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Court Order: GBNET evidence, officers' testimony questionable

  • 9 min to read

Any one scandal, broken wide, could have meant the end of the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team. What it took was a year-old interview of a former confidential informant that revealed the loose string, unraveling the decades-old police unit, and putting into jeopardy convictions of 75 or more people.

According to a court order issued Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Roger Lane, there’s reasonable belief that statements, beyond a certain date, of at least five current and former members of the Glynn County Police Department are untrustworthy.

Lane’s order, granting Gary Allen Whittle the ability to withdraw his guilty plea in a related matter, goes into activity within GBNET over two years regarding behavior that could be categorized in different instances as unethical, unprofessional or illegal.

The order, submitted jointly by the offices for the district attorney and the circuit public defender, states there is “impeaching information” within the meaning of accepted case law to question what those five officers have said or will say.

This sort of information “may include but is not strictly limited to: (a) specific instances of conduct of a witness for the purpose of attacking the witness’ credibility or character for truthfulness; (b) evidence in the form of opinion or reputation as to a witness’ character for truthfulness; (c) prior inconsistent statements; and (d) information that may be used to suggest that a witness is biased,” according to the Justice Department.

That covers statements from former GCPD Officer James Cassada since Jan. 4, 2017; former Capt. David Hassler since Nov. 15, 2017; Lt. David Haney since Nov. 16, 2017; Officer John Dustin Simpson since May 9, 2018; and Officer Dustin Davis since Nov. 7, 2018.

Lane’s order goes through, page by page, information discovered through investigation and court testimony that led everyone to this point.

The string

GCPD Officer Meredith Tolley was watching a video Jan. 30 of an interview of confidential GBNET informant, Misty McDaniel, from Feb. 4, 2018, in which McDaniel talked about sexual relations and drug use with a GBNET officer. Tolley previously heard from Davis that Cassada’s wife caught Cassada coming from a local motel with an informant, so she reported what she heard on the video to Davis and Officer Mikey Davis.

The three took the information to Assistant District Attorney Liberty Stewart. She told them to report it up the chain of command at GBNET, and the matter eventually made its way to GCPD Chief John Powell, who called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The informants

The GBI sat down with McDaniel on Feb. 5, and the investigation took off from there. GBNET records indicate Cassada signed up McDaniel as a CI and was her handler beginning Feb. 14, 2014, and that GBNET used her in controlled narcotics buys three times in 2017.

McDaniel said that in the summer of 2017, she met Cassada in the Home Depot parking lot to smoke methamphetamine, and that he provided her at times with meth. She said she got together with Cassada at a Brunswick bar for drinks several months later, and Cassada gave her $250, but it wasn’t for sex.

However, she said they did later go to a motel off Perry Lane Road to have sex and smoke meth. The GBI obtained a receipt detailing that Cassada paid for two nights at this motel — Nov. 15 and 16, 2017. Cassada resigned during the GBI investigation and did not speak with the GBI about McDaniel.

Roughly a week before, at that same Brunswick bar, GBNET was in the middle of an undercover operation when another CI that Cassada signed up, Brittni Lowrey, entered the establishment with her girlfriend. The girlfriend, noticing Cassada, yelled at him while saying he was sleeping with informants and cheating on his wife and generally calling him a bad person. The confrontation necessitated a quick abandonment of GBNET’s plans for the evening.

Lowrey, who was also the sister of a GBNET officer, talked with the GBI on Feb. 7, and said she “engaged in sex twice with Officer Cassada in his county vehicle under the Sidney Lanier Bridge.” She also said she never obtained narcotics from him, but he once asked her to get a gram of cocaine for him, which she did not.

GBNET records show Cassada brought Lowrey in as a CI on May 18, 2017, and GBNET used her several times in controlled narcotics purchases, until the incident at the bar in November.

Personal and professional fallout

Sgt. Brandon Gregory reported the altercation at the bar to his supervisor, Hassler, and Lt. Eugene Smith, on Nov. 9, 2017. While a form shows GBNET deactivated Lowrey, there’s no paperwork documenting that Gregory told his supervisors and no paperwork indicating any investigation was taken into the Lowrey’s girlfriend’s allegations about Cassada, who continued in his job.

The week after the bar altercation, Lowrey’s girlfriend tracked down Cassada’s wife, Hope, on Facebook and messaged her Nov. 15, 2017. The girlfriend told Hope Cassada in a phone call later that day that her husband and Lowrey were having a sexual relationship. The Cassadas had an argument about the allegations at their residence, and James Cassada left their house for the next two nights, which corresponds to the motel receipt obtained by the GBI.

Hope Cassada got in contact with Hassler that night, who happened to be in Missouri on vacation, and she told him what Lowrey’s girlfriend told her. She then texted the girlfriend, “I called his captain. On vacation. I’m not playing his games anymore.”

However, Hassler testified that while he remembers the call, all he remembered of it were allegations of alcohol abuse and marital infidelity. Hassler said he later talked about it with Haney, and not long after that, Cassada went into rehab.

Dustin Davis testified Cassada’s wife called his wife and that his wife told him Hope caught James at a hotel with an informant. Davis also said during this period he discovered Cassada was in treatment for substance abuse and informed Hassler. Smith testified he heard Davis and Simpson talking about Hope Cassada calling their wives with accusations of officers sleeping with informants, which Smith said he told Hassler.

The morning after the Cassadas’ argument, Hope talked with Haney, who was close friends with James, to make sure James was OK. On Nov. 17, 2017, the Cassadas and Haney met for lunch, and at one point Hope left the table so Haney and her husband could talk more frankly.

Simpson, who also heard Hope caught Cassada leaving a motel with an informant, told Haney about it. Simpson asked if he needed to take it any higher on the chain of command, but he testified Haney told him that wasn’t necessary.

Hope Cassada testified she never saw her husband leave a motel with an informant and never accused other officers of cheating on their wives with informants.

Haney refused to cooperate with the investigation.

As stated in the order, he also “testified that he would recommend other officers not cooperate with the GBI…. Although Haney confirmed that he met Officer Cassada and his wife for lunch, he testified multiple times that he could not remember the specific content of any conversation he had with Officer Cassada, his wife, or any other officer….”

Missing documents

In regard to when Cassada left GBNET to go to rehab and when he returned, Haney testified, “I don’t know when … so I’m not sure whether he left or when he came back or if he actually went to rehab.”

The order lists a text message exchange between Haney and Hope from the evening of Dec. 7, 2017, in which Hope says Cassada was doing well at a rehab facility in Jacksonville. Haney said he will write Cassada once the facility allows Cassada to receive outside communications.

On Dec. 9, Hope contacts Gregory about the process of sending paperwork from the facility to Glynn County so Cassada’s extended sick leave could be approved. In another series of texts, Gregory says he will has the supervisors if they’ve received anything. Hope says she may just have the facility email the records to her, and Gregory gives her his email address so she can send them along.

Gregory, Dec. 12, texts that he talked with his captain, they received the paperwork and filed it with county human resources.

“Notwithstanding the above communication indicating paperwork was received by Captain Hassler concerning Officer Cassada’s treatment, no such documentation exists either at the GCPD or at Glynn County Human Resources,” according to the order. “The only documentation that Officer Cassada was not at work is contained in Glynn County payroll records. From December 4, 2017, through January 29, 2018, ‘payroll time sheets’ submitted to Glynn County indicate that Officer Cassada took sick leave.

“The time sheets are signed by Lieutenant Eugene Smith and Chief John Powell. There is no reason for the leave documented in either the payroll records or Officer Cassada’s personnel file.”

Smith testified he was aware Cassada went to rehab, and that Cassada told both him and Hassler about doing so. He believed county human resources approved the treatment, and that the chain of command above him should have been notified. Powell, however, testified he wasn’t aware of any of this until February of this year.

Jurisdictional lines

Cassada returned to his job after treatment, without restrictions, at the end of January 2018. During this time GBNET kicked off Operation Déjà Vu, the stated objective of which was to target meth distribution. The operation ran through the fall, and Dustin Davis said he estimated around 75 criminal cases resulted from it.

On Feb. 22, 2018, GBNET officers directed a patrol officer to conduct a traffic stop on a vehicle heading north on I-95. Ultimately, a Georgia State Patrol officer conducting a pitting maneuver, the vehicle wrecked and the passenger died from his injuries. The driver was charged with causing the passenger’s death.

Court testimony and a GBNET news release revealed investigators conducted surveillance on the vehicle in Camden County and in Florida — outside their jurisdiction, where they have no police power — and that GBNET officers at no time alerted or coordinated with local law enforcement in these areas.

“Chief Powell confirmed that no internal affairs investigation was conducted into the activities of GBNET in Florida, outside the jurisdiction of Glynn County police officers, which led to the attempted traffic stop, ensuing chase and fatal crash,” Lane wrote in the order.

On Aug. 10, 2018, Camden County Sheriff Jim Proctor wrote a letter regarding GBNET behavior in Camden, that he was not informed beforehand and that it was unauthorized. In the letter, Proctor states, “GBNET has zero authority to operate any investigations outside the bounds of Glynn County. This type of behavior is reckless and dangerous.”

There was no internal affairs investigation of GBNET activity in Camden to discover the officers involved or what exactly they were doing.

The brouhaha between GBNET officers and McIntosh County Sheriff’s Office Col. Danny Lowe in January of this year is also related to GBNET operating outside their jurisdiction.

“Chief Powell confirmed that he received a call from McIntosh Sheriff Steve Jessup,” according to the order. “GBNET officers had previously been confronted about operations outside of their jurisdiction in McIntosh County by Colonel Lowe, and Sheriff Jessup was concerned with possible retaliation against Lowe.

“Chief Powell testified that he had reviewed the patrol officer’s body cameras and found no policy violations. He did not know which, if any, GBNET officers were involved in the traffic stops of Colonel Lowe. He confirmed that he did not conduct any inquiry or internal affairs investigation to find out.”

The MCSO was left to file multiple open records requests to access records regarding those stops, without much success.

Side agreements

During a meeting on May 7, 2018, between GBNET and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Davis stated that GBNET had either attempted or completed a narcotics buy from an individual on St. Simons Island, but that it was learned Officer Simpson was friends with the individual and no arrest was made.”

Mike Lawson — a Glynn County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned to an ATF task force — testified that two days later an informant sent him a text and a photo of Simpson, who was with a man known for dealing meth. Simpson and the man were friends when they were younger and they reconnected after the gentleman ended his term in federal prison.

There were conversations between Lawson, Powell and GCPD Chief of Staff Brian Scott, but not much came from them.

Powell “confirmed that no inquiry or internal affairs investigation was conducted into any of the allegations involving Officer Simpson until February of 2019. Officer Simpson received a reprimand as part of the internal affairs investigation into Officer Cassada.”

During July 2018, McDaniel sold meth twice to another GBNET confidential informant. During this time, Cassada was allegedly sexually involved with her.

According to the order, “In approximately October 2018, as GBNET compiled a list of persons to be arrested in the ‘Deja Vu’ operation, Officer Cassada asked Officer Dustin Davis to take (McDaniel) from the list and to wait on arresting her ‘to save face with the wife.’ Officer Davis complied.”

McDaniel said during a GBI interview, on Feb. 5 of this year, she said that four to six moths earlier Cassada told her she had a sell charge and he would handle it if she “acted right and stayed clean.” At that time, there were no outstanding warrants on McDaniel for sale of a controlled substance.

“GBNET Officer Dallas Harper told the GBI that sometime between Jan. 28 and 30, 2019, he was making a list of known drug dealers in Glynn County to provide to the Drug Enforcement Administration,” according to the order. “Officer Harper stated that when he brought up the name of (McDaniel), Officer Cassada told him that it was a rumor she was selling drugs and not to worry about her.”

Convictions in jeopardy

Along with the statements of Cassada, Hassler, Haney, Simpson and Davis officially being of a questionable nature beginning at different periods of time, Lane also ruled that there was evidence not disclosed to the defense in a thus-far unknown number of cases that could lead to action in those matters “because there is a reasonable probability that disclosure could have changed the outcome” of those cases.

That includes, from Jan. 4, 2017, criminal cases “resulting in whole or in part from … Cassada handling the confidential informant, directing or participating in the purchase of controlled substances, collecting controlled substances into evidence or otherwise being in the chain of custody, or providing sworn testimony or probable cause information for search or arrest warrants….”

It also includes, from the same date, criminal cases involving McDaniel participating as a confidential informant, along with cases dating from May 18, 2017, involving Lowrey as a confidential informant.

Mark Spaulding manager for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, said staff are still working through the cases that may or may not be tainted, but that they are making progress to developing a definitive list of cases.

He added the District Attorney’s Office is working with the county and the information technology vendor of the court’s case management system to see if there’s a way to sort through and find cases affected.

Spaulding also said the District Attorney’s Office is in contact with defense attorneys who likely represented or are representing clients affected by the order, and asked them to bring forward any information that may be of assistance. The defense will have to act to instigate action in those matters, as the defense did on behalf of Whittle in this matter.

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