RINGGOLD, Ga. -- For 30 minutes, Angela Russell dodged questions about how she secretly helped the FBI catch accused child predators.
Hillman, a suspended FBI agent and the former chief of a local "To Catch a Predator"-style task force, let Russell participate in the investigations even though she is not a certified law enforcement officer. Federal prosecutors have been investigating Hillman for two years for his behavior while running the task force.
Responding to Poston on Friday, Russell invoked the Constitutional protection against self-incriminating statements.
"Fifth Amendment," she said.
"How long did your affair with Mr. Hillman last?" Poston pressed.
"Do you recall Agent Hillman giving you access to a top-secret FBI database?"
"Did Mr. Hillman tell you he had to remove you from the task force?"
"But you continued to communicate with targets, didn't you?"
"Did you send unencrypted child porn to a target?"
Russell did not answer a single question during a pretrial hearing for eight cases that have sat in purgatory since February 2013, when defense attorneys learned that she was working for Hillman's task force.
"She is simply taking all prudent legal precautions until the criminal investigations are concluded," her attorney, Steve Sadow, wrote in an email after the hearing.
On Friday, Poston asked Superior Court Judge Grant Brantley to rule that local prosecutors could not handle the sex predator task force cases. He said they had conflicts of interests.
Tom Evans, a former task force member, is married to an assistant district attorney. Another prosecutor, Alan Norton, watched Hillman testify to grand juries. Hillman never mentioned Russell, which could lead to charges.
And, Poston said, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin might be called as a witness because he interviewed Russell about her involvement in the task force.
Franklin said his prosecutors' connections to the task force do not matter. They aren't handling these cases; they just work in the same office as the prosecutors who are, he said.
"Wherever there is a conflict with one of them, the entire office is conflicted," Poston responded.
Franklin answered: "There is no case law cited by Mr. Poston that would authorize disqualifying the district attorney's office."
Brantley sided with Franklin. He said Poston's argument is too theoretical. While federal investigators have looked into Hillman's actions since 2013, they haven't reached any conclusions. The judge doesn't know if these prosecutors will have to testify against Hillman.
"You deal with a lot of 'mights,'" Brantley told Poston. "I'm done with that."
Brantley said he has lost patience with these 10 cases. He wants the defendants to go to trial as soon as possible. But most of the cases will continue to linger because defense attorneys want to see the documents tied to the federal investigation into Hillman.
They can't see that file, though, because the investigation is still active. There is no sign of when federal prosecutors will finish looking into Hillman. Franklin said Friday that the investigators have told him for the last 18 months that they would conclude their case "soon."
The controversy began after Emerson Russell, a local millionaire, filed for divorce. He told Poston that his wife, Angela Russell, was having an affair with Hillman and chatting undercover with the FBI agent's suspects.
Franklin also interviewed Russell. She told him she chatted undercover with two suspects: Michael Dwayne Kibler and "The Marine."
Poston said the latter is his client, Michael Christopher Hardy. He used to be in the armed forces and put the word "marine" in his email address.
"Did you communicate with Michael Hardy, also known as 'The Marine'?" Poston asked Friday.
"Fifth Amendment," Russell said.
"Did you take great pains to make Mr. Hardy feel comfortable?"
"Did you ever tell Mr. Hardy this was fantasy role play?"
"You set the bait."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or 423-757-6476.