GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. - When Caroline Small graduated from Glynn County's drug court program in 2005, she finally had hope.
"I want to be productive. I want to give back to the community that for so long so freely has given to me," she told the audience at the graduation.
Small had struggled with drug addiction for as long as she could remember, and she recounted her journey.
"That was what I ultimately wanted to do, to escape," she said.
But five years later it would be a very different kind of escape during a mental health lapse that would cost her her life.
"It is something we live with every day," said Keith Small, who is raising their young daughter, Aniliese Small, as a single father.
Keith and Caroline Small had recently parted; she'd received the final divorce papers just days before she died.
"We have pictures of Caroline up around the house. Me and Annie talk about her often; she's in her prayers," he said.
Small thinks his ex-wife was in a dissociative trance that day in June 2010. She was in therapy but struggling.
"She needed help; she didn't need to be shot," he said. "I don't think she had any intentions whatsoever of trying to hurt anybody."
But that's not what Officers Corey Sasser and Todd Simpson said after firing eight shots into Caroline Small's windshield.
"I'm thinking from watching her that she's going to come through the side here and crush me in the door," Sasser told attorneys during depositions in 2013.
"That was one of the worst days of my life," recounted Simpson.
The Deadly Encounter
Caroline Small had been sitting in her car in a hotel parking lot when an officer approached and thought she was using drugs. She wasn't, but she took off anyway.
The low-speed chase lasted more than 15 minutes, stop sticks flattened her tires, and a state trooper finally got her stopped up against a telephone pole.
In the officers' dashboard camera video, you can see the trooper, Jonathan Malone, run around Small's car to try to help diffuse the situation.
"Let me get out here and get her out," Malone is heard saying on the video.
But when Malone looked up, the Glynn County police officers had their guns pointed in his direction.
Small repeatedly jerked her car back and forth between the pole and the patrol cars.
"If she moves the car, I'm going to shoot her," Simpson is heard yelling.
Then, 2 seconds later, eight bullets enter Small's windshield.
The Glynn County police chief called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review the shooting.
Special Agent in Charge Mike McDaniel supervised the case, which he can now speak freely about, since he's recently retired.
"Most GBI agents that were working on the case felt like it was a bad shoot," McDaniel told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer. "This is the worst one I've ever investigated.”
He found the officers' statements right after the shooting especially troubling.
"She's D-O-A (dead on arrival). I got her right between the eyes," Simpson tells an eyewitness, who was a former emergency medical technician who wanted to render aid.
But instead of checking to see if Small was alive, the officers discussed their marksmanship.
"I hit her right in the face," Sasser remarks on the recording.
Simpson replies, "I watched the bridge of her nose. I pulled the trigger and I watched it hit her at the same time."
Small lived for five more days without ever waking up.
"They were acting more like they shot a deer or were out hunting," said McDaniel. "It's not what I would expect an officer's reaction to be after they were in fear of their lives and shot somebody."
A Tainted Investigation?
At the same time the GBI conducted its investigation, Glynn County police were doing their own and questioning the witnesses, as well.
"Looking back at it now, I'm pretty sure they were trying to interfere with us and keep us from doing our job," said McDaniel.
He remembers one officer telling him the department only called in the GBI for public perception.
That's something Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering firmly denies.
"If an officer said that, it's inaccurate," said Doering, "I don't call the GBI in for public appearance. Now if they felt that, that might have been what they felt, but I never expressed that to anybody."
GBI Director Vernon Keenan said he's never seen another agency behave like the Glynn County Police Department.
"They wanted to argue with us about investigative steps that we were taking, and they were criticizing agents' actions," said Keenan.
Keenan says he changed the state agency's policy as a result of the conflict and controversy in this case, and he now keeps local departments at arm's length during these kinds of cases.
Doering said his agency has a good working relationship with the GBI, but he did complain about how one investigator treated his officers.
"You have to be impartial and you have to make certain that you don't become accusatory when you interview an officer, even if you personally feel an officer's actions was unreasonable and inappropriate," said Doering.
The chief also defended an animated video his department created, which shows Small easily steering her car through a gap between the patrol cars and running over officers in the process.
McDaniel says it was misleading. "Those measurements in that cartoon are not correct. They've got the car turning coming through at the officers, which you and I know can't happen," McDaniel said.
Plus, Simpson's patrol vehicle, which was parked somewhere in that gap, was moved before the GBI arrived at the scene. It's not pictured in the animation at all.
But Doering says that's not relevant.
"I felt the officers following the law, as I know the law to be, were justified," said Doering, "That's what I ruled then and I rule now."
A year after the shooting a grand jury agreed and, in a split decision, voted to clear the officers.
But when Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started digging through the records, there were contradictions.
"There was nothing in my mind that justified them shooting her," said former Waycross District Attorney Rick Currie, who reviewed the case as a second opinion for the Glynn County district attorney.
He cites Trooper Malone's heroic actions, indicating he was not in fear for his life at that time, or he wouldn't have run up to Caroline's car. He only retreated when he looked up and saw officers Sasser and Simpson pointing their guns in his direction.
"They should have been prosecuted, there's no doubt about that," said Currie, "Everything was right there on the tape; I really don't know how the grand jury didn't indict."
Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson refused repeated requests for an on-camera interview regarding her handling of the Caroline Small shooting.
Records show she signed deals with officers Sasser and Simpson before the grand jury proceeding, and agreed not to show the grand jury the indictment she'd drafted.
"We were not handed anything like this," said grand juror Byron Bennett, while examining the court records he'd never seen, "That's not right, this should have been presented to us."
Bennett says there was no deliberation; the grand jury took one vote by show of hands. It's haunted him from the moment he left the courthouse.
"I voted the wrong way," said Bennett, "We failed that lady, we failed the process."
Bennett says he always hoped Johnson would take the case to another grand jury, and he still does.
"We need to hear the whole side, it should have went to regular court," said Bennett.
Grand juror Chuck McManus says he wishes Johnson had presented an indictment and described elements of the listed crimes, as she had in each of the other cases they heard.
In Caroline Small's case, Johnson only asked the grand jury to decide whether the officers' actions were justified.
"She definitely wasn't pushing for an indictment, no question about that," said McManus, "It kind of seemed like she wasn't trying to prove anything."
Court records also show that Johnson handed over copies of the evidence in the case to the officers' defense attorneys two months prior to the grand jury proceeding, which is almost unheard of when there hasn't been an arrest or indictment.
District attorneys have complete discretion over whether to present a case to a grand jury or not, and which witnesses or evidence to use.
Johnson allowed a Glynn County police officer to testify as a rebuttal witness to the GBI; he presented details from the internal affairs investigation which cleared the officers and included the animation the department created.
When asked why his department would give the district attorney an inaccurate animation video to be used as evidence, Chief Doering replied, "The DA had the choice to accept that and present it, she didn't have to present that."
Civil court records show Doering and Johnson had discussed the Caroline Small case before she was appointed as district attorney, he even wrote the governor a letter supporting her for the job.
"That's not any kind of grand jury I've ever been a part of or ever heard of," said the GBI's McDaniel, who still believes the officers should have somehow been held accountable for their actions.
He things the grand jury did not hear a fair representation of the case.
"There's no question [Caroline] bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened to her," said attorney Bill Atkins who represented the family in a civil case filed against the county, "She deserved to go to jail, she didn't deserve to die."
That civil case never made it to trial either.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood concluded that Small's death was not 'necessary', but that the officers did not violate her constitutional rights. Wood threw the case out, citing that given the circumstances, it did not meet the standard that 'every objectively reasonable officer standing in the defendants' place' would have known that those actions were clearly unlawful.
The appellate court upheld her decision.
"It never sounded right, never ever," said Gaby McGuire, while sitting on the porch of her transitional house now named Caroline's. She wanted to honor the close friend she lost.
"She loved life, and she wanted to help others that were struggling like she had struggled," said McGuire.
She believes Caroline was suffering from a mental health episode during her encounter with police.
"I talked to her the night before she was shot, she was not okay in her head," said McGuire.
Even five years later, she wants the truth to be told, "Bringing it out to light is the best thing. Will it save Caroline's life? No. But it might save somebody else's life."
Jackie Johnson sent a statement to Channel 2 Action News:
“As District Attorney, I do not want my words used to compound the tragic nature of this case for our community. I respect the Glynn County Grand Jury’s finding that the officers acted lawfully as well as the findings of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia which specifically addressed the reasonableness of the officers’ use of deadly force.”
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