published Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Hearing for special agent Ken Hillman delayed again

Defense attorney David Dunn, right, speaks with his clients Brandon Keith White, left, and Robert Allen Murphy, right. Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge Grant Brantley rescheduled preliminary hearings to allow FBI time to investigate Special Agent Ken Hillman while at Catoosa County Superior Court.
Defense attorney David Dunn, right, speaks with his clients Brandon Keith White, left, and Robert Allen Murphy, right. Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge Grant Brantley rescheduled preliminary hearings to allow FBI time to investigate Special Agent Ken Hillman while at Catoosa County Superior Court.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A key hearing in 10 Catoosa and Dade county child sex sting cases has been delayed. Again.

Defense attorneys planned to argue this week that they should be allowed to look at an FBI agent's personnel file in preparation for trials in those cases, whenever those trials might occur. The attorneys also were going to argue for the right to look at computers used by the FBI's Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The attorneys originally planned to make these arguments last August. Then in February. And then Monday. But the judge delayed the hearings to July 28.

The reason? The FBI has been investigating Ken Hillman, the suspended former task force supervisor. The defense and Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin want to wait until the investigation is over before going forward with those pre-trial hearings.

Hillman has been accused of impropriety. He supposedly used his badge in Catoosa County to escape arrests for driving under the influence. He also is accused of having an affair with a woman and letting her participate in his task force, chat with potential predators and even handcuff a defendant -- actions that could invalidate the arrests.

One local defense attorney says federal investigators are closing in on Hillman.

On April 2, McCracken Poston said, agents with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General interviewed Emerson Russell. He is the estranged husband of Angela Russell, the woman who allegedly had an affair with Hillman.

In addition to Emerson Russell, Poston said he has been in the room this month while agents from the inspector general's office interviewed other people connected to the case. He said he was "not at liberty" to disclose those people's identities.

The Office of the Inspector General is charged with investigating any fraud in Department of Justice agencies, such as the FBI.

"After months and months of not a lot going on on the surface," Poston said, "it has been really encouraging to see them active on the case."

In addition, Rossville Police Detective Dave Scroggins -- a member of the task force -- said he has been interviewed by a Department of Justice agent about the case.

In October 2012, Ringgold police Sgt. Tom Evans stopped Hillman after receiving a report of a drunken driver. Angela Russell was in the car with Hillman, and Evans drove both of them to Russell's Chattanooga apartment.

Evans was later fired for the incident.

Then, in March 2013, Fort Oglethorpe Officer Greg Cross told his chief, David Eubanks, that he pulled Hillman over one time while working for the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office. Hillman appeared drunk, Cross told Eubanks. But instead of making an arrest, Cross said, he allowed Hillman to call Deal, who gave Hillman a ride home.

Poston said the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office's prior relationship with Hillman gives its officials little incentive to help the Office of the Inspector General.

"They have taken the position that they aren't offering anything until [the inspector general agents] ask them," Poston said. "Because this investigation has been done by internal affairs people from out of town, they don't know the whole story, and nobody's telling them other than the defense counsel, who have done our own investigations."

When told of Poston's statement about his department's relationship to Hillman, Sheriff Gary Sisk said, "I don't care what he says."

Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the pretrial hearing rescheduled it for July 28 but doesn't know if the FBI probe will be complete by then.

William Witherspoon, a prosecutor out of the Department of Justice's South Carolina office, emailed Judge Grant Brantley on April 14 asking for a phone conference with fellow U.S. Attorney Barbara Bowens and Ray Johnson, general counsel for the FBI's Atlanta office, to update Brantley on the investigation.

Brantley felt Witherspoon might give him "partisan" information, and so he told the local defense attorneys working those 10 cases about the email. When Poston proposed letting two defense attorneys listen to the call, according to emails that Brantley provided the Times Free Press, Witherspoon did not respond.

"I don't expect that conversation to take place," Brantley said. "They obviously want to tell me something they don't want the defense attorneys to know."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-647.

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