal officials seem to agree. U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said prosecutors will "find out just how wide the culture of misconduct that led to this tragedy extends" and FBI Special Agent Gregory Jones said investigators may pursue more charges.
The indictment stemmed from a Nov. 21 "no-knock" drug raid on Johnston's home in one of Atlanta's roughest neighborhoods.
According to the plea agreement, Smith and other officers were alerted to Johnston's home by a suspected drug dealer Fabian Sheats, who was standing outside a nearby store. Smith planted bags of marijuana under a rock near where Sheats was standing, and later authorities found 10 bags of marijuana and two bags of crack cocaine with him.
When they threatened to charge Sheats, he promised he could direct officers toward a bigger bust, and pointed them to Johnston's home. Sheats said he spotted a kilogram of cocaine there when he went to buy crack from a man named "Sam."
The officers never got an informant to buy drugs at the home, but told a magistrate judge that a drug deal had been made so they could get a search warrant.
Around 6:40 p.m., Smith and another officer pried the metal bars from Johnston's wooden front door and rammed it open. On the other side of the door, Johnston fired a single errant shot from her .38 caliber revolver. It struck none of the officers. Smith, Junnier and four other officers responded by unloading 39 rounds at the woman, striking her five or six times, including a fatal shot to the chest.
Three officers were wounded, apparently by bullets fired by their fellow officers.
After searching the home and finding no drugs, prosecutors said the officers tried to cover up the mistake. Smith handcuffed the dying woman and planted three baggies of marijuana in the basement of her house. He then called informant Alex White and told him to pretend he had bought crack cocaine at the house.
Smith, 35, and Junnier, 40, pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation and making false statements. Smith also pleaded guilty to a state perjury charge.
Arthur Tesler, a third officer charged in the shooting, faces charges of violation of oath by a public officer, making false statements and false imprisonment under color of legal process.
Federal investigators will now be able to use Smith and Junnier to guide them through the department's policies.
One procedure that is sure to be scrutinized: Monthly goals the department asked its officer to meet. Defense attorney Rand Csehy called it the "nine-and-two system."
Csehy, who represents Junnier, said narcotics officers were required to make nine arrests and obtain two search warrants each month in an effort to show Atlanta residents that the war on drugs was working.
The indictment also raised more questions about the procedures under which officers obtain "no-knock" warrants - special warrants intended to prevent suspects from getting rid of evidence and to protect officers from potentially violent suspects.
Smith and Junnier claimed that police officers have repeatedly lied to judges to obtain the warrants by falsely claiming that homeowners have weapons, surveillance cameras or posed other threats.
Atlanta police officials did not immediately comment Friday, but Chief Richard Pennington told reporters Thursday that officers were not trained to lie and did not have performance quotas.
"I assure you that we will not tolerate any officers violating the law and mistreating our citizens in this city," he told reporters.
Junnier's attorneys stressed on Friday that the case is far from over.
"The lights are on now - and there's no place for the roaches to hide," said Brogdon. "I think they're going to find everything."