With body guards, drivers and an entourage, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill enjoyed the trappings of his first term in office, according to testimony in his racketeering trial Thursday. But the loss of his 2008 re-election effort caused him to crash and the tonic for that depression, his friends told him, was to get out of town.
So he did, taking with him two women, one of them a Sheriff’s Office employee who was supposed to be on sick leave.
He used county cars, credit cards and gas to escape his political loss, Special Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon said during opening statements, and that made him “guilty of stealing from you and stealing from Clayton County. (But he) is going to refer to these as perks, something he gets for being sheriff…He was traveling because he wanted to travel and take two girls with him on those trips… He took the county cars on these trips. He used the county credit cards on these trips…
“Victor Hill… is a thief,” Zon told the newly seated jurors hearing the 28 felony charges against the popular sheriff — racketeering, theft by taking, violation of oath of office and influencing a witness.
But using government cars, even for trips out of state, is something virtually every Georgia sheriff does should there be a need to get back unexpectedly and quickly, Hill’s lawyers argued. And the charges were for things that could be used on the job.
The only reason there is a criminal case, Hill’s lawyers argued, is because Hill announced he was running for the seat he lost to Kem Kimbrough in 2008. And some former and current Sheriff’s Office employees participated to get retribution for Hill’s firing, moving or punishing them during his first term — 2005 to 2008.
“Hill’s guilty of one thing, wanting his job back,” defense attorney Steven Frey told the jurors. “He’s guilty of being hated too but he’s guilty of wanting his job back.”
Despite the criminal charges, Hill defeated Kimbrough in last summer’s primary, which sealed his return to office on the November ballot.
Most of the charges, which were brought in January 2012, are for actions Hill took after he learned he had lost his 2008 re-election bid. Fourteen of 22 theft charges, which are a significant part of two racketeering charges, happened on Aug. 6, 2008, the day after the election, and later that month and into the fall.
Eleven witnesses were called Thursday afternoon.
Two spoke of Hill’s depression after losing and the decision to get out of town.
“He was extremely sad,” testified former deputy Grant Kidd, who was Hill’s driver.
Kidd said he was with Hill virtually daily before the election, but did not see him often afterwards because Hill did not come into the office. Besides driving, his job was to get Hill noticed when he entered a crowded room.
Kidd is a large man and his size would draw eyes to the much smaller sheriff, he said.
He said his role was “to walk into the room and suck the air out of the room so Hill would get noticed.”
But the day after the election Kidd and others were summoned to Hill’s house.
Beatrice Powell said she and others called to Hill’s house that day urged him to get away.
“Hill had an entourage. he had a group of body guards,” Zon said. “The day after he lost election this entourage rallied at Hill’s house. They all saw this despondent Hill. They advised him to get out of town. “
Kidd testified that he helped load suitcases belonging to Powell, who is charged with lying to the grand jury that investigated Hill, and former campaign worker Naomi Nash. The three drove the county-owned Ford Excursion to south Florida.
And after they returned, there were gambling trips to Mississippi and the South Carolina coast with Powell and Nash. Powell said she also went with Hill to North Carolina where he attended a workshop on day trading stocks.
Powell testified that she and Nash also stayed at Hill’s house often and eventually Powell gave up her apartment and moved in.
One of the issues is Powell’s health at the time. She had some gynecological problems that kept her on paid leave much of the second half of 2008. Powell testified that she was physically unable to do the job of jailer but she could still participate in other parts of her life.
Frey said Powell was one of Hill allies who were targeted just because of the relationship.
And once Kimbrough won and the investigation of Hill started, Frey said there were those who believed “pay back’s ours. Vengeance is ours.”
The jury by the numbers
Twelve jurors and two alternates were seated Thursday in Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s racketeering trial. The jurors’ identities are kept secret during trial. Here’s what we know about them by the numbers.
That’s the number of men on the jury. The two alternates are both men.
The number of African-Americans on the jury. Seven of the nine men are black, all three women are also black. A white male and an Asian male fills out the jury pool. The two alternates are both black.
The court called 350 Clayton voters for jury duty, an unsually high number based on the assumption that it would be difficult for the court to find 14 Clayton residents who have no opinion about Sheriff Victor Hill and haven’t been closely following the legal case.
That’s the number of jurors who listed their occupation as retiree. The others hold an assortment of jobs: a nurse, a retail salesman, a small business owner are among the jurors’ occupations.
The case against Hill
With opening statements Thursday, prosecutors laid out their theft and racketeering case against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and Hill’s attorneys laid out his defense.
The prosecution contends Hill stole from taxpayers when:
- During Hill’s first time in office as sheriff, from 2005 to 2008, he used county credit cards and cars for vacations, including to Mississippi casinos and gambling boats in South Carolina.
- He put a subordinate on paid leave so she could illegally collect a salary while traveling with him.
- He ordered a sheriff’s employee to write his biography.
The defense contends Hill is not guilty because:
- The charges and investigation are politically motivated. Charges, Hill’s attorneys say, were filed only when it became clear that Hill was going to run again for sheriff
- Several prosecution witnesses, including one of the investigators in this case, are angry with Hill because he fired them. They cannot be trusted, the defense says.
- Some of Hill’s credit card and vehicle use is defensible and did not amount to theft.