Q&A: Vic Reynolds talks leaving Cobb DA’s office, leading GBI
Newly sworn-in GBI Director Vic Reynolds’ background has given him the opportunity to see the criminal justice system from all angles, which he said makes him a good fit for his new job.
Most recently, Reynolds served as Cobb’s district attorney, but he’s also worked as a police officer, a defense attorney and a judge.
“I think I bring something to this seat because of those different perspectives,” Reynolds said.
As director of the GBI, Reynolds will oversee more than 900 employees. The bureau also has a large crime lab and serves as the medical examiner for 154 of Georgia’s 159 counties.
Reynolds explained that generally speaking, the GBI mainly assists other agencies around the state.
“GBI is kind of a unique law enforcement agency. Our primary function is to assist when called upon. The Georgia statute allows a sheriff, a district attorney, a police chief, the governor (and) some entities of that nature to call the GBI and to say, ‘Will you assist us?’ And so that’s what our role is. We’re not first responders,” Reynolds said.
In a sit down interview with the MDJ, Reynolds discussed his priorities as GBI director, the criminal gang issue in Georgia, his time as Cobb’s district attorney and more.
The MDJ’s interview with Reynolds was conducted Thursday at the GBI’s headquarters in Decatur. It has been lightly edited for space and style.
Q: What are some of your top goals or top priorities?
A: ... Priority-wise, we’re going to start setting those out in the future. Right now, what we’re going to do is we’re going to be working very hard to develop a gang strike force in this state. We want the GBI to be the point of that spear where if local authorities say, you know, “We have a gang issue, we need some help,” we can send that strike force in to do that. … And what that unit will be doing is assisting local law enforcement agencies (and) local DAs from the beginning of a case — the investigation portion of it, all the things that are required to put a case together — to literally the point of indictment. ... If the district attorney needs some help in how to draft the indictment appropriately so it’ll withstand any attacks in court, we’ll be prepared to do that. And after the case is indicted, we’ll take a step back and allow that local prosecutor to go forward with his or her case.
Q: ... Can you talk about the prevalence of the gang issue? I know that was a big issue for you in Cobb, but statewide, can you give me a scope of the issue?
A: … The Georgia Gang Investigators Association, the GGIA, they did an actual statewide survey of all law enforcement agencies around the state. My understanding is these are soft numbers because some of the agencies didn’t respond. But after the survey was completed, GGIA released in July (2018) numbers telling us that there were approximately 71,000 gang members in the state of Georgia. My friends at the Department of Corrections who run the state prison system have indicated to me that of the prisoners in the state prison system in Georgia, over 13,000 of those inmates are validated gang members as well. So I would argue very strongly to anyone who doubted whether or not we have an issue just to look at those numbers. The FBI has told us that out of that 71,000 or so — and again, I think that’s a soft number, I think it’s higher — but out of the 71,000 or so, there are probably 30,000 (or) 35,000 gang members in the metropolitan Atlanta area. So we certainly have an issue here. …
Q: Do you think that the gang situation has gotten worse? You’ve been in law enforcement for a long time. Where are we (compared to) maybe five or 10 years ago? Is it getting worse? Is it getting better?
A: I think it’s getting worse. The last national gang threat assessment nationwide by the FBI was all the way back in 2011. In 2011, the FBI told us that the estimated gang membership in the United States was 1.4 million. It had increased (by) 400,000 people in two years. … In the last eight years, where we haven’t done in national gang threat assessment, it’s certainly a logical assumption that exponentially it’s continued to increase. The FBI’s told us based on their statistical analysis that anywhere between 48 percent to 90 percent — depending on where you’re at — of all violent crime in the community is committed by gang members. So minimally, you’re talking about close to half of violent crime — no matter where you’re at, rural Georgia, suburban Georgia, urban Georgia — (is) going to be committed by individuals who are gang members. So yeah, we have an issue, and it’s increasing. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to be so aggressive and so assertive on making sure that law enforcement in Cobb County charge the gang statute when it was appropriate. We indicted for it when it was appropriate. Once we did that, we drew a line and we said, “If you’re committing gang-motivated crime, we’re not going to dismiss this count. We’re not going to use it as a bargaining tool.” That doesn’t happen in Cobb, and our goal is to do our best here from the GBI to make sure eventually it doesn’t happen anywhere in Georgia. …
Q: What are the factors that have led to such a high gang participation or gang activity?
A: I think it’s a number of factors, and it’s basically, societally speaking, factors that most people if they take a moment would figure out. Young folks joining gangs are looking for something. They’re looking for what most of us, thankfully, find in our own homes: acceptance, love, attention. If we don’t find it at home, hopefully and prayerfully we’ll find it in a church, in a community, in a school. And that’s what these young folks are looking for. They’re looking for somebody to say, you know, this is a group you’re accepted in. We care about you. We’re going to watch your back. We’re going to protect you. … We have got to work hard and do our best to make sure that young people aren’t put in that situation where they’re looking for some form of acceptance, some form of group to belong to, and hopefully give them options to stay away from criminal activity with gangs. I’m very proud of the court we started in Cobb, the gang accountability court over in Juvenile Court with Judge (Wayne) Grannis. Judge Grannis runs that court. And it’s just a great system that gives these young guys who are headed down a road of gang activity a different option in their life. We can’t entirely depend on the court system to do that. The court system’s job is not to raise kids. That’s the families’ jobs to do that. So hopefully we’ll get better as a society and remember that kids, if you love them, if you take care of them, if you expect them to do right, most of the time they will.
Q: Other than the Gang Strike Force, what are going to be some of your other top priorities?
A: We’re going to continue to work very hard in making sure that we prosecute those individuals who would prey on children. You know, we have a very active unit here that investigates and works on crimes involving child pornography and internet crimes against children. And that unit will continue to be very assertive, very aggressive working with partners around the state and working with partners from other states. We intend on pursuing those cases very hard. The GBI has done a good job (and) been out on the cutting edge of prosecuting, arresting and making sure that those who heard the elderly victims were prosecuted. We’re going to continue to do that as well. We’re going to need to do a deep dive down to the crime lab itself. The crime lab is an extremely busy portion of the GBI. They have a backlog of cases, and my job and one of my goals is sooner rather than later to find out, you know, is this just a numbers game or is there some things that we can do to expedite those tests or if there’s some things that can be done by law enforcement and prosecutors around the state to help us help them by moving their cases quicker. So that’s one of the things we really need to take a look at. We’re in the process of expanding our medical examiner’s office down on the coast, down in the Pooler/Savannah area. We anticipate opening a new facility down there probably sometime mid (to) late summer. That’s one of the things we want to accomplish this year. So we certainly have our hands full. We’ve got a lot to do around the state, and as I said a little bit earlier, I was sometimes thinking about how much we had to do and how big Cobb county was. And now we’ve just multiplied that by adding another 158 counties. So it’s a busy job.
Editor’s note: Three prosecutors from the Cobb DA’s office will be following Reynolds to the GBI. Senior Assistant DA Jaret Usher will lead the GBI’s new Gang Strike Force. Acting DA John Melvin, formerly an assistant DA, will be the GBI’s chief of staff. Deputy Chief Assistant DA Mike Carlson, the head of the Cobb DA’s office appellate and gang sections, will become chief legal counsel for the GBI.
Q: Is there any concern that the cupboard is going to be left bare at the DA’s office? Obviously, you’ve got a lot of prosecutors and a lot of very capable people, but (the office is losing) institutional memory. These cases take a long time, so somebody’s got to pick up the baton, so to speak. What do you think about the state that the office will be left in with some of this talent following you?
A: Yeah, certainly those folks who are leaving will be missed. They’re excellent prosecutors, and they’ve added a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge to the Cobb DA’s office. But I will tell you that that’s really a good office. One of the things, if we did anything right in that office, we hired really good people. We trained them up. There’s folks, for example, who worked with Jaret (Usher) day in and day out who know how to prosecute gang cases. Mike Carlson leaves good lawyers there who know how to do the appellate work. John (Melvin) will certainly be missed, but he’s trained up an individual over the years to do the large RICO, white collar and elder abuse cases. And so they’ll certainly be missed, but I’m confident the office won’t miss a lick. It’ll move on and do exactly what it’s been doing.
Q: And I would imagine that a new DA would like to make some hires. So even if they were staying behind, I’m sure there would be some new blood with the new DA.
A: Yeah, there will be. I think anybody who comes in new certainly should have the option and the right to at least minimally bring in some command staff people with them, an administrative assistant, folks like that. And so yeah, whomever is the next DA will certainly have the right and should be able to bring in several people on their own. …
Q: Have you been given any indication when a new DA might be named?
A: You know, I haven’t. I was with the governor on Monday, and I was kind of teasing him a little bit saying, “I would imagine you’re getting inundated with a lot of folks who want to be DA.” And he said, “We have been, we’ve got a lot of folks giving high recommendations for a number of the candidates.” But he didn’t give me any indication of when that might occur. I told the people who are interested in that job that you have to remember the governor has got a lot of irons in the fire, and I’m sure he’ll get to the appointment sooner rather than later. And I’m confident whoever that person will be is going to do a tremendous job.
Q: Are you advising him on or giving him any names of people you might recommend to fill your shoes?
A: ... When the governor and I were talking, he asked me about the position. And I jokingly said, “Governor, that’s like asking me which one of my daughters do I love the most. I love them both the same.” And it would be very difficult for me to say appoint this person over that person. And he was very understanding. I will tell you that he said, “Vic, the last thing I want to do is ever drive a wedge between you and your folks.” And so he’s been very gracious about allowing me to bow out of the recommending position. And I think he knows the folks well enough and has enough recommendations from other people about each one where he’ll make a very wise choice.
Q: One of the names that’s being talked about around Cobb County is Joyette Holmes, the magistrate chief. (Do) you think she’d be a good fit?
A: I think she would be a fine fit. She’s an excellent magistrate judge. She was an excellent prosecutor for the Cobb DA’s office. She’s a fine individual. I think Chuck Boring and Jessie Evans in the DA’s office are both quality individuals. I think the governor can’t go wrong with any of those people. They’re all quality, sharp individuals. I think they would all be excellent district attorneys. And I told the folks ... when I left the office that I was confident whoever the next DA is would be the best DA we’ve ever had in Cobb County. And so whoever he appoints will have my 120 percent support.
Q: So staying with the DA’s office, what are some of the things that you’re proudest of that you accomplished in your time there?
A: You know, I thought about that when I decided I was going to leave, about some of the things we’ve accomplished. And I have kind of a short list of things I’m really, really proud of. Obviously, I’m proud of the work that we’ve done in fighting criminal street gangs in Cobb County. I think we worked hard to make it an issue that the public was aware of, and law enforcement did a good job in responding. I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done in the Cold Case Unit, bringing some peace and some closure to families who have waited for years and years to find out what happened to a loved one. I’m just so proud of the work they’ve done. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, as well, on our elder abuse cases. I think we pushed that issue to the forefront. And we really made a concerted effort to take care of vulnerable members of our population, and those are elderly folks. I’m proud of the work we did in animal abuse cases. I think that’s something that we made a priority, and we made sure that you couldn’t abuse animals in Cobb County, and if you did, you’d be punished. And taking a little bit different spin from that, I’m also proud of the work that we did to give people alternative options, as opposed to simply being prosecuted in a court of law. And by that I mean accountability courts. We expanded while I was there, and we started a Mental Health Court, we started a Veterans Court, we started a second Drug Court, we started the Gang Accountability Court over in Juvenile Court. So I’m very proud of our work there. We expanded the type of cases that we take in our pretrial diversion program. So I was really glad and proud of the effort the office made to give people an option when they messed up that wasn’t the normal situation of either going to jail or being on probation. So those are some things that I’m extremely proud of.
Q: About how many cases (did the cold case unit get) through since it started?
A: We started putting it together in 2014. It kind of hit the ground running in late 2014, early 2015. I don’t know the exact number. There are several cases come to mind. I’m very proud of the arrest on this 30-year-old homicide from the city of Marietta, the rape (and) double homicide of the mother and her 13-year-old daughter. I’m extremely proud of the cold case that we prosecuted from a hotel up around the Barrett Parkway area, the Rodney Castlin case. That was first cold case we went to a jury on. Some of your readers may not be aware (that) we expanded that cold case circumstance to look at sexual assault cases, rape cases as well. And we’ve recently, before I left, indicted a couple of cold case rape cases, trying to bring some closure to some victims. And I know they’re continuing to look at those cases as well. And so I don’t quite know the number, but I’m very proud of the work that both the homicide cold case unit and the sexual assault cold case unit has looked at as well.
Q: Touching on cold case rapes, the GBI has caught some flack in the past about untested rape kits. ... There was a law that got passed a few years ago directing (the GBI) to try to speed up that process. Can you talk about that and what the agency’s doing on that front?
A: Yeah. I think you have to remember what the history of those are. Basically what happened is when law enforcement would investigate a sexual assault, they would do a rape kit at the hospital. ... And they’d provide evidence to that law enforcement agency. Frequently what would happen is if there was not a known suspect, they wouldn’t send it to the crime lab. They would simply hold the rape kit and would never send it down for the purposes of testing. And then we began to realize that in fact there were a number of rape kits floating around out there with law enforcement agencies that had never even been sent to the crime lab for the purposes of testing. And so the Legislature got involved and provided some motivation for law enforcement agencies around the state to send all those into the crime lab. The crime lab has worked through those and provided the information back to the respective law enforcement agency. That’s what prompted us to begin the sexual assault cold case (unit) up in Cobb through some grant money that was again prompted by all these rape kits that had been sent in to the crime lab. So it wasn’t necessarily the crime lab was sitting on them. They had not received them to get them. ... And I understand that they say, “We’re investigating a case, why should we send this in? And we don’t even have a suspect.” ... But what’s happened over the years is we’ve begun accumulating DNA. And so now when you send it in and the crime lab does a test, it may very well be a hit on somebody where we have known DNA. And that’s helped us begin solving some of these crimes. Now, not every one that we test has a known DNA sample of someone in the system, but a handful has. I know even in Cobb when I was there, we were able to indict some of those old cases based on hits that we got because we tested those rape kits.
Q: So you’re still going to live up in Cobb and commute (to the GBI headquarters in Decatur)?
A: We are. My wife and I, we’re empty nesters now, so we’ve had some discussion about the possibility of kind of changing our lifestyle. Our house is a little too big for just us now. We’ve talked about perhaps downsizing, maybe even going to a townhouse situation. So we’re probably in the near future going to look at that. But I’m a pretty early riser. I get down here a little bit before seven in the mornings. We have a gym, so I work out at the GBI gym and shower and get ready here. So that fits my schedule real well. But Cobb is my home, and I don’t want to leave Cobb.