Former supervisor says ex-Gwinnett cop kicked suspect, aimed gun at his head

County police officer Robert McDonald sits next to his attorney Walt Britt during his trial at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration building in Lawrenceville, February 4, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
County police officer Robert McDonald sits next to his attorney Walt Britt during his trial at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration building in Lawrenceville, February 4, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Former Gwinnett County Police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni spoke out Tuesday for the first time about the incident, watched by millions, that ended his career. Now, his testimony could cost a fellow officer, a man he once mentored, his freedom.

Robert McDonald would not be facing up to 26 years in prison had he not responded to Bongiovanni’s call for back-up on April 12, 2017. It came just before cell phone video captured him striking handcuffed motorist Demetrius Hollins in the face.

Bongiovanni was scheduled to stand trial last June. Days before it was to begin, the 19-year police veteran -- “acting in “the best interest of my family,” he said -- struck a deal with prosecutors. To avoid possible prison time, he agreed to testify and pleaded no contest to charges including aggravated assault and violation of oath of office.

Casually dressed, and now sporting a thick beard, Bongiovanni staunchly defended his actions while gently criticizing McDonald’s response.

Hollins was prone on the pavement, hands behind his back, when McDonald arrived at the scene.

“I thought he was going to help me from the first officer, save me from getting Tased and beat up,” Hollins testified Tuesday.

Instead, McDonald “ended up dropping his knee on my upper back and put his gun on my temple and told me he was going to shoot me, splatter my brains all over the street if I moved,” said the now 24-year-old Lawrenceville resident. “So I didn’t move.”

Prosecutor Charissa Henrich asked Hollins what was going through his mind after McDonald’s alleged threat.

“This is the day I’m finally going to die,” said Hollins, appearing in a navy, county-issued jumpsuit. He’s been held without bond for the last five months at the Gwinnett jail, charged with aggravated stalking.

Bongiovanni confirmed portions of Hollins’ account, saying the suspect offered no resistance when McDonald stomped on his shoulder.

“I saw McDonald ... had the gun in close proximity to (Hollins') head,” he testified.

Bongiovanni insisted he followed proper procedure. Under cross examination by defense attorney Walt Britt he defended striking Hollins, saying he utilized a “defensive tactic” to get him in submission.

He also denied making false statements in his use of force report.

“Not everything that occurred was in there,” he said, omissions he blamed on long hours and little sleep.

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Hollins had no explanation for inconsistencies exposed in his statements following his encounter with Bongiovanni and McDonald.

And he was forced to acknowledge a long history of arrests. Britt detailed them all, starting in August 2016, he was charged with obstructing an officer and possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana. The arresting officers: McDonald and Bongiovanni.

According to Bongiovanni’s report of the 2016 arrest, Hollins had a .380 gun with one bullet underneath his seat. Hollins, through his lawyer, denied the officer’s account.

“We both struggled to place Hollins in handcuffs as he twisted his body, pulled his arms from us and physically resisted arrest,” said Bongiovanni in the 2016 report.

Bongiovanni and McDonald were fired the video surfaced showing their altercation with Hollins. Charges related to the Gwinnett traffic stops were dropped against Hollins due to Bongiovanni and McDonald’s involvement.

Bongiovanni returns to the stand Wednesday, when the state expects to wrap its case against McDonald, charged with aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and battery.

As he left the courtroom Tuesday, Bongiovanni could be overheard telling a man who identified himself as McDonald’s brother-in-law that he was praying for his former colleague.

“He knows I love him,” Bongiovanni said.

McDonald’s relative responded with no hint of ill will, saying he was “sorry this (stuff) happened to you.”