MOLES. DRUGS. Cellphones. Tip-offs. Informants. Dirty cops.
It's The Departed without bagpipes.
The bizarre tale of corruption within the Savannah/Chatham Metropolitan Police Department (SCMPD) and the Counter Narcotics Team (CNT) under former Police Chief Willie Lovett really does read like a film script. The jaw-dropping true crime intrigue is exhaustively chronicled in an independent report released late last Friday.
It's an engaging, and enraging, read. See for yourself here.
After spending some quality time with the nearly 200-page report over the weekend, I wanted to break down some of the more sordid aspects which didn't make it onto local TV or in the local daily paper, which strangely opined that there's "little shock value" in the report.
There's actually plenty of shock value, and it's worth a much closer look to see how serious the situation really was, and in many ways still is.
The tale centers on Malik Khaalis, an SCMPD officer working with the Counter Narcotics Team, a semi-autonomous elite unit which utilizes hand-picked SCMPD personnel on a rotating basis. For fans of The Departed, Khaalis is closest to the Matt Damon character, except apparently much less bright.
In 2008 CNT began investigating a drug trafficking ring based on tips from an informant known only as "T-2." The ring was run out of Coastal State Prison near Garden City. According to T-2, a key figure was James Williams, a Coastal correctional officer and brother of SCMPD officer Willet Williams.
When CNT realized the Coastal investigation was going dry, they began looking at why. They noticed Khaalis had a pattern of excusing himself from the monitoring station, "the wire room," at crucial times — a pattern so evident that coworkers gave him the nickname "Walk About Jones."
The Drug Enforcement Agency was also on the James Williams/Coastal case and had similar suspicions. The DEA got Willet Williams' cellphone records and found seven calls between him and Khaalis between 5:08 p.m. and 5:13 p.m. on April 16, 2009, precisely when Khaalis was absent from the wire room.
Three calls also happened between officer Williams and his brother James an hour later the same day, precisely when James showed signs of suddenly realizing he was being surveilled by CNT.
Meanwhile CNT was on another case involving a suspect named Josh Varner. Khaalis again "developed a disturbing pattern of disappearing from the wire room without authorization, on at least one occasion immediately subsequent to... a tap that was about to go live on Varner," the report says.
Phone records from that time period show Varner was told to "drop" his cellphone, i.e., discard it because it was tapped.
This happened two more times.
CNT Director Roy Harris set up a sting on his own people to "find the rat," in Departed parlance. Bogus info was given to Khaalis that a fourth wiretap was on Varner.
Sure enough, right before the fake tap was supposedly going live, Varner again "dropped" his cellphone.
Later, CNT got info that a Varner crony was to meet a woman, supposedly about a drug deal. When he heard this, Khaalis again excused himself and was then heard over the police radio asking a squad car to pull over the woman, obviously to interrupt the meeting and protect the associate.
That's not all: According to the report, on three occasions Khaalis retrieved cellphones admitted as evidence and deleted their call histories!
Like I said, Khaalis might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. But at this point you do have to ask, what else would he possibly have to do to get fired?
The FBI explored a corruption case against Khaalis, but declined it and bounced it back to SCMPD Internal Affairs.
What did Internal Affairs do? They suspended Khaalis with pay — and during his suspension he was allowed to apply for a successful promotion to sergeant!
Khaalis subsequently failed a lie detector test — and was then returned to active duty directly by Lovett, who later said he "did not believe in polygraph exams."
Meanwhile, nothing was done to officer Williams, who only lost his job last Friday.
In mid-2010, Major Dean Fagerstrom was removed from Internal Affairs and replaced by Capt. Hank Wiley, who the report says "was widely viewed as being very close to Chief Willie Lovett."
Internal Affairs then closed the Khaalis case, much to the chagrin of CNT's Harris, who by charter had no direct power to fire Khaalis. Harris was reduced to sending a "sharply worded memorandum" to Chatham County Manager Russ Abolt, to no avail.
Most revealing, three highly-regarded CNT members who were instrumental in uncovering Khaalis' double-cross were suddenly pulled from CNT and put on regular street patrol, by "special order" of Chief Lovett himself.
It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Khaalis was possibly protecting drug activity and was possibly protected in turn by our former police chief.
The big question, one the report doesn't touch, is: Who protected the chief?
Lovett's boss for most of his tenure and during the entire Williams/Khaalis case, former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, left town a year ago in disgrace over other issues. Lovett, of course, suddenly resigned/retired this past September with full pension amid sexual harassment charges.
They left behind a real mess. Incredibly, Khaalis still has his job, though on leave without pay. Harris and Wiley have retired. Fagerstrom's back at Internal Affairs, but is suing the City for discrimination in a separate personnel matter. Chatham County DA Meg Heap has referred the Internal Affairs fiasco to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, though she admits that much is now beyond the statute of limitations.
New City Manager Stephanie Cutter vows to "leave no stone unturned." Great, but easier said than done, especially when you don't know which other major players might still be under which rocks.
It reads like a film script, but real lives were impacted by the drugs and violence brought to Savannah's streets for years, apparently under the protection of rogue cops.
And it looks like there's a long slog ahead before this movie has a happy ending.
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