In Atlanta, Possible Firings to Follow Courthouse Shootings

ATLANTA -- The sheriff responsible for protecting the downtown courthouse where a shooting spree led to the deaths of a judge and three others wants to fire at least four deputies over security lapses in the weeks leading up to and the day of the attacks, a union official said Wednesday.

The deputies received letters from Sheriff Myron Freeman on Monday and Tuesday stating that he planned to fire them, but first will give them a chance to respond before taking final action, said Sgt. Charles Rambo, president of Local 453 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, Sgt. Nikita Hightower, declined to discuss the situation, citing confidential personnel matters and that the officers involved were entitled to due process.

Freeman and his department have been under pressure since the March 11 shootings at the Fulton County Courthouse. A man on trial for rape is accused of grabbing a deputy's gun and killing a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy. Brian Nichols also is accused of killing a federal agent north of downtown before surrendering the next day in an Atlanta suburb.

Security has been tightened at the courthouse since the shootings, and several investigations and security reviews have been launched.

Rambo identified the four deputies who received termination letters as Capt. Chelesa Lee, Sgt. Jerome Dowdell, Deputy Paul Tamer and Lt. Twantta Mathis. None could immediately be reached for comment. Phone numbers for Tamer and Mathis are not listed. A woman who answered the phone at a listing in Jonesboro for Jerome Dowdell hung up after a reporter identified himself.

Rambo said there are other deputies that also could be fired or otherwise disciplined, but he only knew of letters received by union members. His union represents about 300 Fulton County sheriff's deputies and jail officers. The department has 500 to 600 sworn deputies, 300 jail officers and a handful of security specialists, he said.

Lee has been accused of ordering a subordinate responsible for monitoring the courthouse security cameras to get her breakfast around the time of the shootings.

But Lee's attorney, Michael Puglise, said Wednesday that Lee only asked the employee to get her breakfast on the deputy's way back from his break, which he was entitled to take. Puglise also noted that there was still another deputy monitoring the cameras at the time.

"I don't feel she should be fired," Puglise said after attending a meeting earlier in the day with his client and the sheriff.

He said Lee, an 18-year veteran of the department, presented her case at the meeting and answered all questions truthfully. Puglise said Freeman seemed to be keeping an open mind about whether to follow through with the firings.

A report released last week by an independent panel reviewing the shootings said Dowdell got a phone call from his pastor that seemed to foreshadow the shooting rampage.

Shiloh Baptist Church pastor Otis White called Dowdell in late February with a warning that Nichols had told his mother he would overpower a deputy and take the officer's weapon if a trial verdict didn't go his way.

The report said Dowdell failed to urge Nichols to realize the consequences of his threats and did not alert proper authorities about the warning.

The panel also concluded that Tamer shirked his duties when he left a bank of security cameras unmanned the morning of the shootings and did not respond to alarms in the slain judge's chambers or a nearby courtroom.

Rambo said the accusations against the deputies could range from lapses in security to failure to communicate critical information.

Rambo was critical of the decision to fire the four deputies. He said that if anyone should be disciplined, it should be Freeman, who runs the department.

"His initial report that he put out about the shootings was filled with so many inconsistencies and so many credibility issues that this is what the task force basically worked itself around," Rambo said.