Karen McGehee, who led an effort to try to reopen one of Georgia’s most notorious police shooting cases, died over the weekend after complications from cancer and other chronic health issues.
McGehee was 73. In 2010, her daughter, Caroline Small, was shot and killed in Brunswick after a low-speed chase that ended when Glynn County police officers sprayed her Buick’s windshield with bullets. The burst of deadly gunfire was captured on police dashcam video that immediately raised concerns among local prosecutors that the shooting was not justified.
But a grand jury cleared the officers in 2011 after the Glynn County police department interfered with the GBI investigation and Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson took unusual measures to assist the officers in their defense.
The full story of the shooting and the way the grand jury was improperly influenced came to light during a 2015 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News. Small, a mother of two who suffered from mental illness and a history of addiction, was unarmed, and her car had nowhere to go. The AJC investigation quoted the GBI’s lead supervisor on the case saying it was the worst police shooting he’d ever investigated.
Those revelations prompted McGehee, who lived in Tallahassee, and a circle of church friends there to form an activist group to press Georgia officials to reopen the case.
“I was trying to survive up until then,” McGehee said in an interview earlier this month. “I lost my child. Nothing is more painful than that. It wasn’t until I read the articles that I realized how wrong everything was.”
The “Justice for Caroline” group petitioned then-Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens. McGehee met with Johnson and the group pressed local county commissioners to take action.
While the group helped draw national attention to the case, their efforts to get an investigation reopened were ultimately unsuccessful. Speaking earlier this month, McGehee seemed to have found a measure of peace that the truth about her daughter and the case had become known.
“I hope people will understand Caroline, what she went through,” McGehee said. “She had a tragic life. Her family loved her. The whole thing was wrong.”
Many of the key players in the case are gone. The two officers involved in the shooting, Michael T. Simpson and Robert “Cory” Sasser, have both died in recent years.
Simpson passed away in 2016 after a bout with brain cancer. Sasser continued on the police force but seemed to live a tortured existence that ended last year in a final act of violence.
He shot and killed his estranged wife and her male friend in June 2018, before Sasser ended his own life. That episode drew further scrutiny to DA Johnson. It renewed questions about her handling of the Small case as well as her office’s handling of Sasser’s arrest last year after domestic violence allegations and an armed standoff with SWAT team members.
The former Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering, who led the agency during its response to the Small killing, died a couple months after Sasser’s suicide. Local news accounts said Doering, 56, died after a lengthy illness.
DA Johnson, who has declined past interview requests with the AJC, will be up for re-election next year.
“Karen’s passion was telling the truth about Caroline and how unjustified the shooting was,” said Bob Apgar, a family friend and one of the group’s leaders. “I think she felt gratified that we were having so much impact that they were understanding Caroline’s story.”
McGehee is survived by her son, Michael McGehee, four granddaughters and a sister.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.