FBI agent’s actions jeopardize Georgia child sex prosecutions

How we got this story

After receiving a tip about allegations of impropriety by an FBI agent who headed a task force on Internet child predators, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent a week looking at court documents, reports from private investigators and other public records in addition to talking to those involved in the investigation and the cases affected.

The alleged indiscretions of a married FBI agent have jeopardized at least 10 criminal cases against suspected sexual predators of children.

The FBI has disbanded the joint local-federal Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force while it investigates the agent who ran it, Ken Hillman.

According to a letter from the FBI to District Attorney Herbert E. “Buzz” Franklin, the federal agency is investigating possible infractions by Hillman such as allowing a civilian, Angela Russell, to participate in undercover investigations, letting her and her husband, Emerson Russell, put handcuffs on suspects, giving each of the Russells handguns “subsequent to a potential arrest,” misusing his position as an FBI agent in a traffic stop and lying in an investigation of a wrecked FBI vehicle.

The FBI’s Office of Professional Standards in Washington is making an internal investigation into reports that Hillman let Angela Russell participate in online chats with suspects, gave her a gun and an FBI bulletproof vest, took her on arrests and allowed her to search suspects’ cars and houses.

There is no criminal investigation of Hillman or the Russells. Hillman still works for the FBI, which would not comment further on his status. To report this story, the Atlanta Journal Constitution examined emails from lawyers for the 10 defendants to a judge, a Ringgold Police Department report on an internal investigation, and court documents related to those pending cases.

The FBI said it also is looking into reports of Hillman using his badge to escape several potential traffic charges.

A Ringgold police officer lost his job after one of those incidents. That was the event, some of the 10 defendants’ attorneys said, that drew attention to Hillman’s activities.

“There was a loose thread out there,” said public defender David Dunn, who represents two men in jail awaiting trial on charges of attempting to entice minors in some of the cases that are now on hold. “And we started pulling at it.”

Hillman declined to talk about the allegations. District Attorney Franklin also said he would not comment on pending cases. Atlanta attorney Steve Sadow, who is representing Angela Russell, said he was “not in a position to comment at this time.”

Now delayed until next year — assuming the FBI has finished its investigation by then — are the prosecutions of 10 men facing lengthy prison time in cases generally regarded as having a high likelihoods of convictions. Judge G. Grant Brantley, a senior judge from Cobb County, said in court documents that he would delay their cases until the investigation of Hillman is done.

All four judges in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit have removed themselves from hearing any pre-trial motions in the cases without giving their reason publicly, and the defendants’ attorneys want to recuse the entire District Attorney’s Office.

The defense attorneys argue the district attorneys are too personally connected to some involved, including the former Ringgold police officer who was fired. A report from an internal Ringgold police investigation says the officer gave Hillman a ride from a bar instead of testing him for intoxication. The former Ringgold officer is married to a Catoosa County assistant district attorney, and Hillman had later put the officer on the task force.

Usually, “these cases are hard to beat,” said attorney Shawn Bible, who represents three of the 10 men. “They are tailor-made for the state (prosecution) to win.”

And Emerson Russell said in an interview that he is divorcing his wife of 27 years because of her relationship with Hillman. Angela Russell is demanding $30 million, half the value of the businesses Emerson Russell built after leaving the Chattanooga Police Department where he was an officer.

The Russells met Hillman last summer. Emerson Russell told the AJC that the task force wanted to relocate to Ringgold, so he agreed to allow the operation to set up its “undisclosed location” in a furnished guest house a few yard from the Russells’ front door.

Even before the task force moved to the Russells’ guest house, Hillman invited the couple to come along to a meeting with a suspect at a RaceTrac gas station in Catoosa County on Battlefield Parkway near I-75. According to court records, other documents and Emerson Russell, Hillman gave them guns and FBI windbreakers and bulletproof vests and allowed them to handcuff some of the 10 suspects, then observe the subsequent interrogation.

On at least one occasion, Angela Russell also searched a suspect’s truck for evidence, Ringgold defense attorney McCracken Poston said. Poston represents one of the 10 men charged.

He said Hillman treated her as “a full-fledged member of this task force,” and that she even told her husband “an assistant district attorney was going to teach her how to testify in court.”

Emerson Russell said that on at least one arrest, Angela Russell put her hair in a pony tail and sat in the backseat of an undercover car so the suspect would think a girl had come to meet him.

Court records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution include pages from a notebook Angela Russell kept in which she listed websites to monitor and scripts to use when emailing or texting suspects. On one page there were instructions for recording conversations in which she pretended to be an underage girl.

The single event that brought everything to a head — the divorce, the allegations of impropriety and accusations that Hillman had escaped arrest after traffic stops by flashing his FBI credentials — was on Oct. 24.

A bartender called police to report that three intoxicated people had left the Acoustic Cafe and were about to get into their cars.

Former Ringgold police officer Tom Evans responded and met Hillman, Angela Russell and her adult daughter in the parking lot.

But he didn’t arrest them.

According an internal police investigation, a report of a private investigator and witnesses, Evans instead drove them to the daughter’s condominium in Chattanooga. But he didn’t tell the dispatcher he was driving a patrol car out of the city and the state and he didn’t file the required paperwork documenting the hour he was away.

He was fired for not following policy.

The next day Emerson Russell filed court papers to have his wife removed from their home, and the divorce petition was brought less than three months later.

“We have the issues that came up about Angela Russell and her relationship with Hillman,” Dunn, the public defender, said. “And we started looking at Hillman … ”

One thing that turned up during the inquiry is a recording that had been taken from a patrol car camera when Hillman had been pulled over in September. It showed Hillman getting out of his official car and announcing he was FBI and on the way to a call. He was on the road leading to his house.

Ringgold defense attorney Poston summed up the saga this way: “It has all the classic human downfall aspects to it; sex, alcohol and money. It’s a disaster.”