It was a rare occasion where Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was somewhere the media could lay eyes on him.
Hill was speaking a few weeks ago at a Democratic party lunch at a Caribbean restaurant in Jonesboro. The two newspaper reporters present were asked politely by an organizer to sit off to the side as Hill spoke to 25 folks.
“If you need me to de-thug you, then I’m your man,” Hill told a lady who complained her neighborhood was getting rough. Hill was unveiling a phone texting system to send messages to residents, telling them of streets that were blocked, crime news, and public service announcements.
“We have to tell our story,” Hill said. “We can’t depend on the media because they have proven they won’t tell it accurately.”
Hill, Clayton County’s first black sheriff, a man who had snipers keep watch as he fired several suspected political enemies from his office, who was voted out of office in 2008 after his mercurial ways, who was indicted on dozens of corruption charges after losing his re-election bid, who was re-elected last year despite being an accused felon, goes on trial next week. That Victor Hill believes he has been wronged by media out to get him.
Hill’s legal troubles and political Lazarus act were fodder for Atlanta’s media, but the stories flourished without the man himself. Hill has assiduously dodged the media, including declining to comment for this story. Associates say the strategy is deliberate, that he believes he can survive by ignoring the media and instead taking his message directly to voters through other means.
As Hill left the restaurant, a Channel 46 crew suddenly rushed forward. “Why should taxpayers pay your legal bills?” the reporter demanded as Hill slipped into a waiting SUV. “Why are you avoiding us?! Why are you avoiding us?!”
The media has had a hard time getting Hill to say anything since his re-election. Hill is the Stealth Sheriff, you know he’s out there and even hear of him but he’s rarely seen. Sheriffs are a hybrid breed — part lawman, part politician — and most are thrilled to stand before cameras and let the world know what a fine job they are doing. But Hill is blazing another path.
“He’s been staying out of the media, it’s been on purpose,” said Lee Scott, who helped organize and advise a slate of black candidates, including Hill, who in 2004 defeated several longtime white incumbents in Clayton.
“He learned the news is a two-edged sword that can slice you up,” said Scott, who still sees Hill. “He’s operating out of the limelight because he realizes it’s not his bread and butter. He’s down in the grassroots, he’s there when there’s a robbery. People call him because they know him. And he responds.”
Hill uses robocalls and online tools like Twitter and Facebook to send messages to citizens. He also shows up at civic meetings or to churches. Clayton County has a police department, which responds to crimes like robberies. But that doesn’t stop an ambitious lawman/pol like Hill from showing up and letting people (usually off-camera) know he’s there.
But residents like Susan Baggarly think Hill’s furtive ways are troubling.
“No, you can’t do a good job that way; he should be in the public eye doing things, good things,” she said. “We get these phone calls, recorded phone calls on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I’m thinking, ‘Who are you kidding?’ We’re all thinking, ‘He’s just laying low until the trial.’ He’s disturbing. His behavior [in his first term] left everybody a little nervous. It was very disturbing for the county to have a sheriff behave that way. And now we don’t know anything. You don’t see anything of him except for those silly little recordings.”
Going to functions with friendly crowds, Baggarly said, is “politically safe for him because he’s not going to get any questions about the charges. It certainly has left the people in the county hanging. The county’s kind of like ‘What’s happening? Who’s in charge? And where is he?’ ”
Hill’s mysterious ways are nothing new. After losing in a primary election in 2008, WSB Channel 2 ran a story headlined “Where is Sheriff Victor Hill?” After he won in 2012, Fox 5 ran a similar story.
But he hasn’t just dodged the media, he’s had many people looking for him through the years and has been adept at giving them the slip. In February 2011, when he’d been two years out of office, investigators from his former and future department started looking for him, according to a surveillance log obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What were they looking for? Prosecutors would not comment for this story, and former Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, who was in charge of the investigators then, could not be located for comment.
The logs started with investigators trying to determine where Hill lived. They checked court records and vehicle license plate numbers and conducted interviews and computer searches. The investigators posited he was either living with a schoolteacher or a female deputy. By May, investigators dug through garbage at two addresses, “although we did not find any evidence belonging to Victor Hill in any of the trash,” the log states.
Day after day, surveillance on various addresses found “no activity,” with notes indicating uncut grass and mail piling up. That June there was a Hill sighting at a Chinese restaurant where he left “with three unidentified Asian males” but lost his followers by running through a red light.
In July 2011 he filed a campaign disclosure report, which indicated he was running for office again. Importantly, it had an address. He lived (sometimes, it seems) in a Riverdale apartment complex.
With a good address, investigators (the reports list seven different names) kept tabs on him, when they could keep up with him. The logs are filled with notations of Hill making U-turns, abruptly changing lanes, suddenly flying around corners and drastically slowing down to shake off investigators. A couple of times, investigators had to swerve or slam on brakes to avoid accidents.
The surveillance log does show several things about Hill: He has many lady friends. He’s a hugger. He likes fast food. And he often parks in handicapped spaces.
The surveillance continued until January 2012 when Hill was indicted. One of the log’s last passages has a deputy watching him in a courthouse hallway but losing him in the scrum of lawyers and media.
Steven Frey, one of Hill’s lawyers, said the defense received the log in preparation for the trial and it “seems to support what Victor Hill has said all along, that Kimbrough used the sheriff’s office to trump up charges against his political opponent.”
Frey said the controversy of his first term in office, coupled with the surveillance and ultimate indictment, has chastened Hill enough to maintain a low profile.
“It’s largely the new Victor Hill,” he said.