OPINION: Fulton DA Fani Willis tries to cement image as ruffian on crime

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

It was a tour de force of badassery.

On Monday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis lined up a wall full of muted high-ranking law enforcement officials behind her as props to tell punks and gangsters to stay out of “my” county. Naturally, the news conference was set for High Noon.

Willis used the first-person possessive pronoun numerous times to refer to Fulton and let people know this is getting personal.

It reminded me of conversations long ago with Earl Lee, the legendary, hard-nosed sheriff of Douglas County who often talked about “my county” like he was an avenging angel.

Willis trotted out her latest RICO (racketeering) case, a 220-count indictment against 26 alleged members of a robbing crew called “Drug Rich,” or “Drug Rixt,” for those who prefer alternative spellings. This was at least the fifth time Willis has sought RICO charges and at least the third where rap lyrics are interwoven into the fabric.

There’s also the possibility of RICO charges in the wide-ranging election investigation where the Don of the family is Trump.

RICO investigations let prosecutors weave together all the accused characters into one scheme and then hit them with a kitchen sink.

This time, she is targeting a crew accused of burglarizing and invading homes of the famous and well-to-do. Usually, burglars prefer to avoid dogs and people at the homes they ransack. This gang didn’t care and came armed just in case.

Police arrest alleged gang members tied to home invasions involving celebrities across metro Atlanta

icon to expand image

Last October, gunmen invaded a Sandy Springs home on Northside Drive where a 16-year-old girl and her mother were terrorized before the invaders drove off in two family vehicles. On July 4, attackers entered a Sandy Springs townhome and shot the owner.

Authorities said the enterprising goons were largely DeKalb County residents who used social media to locate and target those who had nice stuff, including a Falcon, a Atlanta United player and a Real Housewife of Atlanta.

Sandy Springs’ police force did a yeoman’s job of ultimately rounding up most of the alleged criminals, including staking out a house this summer where the crew dutifully arrived in time for their arrest.

Some of Willis’ RICO cases use rappers’ lyrics as criminal evidence, almost as a guidebook to their violent mayhem.

“If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” she said.

The tactic has earned widespread pushback. Some are accusing her of being a hater of the rhyming art.

Willis doesn’t care.

“You do not get to commit crimes in my county and then decide to brag on it (in rap songs and videos) and use it as a form of intimidation,” she said. “I’ve got legal advice: Don’t confess to crimes in rap lyrics if you do not want them used. Or at least get out of my county.”

Almost every news conference I’ve attended with a police chief or DA carries a warning of retributive justice. This was no different.

“We have a message — get out of this county or expect to see sentences that go life-plus,” she said. “I’m not going to negotiate with gang members. I am not going to allow pleas. We are going to find you. We’re going to convict you. And we’re going to send you to prison for the rest of your days.

“I’m not apologizing for that.”

My guess is this was an adept way to frighten defendants and ensure plea deals. If she went to trial with all those “life-plus” cases, Fulton’s courthouse would seize up worse than it does now.

But it’s good politically to get out there and talk tough — with no apologies — as crime is now perhaps the public’s No. 1 issue. (Unless, that is, she could do something about inflation.)

Such a performance seems a bit theatrical, an effort to discredit accusations that this Democratic prosecutor is playing politics by sticking it to a former Republican president. Nah, she says. I’ll prosecute anybody.

District Attorney Fani Willis (center) reacts to proceedings at Fulton County Superior Court on Thursday, July 21, 2022. State Sen. Burt Jones filed a motion to remove Willis from the Fulton County Trump investigation because she held a fundraiser for Jones’ Democratic opponent Charlie Bailey. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

I checked Fulton and DeKalb counties’ courthouses for the criminal records of those wrapped up in this crime spree and found several who didn’t have serious records. This is unusual because by the time you’re waving guns in people’s homes, you usually have a string of arrests growing in severity.

One with a record was Devin Fyfe, convicted in the 2014 shooting of a man who tried breaking up a fight between several teenagers. At his guilty plea, Fyfe’s attorney said his family was baffled “as to why a young man with a 3.3 GPA and great SAT scores and who was on his way to college” would be part of such a mess. Fyfe also tried to steal a car and was involved in an armed robbery that included Air Jordans. You know, stupid stuff.

He pleaded to a deal giving him eight years in prison. Two years later, TV news featured him getting his diploma in prison. He vowed to use it for good.

Fyfe was released in February 2021 and two weeks later started a business called Born Rich Die Wealthy Clothing. By October, he was back in the slammer and has been charged with many crimes, including the home invasion of the mother and daughter.

Some people just never learn.

Madame DA aims to school them.