On May 17, a Glynn County police officer drove his pickup truck to a wooded area he’d often hunted. A handgun — and a note — lay beside him in the Ford’s cab.
The man inside was Lt. Robert C. Sasser and he was no ordinary cop.
Eight years ago, Sasser and his partner, Michael T. Simpson, committed one of the most brutal police shootings in recent memory when they opened fire on Caroline Small, a mother of two who’d led them on a low-speed chase through the streets of Brunswick. After they trapped Small’s disabled car, the two officers sprayed her windshield with bullets.
Then they discussed their marksmanship and how the bullets struck her face. Dash cam video captured the fatal shooting and their callous comments as Small lay slumped over the steering wheel. The GBI supervisor who oversaw the investigation called it the worst police shooting he’d ever reviewed.
Still, the courts found the shooting justified. Simpson and Sasser seemed to move on unscathed.
Simpson left the agency in 2014 and joined the local sheriff’s office in 2015, retiring later that year on medical disability. He died of brain cancer two years ago at 49.
Sasser, however, saw his career in the Glynn County police department advance after the shooting. The agency promoted him to lieutenant in 2016 and made him a shift command supervisor.
Then, last month, Sasser’s 20-year career in policing unravelled. On May 13, he tried to force his way inside the home of his estranged wife and threatened her. He faced battery and trespass charges and an internal investigation.
As deputies tried to make contact with him in the woods four days later, they heard a gunshot. The news ricocheted through Glynn County law enforcement and political circles.
Alan David Tucker, Sasser’s attorney, and others thought Sasser killed himself.
“The rumor mill went rampant,” Tucker said.
A questionable shooting, a doubtful prosecution
Five years before the Small shooting, Sasser shot and wounded a man during a drug arrest at a local gas station. He said the suspect tried to run him over and he shot him because he feared for his life.
But nothing in his career eclipsed the notoriety he and his department received for the events of June 18, 2010.
That morning a Glynn County officer approached Small’s silver Buick in the parking lot of a local mall. She was recently divorced, had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a dissociative disorder and had history of drug addiction. She drove off when the officer asked her to turn off her engine.
A 20-minute low-speed chase ended when Sasser, Simpson and a Georgia State Patrol trooper hemmed in Small’s vehicle between their police cruisers and a utility pole. Small revved her engine and inched the car back and forth, but she had four flat tires and no where to go. The trooper tried to get her out of the vehicle, but when he sensed Sasser and Simpson were going to fire their weapons, he ducked out of the way.
The officers said they shot because they feared for their lives. A grand jury that met in August 2011 believed their story and found the shooting justified. But the public didn’t know many of the details of the case until after the grand jury met.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation in 2015 raised additional doubts about how local authorities handled the case. It revealed that GBI investigators and several prosecutors in the Glynn County district attorney’s office doubted the officers’ actions from the beginning.
The news investigation revealed the Glynn police department interfered with the GBI probe and created misleading evidence that was later presented to the grand jury. Records and interviews revealed how Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson took several unusual steps that favored the officers.
Several former prosecutors in her office at the time of the shooting spoke out publicly for the first time and accused her of prosecutorial misconduct. One called the shooting a murder and said the way Johnson presented the case to the grand jury amounted to a coverup. Johnson has said in the past she handled the case properly.
The release of the graphic dash cam video, publicized with the AJC/Channel 2 investigation, shocked viewers around the world.
Small’s family formed Justice for Caroline, a group that tried to have the case reopened. They maintained the shooting was unnecessary and the officers’ offensive comments afterward showed a lack of compassion and professionalism dangerous to the public.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard about the incident with his family,” said Karen McGehee, Small’s mother. “He seems like a person with all these problems.”
Standoff in the woods
The May 17 incident in the woods didn’t end with a gunshot in Sasser’s truck.
A swarm of local and state law enforcement officials descended on the swampy wooded area off State Highway 99 in response to a barricaded gunman call, and concluded Sasser was alive.
The SWAT team’s commander, Lt. Gregory Shackleford, drove from Dalton to lead the effort to lure Sasser from his truck and end the incident peacefully. But hours of negotiations went nowhere.
Police vehicles surrounded Sasser and trained their headlights on his pickup, hemming him in against the marsh. A SWAT armored vehicle pressed down against the truck’s rear tailgate.
Sometime past midnight, according to records, Sasser asked to talk to a local judge. He opened the door of his truck and sat on the edge of the vehicle.
Sasser appeared to be crying and shaking his head back and forth, records show. Snipers and police quietly surrounded him.
Shackleford sensed Sasser was at a mental crossroads. As Shackleford inched up near the rear of the truck, he could see Sasser holding a cell phone — but no gun.
The Georgia State Patrol commander aimed his Taser and fired, hitting Sasser in the left side. Sasser fell face down into a nearby pond and two SWAT officers moved in. Shackleford tased him again. The other officers restrained Sasser, searched him and moved him to the bed of the truck to check for injuries. They found no self-inflicted wound.
Officers saw Sasser’s handgun resting on the dash of the truck. A suicide note was on the front passenger seat, records show.
Criminal charges, investigation next
Sasser’s career in law enforcement in Georgia is likely over.
He faces felonies from the standoff with police, misdemeanors from the domestic abuse of his wife and a Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council investigation that is likely to lead to the permanent revocation of his police certification. Glynn County’s police department has moved to fire him.
Sasser has remained silent about the Small shooting, never speaking publicly. He denied repeated interview requests over the years from the AJC. But Tucker said two decades of policing, especially the two shootings Sasser was involved in as an officer, scarred him deeply.
“He’s been through a lot over the years and it’s taken a toll,” Tucker said.
Like Small, Sasser suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Tucker said, and he had been prescribed Zoloft to manage depression. The episode with his estranged wife was exacerbated when he saw her with another man, according to Tucker, who spoke on behalf of his client. Sasser denies acting in an offensive manner toward his wife, Tucker said.
Members of Justice for Caroline, meanwhile, are struck by the contrast between Sasser’s encounter with the SWAT team, and the fate that befell a troubled young woman.
“When I think about the stark differences between the circumstances of Caroline’s death and Sasser’s recent arrest, I get very angry,” said Bob Apgar, a leader in the Tallahassee-based group. “Caroline did not have a firearm and did not assault or threaten to assault anyone, but Sasser and Simpson shot her to death within 30 seconds of the time that her vehicle was stopped and surrounded.”
Sasser spent several days in a local hospital after the SWAT standoff. At his May 24 bond hearing, a local judge banned him from Glynn County as a condition of his release. He moved to Alabama to live with a sister. His bond conditions require him to get treatment for PTSD at a VA hospital there. The worst part of his exile is being away from his 10-year-old son, Tucker said.
Sasser plans to appeal his firing. Tucker expects Sasser will prevail in his court case when all the facts come out.
As for his future as a police officer, Sasser doesn’t want to be kicked out of the profession, but even if he keeps his certification he’s considering going into another line of work, Tucker said. He was cleared in the Small shooting, Tucker said, but he’s not proud of taking a life.
“I think he’s carried remorse and guilt around with him every day,” Tucker said. “Unfortunately we don’t get to turn back the hands of the clock.”
Reporters chronicled Small’s family’s quest for justice and the doubts that former prosecutors raised about how Glynn County District Attorney Jacqueline Johnson maneuvered the wheels of justice to exonerate the officers.