A week ago, I wrote about the menace of distracted drivers on Atlanta’s roads.
Clayton County's sheriff, Victor Hill, certainly fits that bill. Since February, he has twice veered from his lane to strike other vehicles, once driving so erratically that one witness thought he was having a seizure. Another onlooker described him as so "wobbly" he might be "intoxicated," police reports and audio tapes show.
And now we can add distracted gun-play to the list. Hill allegedly shot a lady friend while teaching her how to defend herself.
After the first wreck, state police checked with Hill in the hospital where had been taken by his deputies before investigators got to the scene. The state trooper determined he was not drunk. But Hill did get charged last week with reckless conduct in the Lawrenceville shooting that left Gwenevere McCord with a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
The woman’s family has been supportive of the lawman, who just can’t seem to prevent himself from being a hot mess. Hill says the bullet that took out one of McCord’s kidneys and left her in critical condition was a mistake, and he has twice released statements that he’s praying for her recovery.
So far, his prayers have been answered: Her condition has improved. But providence has also shown its hand in the form of a team of guardian angels (AKA deputies and a lawyer or two) who quickly show up on the scene to bail him out of trouble.
“We’d call that an extraction team, a unit that comes in and extracts you from problems,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, former president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association. He was amazed at how quickly The Extractors — several high-ranking deputies — were able to travel the 48 miles from Jonesboro to Lawrenceville.
Hill complied with investigators and turned over clothes, guns and his car. But other than a brief statement he gave on the 911 call — he said he was “practicing police tactics” — Hill has resisted digging himself in any deeper and has not spoken to Gwinnett County authorities.
The lawman’s recent misadventures began on Feb. 27, shortly after 8:30 a.m. The Extractors swarmed the scene on GA 138 in Jonesboro when Hill’s county-issued black Suburban clipped a lady waiting to make a left turn.
Hill “was coming down the lane and going in and out of my lane and all of a sudden just hit the whole side of my vehicle,” said Tami Laretta Benifeld, who had recently moved from Colorado and got a dose of how it rolls in Clayton County, GA.
A state patrolman’s mic caught her observations: “The individual got out of the car, stagnated, wobbly, walked towards the car, stopped in middle of the street with his head down. I asked if he was OK, I noticed he had a badge on.”
She then twice noted that he seemed “intoxicated,” correcting the trooper, who asked if Hill’s shakiness might stem from a “medical condition.”
Continuing her narrative, she said: “Someone came over and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I said, ‘No.’” (He said ) ‘We got to keep this down.’ I said, ‘Excuse me?!’”
The patrolman asked her who had said that.
“I don’t know,” she said, sounding exasperated. “There were so many people out there.”
She went on: “Someone said, ‘That is Victor Hill.’ I don’t know who Victor Hill is. I’m from Colorado.”
Hill was no longer on the scene at that point; the chief deputy had already taken him to the hospital, according to the tape. A State Patrol spokesman told Channel 2 Action News that a trooper went to the hospital and satisfied himself that Hill was not drunk.
Seven weeks later, at 9:19 p.m. on April 17, Willie Ramsey was driving in the right lane of GA 138 when a black 2013 Chevy Camaro passed him on the left and sideswiped him. Hill got out and told Ramsey he got distracted when he looked over at one of his deputies who had pulled over another vehicle.
Ramsey, a Clayton County resident, knew it was the sheriff as soon as he exited his Camaro. Hill, he said, admitted it was his fault.
Ramsey said he didn’t vote for Hill. “He cost the county a lot of money. He’s still costing money.”
On Sunday, May 3, Hill was apparently trying to teach McCord, a friend who is a real estate agent, how to protect herself. Agents often work alone while putting on open houses, and they sometimes feel like sitting ducks. A decade ago, two women real estate agents in Cobb County were murdered horribly.
It’s uncertain what Hill was doing during his impromptu training session at an open house, one where the public could — and did — walk in. According to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST,) Hill is not a certified firearm instructor. But, hey, he’s a sheriff. So what could go wrong?
Well, plenty, if you talk to someone like Ray Saxon, director of basic training at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
“We don’t call these accidental discharges,” said Saxon. “We call them unintentional discharges. They pulled the trigger.”
He said that “if we were having an exercise, like searching a building or stopping a car, then the weapons we use are not capable of firing a live round.”
Someone using a live round during a training exercise, Saxon said, is guilty of “a flagrant violation of common sense.”
Sills’ verdict is even harsher. In these days when the whole profession is under scrutiny, he said, “when you do something stupid like this, it reflects badly on all police officers.”
Colleagues of Hill’s told AJC reporter Tammy Joyner that he is extremely careful and methodical during training demonstrations, removing the magazine from the gun and checking the chamber repeatedly before proceeding with exercises.
But obviously not this time.
“Complacency sets in with everyone,” said Saxon.
Complacency, however, doesn’t extend to Hill’s team when it comes to protecting his rear end.
“Sheriff Hill demands cult-like loyalty,” said Jonathan Newton, a former member of his inner circle. “If you deviate from that, you will be dealt with, and not favorably.”
The Extractors have been mum so far, following their leader’s lead. Their goal is seems plain: to keep Hill in office.
That sunk in powerfully to Benifield, the woman whose car Hill struck, the longer she dealt with minions who spoke of him as some little prince that needed to be protected. She ended up not only frustrated but a bit angry.
“It doesn’t matter who a person is,” she told the trooper wearing the mic. He “could have took my life from me.”
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