DA kept key witness from testifying in killer cop’s bond hearing

Officer would have said Cory Sasser was a danger.

In the days since a Glynn County police lieutenant shot and killed his wife and a male friend while on bond for assaulting both her and other police officers, one central question has hovered over the June 28 tragedy: How could an officer who'd assaulted his wife, attacked fellow officers and threatened to kill himself be allowed bond?

Now The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned one of the officers Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser assaulted during a May 17 standoff with police was not permitted to testify at Sasser’s May 24 bond hearing.

Had he done so, according to a law enforcement source, Glynn investigator Joseph Hyer was prepared to say that he feared Sasser was a threat to both himself and Sasser’s wife, and that he opposed the prosecution’s plan to let Sasser avoid jail. He told Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office his concerns minutes before it recommended Sasser be released.

The new detail contradicts Johnson's public statement the day after the killings that her office consulted with Sasser's victims, leaving the impression they agreed to the $5,000 bond. And it raises fresh questions about her handling of the case and why the troubled officer continued to receive special treatment from her office.

Johnson was harshly criticized in 2015 when the AJC and Channel 2 Action News revealed that she intervened to steer a local grand jury to clear Sasser and another officer for the brutal shooting of an unarmed mother in 2010.

“I really am surprised they are bending over backwards to protect this guy,” said Georgia State University law professor Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s not the first time. This is a textbook case of how to be a bad prosecutor.”

Johnson has declined interviews related to Sasser’s killing spree and the Caroline Small shooting, in which Sasser and another officer shot the 35-year-old mother of two after a low-speed chase ended with her car immobilized.

The AJC’s reporting into the Sasser case also reveals that the Glynn County police department involved both the FBI and the ATF following the initial May 13 incident in which Sasser threatened his wife and tried to break into her home. But federal authorities couldn’t help the police department contain Sasser or arrest him on federal charges.

The Glynn police department is also facing criticism that it failed to arrest Sasser after he made an alleged threat toward his estranged wife, Katie Kettles Sasser, and her male friend, John Hall Jr., just days before the shooting. The department says it didn't have probable cause to make an arrest. The GBI is investigating if any Glynn officers assisted Sasser in locating his wife or Hall's home address where he found and shot them before taking his own life.

Tense meeting at DA’s office

Hyer had ample reason to fear Sasser.

The Glynn officer was a member of a SWAT team that cornered a suicidal Sasser in a remote wooded area May 17 and attempted to coax him from his truck and lay down his weapon.

During the attempt to subdue him, Sasser lashed out violently, kicking Hyer in the groin.

Instead of going to jail after the standoff, authorities took Sasser to a mental hospital on St. Simons island for treatment. The day after the incident Hyer received a threatening phone call from an anonymous caller that he believed to be Sasser or someone who supported him, according to a source familiar with the case.

When Hyer learned of the hastily scheduled bond hearing on May 24, he felt an urgent need to voice his objections to possible bond for Sasser, according to the source who requested anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak about the case.

Hyer has recounted to fellow law enforcement officers a private meeting with DA Johnson’s office that occurred the same day of the hearing. Hyer told one of Johnson’s most experienced prosecutors, Chief Assistant DA John B. Johnson III, that Sasser was so unhinged that he worried for his own safety and the safety of Sasser’s estranged wife, according to the source.

Hyer said he feared Sasser would try to kill him and he urged prosecutors to keep him in jail. Hyer insisted that the district attorney’s office let him address the judge in open court so he could give a victim’s statement.

But John Johnson made it clear that his concerns wouldn’t impact the decision to move ahead with a recommendation that Sasser be released on bond, said the source.

The meeting turned tense when John Johnson stood firm on the office’s position.

“Well if that’s the case then why the (expletive) am I here talking to you?” Hyer reportedly said.

John Johnson reportedly told Hyer that in his lengthy career it was rare for an offender to try to hurt his victims. Eventually the assistant DA relented and told Hyer he could make a statement in court, according to the source.

But the judge never heard from Hyer that day.

Once the hearing started, the DA’s office failed to recognize him or tell the judge of his desire to give a victim’s statement.

Hyer’s safety concerns contradict the statement Jackie Johnson issued the day after Sasser murdered his wife and friend, which said at the time of Sasser’s bond hearing “there was no evidence at that time that Sasser had expressed an intent to harm anyone other than himself.”

Reached at his office Friday, John Johnson said he could not speak about a private conversation with a law enforcement officer. He declined further comment about an ongoing investigation and told the AJC he could not speak without Jackie Johnson’s permission.

A third chance for Sasser

The bond hearing on May 24 seemed like a congenial affair. Judge Flay Cabiness praised Johnson’s office and Sasser’s attorney, Alan David Tucker, for working together to deliver him a bond proposal negotiated by the parties instead of one in which the court would have to decide.

The tone of the hearing belied the seriousness of Sasser’s actions. The nearly nine-hour SWAT standoff with police violated the bond Sasser was already on for trying to break into his wife’s home just days earlier.

The DA’s office could have easily asked the court to revoke Sasser’s bond and send him to jail.

At one point, Cabiness acknowledged Sasser’s bond violation — but then breezed right past it.

“This case is — specifically, Mr Sasser, a little bit different than a normal case and that being that you’re already out on bond,” he said. “And you already didn’t follow the conditions of the bond one time. And so the court is willing to accept this agreement.”

Essentially, the court accepted an agreement negotiated by Jackie Johnson’s office that was largely based on the honor system. Sasser had to check in with the probation company every 30 days and could do so with an app on his phone. His adult son, Bryce, was tasked with holding his father’s guns for him because Sasser was banned from possessing firearms.

Nowhere in the court transcript does it say if the two officers who Sasser assaulted or Katie Kettles Sasser had been informed of the bond conditions — or agreed to them.

The release conditions included a requirement that Sasser live with his sister near Mobile, Ala., while he received mental health treatment at the VA hospital nearby. He was banished from Glynn County and could only return for court appearances. The bond conditions made clear Sasser was to have no contact with the officers he was accused of assaulting or with his estranged wife.

But the DA’s office failed to include a requirement for electronic monitoring, such as an ankle monitor.

Before he left the court that day, Judge Cabiness again said how much he appreciated everyone’s cooperation.

He then looked at Sasser and gave a warning that seemed naive for an officer with a documented history of dishonesty so egregious that the federal authorities in the area would no longer let Sasser testify in federal cases.

“Mr. Sasser, you’ve been given a second chance now,” the judge said. “Don’t violate the terms and conditions again because if we have any other issues, there won’t be a third chance. All right, good luck.”

Sasser’s wife: ‘I’m worried’

The new details from the bond hearing didn't surprise Bob Apgar, president of the Justice for Caroline Small group that for years has sought to have the case reopened after Jackie Johnson's conduct in the grand jury was exposed in 2015.

“No matter how unhinged and dangerous Sasser showed himself to be on three separate occasions Jackie Johnson ignored it,” said Apgar, a lawyer in Florida. “This is suppressing evidence. This is serious and goes beyond anything we’ve seen before.”

Indeed, Sasser's final acts add a tragic closing chapter to the Caroline Small shooting in a case that was already filled with sadness and outrage.

New court filings, statements by Sasser's attorney and police reports reveal a troubled man who suffered deep depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much of it stemming from his involvement in Small's brutal killing. Police dash-cam video captured Sasser and Simpson spraying Small's windshield with bullets. The video still has the power to shock and has been viewed all over the world.

Katie Kettles Sasser told a police investigator in May that the suppressed emotions from her husband’s role in that killing were a major source of their marital problems. Sasser had anger issues, was often irritable, uptight and emotionally guarded. She’d been asking him for years to get help.

“It’s because he has never released any of that emotion,” Kettles Sasser said. “A lot of it he’s finding out now, he’s been in counseling for three months, is because of the (Small) shooting.”

When a police investigator asked her on Monday May 14 if she was scared of her husband, she vacillated. The Sassers had a 10-year-old son and Katie expressed concern that didn’t want her husband to lose his job.

But she also worried how Sasser would react when she filed for divorce as she planned to later that week.

“I’m worried,” she said “That’s why I’m leaving on Friday….He’s very, very upset right now. He does not want to let go. He feels like he’s losing his family.”

In a text communication with the police department’s victims liaison after the SWAT standoff, Katie Sasser’s fear escalated, writing that her husband “has nothing left to lose” and may act out.

“Encouraged therapist not to release him,” she texts. “He has threatened to kill himself 6 times….All guns need to be secured.”

How Sasser acquired the guns he used in June 28 killings is not clear, nor are the chain of events leading up to the fatal shootings. DA Johnson blocked the police department's plan to release its records of the case.

The records included investigative files and records from the May 17 SWAT standoff and the investigation into allegations that Sasser threatened his estranged wife and Hall at a local pizza restaurant on June 26, the same day he was in town for a divorce hearing.

On July 6, the day Chief Powell had planned to release the records, he issued a statement saying he was withholding many of the records in the case “at the request of the District Attorney due to an ongoing investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.”

GBI director Vernon Keenan has said his agency does not object to releasing the records, which have nothing to do with the GBI’s investigation.

Our reporting

The AJC and Channel 2 Action News have reported on the questionable shooting of Caroline Small since 2015, when the outlets publicized the brutal nature of her killing and raised questions about how prosecutors in Brunswick absolved the officers of wrongdoing. One of the two officer who shot Small died in 2017. Cory Sasser, the second, took his own life June 28 after murdering his wife and a friend.