Georgia sheriff faces reckless-conduct charges after shooting friend in belly

Georgia sheriff faces reckless conduct charges after shooting friend -- accidentally, he says

A Georgia sheriff faces reckless-conduct charges after shooting a real estate agent while conducting what he described as “police training tactics” inside a model home in a suburban subdivision.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill turned himself in at the Gwinnett County Adult Detention Center on Wednesday evening and was released after posting $2,950 bond.

Hill shot his friend Gwenevere McCord in the abdomen on Sunday afternoon while they were alone inside a house that was for sale in Lawrenceville, a suburb northeast of Atlanta. He says the shooting was accidental.

McCord, 43, remains in critical condition and cannot speak, but told paramedics Sunday that the shooting was unintentional, authorities said.

According to the arrest warrant, signed by Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Melodie Snell Conner, county Police Det. Collin J. Flynn said Hill caused "bodily harm" to McCord by "consciously disregarding a substantial and justifiable risk" that his act of practicing police tactics would "cause the harm of said person." Such disregard, the warrant said, constituted "a gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would exhibit."

Gwinnett County Dist. Atty. Danny Porter told the Los Angeles Times that Hill refused to speak with investigators, but that Hill's initial 911 call raised questions about whether he was negligent with his firearm and acted without reasonable regard for safety.

In the 911 call at 5:39 p.m. Sunday, Porter said, Hill described the shooting as an accident that happened while he was “practicing police tactics.”

“The legal, hypothetical question is: Is it a reasonable exercise to run police tactics in an open model home on a Sunday afternoon?” Porter said in a telephone interview, before Gwinnett County police announced they would seek charges.

That question will play a key role in whether Gwinnett County prosecutors decide to charge Hill with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, Porter said. 

“There are things that make me question the reasonableness of practicing police tactics in a business open to the public,” Porter added.

Hill released a brief statement on social media Thursday morning, calling the shooting a "tragic accident" and vowing to continue his duties as sheriff.

"I want to thank you all for your continued prayers for Gwenevere, and ask that you continue to keep her and her family lifted in prayer," he wrote. "While focused on the recovery and healing of Gwenevere, I will simultaneously continue with my duties and responsibilities as the Sheriff of Clayton County. Please continue to pray for Gwenevere and her family."

On Thursday, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the main body responsible for certifying the state’s law enforcement officers, announced it had opened a probe. Its investigators will monitor the Gwinnett County Police Department and district attorney’s office case, but the group is unlikely to reach any significant decision before the criminal case is resolved, a spokesman said.

According to the council’s bylaws, an officer would be disqualified from employment and law enforcement certification if convicted of a felony, but not of a misdemeanor. The group can discipline officers who engage in “unprofessional conduct” harmful to the public, putting them on probation or permanently revoking their certification.

Hill — the first black sheriff in Clayton County, where Margaret Mitchell set her novel “Gone With the Wind” — is no stranger to controversy. On his first day in office in 2005, he stationed snipers on the roof as he fired 27 employees and stripped them of their guns. A judge eventually ordered the county to rehire the workers, and the county paid millions to resolve their lawsuit.

An avid Batman fan who portrays himself as tough on crime, Hill has deployed military tanks on drug raids. A columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution once dubbed him a “tyrant in uniform.”

Hill lost his reelection bid in 2008, but was elected again in 2012 — even though he had been indicted on dozens of felony charges of racketeering, theft by taking, false statements and violating his oath of office. A jury acquitted him of all 27 charges.

During this week’s investigation, Hill and his Clayton County command staff were less than fully cooperative, Porter said. When Gwinnett County detectives reached the home after Hill called 911, several members of Hill's staff — who are based 50 miles southwest in Jonesboro – were already on the scene, Porter said. They initially declined to provide statements to investigators.

Before Hill left the shooting scene Sunday, he turned over his clothing, his car, two guns and a cellphone to Gwinnett County police officers, Porter said, but he did not speak to investigators.

“He cooperated up to the point of giving a statement,” Porter said, adding that Hill’s attorney told him Tuesday that he should not expect the sheriff to make any statements.

Hill’s attorney, Drew Findling, did not return a phone message from the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

Clayton County command staff did not cooperate until Tuesday afternoon, when they agreed to provide Gwinnett investigators with statements, as well as documents related to Hill’s training, Porter said.

Although Porter said he could not reveal specifics about evidence at the scene, he said he had questions about the position of the body and the location of weapons.

Immediately after the shooting, there was some confusion about whether police could arrest Hill. Porter told local media Georgia law stipulated that a sitting sheriff could only be charged by a warrant issued by a Superior Court judge.

Later, Porter said that state law applied only in cases in which a sheriff had been charged with an offense alleged to have been committed while in the performance of his or her duties. Although Hill drove a Clayton County sheriff’s vehicle to the model home in Gwinnett County, and may have shot McCord using a service weapon, he did not appear to have been performing official duties, Porter said.

This is not the first suspicious accidental shooting involving a Georgia law enforcement officer this year. Former Peachtree City Police Chief William McCollom was indicted last month on reckless-conduct charges after a New Year’s Day shooting that left his former wife paralyzed. McCollom told investigators he had fallen asleep with his gun in bed when he accidentally shot Margaret McCollum in the back.

nation@latimes.com 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:44 p.m., May 7: Updated with the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council opening an investigation.

8:27 a.m., May 7: This story was updated with a statement by Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.

7:27 p.m.: Updated with quote from the arrest warrrant.

The first version of this story was posted at 6:27 p.m., May 6

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