Former Whitfield County Sheriff's Deputy James Robert Keown resigned from his job and turned himself into jail Tuesday on charges that he stole $450 from an illegal immigrant during a March 3 traffic stop — after two fellow deputies spurred an investigation by reporting the missing cash.
"Two other officers on the scene basically did the right thing and stepped up," Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Greg Ramey said Wednesday. "These two guys did the right thing."
The traffic stop occurred early Sunday morning, March 3, when Deputy Ryan Rogers called for help after finding Mario Daniel Chavez-Hernandez, 24, asleep at the wheel of a white 2013 Plymouth Voyager minivan parked at South Bypass and East Walnut Avenue. Rogers called Deputy Brandon Dalton to help him wake up Chavez-Hernandez.
Keown then arrived. Chavez-Hernandez refused to get out of the minivan, so Keown arrested him.
Chavez-Hernandez, who has a Chatsworth, Ga., address, admitted to being an illegal immigrant. Deputies searched his minivan and said they found alcohol and marijuana. They cited Chavez-Hernandez for DUI, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Afterward, deputies Rogers and Dalton noticed the $450 in a glass jar was missing and reported their suspicions to the sheriff's office that Keown had taken the money, Ramey said. The sheriff's office contacted the GBI.
The GBI's investigation led Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Posten to file charges Tuesday. Keown, who lives in East Ridge, faces a misdemeanor charge of theft by taking, since the amount was less than $500, and a felony charge of violation of oath by a public officer.
Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said, "The only statement I can really make to you is, certainly it's very disappointing when we have an officer that makes a poor decision."
Keown was released on his own recognizance Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
If convicted of the charges, Keown will lose his Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council certification, Ramey said, and he won't work in law enforcement again -- unless he's given a pardon.
"That ain't going to happen," Ramey said of a pardon.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.