published Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Feds indict former Murray County Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran, allege he abused power

GUILTY PLEAS SO FAR

• Former Murray County Sheriff's Office Capt.Michael Henderson pled guilty to a federal obstruction charge, and on Oct. 30, 2013, was sentenced to a year in prison with a year on probation.

• Former Murray County sheriff's deputy Josh Greeson pled guilty to a federal obstruction charge and on Sept. 25, 2013, was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

• Clifford "C.J." Joyce pled guilty to conspiring to distribute a controlled substance and on Dec. 13, 2013, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Federal prosecutors believe they can prove that the abuse of power in Chatsworth, Ga., started at the top.

According to a federal indictment issued Wednesday, former Murray County Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran engineered a frame-job against citizen Angela Garmley after she complained that he had asked her to be his mistress and solicited her for sex in his chambers in exchange for a favorable ruling. That claim spurred an ethics investigation that led Cochran to resign.

Two Murray County sheriff's officers and Cochran's former tenant pleaded guilty last year to their parts in the conspiracy and pointed the finger at Cochran. Now, almost two years after Cochran's resignation, federal investigators say they have the evidence to back up those claims.

"This latest indictment brings to light additional details of an orchestrated scheme full of false allegations lodged against one citizen but, in the end, costing the careers and reputations of those public servants making them," said Britt Johnson, special agent in charge of the FBI's Atlanta office.

The federal indictment handed down Wednesday also revealed allegations of further abuses of power by Cochran. Prosecutors claim in the six-count indictment against Cochran that for almost four years he abused his authority with his own employees by sexually assaulting one female employee and searching through another female employee's cellphone for pictures.

Cochran's attorney, Page Pate, said no one is surprised by the corruption charges involving Garmley, but he was shocked by prosecutors' accusations concerning former employees.

"We think those charges are ridiculous," Pate said.

Today, the 44-year-old Cochran will be arraigned in Rome, Ga., where he plans to plead not guilty to charges that include: conspiracy against rights, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and tampering with a witness. Cochran, who could face up to 20 years in prison, has maintained his innocence even as he resigned from office in August 2012.

Cochran and Garmley met in April 2012, when she came to him asking him to issue a warrant for the arrest of several people whom she said had beaten her. It was then that she claimed the 44-year-old judge texted her to come to his office "wearing a dress and no panties." She admitted that she sent Cochran a picture of herself in her underwear because she thought she didn't have a choice. Cochran issued the warrant.

In mid-July 2012 Garmley complained, launching a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation shortly before Cochran was re-elected to a third term in office. Garmley was a key witness in that case, and federal prosecutors said Wednesday that is why Cochran conspired to have her arrested on false drug charges to discredit her testimony.

Cochran called multiple officers to deliver a "tip" that a citizen was carrying drugs in her car, prosecutors said. Subsequently, on Aug. 12, 2013, Clifford "J.C." Joyce, who lived in a trailer Cochran owned, planted a metal tin that contained five packets of methamphetamine under the fender of Garmley's car.

Two days later, Murray County sheriff's's deputy Josh Greeson pulled Garmley over and several officers searched her car. When the officers found nothing, Greeson called Capt. Michael Henderson, Cochran's cousin, who told Greeson where to find the drugs, prosecutors said. Garmley and two other passengers were arrested.

But the charges were dismissed when Joyce admitted to the local district attorney's office that he had planted the drugs. In an effort to cover up the frame job, federal prosecutors said, Cochran tried to persuade a witness to give false information to law enforcement.

Pate said the fact that it took the U.S. attorney's office nearly two years to indict Cochran proves the prosecution's case is weak.

Civil attorneys who have sued Cochran on behalf of Garmley and multiple county employees said they were pleased that prosecutors have finally connected the dots. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy threw out Garmley's lawsuit, reasoning that Cochran had judicial immunity.

Garmley's attorney, Stuart James, said he plans to refile the civil lawsuit on the strength of the indictment.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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