On Dec. 22, 2015, Gwinnett County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Garmon was arrested and charged with child cruelty, accused of shaking his infant son so hard he fractured the boy's skull and caused bleeding on the brain.
The sheriff's department placed Garmon on paid administrative leave, but within two weeks of the felony arrest he was back at work as a jailer. Last month, the department forced Garmon's resignation after he entered a plea deal that requires him to serve 20 years probation.
But in the weeks following his departure a question hung over the case: Why did Sheriff Butch Conway allow a deputy to work in his jail for nearly three years in the face of credible abuse allegations?
A review of the case by The AJC found the sheriff's department and Garmon both failed to notify the state's law enforcement certification agency of his case until more than 2 1/2 years after the arrest. State guidelines require a certified deputy and their agency to notify the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council anytime an officer is arrested.
In addressing the AJC's findings, Conway's spokeswoman now publicly acknowledges the department's mistake and said a policy has been implemented to ensure proper notification occurs in the future.
"While Robert Garmon was employed as a Deputy Sheriff Jailer and did not have arrest powers, his arrest should have been reported to the governing agency that certified him as a jailer," said Deputy Shannon Volkodav, a sheriff's office spokeswoman.
Garmon's case, which has never been reported publicly until now, is the latest black mark on a sheriff's agency that has faced a series of recent problems and scandals. At least 10 deputies have been arrested since 2012 on charges ranging from stealing county propertyand drug possession to sexually assaulting inmates and child molestation. The most recent arrest came just last month, when Deputy Aaron Masters was charged with battery after allegedly punching a mentally ill inmate multiple times in the head.
The agency has been the target of a federal grand jury probe since February related to allegations of excessive force at the jail involving the agency's controversial rapid response team. Last month, Conway — whose been in office since 1996 — faced public scrutiny after he used federal asset forfeiture funds to purchase a $70,000 sports car he drives to and from work.
The AJC learned of the criminal case against Garmon through a Georgia Open Records Act request filed earlier this month related to employees who had recently left the agency. Nothing in the file indicates that the sheriff's office conducted an independent investigation into the allegations following the 2015 arrest.
A memo dated Jan. 5, 2016 ordered Garmon to return to work, but offered no details about the incident in Barrow County.
"The terms and conditions of bond would not prohibit you from returning to work," Chief Deputy Mike Boyd wrote in the memo, in which he copied the sheriff.
Troubles within the Garmon household took a dark turn during the holiday season three years ago.
The couple's infant son, who was just a few months old, suffered injuries that required two hospital visits in the span of five weeks.
During the second trip, a Dec. 9 visit to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, a CT scan found what medical personnel described as a fractured skull and blood spots on the brain that suggested recent trauma. Doctors discovered retinal hemorrhaging behind the boy's eye that ultimately required drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure around the brain.
Doctors reported the symptoms of "non-accidental trauma" to child protection authorities as well as the Barrow County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over the Garmons' home near Winder.
A Barrow sheriff's investigation found Garmon was alone with his son during the time leading up to both health scares. Both incidents began with the infant crying "intensely" and ended with Garmon's wife finding him holding a suddenly silent child and claiming he just "went limp," records said.
Garmon was arrested and charged with child cruelty and aggravated battery — both felonies — less than two weeks after the second incident. On Nov. 1, 2016, a Barrow County grand jury handed down a seven-count indictment that included four counts of aggravated battery and three counts of first-degree cruelty to children.
Last month, Garmon entered a plea agreement in Barrow Superior Court to five of the charges. The negotiated Alford plea allows him to maintain his innocence while conceding the evidence against him would likely have led to his conviction.
A judge sentenced him to serve 20 years, including four years behind bars. His prison term is suspended as long he complies with a series of conditions of probation that include on-time child support payments and avoiding contact with his ex-wife and children.
The plea deal "allowed him to avoid the risk of serving time in custody and to continue to financially provide for his sons, who he loves very much," said Matt Crosby, Garmon's attorney. "When he successfully completes his sentence, he will be eligible for a first offender discharge which would mean no criminal conviction on his record."
State reviews case
Garmon still denies any wrong-doing, according to Crosby, and he saw nothing wrong with continuing his work at the sheriff's office after his arrest.
He believed "it was appropriate for him to continue to work in a job he loved," Crosby said.
But by law, Garmon was supposed to notify POST within 15 days of his 2015 arrest — a requirement he failed to meet. In fact, the agency didn't learn of Garmon's arrest until last month, after the Gwinnett sheriff's office notified POST of his forced departure from the job, according to Ken Vance, POST's executive director.
"By law, (officers) are required to notify us of an arrest for anything other than a minor traffic offense," Vance said.
The sheriff's office also failed in its original notification requirement.
Under state rules, law enforcement agencies must notify POST when one of their officers is arrested. Sheriff Conway's department didn't follow those rules, however, which allowed Garmon to continue with his state jailer certification years after the felony charges.
Once POST learned of Garmon's case, it took swift action. Four days after his resignation in lieu of termination from Gwinnett, the state agency suspended Garmon's certification. POST has no true authority to take action against the sheriff's office, but the fact that Garmon failed to provide notification after his arrest is among the violations now under review.
Given the nature of his charges, it's likely his certification will be revoked once POST completes its investigation.
The way the sheriff's department handled Garmon's case doesn't reflect law enforcement best practices, according to Louis Dekmar, the LaGrange police chief and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
He said he wasn't familiar with the details of Garmon's case, but seemed surprised that nearly three years would pass before a law enforcement agency would take action on such a serious criminal allegation.
"The only thing that would perplex me is the agency not making a disposition internally and waiting for the case to wind its way through the court," he said.