OPINION: GBI is blazing, with Arbery case its biggest log in huge fire

The GBI is reviewing this video in the investigation of the death of Ahmaud Arbery. The video appears to track a 911 caller’s statements that a man had entered a construction site on Satilla Drive in the minutes before the fatal shooting.

Last year, when Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds was weighing the governor’s offer to head the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he asked his wife what she thought.

“You won’t have to run a political campaign in 2020?” she asked, referring to the tough re-election the two-term Republican would’ve had to run this year in increasingly Democratic Cobb.

“No, I won’t,” he said.

“Then take it,” she told him.

Reynolds, a former prosecutor, cop, magistrate judge and defense attorney, was appointed as director of the GBI in February 2019, but the politics have not vanished. They're just different.

The agency he leads is now involved in a batch of high-profile cases dealing with race, possible corruption and political interference. In the past couple of weeks, the GBI has been asked to investigate a sitting appeals court judge, the state's busiest district attorney, and maybe the nation's most explosive criminal case — the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in the Brunswick area.

In the Arbery case, the GBI is investigating what led Greg McMichael and his son, Travis, to chase down an unarmed black man and kill him in a struggle.

Reynolds' office is also investigating possible criminal charges as to how Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson and neighboring Waycross DA George Barnhill handled (or mishandled) the investigation of the elder McMichael, a former cop and investigator in Johnson's office.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds gives updates on the Ahmaud Arbery case on May 8, 2020. Photo: Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News

The GBI was also called this month to investigate Appeals Court Judge Christian Coomer and his dealings with a former legal client before he put on the robes. Investigators will look into allegations that said a 78-year-old with diminished faculties gave Coomer loans totaling $289,000 with very favorable terms and also put the lawyer in the will.

The GBI is investigating Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, who is seen here in 2017, when he served as a legislator in the state House of Representatives. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

And the bureau is also looking at longtime Fulton County DA Paul Howard and how $170,000 of city of Atlanta money magically ended up in the account of a nonprofit he founded, money used to augment his salary.

It's a full workload for an agency tasked with helping counties investigate their complex home-grown criminal cases, and which has also come to handle almost all police shootings in Georgia. Last year, the GBI was asked to investigate 84 police shootings.

The GBI is also investigating details of payments from the city of Atlanta to Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The Arbery case is Exhibit A in why an outside agency is sometimes needed to give an investigation the patina of independence, especially in a case that can become a community flashpoint.

The GBI has 269 agents, 35 more than five years ago, when the agency started handling more police shootings. Funding will no doubt be an issue going forward as tax money evaporates in the pandemic.

In the Brunswick case, 10 agents from a different region were called in to investigate the shooting. “I didn’t want any issues with any home-cooking; I didn’t want any questions,” said Reynolds in an interview Monday. “You always have concern about the optics of these things.”

Three other agents are looking into the first two DAs in the case, a matter that malingered more than two months until the GBI came in and got murder charges in 36 hours.

Hundreds of people participate in a rally outside the Glynn County Courthouse seeking justice for Ahmaud Arbery on May 16, 2020, in Brunswick. A caravan of people left a southwest Atlanta church Saturday morning for coastal Brunswick to take part in the protest. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Reynolds said agents recently canvassed 154 houses. “We’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” he said. “Our job is to investigate it, not prosecute it.”

As for controversy surrounding a case, “I tell my guys that can’t affect you,” Reynolds said. “You go where the facts are. It may be ugly getting there.”

Chris Stewart, an attorney who has taken many police shooting cases and is involved in the Arbery matter, welcomed GBI intervention.

“It’s always better to have third-party investigations,” he said. “You have a hard time investigating friends and co-workers. We see the failures of internal affairs (units) not disciplining cases.”

Stewart said some GBI agents are better than others in their investigations, adding that he respects Reynolds: “He doesn’t play around.”

“The GBI will have to look at the whole picture here,” Stewart said. “They are not just looking at the shooting, they are looking at how in the world this was ignored for so long.”

But there are critics of how the GBI has handled some investigations. Defense attorney Richard Hendrix represented the family of Jonathan Ayers, a young preacher shot to death in 2009 by a North Georgia deputy who thought he was involved in a drug deal outside a convenience store. Ayers panicked when guys with guns converged on his car, causing him to flee and almost run over a cop. One shot and killed him.

The GBI investigated and a grand jury later ruled the shooting was justified. Hendrix took the case in a civil suit and later got a $2.3 million verdict.

“We determined the GBI’s investigation was woefully inadequate. They never interviewed several witnesses that we found,” Hendrix said. “Was it because they were stretched too thin? Was it because they were investigating friends and people they work with? We just don’t know. It’s a human institution and there are issues sometimes.”

Vernon Keenan, the previous head of the GBI, said the agency was split off from the Department of Public Safety in the early 1970s “to get politics out of the GBI.” Keenan came on in 1973 at a time when new applicants “had to have college degrees and no politics.”

Former GBI Director Vernon Keenan (KENT D. JOHNSON / 2014 AJC File)

Keenan said an important change decades ago was the agency embracing the Open Records Act, meaning investigative files were to be accessible after cases were closed.

“At first, I was appalled our files would be open, but later saw it was very important,” he said. “That is our report card. The GBI is a powerful agency. Investigations can destroy people’s lives if not done properly.”

Keenan said the GBI started taking more corruption cases decades ago when drug money started seeping into law enforcement and politics. Keenan said the state should “take care more of its own corruption cases rather than push them off on federal authorities.” That’s the same thing former state Attorney General Mike Bowers told me last week.

It’s a vein Reynolds picked up on in our discussion.

“I’d like to see us get involved in more corruption cases,” he said.

A move that would be a crowd favorite.

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