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Some of the trash volunteers collected at the 2018 clean-up in Brunswick.

Action likely in tainted narcotics cases
 wwolfe  / 

Hope Cassada told the court she never saw her husband come out of a motel room with a confidential informant and never accused her husband’s fellow officers of possibly cheating on their wives with informants.

That was only part of the new information coming to light in Glynn County Superior Court regarding alleged misconduct by James Cassada and other members of the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team and the Glynn County Police Department.

Taking the stand Friday afternoon, Hope Cassada said that on Nov. 15, 2017, the girlfriend of one of James Cassada’s confidential informants — “out of the blue” — reached out to her on Facebook. The girlfriend said she believed the CI, Brittni Lowrey, was having an inappropriate relationship with James based on the texts the girlfriend saw in Lowrey’s phone.

This was late in the evening, and Hope was outside her residence when she talked with the girlfriend. Once the conversation was over, Hope walked in and confronted James with the information, leading to him leaving the house for two days.

Hope Cassada testified she was concerned for two reasons — one was the implications if the claims were true, and the other was she found it concerning that the significant other of an informant was reaching out to the spouse of a law enforcement officer.

She called GBNET Capt. David Hassler and told him about it. Hope also confirmed she talked with other spouses of other officers, and Lt. David Haney. Hope Cassada said James and Haney were close, and on Nov. 16, she said she vaguely informed Haney of the allegations over the phone, and wanted to make sure James was OK. Later, Hope said Haney told her James was fine, and she asked him to talk with James about getting him into rehab for alcohol abuse treatment.

Later that day, the girlfriend gets in touch again and informs Hope about what occurred Nov. 8 at a Brunswick bar and restaurant between her, Lowrey and James Cassada.

James Feller, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified earlier Friday as to what GBNET officers told him happened Nov. 8. The composite story was that around half a dozen or more members of GBNET were on the scene conducting an operation because they learned that establishment had a reputation for drug sales.

While James Cassada and other agents were inside — undercover, in plain clothes — Lowrey and her girlfriend walk in. The girlfriend was aware Cassada was having sex with Lowrey and understandably wasn’t pleased with it, so she confronted him. Not long after, the GBNET operation was cancelled because their cover was all but blown, and the girlfriend yelled as Cassada as the officers left the establishment.

The GBNET officers were instructed not to use Lowrey anymore, and paperwork was filed to that extent, but nothing was noted on that paperwork about the reason it was done.

During another phone call with the girlfriend, Hope Cassada said Lowrey also got on the phone, “sort of apologized,” “deflected responsibility” and generally blamed James Cassada for what went on.

In the internal affairs investigation document created by GCPD Chief of Staff Brian Scott, Investigator Stephan Lowrey, Brittni’s brother and a GBNET officer, said what she told him. He informed Scott that Brittni explained to him that Cassada “was not a good person” and was not who Stephan Lowrey thought he was.

Stephan Lowrey said he was at the Nov. 8 operation when his sister and her girlfriend walked into the restaurant. He told Scott the couple got into a loud argument, the relationship with Cassada was mentioned, and Brittni accused her girlfriend of being jealous.

Lowrey was the only informant involved with Cassada that Feller was aware of when he started his investigation, but he testified that, in that process, he found out about Cassada’s relationship with Misty McDaniel. She was a target of Operation Déjà Vu, a multi-agency anti-narcotics operation that was announced to the public in November 2018. In previous testimony and in Feller’s statements Friday, it was disclosed that GBNET Investigator Dustin Davis had an active warrant for her arrest on a charge of selling methamphetamine, but Cassada had Davis pull the warrant because if the arrest became public, it would cause problems between him and his wife.

Policy & Dustin Simpson

Also testifying Friday was Mike Lawson, a Glynn County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He served in GBNET both as a Brunswick Police officer and in the GCPD, covering a period of around eight years, ending in 2009.

Under direct examination by District Attorney Jackie Johnson, Lawson went over matters of policy, like not associating with known felons unless it’s a required part of your work on the job, the credibility of the evidentiary chain of custody and behavior entering other jurisdictions.

GBNET officers are accused of working outside Glynn County, where they have no police powers and are like anyone else under the law. Lawson said that even with sheriff’s deputies, who have statewide jurisdiction, it’s proper protocol to make local law enforcement aware if you’re working a case in their jurisdiction. He said otherwise it puts officers at risk. Lawson said he was aware of GBNET officers working outside their jurisdiction in Brantley and Camden counties without notifying local law enforcement, including once on a matter in Camden in which Camden authorities were already involved.

Moving on, he testified that a CI came to him in May 2018 with a photo of GBNET Investigator Dustin Simpson, saying he was hanging out with Brian Highsmith — who was convicted of a felony meth offense in federal court — and other drug dealers. A couple days earlier, Lawson said he and two other ATF agents were with Davis working on other matters when Davis told him GBNET was closing in on a dealer on St. Simons Island, but had to back off when they found out Simpson was friends with him.

When Lawson was talking with Scott and GCPD Chief John Powell later that month, he let them know what he was told. Information flowed the other way when they spoke with Lawson about an incident with Simpson and Highsmith at a Blythe Island Highway bar. Bar management saw Highsmith was carrying a firearm and attempted to do something about it when, Lawson was told, Simpson flashed his credentials and essentially said it was OK.

However, it’s a state and federal crime for a convicted felon to possess a gun. It’s punishable in Georgia by one to five years in prison, and the federal charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. If the allegations were true, Highsmith would also be violating the terms of his supervised release, which is one reason why Lawson, as a federal agent, would be notified of the information.

Lawson said Scott asked him if he was going to do anything with that, and Lawson said he told them that the first thing that should be done is an internal affairs investigation, with the GCPD bringing in an independent investigator to do the job.

The Lowe Incident

While Friday’s testimony was going on, McIntosh County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy George Trexler emailed The News concerning testimony Wednesday by Powell, regarding records the MCSO requested on two traffic stops by GCPD officers of MCSO Col. Danny Lowe the evening of Jan. 4, when Lowe was in a MCSO vehicle.

Trexler said Powell is mistaken in his testimony if he believes GCPD and Glynn-Brunswick 911 turned over all the records they needed to turn over. Trexler said he hand-delivered an open records request to Scott on Jan. 7, asking for body cam video of both stops and all reports, texts, communications records, evidence collected and anything else. Later, Trexler sent a text asking for a copy of the GCPD body cam policy.

The next day, Scott turned over two discs with video of the two stops, said GB-911 would need to be contacted about communications records, and said there were no reports, notes, texts or anything else available. Trexler said Scott didn’t provide a copy of the body cam policy. Trexler also said that while the first video appeared complete, the second looked edited, partially deleted or otherwise incomplete.

On Feb. 19, Trexler hand-delivered an open records request to GB-911 Director Steve Usher, requesting all communications records from 9-11 p.m. on Jan. 4 that involve the stops on Lowe’s vehicle. He said he’s yet to receive a response from Usher, which is a violations of the state open records law.

Trexler said that as a last resort, March 4 he hand-delivered a request for assistance to Glynn County Attorney Aaron Mumford, explaining the partial response from GCPD and the lack of response from GB-911. He said Mumford called him and said he’d obtain the records requested. However, a month later, Trexler said that’s not the case.

“Since there were multiple G.C.P.D. officers on the scene there should be body cam video footage from each officer,” Trexler wrote. “I also have not received the C.A.D. (communications) records or the G.C.P.D. policy on body cam usage. In other words, all I ever received from my Opens Records Request January 7, 2019, was body cam video from the first traffic stop and partial body cam from Officer Varnadoe on the second stop.”

He concluded, “Why it is so difficult to comply with my request leads a reasonable person to conclude G.C.P.D. does not want the events concerning the harassment of Colonel Lowe the evening of January 4, 2019, disclosed.”

Going Forward

There is unlikely to be a final result from the superior court hearings soon. Johnson requested an expedited transcript, but transcripts can take a long time to prepare. She said they’re still struggling with the scope of this matter, but both the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office will be working toward compiling a complete list of the cases that are affected, and figuring out to the extent they’re affected by the actions of several GBNET officers.

From there, they will also determine what is the best method to remedy the misconduct involved in the investigations. Once that happens, the offices will work on drafting a document on the findings of fact and conclusions of law, come back to the court and present the judge with an idea of how things are supposed to proceed.

Brunswick library celebrates renovation with grand opening event
 lmcdonald  / 

Local musicians performed. Community members clapped and cheered. And nearly everyone made sure to vocalize their awe at the general splendor.

It was a a little loud Friday in the Brunswick library.

Geri Mullis, director of Marshes of Glynn Libraries, had to shush the large crowd that gathered Friday evening inside the library, to commence the ribbon-cutting celebration of the newly-opened and recently-renovated facility in downtown Brunswick.

“Shhh, remember, it’s still a library, people,” Mullis joked, getting the crowd to quiet down so the ceremony, held during First Friday downtown, could begin.

Community leaders, families, elected officials, library staff and other community members came out for the event and nearly filled the new conference room space that was added during the renovation.

The multi-million-dollar project, which began in September and wrapped up just days ago, also included a relocation of the library’s entrance, the addition of a catering kitchen to go with the expansive meeting space, a reconfiguration of the book shelves and a new interior design.

Mike Martin, chair of the Library Board of Trustees, thanked the renovation project’s many supporters. Those included the Glynn County Commission, state representatives, library staff and local taxpayers.

“If you’re a taxpayer, you’re a donor to the library,” he said. “There’s some people here who made extra contributions.”

The library ran a “Turning the Page” fundraising campaign throughout the renovation.

A $2 million state grant helped fund the renovation, and Glynn County paid an additional $1.5 million for the work.

Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, said he threw his support behind the project in part because he saw how much of a community asset the Brunswick library is for local residents.

“When we were asked at the legislature to help get that money, one of the issues for me was, is this a library that is vibrant, that is being used, that kids are using, that the community is using?” Jones said. “And the answer to that was a very easy and simple and enthusiastic ‘yes.’”

The large turnout for the library’s grand opening event reflected the library’s significant role in the community, Jones said.

The addition of the 400-seat meeting space, the catering facilities, the new study rooms and other improvements will make the library an event greater asset locally, he said.

“This facility has become not just a library but a multi-function facility that the entire community can benefit from,” he said.

All who spoke during the ceremony made sure to express their gratitude to Mullis for her leadership throughout the renovation.

“Geri, you ought to be congratulated,” Jones said. “You’ve got a great staff.”

Apollos leave their mark on Camden County
 gjackson  / 

The announcement earlier this week that the Alliance of American Football was closing operations with some regular season and playoff games still remaining to be played caught many fans by surprise.

Though Camden County is 180 miles away from the closest AAF team in Orlando, Fla., the news was also bittersweet.

The Orlando Apollos set up their practice facilities at Camden County High School this season because players were not covered under worker compensation laws in Florida. The players stayed in a hotel in Jacksonville, Fla., and took buses to the high school to work out in the weight room and practice on the artificial turf field.

Camden head football coach Bob Sphire said the agreement with the team to use the high school facilities worked as well as he could have hoped.

“Everything was set up so it was neutral and non-intrusive for the school,” he said. “There was no conflict with spring sports. The students always have top priority.”

The players worked out in the weight room at the high school on Sundays and at night when students were done with their workouts.

Not everything the team brought is going back to Orlando, however. The team renovated the high school’s laundry facility and agreed to donate an industrial-strength washer and dryer to the school as part of the agreement to use the practice facilities.

The team also replaced the lockers in the locker room and did other improvements at the school.

Sphire said he also had the opportunity to shadow Apollos head coach Steve Spurrier during two practices and talk with some of the assistant coaches.

There are similarities in what he is trying to accomplish with his players and what Spurrier did with his players, Sphire said.

“What was really good was reenforcing what we do here,” he said.

Sphire also had an opportunity to interact with some of the Apollos players. They were especially impressed with the school’s weight room

“They raved about the facilities,” he said. “I talked to several players, and they couldn’t get over the weight room. Some said it was better than the ones they had in college.”

James Coughlin, director of the Camden County Joint Development Authority, said the team had a positive economic impact on local businesses. Some of the local merchants provided catering, dry cleaning and other services.

“The came to town and did lots of business with local merchants,” he said.

And, though the season ended prematurely, it’s obvious the Apollos didn’t let the practice arrangements impact their play on the field. The team had the league’s best record and was declared champion by some betting sites that agreed to pay gamblers who picked Orlando to win the league championship.

Sphire said the arrangement worked so well that he would not have a problem if another professional team wanted to use the facility under a similar arrangement.

“It did work out well with our schedule,” he said. “Word got out how well things worked out here.”

Coughlin agreed, saying the Apollos practicing in Camden County was a positive experience for everyone involved.

Matt York/AP 

Final Four runs don’t mask problems in college sports

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl answers questions after a practice session for the Final Four on Thursday in Minneapolis.

Climate crisis committee holds first hearing
 wwolfe  / 

The new U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held its first hearing Thursday, as four young people testified as to how climate change has affected their communities, what threats presently exist and what they want to see happen.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, is one of the Republicans appointed to the committee. The committee itself is a priority of the new House Democratic majority. Carter opened his comments by thanking the panel of young leaders for testifying.

“I mean that sincerely — we appreciate your interest in this,” Carter said. “This is encouraging to have all of you here and testifying on such an important subject. It is important. Climate change is real. Our climate has been changing since day one. And, protecting our environment is real. We understand that, and that’s what we want to do here.”

Carter’s questions went to Lindsay Cooper, a policy analyst in the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, because she graduated not long ago from Tulane, and he has a grandchild living near the campus. Carter started with asking what spurred Cooper to get involved.

“I’ve always been very interested in the outdoors,” Cooper said. “I grew up with two brothers, and our lives were digging holes and mudfights. That kind of was my background, and when Hurricane Katrina hit, I wasn’t entirely sure of what the implications were, because I was at such a young age, in the fourth or fifth grade. But, just seeing how that affected my community and those around me has had a lasting impression on me, far beyond that time when I was that age.

“And so when I went to Tulane University, I got invested in the Tulane Green Club, and I got invested in the local nonprofit, and it really opened my eyes to the issues that we’re facing in just that one city. I knew that if New Orleans was having such strong implications of climate change, how much more our coast, and how much more our nation and world?”

Carter said New Orleans and the surrounding areas are in an interesting situation with the wetlands and oil and gas production.

“So, I think it’s an interesting example, if you will, of what’s happening out there and what we could be doing, what we’re doing right, what we could be doing better,” Carter said.

He also asked Cooper about work by the Louisiana Governor’s Office with the private sector on environmental protection.

“As I mentioned before, a lot of our revenue comes from offshore as well as onshore drilling … in Louisiana, and I see this as a perfect partnership, because we could not do the restoration at the scale we do without this,” Cooper said. “We’ve completed 111 projects already. We have 76 more on the way on our coast, and this could not be possible without utilizing the resources that are already there, and knowing the impact that it’s having on our area.”

The other person testifying from a Southern coastal state was Chris Suggs, a University of North Carolina student who has been active in his community basically since he was old enough to do so.

Suggs, who is deeply connected to his hometown of Kinston, and launched a group — Kinston Teens — in 2014 to effect change in the city, spoke to the committee about the struggles of poor communities that get hit with severe weather.

Kinston, located on the Neuse River in Eastern North Carolina, withstood a 500-year flood in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd, which resulted in the federal government helping people relocate from the Lincoln City neighborhood and essentially wiping it from the earth. Concrete barriers stand to block street access to what now looks like forest carved into city blocks.

Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, in 2016 and 2018, caused two more 500-year floods and devastation across the city, county and region.

Suggs said in his statement, “For me, the saddest thing about these recurring natural disasters that are exacerbated by climate change, is that the communities that are the most affected — like mine — are often the communities that have already been hit the hardest by all of society’s other problems. You have poor, rural communities that are completely underwater or get cut off from their access to food, hospitals, and medical supplies.

“You have communities that rely heavily on the farming industry just devastated by these storms, causing farmers, migrant workers and their families to lose income while the farms are underwater. And you have predominantly poor communities, black communities and housing projects that were built in the flood plains — because those were the only places they were allowed — that become completely submerged. That’s the story of Kinston, and much of Eastern North Carolina.”

Suggs said his generation has no time to waste, and they need action.