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Witness: Hill's first days as sheriff were 'hectic mess'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

When trying to paint a picture of Sheriff Victor Hill's first days in office, Tim Henner mostly explained why he couldn't describe them.

"It was very, very crazy in the sheriff's office," Henner said, testifying in a suit stemming from Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill's takeover in 2004.

"It was such a hectic mess in there, I just wanted to get out of there," he told the federal jury.

Jurors heard Henner's testimony first thing Tuesday morning, as attorneys attempted to reconstruct the events of Hill's first days, when George Mark Tuggle, the former sheriff's brother, was arrested on charges of making harassing phone calls.

Tuggle sued Hill, alleging he was arrested on the sheriff's orders in an attempt to quell criticism. Tuggle's attorney, William J. Atkins, has asked for punitive damages.

Atkins called Henner to testify that he heard Hill say he wanted Tuggle arrested, and also to tell the jury what it was like when Hill entered the sheriff's office.

Henner was a detective at the Clayton County Police Department, and had just quit to join Hill in what he thought was going to be a "forward thinking" law enforcement agency. When he got there, however, his first order was to help fire 27 members of the command staff.

As he saw "people's livelihoods and lives just basically destroyed in a matter of minutes," he said he realized this was "the most unpleasant experience" he'd ever had.

On the second day, Henner said he walked into the office and heard Tuggle's reaction to the mass firing, as it was played on a speakerphone for Hill.

The jury got to hear the phone message Tuggle left for a secretary on Jan. 3. Tuggle's recorded voice said he'd "like to get an appointment with that lil', short lil' [expletive] sheriff of y'alls."

The message was played early on the morning of Hill's second day, after the mass firing left everyone off kilter, and Hill heard the message and said "I want him locked up," Henner testified.

Hill's involvement is hotly disputed by his attorney, James Dearing. According to Dearing, Hill may not have even heard the phone message and whatever he said should have been construed as "do what you do" or "deal with it."

Dearing argued that the sheriff wasn't malicious and wasn't trying to stop anyone's constitutionally-protected right to criticize elected officials; he was just trying to bring change to Clayton County, as he had promised in his campaign.

Atkins, trying to prove Hill's tie to a very public arrest, asked Henner about the sheriff's statement.

"What did he say?" Atkins asked, though it had been repeated before.

"The sheriff said, 'I want him locked up,'" Henner testified.

"How did you understand it?"

"Exactly as he said it. There was no other way to take it."

"Was it an order?"

"Yes sir."

"Was that how you understood it?"

"Yes sir."

Hill listened to the testimony of his one-time supporter without much expression. He had his hand over his mouth, and he took notes on a steno pad. He wore a dark, blue suit with a sky-blue tie and pocket square, and there was no sign of his official position except a small, star-shaped lapel pin.

Dearing, defending Hill, pushed Henner even further, in explaining how he heard that sentence said four years ago.

"Was there malice in his voice?" Dearing asked.

"I didn't sense any malice in his voice, no," Henner said.

"Did the sheriff say you were to arrest Mr. Tuggle at all costs?"

"He said, 'I want him locked up,' and then he turned around and walked back into his office," Henner said. "[Tuggle] was clearly angry. And listening to it again, at the end, he slams the phone down," Henner said.

"At that point in time, because of everything that was happening, and you have to take into account the mood of the sheriff's office at the time, it concerned me," he continued.

Dearing characterized the lawsuit, in his opening argument to the jury, as the 2004 election battle being replayed in federal court. Tuggle's suit, he said, was started by the man's shock at a loss of privilege.

Atkins argued the suit is really about "all of us," and the right to criticize officials without fear of retaliation and arrest. Hill, according to Atkins, was trying to move the county toward a "police state," where his actions would go unquestioned, and no one would dare criticize.

The testimony Tuesday morning described an office undergoing drastic change. It was a dramatic change that Atkins (Tuggle's lawyer) is attempting to portray as Hill's ego running amok, while Dearing (Hill's lawyer) is trying to cast it as as the "winds of change" being resisted by privileged people.

Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday, before the jury is asked to decide the case.