The recusal order, filed March 11 by judges Jon Wood, Kristina Graham, Ralph Van Pelt Jr., and Brian House, comes a week after a handful of local defense attorneys filed motions questioning whether they’ve been given all the evidence in cases involving their clients who were arrested during the alleged stings.
The motions, filed by attorneys such as McCracken Poston, David Dunn, and Shawn Bible, allege that prosecutors with the district attorney’s office are holding back information by giving “false or incomplete” evidence about the task force, specifically instances in which untrained and uncertified civilians may have been allowed to participate in such undercover capacities.
According to district court administrator Jody Overcash, Cobb County Senior Superior Court judge Grant Brantley per the request of Seventh District Administrative judge James Bodiford will now hear the pre-trial motions.
“Judge Bodiford made the appointment of judge Brantley on Monday, March 11,” Overcash said. “The appointment has been filed. Those involved will be notified and contacted in the coming days.”
Overcash also clarified that the four judges only recused themselves from the pre-trial motions, which creates a situation where they could still hear the cases at trial.
“It’s possible, but probably unlikely,” she said.
The cases, which were initially set to go to trial next week, now face an uncertain schedule due to the developments.
“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment,” said David Dunn, lead public defender for the judicial circuit, which includes Walker, Catoosa, Dade and Chattooga counties. “We’re waiting to see when the motions will be heard, and we will go from there.”
The task force has fallen under intense scrutiny over the past few weeks after it was learned that the operation’s leader, FBI special agent Ken Hillman, allegedly abused his power over the past two years by influencing local officers to look the other way during instances when he was pulled over on suspicion of drinking and driving.
One such incident resulted in the firing of then-Ringgold police sergeant Tom Evans in mid-February for giving Hillman and two women a ride out of state while he was apparently intoxicated instead of arresting him during an Oct. 24 call.
Evans also did not file a report of the incident with his department, at Hillman’s request.
Evans began working under Hillman as a member of the task force around the time of the incident, but to this point, it has never been clarified whether Evans was awarded a spot on the task force for cutting Hillman a break, or if he was already a member of force who was simply covering for his supervisor.
One of the women in that case, Angela Russell, admitted during a police investigation that she participated in undercover operations with the task force and accompanied Hillman during the busts of the child predators.
According to McCracken Poston, if Russell were indeed involved in the stings in the capacity she claims, it could affect the evidence in the cases.
“The officers that work on tasks forces like this are specially trained in how to communicate with targets,” Poston said. “Private citizens should not be communicating with possible suspects in an undercover operation. If they are, then it certainly raises a lot of questions about the credibility of the operation.”
The task force is a unit made up of officers from different local agencies that look to catch people online that respond to ads and chats for the purposes of having sexual encounters with children.
Task force agents post the ads on such websites as Craigslist, arrange meetings with the would-be offenders who think they are meeting with children, and then arrest the suspects on child sex charges at the designated meeting places.
The motions filed by the attorneys also included requests to examine computers used by task force members during the stings, and for the district attorney’s office to recuse itself from prosecuting the FBI cases due to how closely prosecutors work with members of the task force.
The working relationship could create a conflict of interest if prosecutors were ever called to testify as to what they knew about the operations of the task force.
Tom Evans’ wife Beth is an assistant district attorney in Walker County.
Although district attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin hasn’t publicly commented on the motions filed by the defense attorneys, he did say in a previous interview that he didn’t foresee recent revelations regarding Hillman affecting or “jeopardizing” any cases involving charges filed by the task force.