Was DeKalb cop a gang hit man? No, attorneys say, but he faces prison

Vancito Gumbs

Vancito Gumbs

The text message did not look good.

When he sent it in 2015, Vancito Gumbs, a young DeKalb County police officer, didn’t know he was suspected of moonlighting as a Gangster Disciples gang member. He didn’t know FBI agents heard him on a wiretap talking to a well-known local “enforcer” for the gang. He didn’t know he had been recorded saying things that, at best, were very suspicious and inappropriate, and at worst, evidence that he was working against his fellow officers to build up the illegal enterprise.

But the feds would be most troubled by the text, by the startling words: “I’m a gd hitman.” “GD,” investigators knew, is a widely used abbreviation for Gangster Disciples.

As Gumbs — who was convicted in 2019 of racketeering in a massive case — faces sentencing Monday in U.S. District Court, his lawyers and family hope the court considers the 28-year-old as what they say he was: a troubled young U.S. Army veteran who made mistakes and at times ran his mouth too much, trying to sound tougher than he was. They stress this part: While some of his co-defendants were accused of involvement in multiple murders, Gumbs has never been accused of taking part in any homicide, in spite of his words.

But what kind of man Gumbs is, and what his fate should be, depends greatly on whom you ask.

The meaning of that terrible text message also depends on whom you ask.

Federal authorities say the text is proof that Gumbs worked with the Gangster Disciples and knew exactly what the organization stood for, and that it went against everything he should stand for as a cop.

Gumbs’ attorneys and family say the text doesn’t mean what the government says it does. But the words may contain a tip about what went wrong with Gumbs in the first place.

Deployment ‘scarred him’

When Gumbs was arrested in 2016, his mom, Janelle Gumbs, was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, taking care of her ailing 88-year-old mother. By the time she reached her Atlanta home, she saw it encircled with TV news trucks and reporters with questions. Janelle Gumbs didn’t know exactly what her son was accused of. Whatever it was, she wished everyone knew him like she did.

When he was 15, they moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Stone Mountain. The mother wanted her son to have more opportunity than a 134-square-mile hurricane-plagued island could offer.

Five years later, while attending Savannah State University, Gumbs called his mom to say he and his girlfriend were having a baby.

Stunned, Janelle Gumbs blessed him out and hung up the phone. A baby in college wasn’t part of the plan. For days, she’d bless him out and hang up, bless him out and hang up. But he was her son; the baby would be her grandchild. She forgave him and braced herself as he joined the U.S. Army to provide for the baby.

At 20 he deployed to the Middle East, where he worked getting supplies to troops on the front lines. He got in firefights, did things he didn’t want to do, things that would haunt him when he came home, his mom said.

One day his mother saw him have one of many fits.

“I came home to my son breaking things in the house, with a knife to his throat, saying he was going to be punished,” Janelle Gumbs said. “Whatever happened over there scarred him.”

Violent or not?

After the Army, Gumbs joined the DeKalb County Police Department in 2013. It did not go well.

At some point while relatively new on the force, he cultivated a relationship with Kevin Clayton, a Gangster Disciple who the feds say was the chief local enforcer.

Clayton lived in South DeKalb, where Gumbs patrolled, and they’d see each other and talk.

Gumbs’ attorney Roger Wilson acknowledges that Gumbs gave broad information to Clayton about what type of crime police were investigating one day in October 2015. Wilson also doesn’t dispute that Gumbs told Clayton to avoid going to a sports bar that officers were about to raid.

At most, that’s obstruction of justice, Wilson wrote in a court filing. “There was no evidence in this case linking Mr. Gumbs with any murder, or attempted murder or other violence even.”

Gumbs does face a violence accusation in another case. In 2019, he was indicted in DeKalb County for allegedly assaulting a man outside an apartment complex in 2015 while on duty. The victim told police that Gumbs punched him because the officer mistakenly thought he was a rival gang member.

“At the time he assaulted my client, he was telling my client he was a Gangster Disciple,” said attorney Wayne Kendall, who sued DeKalb officials on behalf of the victim and settled for $190,000 from the county. “All I know is he assaulted my client, broke his jaw and caused about $77,000 in medical bills — all while he’s handcuffed.”

Gumbs’ attorney in the DeKalb case, Daryl Queen, disagreed with that description of the incident: “There was a minor altercation which occurred while the subject was actively resisting arrest.”

What about that text message? “I’m a gd hitman,” the cop had texted a woman.

Gumbs told his attorney he meant “goddamn” when he said “gd” and was talking about what he’d done in the Middle East. Wilson assumed his client was trying to impress the woman. “He was doing a James Dean pose,” Wilson said.

But when Janelle Gumbs heard what the text said, she recalled something her son had said to her: he felt, as a soldier, he’d been reduced to “a hit man for the government.” He wasn’t bragging, he was lamenting.

Before his arrest, he wasn’t sleeping or eating and was drinking to kill the pain, the mother said, adding he resisted suggestions to get help with his mental turmoil. (The same month he tipped off the gang enforcer, a passerby reported seeing Gumbs snorting cocaine in his patrol car, and he resigned.)

Finally, he set up an appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Janelle Gumbs said. He was arrested the day before the appointment was to take place.

Day of reckoning

Gumbs, who has been locked up since his 2016 arrest, faces sentencing Monday morning.

The U.S. attorney’s office has asked the court to give him 20 years.

“The defendant committed acts that were abhorrent and deceitful, while demonstrating brazen disregard for his sworn duty to the public,” prosecutors wrote to the court. “His abuse of power compromised investigations and endangered the lives of other officers, agents and civilians.”

Gumbs’ attorneys asked for a three-year sentence.

Julien Adams, a Gumbs attorney and a former federal prosecutor, said it wouldn’t make sense to give Gumbs decades in prison.

“I told him, ‘Look, you made some bad decisions because of who you were involved with,’” said Adams, who is also Gumbs’ uncle. “They convicted other people of those murders.”

As the hearing approaches, Gumbs’ mother is listening to Gumbs’ three kids ask when their dad is coming home.

“And I don’t have an answer,” she said. “My son does not deserve this. He does not deserve this.”