The work of an undercover FBI task force in North Georgia that exists to catch people responding to online offers for underage sex has come into question as federal authorities investigate the agent in charge.
FBI Special Agent Ken Hillman is named in a police investigation that led to the firing of Tom Evans, a Ringgold, Ga., police officer. The Ringgold Police Department's internal investigation said Hillman was leaving a bar with a local millionaire's wife last year and avoided arrest by convincing the responding officer to give him a ride. The internal affairs report also stated that the FBI is investigating Hillman.
He has been the chief of the Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which was made up of federal agents and officers from multiple local agencies including the Catoosa and Walker County sheriffs' offices.
The task force agents post on websites such as Craigslist, arranging meetings with people who believe they will be able to have sex with underage girls or boys. When the would-be child molesters show up, they're arrested and charged with sex crimes.
The internal affairs investigation involved Evans. The Times Free Press obtained the document under a Georgia Open Records Act request.
In the investigation, Angela Russell, the estranged wife of businessman Emerson Russell, said in interviews that she worked on the task force under Hillman.
Angela Russell is not a certified law enforcement officer in Georgia, Peace Officer Standards and Training records show. No local authorities contacted for this story could confirm that she was a task force member.
Several local attorneys now are questioning whether the FBI task force's investigations, which led to dozens of arrests in North Georgia counties, has been compromised.
Ringgold defense attorney McCracken Poston, who first alerted the FBI to the allegations against Hillman, said he learned that Angela Russell may have been posing as an undercover officer.
Poston said he reported that information to the FBI and told its representative that civilians were being allowed to ride with the FBI task force on arrest stings and agents reportedly were letting those civilians slap handcuffs on the surprised suspects.
"[These allegations] definitely damage the credibility of this task force and everything it's doing," said defense attorney Shawn Bible, who represents several suspects arrested recently by the FBI task force.
Neither the FBI's Atlanta office nor Hillman responded to requests for comment.
Lookout Mountain District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said he is aware only of an FBI investigation that is personal but doesn't relate to the task force.
"I'm not aware of anything that would jeopardize any cases," he said Friday afternoon.
Franklin said the task force has allowed civilians to work with its agents on certain tasks, such as making a phone call pretending to be a juvenile. But he said he wasn't aware of any allegations of Angela Russell's involvement with the task force.
Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk said he learned about a month ago that allegations were being made. He had one officer working part time with the task force, and he pulled that officer off that duty, he said. He said the task force now is not operating, as far as he knows.
Sisk said no one in his office has complained to him about inappropriate behavior on the task force since he became sheriff Jan. 1, and he wasn't aware of anything questionable going on last year when he was chief deputy.
Catoosa County Superior Court records show more than a dozen pending criminal cases dating back to last summer that came out of task force stings.
Court documents reveal Hillman was the lead investigator in most of the cases. In many of the indictments, prosecutors tell the grand jury Hillman was posing as a man called "daddy K" who was trying to set up a meeting between the potential suspect and an underage girl.
Angela Russell's name does not appear on any of the indictments.
On Friday, Russell declined through her attorney to comment for this story.
Several defense attorneys with clients in these pending cases said they plan to file motions that would force prosecutors to reveal anything inappropriate that may have been going on involving the task force.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...