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September 25, 2003 Issue

Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers remove boxes of unknown items from the Jefferson County coroner's office.

Coroner under investigation

GBI issues search warrants for coroner's home and office

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

The home and office of Jefferson County Coroner Johnny Nelson was the target Sept. 19 of a search warrant by agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). The search was part of an unspecified investigation requested by the Georgia Attorney General.

Two GBI agents arrived at the coroner's office on Greene Street in Louisville shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday. Another agent arrived a few minutes later, accompanied by Nelson. Approximately one hour later Deputy Coroner Mike Bennett arrived at the office. All emerged 30 minutes later after agents carried two cardboard boxes from the building and placed them in a state vehicle. Agents also produced a search warrant when they arrived later at Nelson's residence.

Later Thursday, Thomson GBI spokesman Mike Siegler said the agency had executed search warrants of Nelson's home and office as a part of an ongoing investigation at the request of the Georgia Attorney General. Siegler said he could not comment on any information that might have been removed by agents.

Russ Willard, communications director for the attorney general's office, confirmed Monday that the investigation was proceeding but declined to elaborate on the circumstances or the nature of the inquiry by his office.

Repeated messages to Nelson were not returned. When contacted Tuesday, deputy coroner Mike Bennett referred all questions and comments to the coroner.

An Open Records Law request made to the Jefferson County Commission office in Louisville showed that a total of 304 deaths have been investigated by the coroner's office since Nelson took office Jan. 1, 2001. Jefferson County Health Department reports a total of 515 death certificates issued during the same period.

Coroners in Georgia are paid $125 per death investigation. Of the deaths investigated, Nelson was paid $17,500 for the 140 deaths he investigated since taking office.

Deputy coroner Mike Bennett was paid $20,250 for investigating 162 deaths and former deputy coroner Fay McGahee was paid $250 for investigating two deaths.

County Administrator Paul Bryan said Tuesday that the coroner receives compensation for death investigations after submitting an itemized invoice to the commission office.

The coroner's office is not a revenue-generating center in the county budget and there is no provision within the budget to accept revenue for charges for his services.

The coroner and deputy coroner receive a modest salary as required by law beginning in 2002. They also receive a mileage reimbursement for travel to the site of death investigations.

The state requires that either a coroner or a physician certify a death.

Funeral home directors may sign a death certificate but only as it relates to the disposition of the body for purposes of burial or cremation.

Also required by the state and routed through local health departments are the fees associated with death certificates.

A $10 fee is charged for a records search and one copy of the death certificate. Additional copies carry a $5 fee.

Wrens officers arrest two on drug charges

Officers stunned by condition of one suspected drug addict

By Parish Howard

Wrens Police Chief David Hannah said it was one of the worst drug cases he has ever seen.

"I wish everyone could have seen it so they could show it to their children," he said. "Show them and tell them this is what getting mixed up with drugs will do for you."

Sunday morning, a little after 9 a.m. an employee of Lloyds Auto Parts called in a suspicious vehicle parked in the buisness's parking lot.

Responding officers found a car stereo on the ground near the vehicle, some scattered personal belongings and three occupants apparently asleep in the Florida-based rental vehicle.

The man and two women awoke when officers knocked on the window.

A woman in the back seat was naked from the waist up, Hannah said and appeared to have been severely beaten.

"She had cuts all over her arms and her eyes were blue-black," he said. "The occupants seemed to be under the influence of something."

The Wrens K-9 unit was called to the scene where it hit on the vehicle and even on the spot where one of the occupants had been sitting, an officer said.

"One of the occupants told us they had been cooking cocaine down, diluting it with water and shooting up with it," Hannah said. "They said they had gone through about three grams in three days."

Officers recovered a number of unidentified pills, some of which had been individually bagged. They also found several hypodermic needles, some of which still had a liquid substance inside. Along with other drug paraphrenalia, officers confiscated 0.7 grams of marijuana.

The injured woman told officers she had been beaten by a drug dealer in Dearing in a "bad drug deal," the incident report reads.

Denise Brown, 50, of Greencove, Fla. and Michael Shane Tillman, 31, of Jacksonville, Fla., were both charged with possession and use of drug related objects and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

The female who had been beaten so severely was transported to MCG but had not been charged as of Tuesday.

Both Brown and Tillman claimed to have been passing through town on their way back to Florida when they got sleepy and decided to pull over.

Officers are in the process of sending the recovered items off to the state crime lab for identification. The investigation is on going and Hannah said the other charges could be pending.

Sheriff's cars getting radar

Details still being worked out, but the new equipment is on the way for Sheriff deputies' vehicles

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

The details have yet to be worked out but a sea change in traffic enforcement in Jefferson County is on the horizon. Sheriff's deputies will soon begin using radar to hold down excessive speeds along the Fall Line Freeway and other roads in Jefferson County. Speaking to commissioners at the Sept. 2 work session, Sheriff Gary Hutchins cited the ever-increasing number of vehicles traveling county roadways and the human tragedies that result from high-speed crashes as reasons for the move.

"We have the four-lane highway coming in now. We have more traffic and we are having a real problem with people speeding," said Hutchins. "With the four-lane from Richmond County into Wrens and with the other four lanes coming from Sandersville speed is going to be a major factor with the traffic."

A check of Georgia Department of Transportation traffic flow counts from 2002 shows a large increase in traffic along US Highway 1 over figures compiled in 1998.

Vehicles passing through the north side of Wadley increased from 5,800 vehicles per day in 1998 to 7,343 in 2002. Greater increases were evidenced in Louisville. The north side of the bypass saw 9,674 vehicles per day in 2002 compared to 6,900 in 1998.

The increase in Wrens in the past several years was even more dramatic. A total of 6,500 vehicles per day traveling through Wrens in 1998 increased to 14,122 in 2002.

County administrator Paul Bryan told commissioners the sheriff needed their support in the form of a resolution in order to go forward with implementing the use of radar.

All state routes and more than two-dozen county roads will be included. Bryan cited health and safety concerns for county residents and those passing through the county as the reason for the move. Commissioners voted 4-0 in favor of the resolution.

Hutchins told commissioners the state Department of Highway Safety is already looking at Jefferson County as one of the counties where higher than usual instances of tractor-trailer accidents occur.

The county is currently awaiting approval from the state and the installation of signs on county roads to begin running radar. The state requires that signs indicating the use of radar be posted along the affected roads. State routes are already posted and require no additional posting.

Hutchins acknowledged that running radar in Jefferson County might be something that some residents may find objectionable. But the increase in traffic countywide, the continuing completion of Fall Line Freeway projects in the county and the right of residents and their families to be as safe as possible on county roadways were all important factors in the decision, he said.

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