Before dawn on Jan. 30, Atlanta police found a heavily damaged 2018 Land Rover with its motor running abandoned at the intersection of Peachtree Battle and Howell Mill.
This tipped them off to an especially brazen round of crimes in Buckhead.
Within three hours, cops arrested a 26-year-old repeat offender and a 17-year-old in connection with an early morning spree that included four stolen cars, numerous garage break-ins, massive damage to two homes and a police chase.
It turns out that the second Land Rover they stole that morning had a good tracking system that allowed police to locate and nab them south of the city.
Soon, the two became the public faces of a criminal element feasting on the community after Maj. Barry Shaw, commander of Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 2, complained to residents in an email that the younger suspect was freed immediately on a cash-free bond.
“This is a perfect example of what is broken in Fulton County” courts, Shaw wrote, adding that repeat offenders aren’t afraid of being arrested because they know their feet will soon hit the street.
Last week, the suspects, Jaquantay Campbell and Michael Hill, who had been re-arrested for allegedly trying to run over a lady while stealing her car, were facing a Fulton magistrate judge.
Judge Lillian Nash Caudle presided over a MASH-style unit of justice that is the state’s busiest court system. In rapid order, a clerk announced the names of defendants in new cases and another court worker would either brusquely respond “in custody” or a defendant in the public seating would stand, say “Here” and quickly be told when to return. Sometimes a defendant wasn’t there, so Caudle would order an arrest warrant.
After 36 minutes, the court ground through 95 cases, according to my count.
While waiting for Campbell and Hill to be brought from a secured area to the courtroom, Judge Caudle told attorneys they needed to keep moving. “Let’s knock out these other bond arguments,” she said.
One case had a felon in a car with a gun. He had three open probations, so the judge kept him locked up.
Another was a repeat felon with multiple firearms arrests who has had medical seizures in jail. Caudle said she’d keep him in but warned prosecutors that if a police officer did not show up at the next court appearance to testify, she’d consider bond.
“Any other cases to hear while waiting?” the judge asked.
Yes, the public defender said, an aggravated assault to commit murder. The judge rolled her eyes. Next!
Finally, as lunchtime approached, Campbell and Hill were brought into the courtroom, a couple of rail-thin, shackled, sad-eyed mopes clad in jail blues.
Three Atlanta cops who had waited through the morning to testify finally did, although it was sometimes confusing for them to lay out the timeline as to which car was stolen from whom and where and in what order. The suspects were ordered held without bond until a hearing in May.
This case was not the usual Fulton court fodder. The Fulton district attorney’s office put two veteran prosecutors on the case. Buckhead resident and former mayoral candidate Mary Norwood, who weeks earlier had written a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms complaining of crime, sat observing the proceedings.
Also in attendance was a prosperous-looking, silver-haired gent, Bob Peterson, chairman of the ever-busy development firm Carter. He is also a leader of the Atlanta Police Foundation, an org created to help the local force. The foundation recently helped cops get long-awaited pay raises and is finishing up a survey on sentencing of criminals by Fulton judges.
The foundation and Peterson’s firm have also been building diversion centers to help troubled teens.
But what brought Peterson to court was a bit more personal: It was his Land Rover, stolen from his garage, that was left wrecked at a Buckhead intersection.
“They were in such a rush, they didn’t wait for the door to go up; they really don’t give a darn,” he said with firm understatement. “But I don’t take it personally. I wasn’t angry. It’s bigger than me.
“The system is overloaded,” Peterson added. “The processes are not good, judges don’t have the data (on cases). The problems are not simple, they are complicated.”
A group of residents called Concerned Citizens United are now organizing an “adopt-a-judge” task force.
Buckhead resident Taryn Bowman, who is heading the effort, is signing up volunteers to monitor each judge — there are more than 50. She said the volunteers will monitor their dockets, watch cases and generally keep tabs on them.
“We want them to go to court and look them in the eye,” she said, “let them know we’re watching them but also ask them, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Several years ago there was a group called Court Watch, whose members showed up when cases of troublesome offenders were being heard. The effort caused pushback from some of the judges. One now-retired judge told me in 2011 “it seems that it’s an effort to intimidate” judges.
APD’s Zone 2, which covers Buckhead, is by far the city’s busiest, with 816 “Part I” crimes in the first seven weeks of 2019, twice that of most of Atlanta’s five other police zones. Those numbers are driven mostly by thefts from cars, larcenies, burglaries and stolen vehicles.
But when it comes to the real serious Part I crimes — robberies, murders, aggravated assaults and shootings — Buckhead is safer than the other zones. In fact, much safer than most.
This year, there have been three shootings in Buckhead. Other zones have two, three or even six times as many, which is a reason Atlanta police backed off responding to shoplifting calls in Zone 2 last year. They just needed cops to address more deadly crimes.
So now that crime is bedeviling Buckhead, an area with resources and clout, there’s going to be increasing focus on law enforcement and judges in upcoming months.
Maybe the efforts will help all areas of the city.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.