In May 2014, Nikki Autry and a team of special agents and informants from the local Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team were “attempting undercover narcotics buys.” Autry presented an affidavit to a magistrate judge falsely swearing that a “true and reliable informant” had bought a small amount of methamphetamine at a residence.Based on the erroneous information she presented, which also included claims of “heavy traffic in and out of the residence,” the judge issued Autry a “no knock” search warrant.When a SWAT team executing that warrant found the front door blocked, one of the officers tossed a flash-bang grenade inside the residence. Once inside the home, the SWAT team realized a portable playpen had been blocking the door, and the flash-bang grenade had landed where a 19-month-old was sleeping, eventually exploding on the child’s pillow.The toddler spent weeks in a burn unit in a medically induced coma . . .The federal indictment concludes the raid should not have happened.“Without her false statements, there was no probable cause to search the premises for drugs or to make the arrests,” acting U.S. Attorney John Horn said in a release.“In this case,” he said, “the consequences of the unlawful search were tragic.”According to the indictment, Autry is charged with four counts of civil rights violations for “willfully depriving the occupants of the residence of their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”Autry is also charged with depriving the man suspected of selling drugs, Wanis Thonetheva, of “his right to be free from arrest without probable cause.”
Days after the raid, Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell cleared his deputies of any wrongdoing. Here’s what he said in May of last year:
Terrell said both the district attorney and Georgia Bureau of Investigation have said there was no wrongdoing on the SRT’s part.“I’ve talked to the D.A., I’ve talked to the GBI,” Terrell said. “I’ve given them the whole information and they say there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to investigate, there’s nothing to look at. Given the information given, GBI’s SWAT team would have done the exact same thing – they’d have used the exact same scenario to enter the house.”
Here’s what he told ABC News at about the same time:
The sheriff said that the Special Response Team, SRT, did the best they could with the information they were given.A confidential informant was sent to the residence on Tuesday to make a buy for methamphetamine, Terrell said. At the time of the purchase, there were two Mercedes SUVs parked in the driveway, with a guard standing at the front door and the back door. The informant did not enter the home and made the alleged purchase in the doorway, the sheriff said.“It was really uncomfortable, and really intimidating. The informant made the purchase and left the residence,” Terrell said. “He didn’t see anything to indicate that there was a child in the house.”After the buy, the SRT came back with a no-knock warrant to arrest the suspected dealer.
According to federal prosecutors, none of these things were true. There either was no informant or Autry lied about what the informant said. There was no guard. There was no drug buy in the doorway. The GBI also denied at the time that it had approved the raid. The agency began investigating the case in June of last year but doesn’t appear to have issued a report.
In a sane world, Georgia officials would have learned from this case that violent, confrontational, forced-entry police raids are a terrible way to serve search warrants on people suspected of low-level drug crimes. In a sane world, we’d understand that because all parties to a drug transaction are consensual, there’s no direct victim to report the crime. Therefore, police must use informants, surveillance and undercover operations to get information. That makes the information rather unreliable. In a sane world, we’d understand that conducting volatile, nighttime raids based on dirty information is a good way to get people injured or killed, whether they’re drug dealers, drug users, cops or toddlers.
Instead, Terrell initially blamed the baby’s injuries on the suspected drug dealer, whom he called “no better than a domestic terrorist.” That was blame-shifting even if the suspect had been guilty. It was Terrell’s deputies who created the violence here, not the guy who allegedly sold a small amount of meth. Yet an assistant district attorney told CNN last year that he was considering charging the drug suspect for the injuries to the baby. And, of course, federal officials now say the guy never actually made the alleged drug sale in the first place. So Terrell’s deputies didn’t create violence as a disproportionate response to a consensual crime, they created violence for no reason at all.
Terrell then blamed the informant for providing bad information. But this indictment means the bad information never came from an informant. Terrell then told CNN that the baby’s parents “were aware of drug activity in the home.” (They were staying with their Georgia relatives because their house in Wisconsin had recently burned down.) This led some enforcement supporters to blame the baby’s parents for putting their kid in harm’s way, an argument reiterated in a Habersham County brief in response to the parents’ lawsuit. We now know that none of this is true.
Now the blame will likely shift to Autry, who has since resigned. If the allegations are true, certainly she deserves some blame. But even if Autry lied, the rest of the raid team and Terrell are still culpable. They clearly did no corroborating investigation before commencing with a violent, no-knock raid on innocent people. The raid occurred hours after the alleged drug buy. According to the family, the suspect the police were looking for had been kicked out of the house weeks earlier. The police didn’t know this. Terrell today says that if the police had known there was a child in the home, they would have conducted the raid differently. But if the police had waited another couple of days, long enough to do some actual surveillance, it would have been clear that there was a child inside. The toddler’s parents had a car parked in the driveway with a carseat inside. The family says there were even toys in the yard.
But more broadly, the suspect himself was arrested at another residence, without a SWAT team and without incident. He clearly wasn’t the violent threat the officers had claimed him to be. So why deploy the commando tactics in the first place? Why not use less aggressive tactics, such as waiting for the suspect to leave, surrounding a house and calling the suspect out? If history is any indication, that’s a question Georgia officials probably aren’t going to ask. They didn’t ask it after Kathryn Johnston died. Or David Hooks. Or after numerous similar incidents.
There’s one more lesson to be learned here. Terrell isn’t the only official who cleared these officers. District Attorney Brian Rickman did too, as did a grand jury. So did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. How is it that the sheriff, the DA, a grand jury and the state police all looked into this, and none of them found what the feds found — that this entire raid was based on a series of lies?
As I’ve pointed out before, it isn’t the first time this has happened in Georgia. In fact, it isn’t the first time it has happened with this particular drug task force. Back in 2009, the same task force that conducted this investigation shot and killed Rev. Jonathan Ayers after confronting him at a convenience store. Ayers was unarmed and innocent. He became a suspect after investigators saw him talking to a local prostitute they were investigating for dealing drugs. In fact, Ayers was ministering to the woman. The task force as a whole and the officers who shot Ayers were cleared of any wrongdoing. They were cleared by Terrell and another sheriff who oversees them. They were cleared by DA Rickman. They were cleared by a grand jury. And they were cleared by the GBI. Rickman told one local newspaper that investigators went “to extraordinary lengths” to get to the bottom of what happened and that “I do not see how anybody could say the process was unfair based on the lengths that they went to.”
Ayers left behind a wife, Abigail, who at the time of his death was pregnant with her first child. She filed a lawsuit and hired her own investigator to look into the shooting. What he found is astonishing. As it turns out, Officer Billy Shane Harrison, the cop who shot Ayers, hadn’t taken the series of firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. It gets worse. It turns out that Harrison also had received zero training in the use of lethal force.He wasn’t authorized to make arrests or to carry a gun. Yet somehow he had been given a position on a narcotics task force, a position that not only gave him a gun but put him in volatile, high-stakes situations where he might be tempted to use it. Abigail Ayers’s lawsuit also alleged that Harrison and Officer Chance Oxner, who initially bought the drugs from the woman Ayers was counseling, had a history of disciplinary problems, including use of illicit drugs.
So within six years, we’ve had two-high profile incidents involving this task force, one that critically injured a baby and one that resulted in the death of an innocent pastor. In both cases, the officers were cleared by the local police agency, the local DA, a grand jury and the state police. And in both cases, outside investigators later turned up information not only damning but also devastating, and that should have been obvious to anyone investigating these cases with any interest in getting at the truth, rather than merely exonerating the police officers involved. These cases are worth keeping in mind when we hear about police investigations that clear other cops of wrongdoing, in Georgia and elsewhere.
Combined, both cases cost the local governments well over $3 million in settlements. Ayers got $2 million. The toddler’s family got $1 million (which might cover the child’s medical expenses). The alleged drug transaction that led to the investigation ending in Ayers’s death was for $50 worth of cocaine. The transaction that nearly led to the death of the toddler was for $50 worth of meth. A dead pastor, a widowed wife, a fatherless baby, a disfigured toddler, $3 million in settlements, who knows how much money spent on investigations and legal fees . . . all over $100 in alleged drug sales.
So here’s what we ought to learn from this whole ugly affair:
- It’s a terrible idea to conduct violent, volatile raids to serve warrants on people suspected of consensual, nonviolent crimes. These raids create violence and put everyone in the vicinity at risk.
- It’s a bad idea to let police officers investigate other police officers who are accused of wrongdoing.
- It’s a bad idea to create multi-jurisdictional task forces that are self-funded and not directly beholden to any local political official.
- Georgia’s Mountain Judicial District needs new leadership.
- Habersham County needs a new sheriff.
- The Georgia Bureau of Investigation probably shouldn’t be trusted to conduct unbiased, thorough investigations of other law enforcement officers.
I suspect that as with all the incidents before this one (and all the incidents since), none of these lessons will be learned. And so the raids will go on. And so will the body count.