ATLANTA — It began long before last February's killing of a dance club owner. But it was with that shooting--and the subsequent arrests--that Atlanta's crime ring of bodybuilding cops burst into the news.
Nightclub owner Henry Lamar Jeffcoat was shot nine times in his car during a midnight robbery attempt Feb. 10. Investigators said two armed men, apparently trying to repeat a similar 1991 ambush that netted robbers more than $62,000, slipped into Jeffcoat's garage behind him as he returned home from his nightclub.
This time, the 50-year-old Jeffcoat was prepared--or at least he thought he was. Before he wounded one of his attackers with a handgun and died in a hail of bullets, he activated a button in the car that alerted police.
The garage still was filled with smoke from the shootout when police arrived. The attackers had escaped by kicking a hole in the garage door, which Jeffcoat had closed by remote control. A trail of blood led into the nearby woods and vanished.
But within three weeks, police, acting on a tip, arrested two suspects in the slaying--two police officers from the suburban Riverdale SWAT team.
Eventually, they uncovered a professional burglary and robbery ring composed mainly of officers from several Atlanta-area law enforcement agencies.
The case had been scheduled to go to trial here next Monday, but on Wednesday a judge postponed it until June 1.
Although targets of the gang's crimes allegedly included grocery stores and hardware stores, one arrested officer who later cooperated with police told reporters that he joined the ring because he was told the victims would be drug dealers.
"The money was supposed to be dirty, so to speak," he said.
The gang members allegedly called themselves "white boys against crime."
"Police have enough community relations problems right now," Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett said when news of the crime ring broke. "We're still trying to get over the Rodney King incident, and things like this don't help."
Five law officers were charged in all. They included, in addition to the two Riverdale SWAT team members, two Atlanta police officers and a Fulton County (Atlanta) sheriff's deputy, who was indicted for burglaries and robberies not directly related to the Jeffcoat killing.
Also indicted were four other men who were not law enforcement officers. Three were current or former employees of the Goldrush Showbar, the club owned by Jeffcoat that featured nude dancers. The fourth was a dog trainer and regular customer.
Most of the gang members shared an interest in bodybuilding. A number of them were regulars at Gold's Gym in nearby Fayetteville.
And, given their alleged modus operandi, strong arms and backs were important. Authorities charge that the men broke into 18 businesses in Atlanta and Clayton County over the last year, and in many cases carted away the safes. One 450-pound safe was taken from a convenience store south of Riverdale only a week before Jeffcoat's slaying.
A number of safes later were fished out of local rivers and ponds, including one favorite fishing spot of the alleged triggerman.
It turned out that Clayton County police had begun investigating the possibility that a police burglary ring was operating a month before Jeffcoat was killed. They did not realize that the burglaries and the Jeffcoat slaying were connected, however, until a telephoned tip led them to Riverdale police officers James C. Batsel IV, 30, and Mark D. McKenna, 27.
Police allege that Batsel emptied his 15-round pistol at Jeffcoat, hitting him nine times in the back. Batsel, a police officer for almost five years, had reported his SWAT equipment, including his 9-millimeter pistol, stolen from his personal vehicle seven days after the shooting.
McKenna, an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, was shot in the cheek during the robbery attempt. The bullet came out behind his ear. He took sick leave and vacation time after the shooting so he could heal at home.
McKenna has been cooperating with authorities in return for a promise that the district attorney will not seek the death penalty or life without parole, his attorney told reporters. He helped police unravel the scandal, linking the officers to other crimes, including a $30,000 burglary of a Home Depot store.
His attorney said he participated in the crimes because of financial problems that sprang from tax problems and his wife's medical bills.