I-TEAM: Controversial Glynn County cases back under the microscope

Former Georgia prosecutor: ‘There is a culture set from the top ... protect your own to a fault’

Former Georgia prosecutor: ‘There is a culture set from the top ... protect your own to a fault’

The U.S. Department of Justice has another request to investigate the Glynn County Police Department and the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former district attorney herself, wrote a formal letter to Attorney General William Barr, saying the federal government needs to independently investigate whether the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case “also fits within a distributing pattern of misconduct” in the Glynn County justice system.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also made the request to the Department of Justice.

Other controversial cases in Glynn County are now coming back under the microscope.

I-TEAM: Arbery case not the 1st time Glynn County law enforcement hesitated to arrest one of their own

Caroline Small, Katie Kettles-Sasser and Johnny Edward Hall Jr. all died in shootings involving one Glynn County police officer. The shootings happened years apart and under different circumstances, but questions still surround the involvement of Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson in the cases.

Caroline Small (Special to WJXT)

“Glynn County stands out, as perhaps, the worst example in my career,” said Bill Atkins, a former Georgia prosecutor and civil rights attorney practicing across Georgia for 25 years. “There is a culture set from the top ... protect your own to a fault.”

Atkins once represented Caroline Small’s family in a civil suit over the deadly use of force by Glynn County police.

Dashboard camera video shows Small leading officers on low-speed chase in 2010. The 35-year-old mother was unarmed and pinned in when she was shot through her windshield by officers with the Glynn County Police Department.

Robert “Cory” Sasser, who was a sergeant with the force at the time, and Officer Todd Simpson fired eight bullets into the car, neither checking her condition as their patrol car cameras recorded them discussing their shooting skills, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The woman was declared dead a week later.

Dashboard camera video shows Caroline Small leading officers on low-speed chase in 2010. (Provided to WJXT)

Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson presented the officer-involved shooting to a grand jury. It was there, Atkins said, the district attorney made critical missteps:

  1. Johnson provided the officer’s defense attorneys with evidence before she presented it to a grand jury.
  2. Johnson went before the grand jury without presenting an indictment.
  3. Johnson allowed defense attorneys to participate in the grand jury hearing by asking questions.

Atkins said all three actions were violations of GA law.

“She violated that -- plainly, unequivocally and there was no consequence other than the fact that two men went free,” he said.

Sasser and Simpson were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the grand jury in a split decision, while an internal police investigation also found no wrongdoing. At the time, the police chief said Sasser and Simpson acted reasonably and within department policy in the situation, which they perceived as life-threatening and endangering public safety.

When asked whether he feels like the two officers should have faced charges, Atkins said, “Absolutely. I don’t think there is any doubt about it.”

He went on to say: “The whole thing was one of the worst abuses of authority and efforts to protect, and frankly, cover up police misconduct to me that I’ve ever seen. It’s remarkable to me that woman still has her job.”

The I-TEAM found Sasser was promoted months after the Small shooting.

Fast-forward to 2018 when Sasser was arrested on charges of misdemeanor simple battery and criminal trespass while divorcing his wife, Katie Kettles-Sasser. She said he tried to kick down her door and threatened to kill her and her friend, Johnny Edward Hall Jr., on May 13. That night was captured on police body camera footage.

In the bodycam video, at least three officers can be seen at the home, along with Cory Sasser, who is wearing a white shirt, and Katie Kettles-Sasser, who is wearing a green shirt.

"I feel threatened," Hall can be heard saying in the footage. "He said he was going to kill everybody in here."

“He said that tonight?” an officer asks.

Kettles-Sasser replies: “Yes, he did. He threatened us. He’s upset. Just get him off my property.”

Later in the video, Sasser denies the accusation.

Officer: “Were you kicking on the door?”

Sasser: “No. I knocked on the door ... I didn’t break nothing. I knocked on the door.”

Officer: “Did you make any threats?”

Sasser: “No. I didn’t make no threats.”

Sasser, who was a lieutenant with the Glynn County Police Department at the time, was released on bond after that incident.

The Police Department suspended Sasser on May 15, 2018.

Two days later, Sasser was arrested after a standoff in the woods with police. He was charged with possession of a gun, which was against the terms of his release.

Cory Sasser (Glynn County Sheriff's Office)

The Police Department fired Sasser on May 24, 2018, following an internal investigation.

After the second arrest, Sasser was Baker Acted and ordered to have no contact with his wife, give up his guns and not possess any other firearms. Additionally, he was ordered to live with his sister in Alabama, seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and report to a private bond agency every 30 days.

When it came to his bond hearing, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson “recused herself from the case” and assigned her Assistant District Attorney John Johnson to the case.

In late June 2018, according to the GBI, Sasser, 41, killed Kettles-Sasser, 34, Hall, 39, and himself.

Johnny Edward Hall Jr. and Katie Kettles-Sasser (Special to WJXT)

“Because Cory Sasser avoided justice in the Caroline Small case, and was thus free to commit two horrific crimes less than five years later, that’s the consequence of protecting your own to a fault,” Atkins said.

When asked whether there’s a systemic problem with justice in Brunswick and Glynn County, Atkins said, “I don’t live in that community, but I worry for the people who do.”

The News4Jax I-TEAM reached out to Johnson and the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office for comment. They sent a statement released earlier this week, saying in part, "We are confident that any investigation will ultimately show that our office acted appropriately under the circumstances. ... Our obligation has been, and will always be, to honor, protect, and abide by the law. ... In the interest of protecting the integrity of any future legal proceedings, our office has no further comment at this time.”

News4Jax I-TEAM investigator Kelly Wiley contributed to this report.