ROME, Ga. — Former FBI Special Agent Kenneth W. Hillman III looked at the federal judge Friday and said he was a broken man, his mind warped by a life undercover, deep in "hell's basement," forced to make impossible choices.
For about five years, Hillman ran a task force in Rossville aimed at catching child predators on the internet. He and local officers chatted undercover with suspects, pretending to pimp out sons and daughters and nephews. They arrested more than 100 people, said his lawyer, Todd Alley.
But in the process, Hillman said, he saw videos of teenagers being raped. He couldn't shake those scenes. In 2009, he said, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he asked the FBI for help but his bosses did nothing. He asked other agents to take over the task force. They refused.
So Hillman stayed. He feared nobody else would track down the rapists.
This, Alley and Hillman told U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy, helps explains why the FBI agent broke the law.
In 2012, he began an affair with Angela Russell. He let her chat undercover with the task force's targets, ride along on stings and put handcuffs on a defendant. Russell is not a law enforcement officer, and she was not listed as one of Hillman's informants.
The task force disbanded in early 2013. Russell's then-husband, businessman Emerson Russell, told defense attorney McCracken Poston about his wife's affair and her participation in the federal investigations.
In July, Hillman, who served in the FBI from 1999 to 2016, pleaded guilty to disclosure of confidential information, a misdemeanor. His sentencing hearing was Friday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Witherspoon told the judge that he and Alley had agreed to four months' probation for Hill.
Murphy, however, increased the sentence to six months. Hillman also will pay a $1,000 fine.
"I don't think the FBI really understood the PTSD issue," Hillman said during the hearing.
"The FBI knew of his diagnosis and did nothing to pull him out," Alley said. "No one in the FBI was willing to step up and take his place. The FBI kept him in his job, in this dark world, for far too long."
Witherspoon said Hillman's damaged psyche was not an excuse for a crime. He could have left after the diagnosis, Witherspoon said. And if the images of these investigations were damaging, why introduce them to Russell?
"This wasn't a failure of the FBI," Witherspoon said. "This was a failure of Mr. Hillman to follow the rules."
A spokesman for the bureau declined to comment after the hearing.
Murphy acknowledged that the work Hillman did was difficult. Hillman testified in front of him many times, with the judge wondering how he could monitor "trash" for so long. Hillman's targets were "the real villains," Murphy said. Still, the special agent committed a crime.
"It's an embarrassment to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement in the area," Murphy said.
During the hearing, Hillman celebrated the work he had done on the task force before his affair. He said he hunted monsters, put them in cages and protected children. He said he wouldn't rest until he caught his targets. He pointed out that he had worked with some of the people in the courtroom — including his defense attorney, a former federal prosecutor.
"We in this room have all made some very, very noteworthy accomplishments that are still being taught in undercover schools," Hillman said. "This is not a time when anyone needs to hold their heads in shame."
William Hinshaw, a retired FBI agent who sat in the front row at Friday's hearing, had a different interpretation.
"That was despicable," he said after the hearing.
Hinshaw, a 24-year veteran and former special agent in charge of the FBI's Atlanta division, said Hillman showed no remorse for shaming the bureau.
"[He believes] he is right, and this is all wrong, and he's having to go through it. Yes, these are bad people here. And yes, we need to keep them in prison. But you can't violate the law to enforce the law."
Hinshaw said the FBI is not to blame for Hillman's crime. If he had truly shown shaky tendencies or signs of PTSD, Hinshaw said, his bosses would have removed him from the task force.
Hinshaw believes Hillman did not get punished severely enough. He said he oversaw agents who committed similar crimes and went to jail.
But one sticking point put Witherspoon in a tough position, Hinshaw said. Some cases that Hillman worked more than four years ago are pending in Catoosa County. The defense attorneys refused to go to trial until they could see Hillman's personnel file, which they couldn't get when he was under investigation.
Those cases are scheduled for trial in November. Hinshaw said a charge more serious than a misdemeanor could have tanked the prosecution of alleged child predators.
" [T]he reason he was not charged with a felony, which is appropriate, is to protect the record of the other claims," Hinshaw said. " If they impeach him, effectively, you would have to go back and revisit all those old cases."
Asked after Friday's hearing if he would take the stand in those cases, Hillman walked away without responding.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.