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January 12, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Fatal Raid Linked To Lies For Warrant In Drug Case

By Shaila Dewan

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ATLANTA -- A narcotics team that shot and killed an elderly woman while raiding her home lied to obtain the search warrant, one team member has told federal investigators, according to news reports confirmed by a person familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity.

The officers falsely claimed that a confidential informant had bought $50 worth of crack at the house, the team member, Gregg Junnier, told the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Junnier retired from the Atlanta Police Department last week.

The story backs up statements by Alex White, a police informant, who said that after the shooting the police had asked him to claim, falsely, that he had bought crack at the modest home of the woman, Kathryn Johnston, whose age has been reported as both 88 and 92.

Ms. Johnston, pictured wearing a birthday crown in a widely used photograph, quickly became Exhibit A for complaints of excessive force by the police, prompting packed, angry town-hall-style meetings, accusations of systematic civil rights violations and calls for civilian review of police shootings in Atlanta.

The incident has also demoralized a police force where the number of narcotics officers has dwindled while, some critics say, pressure to make arrests has increased.

"The rest of the world is now hearing from the mouths of the police officers involved what we knew all along," said the Rev. Markel Hutchins, a spokesman for Ms. Johnston's relatives, who have maintained that she had nothing to do with illegal drugs and that neither her house nor her basement, which had a separate entrance, was used by dealers.

Spokesmen with the F.B.I.'s Atlanta office and the United States attorney here declined to comment. The shooting occurred on Nov. 21, after three members of the narcotics team arrested a suspected street marijuana dealer, Fabian Sheats, who said he could help the officers hook a bigger fish.

Mr. Sheats pointed out Ms. Johnston's house on Neal Street, near a high-crime area, saying a dealer there had a kilogram of cocaine. The officers, according to the reports of Mr. Junnier's account, tried to get an informant to the house to make a drug buy. But when that effort hit a snag, a request for a search warrant was drawn up anyway.

The paper, signed by Officer J. R. Smith, one of the three officers who made the arrest, claimed that a buy had been made from a dealer named Sam, and that a "no-knock" warrant was needed because Sam had security cameras outside the house -- another detail that was fabricated, according to the accounts of what Mr. Junnier told the F.B.I.

Mr. Smith's lawyer, John Garland, declined to comment.

After a judge signed the warrant, the officers pried open Ms. Johnston's burglar bars and broke down her door. She responded with gunshots from a handgun that neighbors said she kept for defense. The officers, three of whom were injured, returned fire and killed her. No cocaine was found.

Mr. Junnier's lawyer, Rand Csehy, confirmed that his client was cooperating with investigators. William McKenney, a lawyer for Arthur Tesler, the third officer involved in the arrest, said his client would also cooperate.

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