Nearly a year ago, federal agents unveiled a sting operation that embarrassed police departments across metro Atlanta. It accused officers of using their badges and guns to protect cocaine transactions for a street gang.
More than a dozen people were arrested, and it was hinted that was only the beginning. But no one has been convicted and no more have been charged. Defense attorneys now argue that the operation targeted only minor players at best, who weren’t part of a gang or drug enterprise, and may not even have been legal.
Federal officials declined to comment for this story.
U.S. Attorney Sally Quillan Yates described the case —which might be dubbed “the barber connection” because many of the officers were recruited by barbers — as the most far-flung corruption scandal to hit North Georgia and hinted there would be more arrests of corrupt officers and gang members.
“Obviously the breadth of the corruption is very troubling, ” Yates said at a news conference last February, noting the officers came from small and large metro departments. “It is certainly the most this office has charged in a long time.”
But since last February, there has not been a peep about any more arrests, which has left defense lawyers grousing that the only people indicted were ones involved in sham drug deals, rather than the real drug deals protected by cops that supposedly led to the sting.
“They’re manufacturing a non-crime,” said Bruce Harvey, who represents former MARTA officer Marquez Holmes. “It may be legally permissible but to me it is morally abhorrent.
“In my client’s case the only player who was not a government agent was Marquez Holmes. It is a very odd situation.”
The case began in August 2011 as a street-gang investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose agents allegedly learned from a confidential informant that the gang paid officers for protection.
Federal agents arrested one Atlanta police officer, two DeKalb County officers, two former DeKalb jailers, two Forest Park police officers, one Stone Mountain officer, an officer with Federal Protective Services and five civilians who were said to have either masqueraded as police or recruited officers for the drug deals.
The informant allegedly put the word out among his associates he was looking for cops to provide protection. Three civilians — Jerry Mannery Jr., 39, of Tucker, and Shannon Bass, 40, and Elizabeth Coss, 36, of Atlanta — allegedly stepped up, saying they could deliver corrupt officers. Bass later became a cooperating informant.
Neither the indictment nor federal authorities explained whether the ATF informant had helped authorities make any cases against the original police officers he contended were already working for the gang.
Mannery’s attorney Steve Sadow complained to a judge during a hearing last year that federal agents had focused on newly recruited cops rather than the long-term drug operation and the corrupt police associated with the gang, which he said was a large importer of Molly, a virulent form of MDMA or Ecstasy, to the metro Atlanta market.
In a transcript of the hearing, Sadow said the government illegally entrapped Mannery because he had no known history of criminal enterprise and therefore wasn’t a fair sting target.
“My client was not a gang member, he was not in the drug business, he didn’t run with gang members,” said Sadow in the transcript. “He cut the hair of the ATF informant.”
Sharon Peters, the security officer with Federal Protective Services, was also, arguably, illegally entrapped, said her lawyer Bruce Morris. Morris said that he was close to a plea deal with prosecutors.
“There is not going to be any allegation that Sharon Peters was involved in anything corrupt in her life before being approached by an agent of the government,” Morris said. “Her cousin was in a barber chair when he was asked, ‘Do you know anyone who can provide security. We need law enforcement.’ His answer was, ‘Sure, I got a relative.’
“All of that has been resolved by discussion and it will be reflected in the sentence that Sharon receives,” Morris said.
Other lawyers also indicated their clients were close to plea agreements. In October, Monyette McLaurin took the unusual step of having his own bond revoked so he could start serving time, even though he hasn’t yet been sentenced, said his lawyer William Thomas. The move indicated that McLaurin, a former DeKalb detention officer who portrayed himself as an active-duty deputy, expected to get less than 10 years.
“We had tentatively reached the broad strokes of a deal,” said Thomas. “I am still haggling over the number.”
The indictment portrayed McLaurin as a dedicated criminal. On Jan. 3, he allegedly told Bass that he would shoot the buyer at the drug deal if necessary. Thomas contended that threat was empty bluster designed to impress the man he thought was a drug trafficker. “If the government really thought that was a significant issue, he would have never got out on bond,” Thomas said.
But Mannery, Peters and McLaurin were not sworn police officers, who are in a tougher position when it comes to plea negotiations because their law-enforcement status undercuts entrapment arguments in their cases and makes them liable for more time.
“We are talking about a 10-year sentence automatically, and I don’t think any of these folks deserve 10 years,” said Harvey, the lawyer for the former MARTA officer.
The officers also brought a firearm to the sham drug deals, which tacks on five years unless prosecutors decline to pursue it, as they did in the case in 2010 involving U.S. District Judge Jack Camp.
Camp brought a pistol to drug deals involving an exotic dancer with whom he was having an affair and who was a FBI informant. He ended up getting only 30 days in prison.
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