January 12, 2023

Savannah Police Department Chief Lenny Gunther after being sworn in on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. Credit: Savannah Police Department

New chief sworn in

In a packed auditorium in the Savannah Cultural Arts Center, a mix of uniformed police officers, their families, city bureaucrats and elected officials gathered to watch Savannah’s 30th police chief’s swearing-in on Tuesday evening.

Chief Lenny Gunther, 46, took his oath of office on a Bible held by his son. He spoke to the attendees after a standing ovation. 

“Our community has demanded and deserves a chief that understands it, loves it, and will do what’s best for it and everyone in it,” Gunther said. “Well, Savannah. You have found that person in me, standing before you this evening.”

A true police officer’s chief, Gunther started his career as a patrol officer in Savannah in 2001 and rose up to interim chief last summer following the departure of former Chief Roy Minter. 

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) undertook a search for candidates and recommended Gunther and two other candidates to the city: Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, deputy chief of the Louisville Police Department and former major for the Atlanta Police Department, and Scott Booth, chief of police in Danville, Va., according to public records.

City Manager Jay Melder ultimately hired Gunther for the job last month. 

Gunther’s resume cited his accomplishments as interim and assistant chief: overseeing the expansion of the ShotSpotter gunshot detection program, requiring officers to attend community meetings to increase trust, and updating rules on use of force and officer discipline.

Former Camden County Administrator and Spaceport Camden Project Leader Steve Howard shown during a job interview in a Florida county last year. Credit: Youtube screen grab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlLctE8xtAo

Defamation suit fails to take off

A Brunswick judge dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by a former Camden County official and Spaceport proponent who said he was defamed by a political advertisement.

Former Camden County Administrator Steve Howard filed the lawsuit last July, alleging that an ad taken out by current Camden County Commissioner Jim Goodman hurt his reputation and “exposed him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

The ad by Goodman, who was a St. Mary’s councilman at the time and running for commissioner, questioned Howard’s lack of oversight when Camden’s Public Service Authority head diverted $1.7 million in public funds and was subsequently sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison in 2020. 

The ad in the Tribune & Georgian weekly newspaper said Howard “preside(d) over a multi-million-dollar THEFT of PSA funds.” Howard said he didn’t have any involvement in oversight of PSA monies.

The context: Howard led the $11 million charge to bring a rocket launch site to Camden County, something county voters opposed.  Goodman rode into office as an anti-Spaceport candidate. 

Ultimately, Superior Court Judge Roger B. Lane found that Howard’s lawsuit didn’t pass muster for defamation – Goodman’s statement is considered an expression of opinion, and there isn’t evidence Goodman believed the statement was false when he put it out, according to the court order.

Southern District of Georgia U.S. Attorney David Estes announces a massive drug trafficking related indictment on January 11, 2023. Credit: Jake Shore/The Current

Targeting drug trafficking

Coastal Georgia’s top federal prosecutor and Glynn County law enforcement leaders announced a massive cluster of indictments Wednesday of alleged traffickers of fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, and alprazolam (Xanax).

Southern District of Georgia U.S. Attorney David Estes said grand jurors indicted 76 people for a conspiracy to traffic drugs in at least nine South Georgia counties. The investigation was based in Glynn County and targeted members in gangs, such as The Ghost Face Gangsters, the Bloods, and the Aryan Brotherhood, whom allegedly conspired “with greed as their common factor,” Estes said.

It is the largest set of indictments in the history of the district, prosecutors said.

Most surprisingly “much of this activity happened inside Georgia prisons with the help of at least one corrupt guard,” according to FBI Atlanta Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Jermaine Deans. The guard, Desiree Briley, faces charges as well.

The Current‘s Jake Shore asked prosecutors and the Georgia Department of Corrections to share which prisons were involved. Prosecutors declined to answer and the GDC has not yet had a chance to respond.

Long gun Credit: Alexander Andrews/Unsplash

Before you go

Increase in GA guns bought: Gun purchases are up 12% in Georgia from December 2021 to December 2022, The Trace finds. 

Georgians purchased 37,621 handguns and long guns last month, up from 33,624 from the year before. 

One hopeful thing: A landmark federal gun law passed last summer has recently been implemented across the country and has begun intervening in risky firearm purchases by troubled young people. 

Federal background checks stopped at least 27 young people under mental health duress or with concerning criminal backgrounds from buying firearms, according to the Wall Street Journal. The numbers were provided by the FBI to U.S. Senators.

The law passed in Congress and signed by President Joe Biden mandates that federal authorities check with state law enforcement and for juvenile criminal records or mental health related records when anyone under 21 attempts to buy a gun. They now have 10 days to conduct the background check as well. 

The rare bipartisan agreement came to fruition after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Tx. left 19 children and two teachers dead. The shooter was 18-years-old and had displayed signs he was unstable and possibly planning a violent attack, the Texas Tribune reported.

Because of the new law, there have been nine times as many denials for 18-to-21-year-olds’ gun purchases since June, according to lawmakers.

Have a question, comment, or story idea? Email me at jakeshore.thecurrent@gmail.com.

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...