ATLANTA — The commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice assured Augusta lawmakers Tuesday that her department and the GBI are doing everything they can to investigate the November death of a teen detainee and address personnel problems at the troubled Augusta YDC.
Gale Buckner, who has led the department for a few months, told local legislators that a team of 20 Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents began interviewing staff at the Augusta Youth Development Campus at 5 a.m. Tuesday, seeking information on several fronts, including the November beating death of a 19-year-old.
Buckner said the daylong interviews would also probe new allegations of sexual contact between security officers and the detained youths – some of which have been confirmed or admitted to – and instances of contraband smuggled into the facility. The contraband has included cellphones and cigarettes, and things such as gum and potato chips, which seem harmless but become bargaining tools.
In a news release sent out Tuesday night, Buckner announced three more staff changes. Capt. Victor Martin, whom The Augusta Chronicle reported Monday was terminated, was let go “for a misconduct policy violation based on making calls from his state issued cell phone to a cell phone confiscated from a resident.”
In a separate investigation, corrections officer Tracy Banks had been previously suspended with pay for “a sexual misconduct policy violation involving a resident,” and has since resigned, according to the release.
Lt. Chiquita Owsley was “disciplined for negligence that created a breach of security,” for losing a set of “highly restricted facility keys, resulting in a lockdown,” the release says. The keys have not been recovered.
Buckner told Augusta legislators earlier Tuesday that she could not provide any detail until the completion of the joint investigation.
“When that criminal investigation began and the other problem areas started to come of light, we have both criminally and administratively done our best to ensure that we have been as detailed as possible,” she said. “However, we made the decision – it was a joint decision between GBI and myself – that we wanted to ensure that no one did not have an opportunity to talk in private with an investigator on any topic that he or she might have.”
At this point, interviews are voluntary.
“Everyone has the right not to cooperate in a criminal investigation,” Buckner said. “However, if you choose not to do that, we can compel you do to that. So I would encourage folks to take advantage of that opportunity.”
The delegation asked to meet with Buckner to address concerns about the facility. Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah, told Buckner her concerns are not new.
“You know that facility was not safe and was understaffed. I’m getting texts right now from parents who are worried,” she said. “I’ve been getting them for a long time now.”
Buckner asked the lawmakers in Atlanta to offer her personal phone number and e-mail address to YDC staff who contact them in case there is something she should hear directly.
Back in Augusta on Tuesday, GBI Special Agent in Charge Mike Ayers said he does not foresee any arrests coming from the day’s interviews.
“We’re talking to all staff members about anything that can help with our investigation,” he said.
The homicide investigation grew into a probe of the other problems at the facility and has already led to the firing or resignation of several officials. Ayers said GBI agents have been at the Augusta facility “pretty much nonstop” since the assault and eventual death of Jade Holder at the facility in November.
“I hope we’re in the final stages of it at this point,” Ayers said.
Staff Writers Bianca Cain Johnson and Summer Moore contributed to this article.