Shot to pieces: Victor Hill’s stealth strategy

Until a woman was gravely wounded Sunday during a bizarre incident, Victor Hill, Clayton County’s once controversial sheriff, was anything but.

Since his re-election in 2012 — while under indictment for dozens of counts of corruption, on which he was later acquitted — Hill had been nowhere in the media but seemingly everywhere in Clayton County. He’s the Stealth Sheriff, a politician who sucked the oxygen away from his critics by quietly doing his job.

But this week, Hill’s low-profile exploded when Gwenevere McCord, real estate agent and “very dear” friend of the sheriff, was allegedly shot through the abdomen by Hill as she held an open house in a model home in Lawrenceville. She is in very critical condition and hasn’t spoken with investigators.

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In a rare briefing to the press, Hill said, “I was involved in a tragic and heartbreaking accident.” That’s about all he has said, as Gwinnett authorities investigate what happened and determine what, if any, charges will come about.

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Some have castigated Hill for maintaining his silence with investigators. But he is a master of self-preservation and self-resurrection and, like it or not, he is invoking his constitutional right not to screw himself over.

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Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter calls Hill “semi-cooperative.” He told me Hill’s public office hasn’t afforded him any special status. “He’s just a guy in my jurisdiction who accidentally shot someone or who may have recklessly shot someone.”

Time will tell.

So far, in his home county, Hill is largely getting the benefit of the doubt. Accidents happen, many residents reason, even to someone who should know better. There is certainly a history of it in Clayton County. William T. Cassells, who was Hill’s chief deputy before they fell out, killed one of his superiors in 1986 in a training accident.

And Eldrin Bell, who was Atlanta’s police chief and Clayton’s commission chairman, and Hill’s mentor before they fell out, injured his thumb while shooting a pistol at a party in 2008.

Many people I spoke with in Clayton are waiting for the investigation to pass.

“I don’t think it will hurt him,” said Pat Pullar, a political consultant there. She said his strategy to cut out the middle man — TV, newspaper and almost all radio — has worked well for him.

“He goes directly to voters and tells them his plan; he hits hot-button issues,” she said. “Victor takes it upon himself to do things.”

Pullar said two teen-aged girls living at a group home that her niece manages recently ran away. The home managers reported it to police but nothing happened. Two days later, Pullar called Hill. Within hours, the girls were found in a fleabag hotel working as prostitutes.

Hill has constructed a political biosphere of support. He hits the churches in the majority-black county, attends neighborhood association meetings, distributes text alerts to citizens and even sends out robo-calls to wish prospective voters a Happy Mother’s Day.

In 2013, when I was trying to locate the sheriff for a story, I found him at a luncheon. “If you need me to de-thug you, then I’m your man, ” he told a lady who complained her neighborhood was getting rough.

And even though his duties as sheriff don't allow a lot of criminal investigation (county cops do most of that), people see him at crime scenes, so who's to argue? If he's there, he is fighting crime.

But while he portrays himself as a hard-nosed lawman, he also paints himself as victim. “There’s been a sea of whiteness casting allegations against him,” his attorney told the mostly black jury in a winning argument during the 2013 trial where he was cleared of theft charges.

His story has become fact among supporters: He came to power in 2004 and swept out a lot of old-timers, most of whom were white. He paid the price by angering the power elite, who came back to oust him four years later, supporting rival Kem Kimbrough.

Never mind that Hill had snipers posted on the roof of the jail when the old-guard deputies were escorted off the job. And they won a federal lawsuit to the tune of $7 million.

But with Victor Hill, things are complex — as in weird. After he got beat in the 2008 election, investigators from his office followed him for months, dug through his trash, recorded him eating at fast food restaurants and even his interactions with lady friends. And then he got indicted.

In 2012, after he beat the man who beat him, he told V-103 radio, “God can humble a man. He did that with me.”

Henry Anderson, a medical doctor who often attends County Commission meetings to discuss crime, calls Hill “the humble sheriff.”

“Since he was re-elected he took his mistakes to heart,” said Anderson. “You hardly ever hear about him. Most of the time sheriffs like to be in the press. But he lets his work do the talking.”

Not all are happy with him. Outside the Clayton courthouse, I spoke with several people who were split in their opinions. And the pros and cons didn’t necessarily fall in the black and white columns according to the hue of the speaker.

Thomas Morgan, who moved from the county a decade ago but still owns a couple of houses, said the eviction services have improved but Hill is an embarrassment to the often-troubled county.

“I want a person who has a better sense of right and wrong,” Morgan said. “He always seems to be in some sort of turmoil. Instability seems to follow him.

“He seems to work hard,” said Morgan. “But I don’t know, I just don’t trust the guy.”

Longtime Clayton County resident Jerry Griffin, who supported Kimbrough, said Hill has seemingly been working with other law enforcement agencies rather than feuding with them, as he did in his first term.

Griffin said Hill’s change of persona seems heartfelt. “There’s nothing like a 37-count indictment to change somebody.”

Griffin is the retired executive director of the statewide association of county commissioners and a good-government guy at heart. He likes the vibe of the county. The schools are no longer on probation, politicians are not feuding as much, residents voted to bring MARTA into the county and Victor Hill has been behaving himself.

“There’s a lot of good things happening in the county,” Griffin said. “When people get together, Victor Hill is not the center of conversation.”

That is, until this week.