Tragedy of errors: Two critical mistakes led to Kenny Walker's shooting in 2003

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 7, 2013 

Two crucial errors led to Kenny Walker's death Dec. 10, 2003: a mistaken car and a mishandled gun.

Had sheriff's deputies not been told armed and dangerous Miami drug dealers were in Carver basketball Coach Warren Beaulah's GMC Yukon, their tactical Special Response Team would not have been so keyed up when they stopped it.

Had Glisson not at close range used a submachine gun to subdue Walker instead of holding back to cover the team, he would not have shot Walker twice in the head.

Remove those two factors, and Kenneth Walker, 39, son of Emily Walker, husband of Cheryl Walker, father of Kayla Walker, would not have been mortally wounded at 8:58 p.m., near the Interstate 185 bridge over Edgewood Road.

Two crucial errors resulted in a white law enforcement officer gunning down an unarmed black man on the roadside.

Debates arose about the way city leaders dealt with this, and whether more mistakes were made, but those two started it.

It would take the courts five years to sort it all out, as the city mourned and raged and decried the lack of resolution, and all who knew what happened clammed up amidst racial division, duplicate investigations and lawsuits demanding compensation.

Meanwhile Walker ascended to the national conscience. Lou Dobbs featured the case on his cable news show. A Martin Luther King Jr. weekend rally for Walker drew 8,000 to Columbus, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Southern Christian Leadership Conference founder Joseph Lowery, and TV star Judge Greg Mathis.

Walker's death led to a state law requiring witnesses to testify under oath before a grand jury, because a special prosecutor let Glisson speak unsworn to a grand jury that did not indict him even for involuntary manslaughter. This would haunt the prosecutor through his 2010 campaign for attorney general.

Walker's death also led Columbus Council to create a Public Safety Advisory Commission, though its value remains debatable.

Today the name Kenneth Walker is for many a touchstone, cold to some, hot to others. It literally is written in stone at Columbus' Lakebottom Park bandshell, where in 2004 the Rotary Club of Columbus built a unity memorial and planted a tree in Walker's memory.

Beyond the tributes, lawsuits, politics and protests, Walker's death still came down to two critical errors: Glisson's team was told Beaulah's Yukon was full of armed Florida drug dealers, and Glisson put a machine gun to Walker's back.

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The long night

According to records, this is how it happened:

A drug suspect arrested earlier that day told agents he could lead them to a dealer he knew as "Bo Jack," who sold cocaine in an apartment rented solely for that purpose. It was apartment 3G of Northwood Apartments, 5000 Armour Road.

Metro agents Rick Stinson and Jim Price set up surveillance outside, where around 7 p.m. the informant with them called Bo Jack on his cell phone, trying to arrange a deal that would justify a search warrant. On the phone, Bo Jack told the tipster all his cocaine was "leaving right now," so he had but a few ounces left.

Within minutes a man later identified as Michael Powell left the apartments. Stinson ordered two other agents to stop him. They found 63.7 grams of coke in Powell's car. The informant's information seemed to be solid.

Then Bo Jack left the apartments and drove to the LaQuinta Inn, off Macon Road at I-185, where he went into a room for a few minutes and then left. The agents stalking him lost him in traffic, and returned to the apartments. By phone Bo Jack told the tipster he was getting more cocaine.

As the agents waited, the informant told them Bo Jack's supplier was a large black man from Miami who was armed and traveled with three or four others in a sport utility vehicle.

While Bo Jack was gone, Beaulah's GMC Yukon pulled up at Northwood Apartments. The informant told the agents it looked like the vehicle the Miami dealer used. Though agents traced the tag number to Warren Beaulah of Columbus, they started following the Yukon, which left the apartments, went to a nightclub, turned around and came back.

When it returned, so did Bo Jack. Darryl Ransom got out of the Yukon with a package under his arm, and they went inside.

Then the Yukon's other three occupants, Walker, Beaulah and Anthony Smith, went in. About 15 minutes passed, during which the informant's calls to Bo Jack went unanswered. The tipster told the agents Bo Jack didn't answer during drug deals.

When the four friends left again in the Yukon, Price and Stinson decided to have two agents aided by the special response team stop and search it. The sheriff's five-member team was warned of the danger.

On I-185, Agent Jonnie Ellerbee had marked sheriff's cruisers stop the Yukon in the interstate's southbound emergency lane by a retaining wall. The officers poured out with weapons drawn and started pulling out the Yukon's occupants.

Glisson and Ellerbee took Walker from the Yukon's right, rear seat and pushed him down. Glisson later said Walker didn't obey orders to show his hands, and Ellerbee had to help him drag Walker out of the Yukon. Walker did not immediately lie face-down on the ground, so Glisson forced him down with a knee in his back and put the barrel of his gun to Walker's back.

Then, he said, he thought Walker was putting his right hand into his leather jacket for a weapon. Glisson moved back and fired.

He meant to shoot Walker in the shoulder, he said later. Instead the gun was pointed at Walker's head.

He said he fired on "instinct" and the shooting was "intentional," prompted by fear and by Walker's neither showing his hands nor going all the way to the ground as ordered.

Later the deputy called the shooting an "accident." The gun fired as he tripped moving back, he said.

Though Glisson thought the gun was set to fire a three-round burst, investigators the next day said it was just two rounds short of fully loaded, indicating only two shots had been fired.

Officers found no drugs or weapons in the Yukon. Walker's three companions were handcuffed with their backs against the retaining wall, then taken to a holding cell downtown and questioned, then released hours later without charge.

About two hours after the shooting, Metro agents raided the Northwood apartment. They arrested Darrell Jackson and Thomas Randall and seized a 9mm gun, $2,700 worth of coke, digital scales, plastic bags, and an empty gallon bag with cocaine residue.

The morning after

Instead of notifying Walker's wife, a deputy sheriff called his mother at 1 a.m. She called Cheryl and rushed to the hospital to meet her daughter-in-law but found no one there to guide her. She walked through the hospital looking for help, finally asking a nurse in the pediatrics ward where her son was.

The nurse took her to the right floor. Cheryl Walker was there. Eventually a nurse came out and said, "We lost him."

Walker was pronounced dead at 2:28 a.m. Dec. 11, 2003. An autopsy later showed he had cocaine metabolites in his blood, an indication he was a casual user, though his family did not believe that. It would be the only evidence of cocaine use by anyone in the Yukon.

Still no one told the family what happened. Around 4 a.m., Emily Walker called Superior Court Judge John Allen, a family friend. In minutes a deputy came to assure them they would hear more later. They went home, where Allen and Sheriff Ralph Johnson later visited them but still had no details to offer.

Johnson would never escape the dark shadow of that morning. Critics said he waited too long to meet the Walkers, who waited too long to hear what happened. He held a news conference that day while wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, as if he'd been hunting. The image stuck.

He would not name the deputy who shot Walker, only saying it was a veteran officer who was on administrative leave as the sheriff investigated.

It would take the Walker family days to recover Kenneth Walker's personal effects. Emily Walker said no one at the sheriff's office knew where they were.

Shock and law

When the news broke, the public was shocked and confused, unsure what to believe, certain only that racial outrage was inevitable: A white law enforcement officer without provocation had killed an unarmed black man who had committed no crime.

Government and other civic leaders scrambled to keep peace, but at the same time declined comment because of the legal repercussions they knew were coming.

First came investigations into whether Glisson committed a crime. Then came civil lawsuits.

On Dec. 12, 2003, Sheriff Johnson called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. On Dec. 16, he called in the FBI.

Meanwhile vandals sought vengeance by targeting marked Muscogee County sheriff's vehicles. Community leaders came out to call for justice at rallies where people had a more civil means to express their dismay:

On Dec. 22, local ministers hosted a "Crying Out to Become One" rally at the Government Center. On Jan. 2, 2004, black elected leaders held a news conference where they proposed reforms such as a citizens review commission to probe law enforcement misconduct.

The case attracted national attention on Feb. 11, when commentator Lou Dobbs featured it on his cable TV news show.

On Feb. 19, the sheriff fired Glisson for refusing to cooperate with investigators. Later he said Glisson's conduct during the vehicle stop violated training and procedure, particularly his pressing the barrel of a gun to a suspect's back.

On Feb. 20, the GBI delivered its report to then-District Attorney Gray Conger, to whom Glisson once gave firearms training. Conger recused himself. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker reassigned the case to Dougherty County District Attorney Kenneth B. Hodges III.

The first civil suit came Feb. 24. Cheryl Walker, represented by attorneys Willie Gary and former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, filed a $100 million claim in U.S. District Court, targeting the sheriff's office, Johnson and Glisson.

After seeing a dashboard video of the shooting, the lawyers asked on April 14 that the suit be dropped. Campbell said it would be filed again with additional claims and defendants.

On May 4, Columbus Council established a Public Safety Advisory Commission to offer advice on improving law enforcement's community relations. A frequent criticism would be its lack of authority to investigate complaints.

On June 2, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land granted the sheriff's office immunity from Cheryl Walker's civil lawsuit.

A prosecution denied

The year 2004 was frustrating for those seeking justice. Hodges was delayed in presenting evidence to a grand jury when on Aug. 11 he was seriously injured in a car wreck near Cordele. It took him weeks to recover.

Campbell, the former Atlanta mayor representing Cheryl Walker with attorney Willie Gary, was indicted Aug. 30 on federal charges of racketeering, bribery and wire fraud, accused of taking cash payments in exchange for city contracts. His law firm eventually would leave the case.

Residents unhappy at how Johnson and Conger handled the Walker case were further disappointed when each defeated a challenger in the Nov. 2 election. The incumbents were white, the challengers black.

Then a new controversy erupted: While presenting the Walker case to a grand jury Nov. 23, Hodges allowed Glisson to make an emotional statement without swearing an oath to tell the truth. Though Hodges, Sheriff Johnson and Glisson's attorney Richard Hagler each expected Glisson would be indicted and arrested that day -- and were preparing for him to be booked in and bonded out of jail -- the grand jury returned no indictment.

Later reports would say Glisson cried and apologized while talking to grand jurors, telling them he tripped and fired accidentally, never meaning to kill anyone. Hodges claimed Glisson's speaking unsworn was acceptable and changed nothing about the grand jury's conclusions.

Disbelief and outrage surged again, as few could understand why Glisson was not charged at least with involuntary manslaughter, even if grand jurors accepted his claim the shooting was accidental.

Hodges got the blame, and the blame followed him for years.

On Nov. 30, the NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging whether Hodges legally allowed Glisson to make an unsworn statement, and seeking to compel him to present the case again. The next day, the city released the dashboard video of the shooting, showing Glisson charging in to get Walker, and agents jumping back upon hearing the shots.

No one watching the video heard the shots. The sheriff explained the antennae on officer's audio belt units often broke, precluding transmission. The lack of sound wasn't unusual.

That revelation didn't help.

On the first anniversary of Walker's shooting, the $100 million civil suit was filed again, this time expanded to include more defendants. It was followed three days later by a $3.5 million lawsuit that Walker's companions Warren Beaulah, Anthony Smith and Daryl Ransom filed against the city, the sheriff, Glisson and deputies Jonnie Ellerbee, Robert Taylor, Allen Humphrey and Rusty Blair.

On Dec. 22, the Walker suit was moved to U.S. District Court, because it alleged constitutional violations that federal courts decide. Judge Clay Land soon began to pare it of defendants entitled to immunity. Glisson would never be one of them.

But he tried: On Jan. 24, 2005, he filed a response to the Walkers' suit, seeking immunity and stating Walker's own conduct was the "proximate cause" of his death, as he "placed himself in circumstances whereby his accidental death occurred."

Frustration builds

Those pressing for resolution became increasingly frustrated as their efforts failed.

On April 20, 2005, Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. dismissed the NAACP suit to compel Hodges again to present the Walker case to a grand jury.

On Aug. 31, 2006, Judge Land ruled the city and the sheriff were entitled to immunity from the Walkers' lawsuit. He denied immunity for Glisson, and partly denied it for Metro Narcotics agents Rick Stinson and Jim Price.

But his decision on Price and Stinson was based on the confidential informant, who with the Walker lawsuit filed an affidavit denying he told agents Beaulah's Yukon looked like the Miami dealer's. Instead he claimed the agents coerced him into saying that after Walker died.

As 2006 turned to 2007, former police chief Jim Wetherington became mayor with no Walker resolution in sight.

But rumors spread that city leaders privately were negotiating a settlement.

Things started to change: On Jan. 16, Columbus Council voted to settle for $125,000 the lawsuit brought by Walker's companions.

The next development was in Glisson's favor: On July 20, federal investigators announced they'd found insufficient evidence to charge him with violating Walker's civil rights.

The FBI, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Georgia teamed up on the federal investigation. Again it was clear authorities didn't believe Glisson meant to kill Walker:

"In order to prove a violation of the applicable federal criminal civil rights laws, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a Constitutional right," authorities wrote in a statement. "To act 'willfully,' for purposes of the federal statute, means to act with a bad purpose to disobey or disregard the law. An accident, mistake, fear or bad judgment is not sufficient to establish such a criminal violation."

The next change in course favored Stinson and Price: The feds' report showed their informant confided to the FBI that because he felt sorry for Cheryl Walker, he had lied in his affidavit in the Walker lawsuit. The truth was he had told Metro agents the Yukon looked like the Miami dealer's vehicle.

On Dec. 21, 2007, Land put the unnamed informant behind screens on the witness stand, where the man admitted lying. On Feb. 14, 2008, the judge granted Price and Stinson immunity, based on their having reason to order Beaulah's Yukon stopped because of what the informant told them.

Only Glisson was left in the civil suit, with little income or savings for the Walkers to collect. The criminal probes were over. His career was ruined, but he would face no charges. Cheryl Walker had nothing to show for all the effort that went into seeking compensation for her husband's death.

Mayor, Martin step in

Others had to dispel the shadow they knew would hang over Columbus as long as the lawsuit dragged on.

When a mediation session intended to end the suit failed April 23, 2008, Wetherington asked attorney and former Mayor Frank Martin to help settle the case. Working behind the scenes, he and Martin made a deal.

On Aug. 12, 2008, Columbus Council voted to settle with Cheryl Walker for $200,000, which was placed in trust for daughter Kayla. Martin found anonymous private donors to add $250,000. Former Metro agent Jim Price had insurance that added $60,000 to the settlement.

In exchange, all further court proceedings would cease. The end came Oct. 23, 2008, when Judge Land signed the order.

With that end came new beginnings: Those who wanted the sheriff and district attorney out of office got their wish Nov. 4, 2008, when voters drawn by Barack Obama's campaign for president locally loosed a Democratic landslide.

Johnson, an independent, lost to Democrat John Darr. And Conger, a Republican, lost to Julia Slater.

In 2010, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law requiring anyone testifying before a grand jury to be sworn in. "Maybe my son has not died in vain," Emily Walker said then. "Someday, somebody will benefit from this."

That same year an opponent's ad featuring Emily Walker dogged Ken Hodges' campaign for attorney general. She told TV viewers how Hodges had neglected to swear in Glisson six years earlier,

Hodges still won the 2010 Democratic nomination for attorney general, but lost the general election to Republican Sam Olens.

The memorial

Last week rain-soaked autumn leaves layered the ground around the black iron benches beneath a live oak at Lakebottom Park. Rotarians planted it as a "Unity Tree" in Kenneth Walker's memory on Feb. 21, 2004. One day the oak's boughs may shade not only the memorial's brick paving and retaining wall, but extend its canopy to nearby Weracoba Creek.

There at the bandshell friends and family gathered in December 2005 and 2006 to mark the anniversary of Walker's death.

There in years to come visitors sitting in the oak's shade will read this on the brick marker they face:

Unity Tree

This live oak (the state tree of Georgia) is planted by the Rotary Club of Columbus to symbolize the goodwill which exists among all citizens of Columbus, Georgia, and to unite the City following the loss of Kenneth B. Walker in whose memory this tree is planted. That which unites us is greater than that which separates us.

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