TO SAY a lot happened in Savannah last week would be the understatement of the year.
Alderwoman Mary Osborne was mugged on her front porch.
After a candidate forum, County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz allegedly opened his jacket to show his handgun to Shaundra McKeithen, who’s challenging his wife Estella for City Council.
At another forum, Mayor Edna Jackson wore a corsage made of dollar bills, a tone-deaf gaffe explained away as a cultural birthday tradition. (An explanation which didn’t stop her campaign from immediately retiring the tradition, at least through the election.)
And of course the usual variety of relentless over-the-top gun violence, now painfully routine.
But for me, by far the most important development was the proverbial Other Shoe dropping in the long-running saga of police corruption and crime in Savannah.
It dropped in the form of a massive racketeering civil lawsuit against some of the biggest names in recent Savannah political history:
Former City Manager Michael Brown. Former County Manager Russ Abolt. Former County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis. Former Interim Police Chief Julie Tolbert. Former Police Chief Willie Lovett, sardonically described in the complaint as “a citizen of Georgia who is temporarily residing in a federal prison in West Virginia.”
And other defendants, mostly former police officers.
There’s even a dead defendant: former Internal Affairs head Andre Oliver, who committed suicide, I'm told right after he got off the phone from someone involved with the department.
(How can you sue a dead person? The suit says Oliver’s estate hasn’t been probated. Remember, this is a civil suit.)
Because of the remarkable scope of the lawsuit—four plaintiffs, 15 defendants, and a narrative going back to the mid-‘90s—it has potential to be the Rosetta Stone, the Holy Grail, linking the days of the Ricky Jivens crime syndicate and today’s Willie Lovett-era police corruption.
Brought by the firm of attorney William Claiborne, the lawsuit was long-rumored for over a year. I’d pushed for some kind of investigation into the drug allegations many times, I thought mostly to deaf ears.
I have no idea if it will go anywhere, but it is an extremely interesting and newsworthy development to say the least.
The reason this could be so important is because this lawsuit could provide the missing link between political/police corruption at the very top level, and today’s extraordinary volume of violence and illegal drugs at the street level.
Is the lawsuit cynically timed to come right before the election? Of course it is!
Does Claiborne likely have future political aspirations? Of course he might! (He already ran for DA once.)
Is it possible the entire lawsuit has zero merit? Of course it might!
But just bringing the lawsuit is a public service in and of itself. It's all a very complicated subject with multiple points of view and the lawsuit doesn't touch on all of them. But it's a start.
Much of the recent controversy focuses on the Counter Narcotics Team (CNT) and police Internal Affairs.
Two of the four plaintiffs are the Delatorre brothers, Peter and Michael. They allege they were ousted from CNT essentially because they wouldn’t go along with the Lovett-enabled corruption on CNT that compromised drug investigations.
The complaint alleges that “the managers of both the County and the City were key participants in the furtherance of the criminal activity of the corrupt enterprise,” referring to allegations that Brown, Abolt, Lovett, and others conspired to effectively guarantee the shipment of illegal narcotics to Savannah streets—and hence associated gun violence.
The Delatorre brothers say they met with former interim Chief Julie Tolbert —installed after Lovett’s resignation—and told her “they feared for their lives if they had to work alongside armed officers whom they knew to be corrupt and had reported as being corrupt.”
Michael Delatorre alleges that during his exit interview, Chief Tolbert said “she knew that Lovett’s actions as police chief were wrong. But she said she felt she could do nothing about Lovett’s bad acts.”
Michael Brown is alleged to have told former Chief Michael Berkow, who wanted to fire Lovett, that “elected officials in the City of Savannah protected Lovett, and Brown refused to allow Berkow to fire Lovett.”
The suit also alleges that during Lovett’s tenure there was a “criminal organization” within SCMPD “that included multiple officers and individuals within local government... ‘selling high grade marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy pills in large amounts.’”
The suit says corrupt officers were remnants of the so-called “Savannah 11” ring which were untouched by that investigation in the mid-90s.
The suit says an informant told CNT that “corrupt officers inside the Savannah Police Department were not charged during the ‘Savannah 11’ investigation. The informant said these officers had been promoted in the department and now held positions of power.”
Central to their efforts, apparently, was compromising the role of Internal Affairs, which worked to cover up the corruption.
How bad was the corruption, and what was the effect on the streets?
Another officer named, Eric Henderson, is accused of using unmarked police vehicles to “distribute multiple ounces of powder and crack cocaine on Savannah’s Westside and to protect drug dealers on Savannah’s Westside from arrest.”
What is the most drug-and-violence scarred part of town today? The Westside.
You don’t have to be a genius to connect the dots...with drugs, with shootings, with Council members getting mugged, with Commissioners intimidating with guns, with clueless mayors.
It’s all maybe not as random as some would have us believe.
The unknown is the most frightening thing of all. If all this lawsuit accomplishes is shining light on the previously unknown—and making our fear more manageable—it will have accomplished a great deal.