Hillman probe shifts; 'Craigslist' cases delayed

Hillman probe shifts; 'Craigslist' cases delayed

February 9th, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Developing Story

Developing Story


Oct. 24, 2012: Ringgold Police Department Officer Tom Evans stops Ken Hillman and Angela Russell outside the Acoustic Cafe. Hillman is allegedly drunk, and Evans drives them across state lines to Russell's apartment in Chattanooga.

Feb. 15, 2013: After Angela Russell's husband and daughter tell the police department about this incident, Tom Evans is fired. During the Ringgold police investigation into Evans, Angela Russell says she has been working with the task force as a civilian.

March 1, 2013: Fort Oglethorpe police Chief David Eubanks told the Times Free Press that one of his officers, Greg Cross, admitted to him that he once let Hillman go free after stopping the agent for allegedly driving drunk. Cross was working for the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office at the time, and Catoosa County Detective Tim Deal then picked up Hillman. Deal was a member of Hillman's task force at the time.

March 4, 2013: FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett confirmed that the bureau is investigating Hillman.

Feb. 7, 2014: A judge delays 10 criminal cases tied to Hillman's task force as defense attorneys await results of the federal investigation.

Source: Newspaper archives

Federal prosecutors in South Carolina now are overseeing the investigation into a disgraced local FBI agent, a probe that has delayed trial dates for 10 Catoosa and Dade County, Ga., cases developed by his "To Catch a Predator"-style task force.

Those cases -- from computer pornography to attempted child sex -- were scheduled for a key pre-trial hearing Monday, but Judge Grant Brantley has moved the court date back to April 21.

Special Agent Ken Hillman has been accused of letting a civilian chat online with potential targets as part of the FBI's Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The lawmen are supposed to go on websites like Craigslist and find people who want to have sex with children.

But Hillman allegedly allowed Angela Russell, the estranged wife of millionaire Emerson Russell, to talk with suspects and even slap handcuffs on one of them. Local police officers also have said Hillman used his position to escape drunken-driving arrests in Catoosa County.

On March 4, FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett confirmed that the bureau was investigating those allegations. Typically, federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Georgia would have jurisdiction in this case.

However, Department of Justice officials recused prosecutors from that office Jan. 16, said Bob Page, spokesman for the Northern District of Georgia, which is based in Atlanta. Page would not say why his office has been recused.

Hillman often works in Atlanta, so any prosecution by that office could have been seen as a conflict of interest.

The 10 criminal cases that were scheduled for a Monday hearing hinge on the Hillman investigation, because defense attorneys have asked to see the agent's personnel file and the computers that arresting officers used to chat with alleged predators. This information may show that the arrests of their clients were not legitimate, the attorneys believe.

The lawyers planned to prove they needed access to the computers and Hillman's file by questioning many people involved in the task force on Monday. That would include Hillman, Angela Russell and other officers.

But they wanted to wait for the FBI to wrap up its own investigation of Hillman.

So Brantley, the judge presiding over those cases, emailed Gentry Shelnutt on Jan. 4 and asked for an update. Shelnutt oversees the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia.

On Feb. 2, Shelnutt told Brantley that the Atlanta office had been recused from the case. He said that William Witherspooon, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, now is investigating. Witherspoon contacted Brantley on Tuesday.

"When the case was transferred to me no one made me aware of pending matters," Witherspoon wrote in an email, referring to the 10 local cases. "I apologize."

On Friday, Brantley told the defense attorneys in the 10 cases that the hearing date was reset to April. The judge believes Witherspoon will update him in the coming weeks about the status of the Hillman investigation.

"It was my understanding from Mr. Witherspoon that he would try to have something for me soon," Brantley wrote.

Beth Drake, a spokeswoman for Witherspoon's office, declined comment Friday. She said she isn't allowed to confirm or deny a federal investigation.

Emmett, the FBI spokesman, also would not give an update into the bureau's investigation.

"Nothing has changed," he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.