Mentor’s testimony looms large in assault trial of ex-Gwinnett cop

Now-former Gwinnett County police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald. (Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department)
Now-former Gwinnett County police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald. (Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department)

Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, a veteran of nearly two decades with the Gwinnett County Police Department, was not just a supervisor to young officer Robert McDonald. He was a mentor.

The two men would be forever linked after cell phone video captured them pummeling Demetrius Hollins in April 2017. Hollins was unarmed and handcuffed at the time. The violent arrest attracted national attention, leading Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers to fire the officers as soon as videos of the incident went viral. Criminal charges followed soon after.

But only one faces possible prison time. Last June, just before his trial was to begin, Bongiovanni struck a deal with prosecutors, avoiding incarceration. In return he agreed to testify against his former charge, whose trial begins Monday.

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McDonald, charged with battery, violation of oath of office and aggravated assault, faces up to 26 years in prison if convicted.

The defense says Bongiovanni’s testimony may end up backfiring. After all, it was Bongiovanni who first engaged in fisticuffs with Hollins. McDonald arrived on the scene as back-up.

“The facts are the facts,” said McDonald’s attorney, Walt Britt. Bongiovanni “had a lot more problems stemming from that videotape than (McDonald) ever had.”

Hollins was pulled over by Bongiovanni for not having a license plate and changing lanes multiple times without signaling, according to an incident report. Hollins did not pull over but his car eventually stalled out.

Bongiovanni punched Hollins shortly after the 21-year-old emerged from his vehicle with his hands up. He was handcuffed and on the ground when McDonald kicked him in the head. It was Bongiovanni and McDonald’s second encounter with Hollins, whom they had arrested in August 2016 for obstructing an officer and possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana, according to a police report at the time.

According to Bongiovanni’s report on the first arrest, Hollins had a .380 handgun with one bullet underneath his seat. Don Geary, Bongiovanni’s attorney, said that detail was on his client’s mind when he pulled Hollins over the second time.

Bongiovanni was known to be aggressive on the job. He reported 67 use-of-force incidents, many of which involved his Taser or his fists. McDonald, in his third year with Gwinnett police, was involved in four use-of-force cases — three of them with Bongiovanni.

McDonald, said Ayers, showed remorse when interviewed about the particulars of Hollins’ arrest. Bongiovanni was unapologetic, telling the chief, “It’s different out on the streets.”

As part of his plea deal, Bongiovanni is currently under home confinement, tracked by an ankle monitor. He recently completed a six-month stint in Gwinnett’s work-release program.

Hollins, meanwhile, was arrested again in 2018, accused of beating and robbing a former girlfriend. His conduct is likely to be another focus of McDonald’s defense strategy. At a pretrial hearing Britt indicated Hollins had a serious credibility problem.

Whether race factors into this case remains to be seen. McDonald, like Bongiovanni, is white; Hollins is African-American.