Varnell councilman resigns after arrest; police chief's actions under review

Varnell councilman resigns after arrest; police chief's actions under review

June 29th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News
Sheldon Ray Fowler

Sheldon Ray Fowler

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A Varnell, Ga., city councilman resigned Wednesday after his arrest for allegedly threatening the local police chief.

The chief, meanwhile, is on administrative leave because the council wants the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into how he handled the arrest of the elected official, Sheldon Ray Fowler.

The controversy began on June 13. According to a post on the Varnell Police Department's Facebook page, Fowler's wife called 911 around noon that day to report he was "drunk and half-naked" and bothering their daughter. Chief Lyle Grant said Fowler mixed Ambien with some alcohol his wife had supposedly given him.

Grant said he found Fowler in his underwear and a nurse smock, ranting about rumors he heard around town. Grant said Fowler's wife did not complain that he attacked her or threatened to hurt her; she just wanted the police to calm him down and help him go to sleep. According to an arrest warrant affidavit, the councilman poked Grant and Lt. Greg Fowler — who is not related to him — in the chest.

The officers did not arrest him that day. But on June 22, Grant took out a warrant, claiming Sheldon Fowler committed simple battery on a peace officer, simple assault and disorderly conduct. The councilman turned himself in to the Whitfield County Jail on Tuesday and bonded out about two hours later.

On Wednesday morning, during a special called meeting, the council asked Sheldon Fowler to resign. Councilman David Owens said Sheldon Fowler at first said he wanted to stay on the council, setting up a potentially long, drawn-out fight.

City Attorney Terry Miller said the council would have had to call a hearing about whether Sheldon Fowler could be fired. Those same council members would serve as the judges in the case. And if Sheldon Fowler were fired, he could then appeal to a local superior court judge.

But after talking to the other council members about the "pros and cons and the impact on the city," Owens said, Sheldon Fowler agreed to step down. Miller said the council will operate one person short until November, when the city will hold a special election.

Sheldon Fowler did not return a Facebook message Wednesday seeking comment.

The council, however, also wants a review of how Grant handled the arrest. Miller crafted a letter asking the GBI to investigate the situation. The letter must formally be submitted by Mayor Anthony Hulsey, who is out of town this week.

Owens said there are a couple of confusing issues. First, the department did not arrest Sheldon Fowler until nine days after Grant and Greg Fowler went to his house. In a Facebook post, Grant said another investigator needed time to review the case — though the evidence simply consisted of Grant's and Greg Fowler's eyewitness accounts.

Grant also said he had to present the evidence to the city council, mayor and city manager before deciding how to proceed. For example, because he was a victim, Grant said, he could have filed a civil lawsuit in this case. He needed guidance from the elected officials.

While his investigation has to be separate from the elected officials, he said, he needed their guidance because the arrest would lead to bad press for the city. Even if they wanted him to not make an arrest, he said he would still give the evidence to the district attorney's office and let it decide whether to prosecute Sheldon Fowler.

"It's the same thing as you reporting to your editor," he told the Times Free Press. "When you do a story, you run it by an editor: 'This is what I have. How do you want me to proceed with it?'"

Owens, however, said Grant's account does not quite make sense. First, he said, the chief did not inform the council members. He only told the mayor. But at any rate, Owens did not think it was usual to for the chief to seek advice from an elected official.

"It is odd," he said. " The chief has the authority to go directly to the district attorney. I can't do his thinking. I guess you'd have to ask him. I suppose he just wanted the authorization from the mayor."

On Tuesday, Grant also wrote a Facebook post to answer some questions about the case. At some points, he questioned his own decision to take out warrants against Sheldon Fowler — in particular on a charge of disorderly conduct.

"How can someone be disorderly in their own home?" Grant wrote. "Mr. Fowler had a right to be in his own home that he pays a mortgage [on] and he was not out in public causing an issue. Furthermore, he was not prohibiting his wife or children from leaving to get away from him."

Last year, Grant asked the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office to investigate a domestic violence case against Andrea Gordy, another council member. Grant said he didn't bring in the outside agency this time because Sheldon Fowler is not accused of allegedly attacking a family member.

In Gordy's case, according to a February 2016 incident report, she told police she hit her husband several times. Her husband also accused her of trying to choke him. They were fighting about Gordy's son and her husband's daughter.

Owens said the council members did not try to remove Gordy from her elected seat after that arrest because of some deeper issues that led to her fight with her husband. Owens did not provide specific details.

"The difference is quite dramatic between Mr. Fowler and Ms. Gordy," he said. "I would refer you to the incident reports to draw your own conclusion."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.