Veteran GBI leader to retire

Vernon Keenan, the longtime director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, announced to staff Wednesday he was retiring as of Jan. 1.

“I'm at peace with this," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly afterward.

"I knew I’d have to retire at some point. I've been in the agency nearly 40 years, 15 as the director. I did not intend to die behind my desk.”

The announcement came after a meeting with Governor-elect Brian Kemp to discuss the decision, which Keenan had been mulling for some time, especially since his wife, Joan, retired 15 years ago.

It’s not yet clear who will replace Keenan, who now plans to travel and probably do some teaching. Keenan said Kemp didn’t ask him to recommend a replacement, and Keenan didn’t offer.

“Whoever the director is going to be is going to be a success because the staff," he told the AJC.

Keenan’s pending departure was met with sadness in the Georgia law enforcement community, where he is widely respected and very much a living legend. He is the subject of tales of dogged police work and a man who has been present in one way or another for many major events in the state.

In 1994, when Tropical Storm Alberto flooded the Flint River, he was in southwest Georgia helping to recover bodies from coffins that floated away. In 2008, when hiker Meredith Emerson went missing on Blood Mountain, he slept for days in a cabin until the man who killed her was caught and took agents to the body. In 2013, when an armed young man walked into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in DeKalb County, only to be talked out of his shooting plans by staff, Keenan was on the scene trying to figure out how to get the students to safety.

“I think he’s probably the hardest-working agent,” said John Cagle, a retired agent who has known Keenan since 1980. “We used to joke we’d have to get the DeKalb County SWAT team to get him out of headquarters (before he’d retire).”

Keenan, the son of a Waycross mortician and a homemaker who’d trained as a nurse, entered law enforcement in his early 20s after getting a scholarship from the Department of Justice to study criminal justice. He served in various roles at the GBI, including special agent and assistant director, before Gov. Sonny Purdue appointed him director in January 2003.

Since then, he worked to advance the agency in numerous ways, including community policing, forensics, DNA and crisis intervention, said LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar.

“Pick a topic,” Dekmar said. “He’s a visionary.”

Terry Norton, a retired Georgia State Patrol major, said: “I think he brought Georgia into the 21st century.”

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Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, worked with Keenan for years when Skandalakis was a prosecutor in the Coweta Judicial Circuit in LaGrange. Like most everyone in criminal justice in the state, Skandalakis was used to calling on the GBI for assistance.

“He gave you his cellphone number, and by God, you got in touch with him, and things got done,” he said. “And not once has he ever voiced any type of complaint of being overworked.”

That tirelessness is what most often comes up when you ask about Keenan. Something else that’s noteworthy, several colleagues said, is Keenan’s compassion.

Cagle recalled the aftermath of the Emerson case, which Cagle had led. Agents were tired and shaken by the gruesome and depraved murder. One day, Cagle's phone rang. It was the GBI's chaplain, who said Keenan had told him to call to check on Cagle's people, to make sure they were OK.