DeKalb cop who spurred corruption probe leaves department

DeKalb County Police Detective J.N. Payton thought her six-month investigation into alleged corruption in county government might be the case of her career.

Now she worries it might have ended it. The investigation that found evidence of widespread fraud in DeKalb’s watershed department was allegedly smothered by higher-ups. It later spurred a grand jury investigation and served as a blueprint for the probe that ended in an indictment of CEO Burrell Ellis and threatens to shake up county government.

But last week, the 11-year-veteran turned in her uniform, equipment belt and gun and moved on, worried the department she once loved would retaliate against her if she went back out on the street.

“I wanted to stay with them for the long run,” Payton, 34, said in an interview. “If things were right, I’d have retired there. I don’t hate the county. I don’t hate the people I worked with.”

Payton said she made the decision weeks ago but knew she had made the right choice when she learned Assistant Chief Annette Lane-Woodard was demoted last week to captain, but not fired, by Chief Cedric Alexander.

In its report released last month, the special grand jury said that Payton’s investigation was shut down shortly after she presented her initial findings to Lane-Woodard. The grand jury also concluded that Lane-Woodard, who has since changed her name to Annette Williams, either perjured herself or was “abjectly incompetent.”

“If she had been terminated I would have seriously reconsidered my resignation,” Payton said. “But she’s still in the department. She still holds rank over me.”

Alexander said the former assistant chief’s demotion was for other reasons, not the grand jury. Capt. Williams could not be reached for comment through the department.

Payton presented her report to then-Assistant Chief Lane-Woodard and other superiors on Feb. 16, 2010. Payton, a gung-ho member of the department’s intelligence unit nicknamed “The Data Miner,” even drew up a flow chart, complete with with photos of the key players, to show an inter-connected web that implicated contractors, consultants and county employees.

Two days after Payton presented her findings, the investigation was “abruptly halted” by then-Public Safety Director William “Wiz” Miller, the grand jury report said, and Payton was told to stop her investigation.

At first, Payton said last week, she was simply told to not get some warrants in connection with the case. Then she said her sergeant sternly warned her, “Don’t touch that case again.”

Payton was stunned by the departmental reaction.

“I was proud of what I put together, of what I had uncovered,” she said. “I thought my agency would back me up. I felt like a kindergarten kid who was going to have my artwork put up on the fridge but then was told it was no good.

“There was an initial disbelief. It took a while to set in. It was (a feeling of) ‘What the hell?’ to ‘What did I really uncover that made them want to squash this?’ It bothered me a lot. A lot of depression. A lot of tears.”

Payton, who still might be called as a witness in any prosecutions, said she had built an “overwhelming case” of fraud in the watershed department.

After being taken off the case, she was moved from the detective unit to the uniform division in the South Precinct.

Payton’s internal affairs file shows that she exceeded department standards or came close in every performance review the county made available. She earned at least 13 commendations, among them for “keen observation” skills and working well with other officers.

There are two suspensions in the file, one for failing to forward a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge and the other for pranking a fellow detective by hiding his patrol car so he thought it was stolen.

Later, in January 2012, she was detached to the district attorney’s office when D.A. Robert James launched a year-long investigation that started with the watershed department under former-CEO Vernon Jones and then looked at contracting during Ellis’ tenure. The investigation included several secretly recorded conversations in 2012; authorities also put wiretaps on the cellphones of Ellis and his former aide, Kevin Ross.

Ellis, who was suspended as CEO after being indicted in June on corruption charges, has pleaded not guilty. Ross, who has been not charged with any crime, insists he did nothing illegal.

Chief Alexander, who came to office April 1, acknowledged morale “has been one of the biggest Achilles’ heels of the department. It has a lot of drag.” He also said he will stand for no political interference or killing investigations for improper reasons.

“If internal affairs took off on an investigation and it explodes into something bigger, then let the roads lead where the roads lead,” he said. “Myself and Interim CEO Lee May have said we’re going to tell the truth and we’re going to stand firm on those perceptions that government in DeKalb County is vile and corrupt.”

Alexander does not know Payton, but hearing about her record, he said, “She’s got credibility. I certainly would have liked for her to come in. I certainly would have liked to hear what she had to say.”

Alexander said there will be no retaliation under his watch against officers for doing their jobs.

“Going forward, we’re not going to tolerate any behavior in this department that questions our integrity,” he said. “We’re going to tell the truth. And we’re going to stand up against corruption.”

Payton’s detail with the DA’s office ended in late July. She went on leave and was scheduled to return to work this month. She figured there would be no warm welcome.

She spoke with a friend, former officer Jesse LeBlanc, who led her to conclude that she’d have a rocky return to the force. LeBlanc was DeKalb’s uniformed division’s 2012 Officer of the Year, but he said he had gained the enmity of some of his comrades after reporting two of them beating a handcuffed suspect. Those officers were arrested.

After that, LeBlanc found that when he responded to some emergency calls, other police officers did not show up to give him support, he said.

LeBlanc shares Payton’s concern that once she returned to the force, the department wouldn’t have her back.

“I’d be worried if I were her,” said LeBlanc, now a private investigator.

LeBlanc called Payton a “straight, hard-core girl” with a crude sense of humor. “When it comes to the job, she’s all there. You work hard. You play hard.”

“I see drive and motivation in her to do what’s right,” he said. “She wants to stay here and bring the department back to where it used to be. She knew there would be repercussions (to her bringing out wrongdoing in the county and in the department) and knows it’s a dangerous job. But after a while, it weighs too hard on you and seems like it’s futile.”

Albert Trujillo, the special grand jury foreman who lobbied hard to get the group’s report made public, got to know Payton during his year’s service on the grand jury.

“Her character was one who believes the police force should be above all the things going on,” he said. “I can see where they won’t want her around. Someone like Jamie makes them very nervous because she’s a straight arrow, a very good officer.”

Payton, who is now in the job hunt, said she would like to stay in law enforcement. She said part of the reason she got into law enforcement is that she dislikes bullies. In junior high, she said she got into a fight after seeing kids pick on a mentally disabled classmate. Another time she stood up for a gay student.

“That feeling has never left me,” she said. Payton added that fellow officers have asked her to speak out, to tell the public that morale in the department has steadily sunk in the past five years.

In the past 22 months, at least 17 DeKalb officers have been arrested for alleged wrongdoing both on and off the job.

Payton reflected on her career while being interviewed at a Toco Hills coffeehouse near where she lived after joining the police force. At one point, a DeKalb police car, its siren blaring and lights flashing, roared past.

Payton turned to look, then paused and flinched a bit.

“I still want to be in that car,” she said. “That has not gone away. I don’t know if that will ever go away.”

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Staff writer April Hunt contributed to this article.