published Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Lookout Mountain district attorney: FBI suspends former sex sting task force leader

District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin
District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

An embattled FBI agent whose actions may have jeopardized a series of child sex sting cases has been suspended.

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said Tuesday afternoon that he received a phone call informing him that FBI officials suspended Special Agent Ken Hillman on Friday. Franklin would not say who told him about the suspension.

Asked about Hillman's status with the bureau Tuesday, FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett declined to comment.

Hillman was head of the Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a group of law enforcement officers who chatted undercover on websites like Craigslist. Much like in the "To Catch a Predator" TV show, the officers were supposed to identify people who were interested in having sex with children.

But since last February, Hillman has faced a number of allegations -- allegations that could cost him his job, and allegations that could ruin the prosecution of several pending task force cases.

At least twice, Hillman used his badge to get out of potential drunken-driving arrests. In 2009, a Catoosa County sheriff's deputy said he stopped Hillman, who appeared to be intoxicated. But Hillman wasn't arrested, and a detective took him home.

Then, in 2012, a Ringgold police officer stopped Hillman as he tried to drive away from a local bar. He was allegedly drunk, and the officer drove Hillman and two accompanying women across state lines to Chattanooga.

Hillman has also been accused of impropriety because of his relationship with Angela Russell, the estranged wife of millionaire Emerson Russell. Hillman and Angela Russell allegedly had an affair, and defense attorneys say the agent let her chat undercover with the suspects -- a violation of procedure that could invalidate some of the task force's arrests.

Ten Catoosa and Dade county criminal cases have been on hold for about a year as defense attorneys and prosecutors wait for the FBI to finish its investigation into Hillman. Defense attorneys say they need access to Hillman's personnel file, as well as the computers that task force members -- and, potentially, Angela Russell -- used when chatting with the suspects.

To get access to Hillman's file and the computers, defense attorneys will try to prove in a pre-trial hearing that the information is relevant to their cases. The pre-trial hearing won't happen until the FBI finishes its investigation of Hillman. The hearing was first scheduled for last August; then it got moved to February; and now it has been moved to April 21.

Public Defender David Dunn, who represents four of the 10 suspects waiting for the pre-trial hearing, did not want to speculate about what Tuesday's news means. Until Dunn can see what the FBI has found during its internal investigation, and until he knows whether Hillman will be charged with any crimes, the attorney can't predict how Hillman's actions might affect his clients.

"I'm pleased to see that the FBI is progressing in this investigation and that they're taking the allegation seriously," he said Tuesday. "We're looking forward to seeing how this development progresses and what effect it might have on our cases."

On Saturday, the assistant U.S. attorney overseeing the potential criminal prosecution of Hillman said the investigation is not finished. William Witherspoon, a prosecutor out of the Department of Justice's South Carolina office, only started working on the case a month ago.

Before mid-January, Atlanta-based federal prosecutors were assigned to the case, but Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C, recused those prosecutors, who used to work closely with Hillman.

"At this time," Witherspoon wrote to Judge Grant Brantley on Saturday, "our investigation is still ongoing."

Brantley, a Cobb County judge who is overseeing the pre-trial hearing in April, said Tuesday that he had not been told whether Hillman was suspended. Beyond the fact that the investigation is "ongoing," he doesn't know what specifically is happening in this case.

"For the life of me," Brantley said, "I don't know what's taking so long."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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