A shop customer was shot and killed by plainclothes police officers in a bungled raid at an Atlanta motorcycle store. A mentally ill man was riddled with police bullets inside his girlfriend’s apartment. A wanted but unarmed fugitive was lying on a bed when officers fired 40 rounds at him.
The fatal shootings stretched over 21 years, but one Atlanta Police Department officer was involved in all three: Willie T. Sauls.
Sauls, 52, is one of the six Atlanta officers disciplined and facing charges after officers used stun guns on two college students downtown during Saturday night’s protests. The episode was caught on video and thrust Atlanta’s response to the George Floyd protests into the national spotlight.
In his 27 years with APD, Sauls has taken on some of the toughest roles and toughest beats in the city; he had most recently been an investigator on the department’s fugitive task force.
He’s also been involved in previous incidents in which questions of excessive force have been raised, including one case that rocked the police department a generation ago.
“My husband loves his job - really, really loves his job,” Sauls’ wife told the AJC in 1996. “After all this has gone on, he still wants to be a police officer. You have to have a love to continue at this point.”
The shootout in December 1995 at the Moto Cycles Shop in Northwest Atlanta, which involved Sauls and two other officers, prompted then-Mayor Bill Campbell to declare a “crisis of confidence” in APD and reconstitute the city’s civilian review board over police conduct.
Sauls and two other officers from the Crime Supression Task Force were in plain clothes and in an unmarked car as they followed a vehicle they suspected was stolen to the Marietta Street motorcycle shop, thinking the men in the first car intended to rob the store. The officers said they identified themselves and told the men to put their hands up.
But the men who had been followed to the store — and the employees inside — said they thought the men in street clothes who drew guns, swore at them and ordered everyone to the floor were also robbers. They said the officers never identified themselves as police.
Then the shooting started.
A motorcycle mechanic with a concealed-carry permit pulled out a .9mm pistol and started firing. Officers fired back. Some 20 rounds were exchanged that day.
Jerry Jackson, 23, the driver of the Pontiac that was followed to the store, was a unarmed shop customer whom employees recognized; court records say bullets fired by Sauls’ colleague Waine Pinckney ricocheted and fatally struck Jackson as he lay, unarmed, on the store’s driveway.
Jackson, who had a twin brother, was a basketball player and a 1990 graduate of Archer High School. He loved cars and motorcycles.
Sauls was wounded in the stomach and leg and wound up having part of his intestines removed, the AJC later reported. A round fired by Sauls struck a civilian in the leg, court records say.
APD’s after-the-fact review of the shooting turned out to be nearly as tortured as the shooting itself, with both Campbell and then-Police Chief Beverly Harvard refuting allegations that the department was covering up for its own.
A criminal grand jury in Fulton County heard from 40 witnesses, but declined to indict the officers on murder charges. A federal judge later ruled in a civil suit that the officers violated the men’s constitutional rights and didn’t have probable cause to initate the stop.
The city settled with Jackson’s family and two of the other men in the shop for $1.4 million, records show.
An official with the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents Atlanta’s officers, defended him.
“At least he was given more of an investigation and chance to prove that he did right or wrong in those cases,” said Vince Champion, southeast regional director of the group.
An officer involved in on-duty shootings isn’t necessarily a bad cop, Champion said. He said the agency reviewed the three shooting cases Sauls was involved in and made due-process determinations on his conduct.
Sauls did not respond to efforts to reach him for comment. A 1996 AJC profile recounted that he was the class clown at Valdosta High School and played linebacker on its football team. He served in the U.S. Army before becoming a police officer, which his mother said was his lifelong dream.
Sauls faced no discipline in the two most recent fatal shootings, records show. Both cases were related to his role on the metro area’s U.S. Marshal’s Service Fugitive Task Force.
In 2016, the task force was trying to arrest 26-year-old Jamarion Robinson related to a previous incident; police said he’d previously pointed a gun at officers.
Robinson had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and Sauls was among the team of officers that went into Robinson’s girlfriend’s East Point apartment. Officers said Robinson raised a gun and they fired on him. A flashbang grenade was used.
Robinson was shot more than 70 times. His family sued Sauls and the other officers involved, and that case is still pending in federal court. The family alleges the officers’ version is incorrect and that Robinson posed no threat at the time of the incident.
His mother, Monteria Robinson, earlier this week blamed Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard for dragging his feet in the case for four years and not bringing charges. Howard has blamed federal authorities for failing to cooperate with his investigation and turn over critical evidence in the case.
“I’m just not surprised,” Monteria Robinson said Thursday when told about previous incidents in Sauls’ record. She blames Howard and the police leadership for not holding officers accountable.
“They all need to lose their jobs,” she said.
In 2012, Sauls and a team of officers with the task force fired more than three dozen bullets at a fugitive wanted for vehicular homicide who turned out to be unarmed.
The marshals had been looking for Thomas F. Truitt, 37, for days, since he had fatally hit a stranded motorist from Kansas on I-75 and didn’t stop. The officers who fired, including Sauls, told investigators they fired because they thought Truitt had fired at them. GBI officials confirmed to the AJC in 2015 that they did not find a weapon on Truitt and that he had been holding a cellphone.
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