Special to HarpBlaster.com
ATLANTA – Three Atlanta police officers pleaded guilty today to shooting to death a 92-year-old woman at her home during the execution of a search warrant in November.
Gregg Junnier, 40, of Woodstock, Ga., and Jason R. Smith, 35, of Oxford, Ga., pleaded guilty in state court to voluntary manslaughter, violation of oath by a public officer, criminal solicitation and making false statements in the shooting death of Kathryn Johnson. The pair also pleaded guilty in federal court to civil rights conspiracy resulting in death.
Smith also pleaded guilty in state court to a perjury count.
Both officers were charged in separate indictments by a Fulton County grand jury yesterday and charged together today by criminal information in federal court. Junnier resigned from APD in December 2006 and Smith resigned this week.
Both are cooperating in the prosecution of the third officer and an ongoing FBI-led investigation into alleged misconduct by other Atlanta police officers.
The third officer, Arthur Tesler, 40, of Acworth, Ga., was indicted by a Fulton County grand jury yesterday on charges of violation of oath of office by a public officer, false statements and false imprisonment under color of legal process. Tesler is on paid administrative leave from APD pending trial.
“The killing of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police officers was a horrible and unnecessary tragedy,” United States Attorney David E. Nahmias said. “While the police officers involved were attempting to rid the streets of drug dealers, their means toward that end violated their oath, the Constitution, and the civil rights of the citizens they are sworn to protect, and it was inevitable that one day someone would get seriously hurt. This conduct demands accountability.
“Beyond holding the officers responsible for their crimes, however, Ms. Johnston’s family has made clear that they want some good to come out of her death,” Nahmias said. “We are committed to working with the FBI to find out just how wide the culture of misconduct that led to this tragedy extends within APD and to bring any other officers who have violated the law to justice.”
On Nov. 21, 2006, Smith, Junnier and Tesler arrested an individual for drug possession. That individual told the officers that he had purchased crack cocaine from a man named “Sam” at a house that he later identified as 933 Neal Street and claimed that he had seen a kilogram of cocaine in that house earlier that day.
Junnier contacted a Confidential Reliable Informants, or CRI, to have the CRI attempt to make a purchase from 933 Neal Street, but the CRI did not have transportation. The officers did nothing else to corroborate or verify the information the person they had arrested provided.
Smith, Junnier and Tesler then obtained a search warrant for 933 Neal Street after Smith submitted a sworn affidavit to a magistrate judge falsely stating that Smith and Tesler had directed a CRI make a purchase of cocaine from 933 Neal Street, that the CRI was searched before the purchase, that the CRI purchased $50 of crack from a man named “Sam” and that a no knock warrant should be issued because the CRI stated that “Sam” had electronic surveillance equipment in the house, which “Sam” carefully monitored.
At about 6:40 p.m., Junnier, Smith, Tesler, and other narcotics officers attempted to execute the search warrant. Tesler was assigned to guard the back door.
As officers rammed open the front door of 933 Neal Street, Kathryn Johnson, an elderly woman who was the owner and only resident of the house, fired a single shot from a .38 caliber revolver through the door, which hit no one.
Junnier, Smith and four other officers returned fire, hitting Ms. Johnston with five or six shots, one of which was fatal. Ballistics and other forensic analysis are unable to establish which of the officers fired the fatal shot or the other shots.
Three officers, including Junnier, were injured by shots fired by other officers, or resulting shrapnel or debris, but all were released from the hospital by the following morning.
No other occupants or drugs were found at 933 Neal Street.
After the shooting, Smith planted three bags of marijuana, which the officers had seized somewhere else earlier that day, in the basement of the house, authorities said. Tesler filed a false APD incident report stating that a purchase of crack had been made at 933 Neal Street earlier that day, and Smith submitted two bags containing crack that falsely indicated the drugs were bought by an informant at 933 Neal Street.
The next day, Smith and another officer disposed of the remainder of the marijuana from which Smith had taken the planted marijuana, by throwing it down a sewer drain. Smith, Junnier and Tesler also met to fabricate a story that would explain the events leading to the shooting of Kathryn Johnston. Smith, Junnier and Tesler then recounted the fabricated story to APD homicide investigators.
The shooting of Mrs. Johnston “one of the most horrific tragedies to occur in our community,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said. “Moreover, our investigation showed that many of the practices that led to her death were common occurrences in this unit of the Atlanta Police Department.
“Cooperation between federal, state, county and local authorities has resulted in an unprecedented and swift dispensation of justice,” Howard said. “When this terrible crime occurred – and that’s what it was, a crime – we promised the Johnston family and our community that we would get to the bottom of this and let the chips fall where they may. These charges and sentences represent a fulfillment of that pledge. And we will continue to keep this commitment to all of our citizens.”