DA gives findings in GBI probe of Columbus group home owned by Muscogee Marshal

Columbus District Attorney Julia Slater is recommending authorities pursue no criminal charges after a months-long Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe into a boys’ group home owned by Muscogee Marshal Greg Countryman.

“Having reviewed the above-referenced matter, it is my opinion that it is not appropriate to pursue criminal charges,” Slater wrote the GBI in regard to its report on the Invictus Transformational Wellness Center at 2608 Juniper Ave. “Additionally, I do not know of any further investigation that should be undertaken regarding this matter.”

Countryman said Tuesday that he welcomed the news and felt the controversy was politically motivated.

“I’ve read the GBI report, and it was nothing about nothing,” he said. “That was a waste of taxpayer money.”

Countryman opened the group home in June 2018 to serve troubled youths ages 12 to 18 who require what’s called “maximum watch oversight.” It has a capacity for six clients.

They require counseling the home procures through other agencies that provide behavioral aides. The home is overseen by the Georgia Department of Human Services’ Division of Family & Children Services.

It prompted complaints in October 2018, when neighbors took their concerns to Columbus Council. This past February, Slater requested a GBI investigation into allegations of misconduct and improper management, after receiving complaints in a Jan. 28 letter from the state Office of the Child Advocate, which is charged with overseeing child services. That office had heard accusations a worker punched a boy at the facility.

The GBI gave Slater its report this past April, and Slater since has been reviewing the findings.

“Although there were several allegations made regarding the management of the Invictus Transformational Wellness Center, few of them alleged criminal violations,” Slater wrote in her Aug. 16 letter to the GBI. “Some of the criminal allegations were exhaustively investigated by a law enforcement agency when the incident occurred.”

Other accusations involved group home workers’ failing to report child abuse immediately, as required by state law.

“Although failing to report child abuse in a timely manner is a criminal violation and there were allegations that managers within the facility delayed reports, I found only once instance where a report of alleged child abuse against an Invictus resident was delayed,” Slater wrote.

“Because the delay was only for two days, because corrective measures were taken by the Georgia Department of Human Resources residential childcare licensing unit, and because no subsequent delays were found, pursuing criminal charges against a member of the Invictus management would not be appropriate,” she added.

Slater also noted allegations Invictus staffers failed properly to care for an autistic 17-year-old who was jailed after a public altercation with an aide from another agency.

Countryman said the aide had taken the teen to a local Walmart, where the youth tried to walk out with an item and the aide denied him. The teen pushed the aide, ripped the aide’s shirt and then ran to a nearby restaurant, where he pulled up stakes in the ground beside trees outside and threw them at cars, the marshal said.

Restaurant workers called the police. Countryman said he tried to talk officers out of detaining the youth, asking that the suspect simply be issued a court summons, but police decided the 17-year-old by law was an adult who should be arrested.

“His ability to communicate was very limited,” Countryman said of the teen, who remained in jail as Invictus staff tried to reach his state caseworker. The group home was not legally authorized to bond the youth out of jail, the marshal said.

Slater noted that in her letter to the GBI: “As your investigation revealed, once the resident was arrested, the Invictus management relied on the resident’s custodian, the Division of Family and Children Services (through the resident’s caseworker), to make care decisions for the resident until the caseworker gave the Invictus management permission to regain control of care decisions. I do not believe this to be a criminal act.”

Countryman said he knew of only three alleged crimes related to the home: Three residents slipped out one night and broke into a business; the staff reported one resident to police after catching the suspect with a marijuana grinder; and a woman working at the home was charged last November with sexual assault on a person in custody after another staffer found intimate Facebook messages she’d exchanged with a boy living there.

Countryman said he was unfamiliar with accusations involving delayed reports of child abuse: “That part I don’t know.”

He said he hopes the GBI probe and Slater’s recommending no further action puts an end to the issue.

“I’m glad the GBI did what it did,” he said, though he still feels the complaints were aimed at sabotaging his 2020 run for Muscogee County Sheriff. “There were a lot of falsehoods told early on.”

His campaign will continue, he said: “Guess what? I’m still running for sheriff.”

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.