Film worker’s alleged killer had a long record. Why wasn’t he behind bars?

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 Local
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Joseph Livolsi, 50, was shot to death in a DeKalb County apartment complex July 15, 2017. Livolsi was a special effects technician for a number of blockbuster movies filmed in Atlanta. He was married with two children. FACEBOOK

Last month, Delvin Gates was charged with murder in the shooting death of Joseph Livolsia 50-year-old father of two who worked special effects for some of the blockbuster movies that film in metro Atlanta. Livolsi’s body was discovered July 15 in his apartment on Candler Road near I-20. An Xbox was missing.

Gates is 17, hardly a babe by today’s standards of juvenile violence, but he was well-known in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, whose residents fought hard to keep him off the streets.

“He was just terrorizing us. Every house, every other block almost,” said resident Kimberly Parmer. “The level and extent and frequency of the crimes, we went through so much with him.”

Beginning at least in 2015, Gates was picked up on burglaries, auto thefts, snatch-and-grab robberies and other assorted crimes. It galvanized the neighborhood.

Now, police may have the wrong man — Gates’ attorney says the charge rests on the “hearsay statement of one individual” with an equally checkered past — but if he is Livolsi’s murderer, it raises some troubling questions.

Why was he out of jail if he was such a menace? It’s not unheard of for juvenile offenders to graduate from property crimes to violence.

What is also noteworthy is how poorly Gates’ penchant for criminal activity was communicated throughout the justice system, especially considering how much focus there was on him for the past two years.

The frustrations of police and community leaders were apparent in the January 2016 West End Neighborhood Development meeting when a police lieutenant briefed the group about what was then Gates’ most recent arrest.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Gates was arrested on burglary and criminal trespassing Christmas Day 2015 and fought the cop trying to arrest him, but according to the APD lieutenant “the juvenile court system let him out the next day.”

“Police did their job, but have no control over the juvenile court system,” the minutes state. The lieutenant said APD was working with the court to revoke Gates’ probation, “but it is hard to do for a juvenile.”

Three months later, police helped mobilize West End community members at Gates’ sentencing to put an end to his “havoc in the West End area.” In a post on the online community bulletin board Nextdoor, an APD officer urged residents to attend.

“It would show to the court that the community wants to see something done if we had a large presence at this court proceeding,” the officer wrote.

The neighborhood was interested in seeing Gates locked up. Parmer, who said her home was burglarized by Gates, said numerous attempts had been made to reach him. Nothing worked, not even house arrest, she said.

“When he was supposed to be out under ankle-monitor surveillance … he was still committing crimes,” she said.

APD spokesman Carlos Campos confirmed Gates was “a top, repeat juvenile offender” in southwest Atlanta and that APD “made numerous attempts to get him off the streets.”

Campos said departmental leaders met with juvenile court judges about Gates and the toll he was taking on West End.

“Unfortunately, every attempt to keep him incarcerated, while at the same time looking for long-term solutions, was unsuccessful and has resulted in tragic and horrible consequences for so many,” he said.

This suggests Gates should have been in jail, not free to commit any additional crimes, such as his alleged role in Livolsi’s death.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Devlin Gates, 17, was arrested in September 2017 and charged in the shooting death of special effects technician Joseph Livolsi. Gates was the bane of residents and police in Atlanta’s West End for years before he moved to DeKalb County. DEKALB COUNTY SHERIFF

APD’s comments to the West End residents lays the blame for Gates’ continued freedom at the doorstep of Fulton County Juvenile Court. Chief Judge Bradley Boyd did not handle Gates’ case, but after viewing his file he found some clues as to why Gates was not behind bars this summer.

First, the charges that sent Gates to juvenile court were property crimes, not violent ones. They carry less jail time. Boyd said he understands that doesn’t always take into account the impact of those crimes.

“Auto theft, burglary and property crimes can be an incredible burden and disruption in the community,” he said. “If their car is stolen, some people lose their jobs. … People move because burglaries make them feel insecure.”

In April 2016, the court handed Gates a three-year sentence for burglary, but for juveniles only a portion of that is served behind bars. Boyd said sentencing guidelines set the incarcerated range as between six and 18 months. Gates got the minimum time in lock up — six months minus the time he had already served since his arrest on Christmas Day.

Boyd said one reason the judge may have opted for the lighter sentence is because Gates didn’t have a long criminal record. “I’m not seeing anything on the record that shows prior offenses,” Boyd said, looking through the file.

But didn’t APD say he was a repeat offender on parole? And Parmer said Gates “had been in and out of the juvenile system since he was 11 years old.”

Boyd said it is possible that a prior conviction was sealed because Gates completed a rehabilitation course or some other court-ordered task. If so, the judge who sentenced him in March 2016 might not have those details available to him.

Boyd said the practice of hiding those convictions, even from the judge, is under discussion in Georgia right now.

“People have literally had cases where they will have young person before them and it’s a first offense and his mama will say, ‘Oh no. He’s been here before,’” Boyd said.

Also Boyd said it is not uncommon for juvenile offenders to skate on charges because witnesses or police officers don’t show up for hearings or the district attorney’s office doesn’t file the required paperwork. Those charges are sealed too, he said.

The judge who handled Gates’ sentencing died in January of this year, so we don’t know his precise thinking, but Boyd said there were other opportunities to extend his time in jail.

Later in 2016, Gates was charged with aggravated assault and a misdemeanor weapon possession charge. Those were never brought forward by the district attorney’s office, Boyd said. Without knowing the details, Boyd said he could only guess that the case was not strong enough to prosecute.

Boyd said there is evidence that the judge took Gates seriously. The sentencing order is six pages long, Boyd said.

“It’s a pretty thorough review of what had lead up to that point,” he said.

One concession the West End community extracted from the process was that once he was released Gates was not to return to their neighborhood.

“That is something we requested as a community,” Parmer said. “It’s unfortunate that at the end of the day he had several opportunities to be rehabilitated. We would have loved that.”

So, instead of being in West End, Gates was across town in DeKalb County, living in the same apartment complex where Livolsi was staying.

So, did DeKalb Police know that an offender so incorrigible that he was banished from his home turf had moved into their jurisdiction? After all, even though he was free from jail, he was still under state supervision at the time of the shooting.

“No, DeKalb was not informed about Mr. Gates’ priors before this incident,” said DeKalb Police spokeswoman Shiera Campbell.

If Gates is determined to be the culprit in Livolsi’s murder, there should be some soul searching. With the gift of hindsight, what do you think should have been done? Email me your thoughts at cjoyner@ajc.com and let me know how to contact you. I may include them in a future column.

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