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On the case with Georgia’s top cop, GBI Director Vernon Keenan
“What’s happenin’, my friend?”
Vernon Keenan is saying hello to a large, shy-looking man named John Gibson in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s main elevator, as the doors open and Keenan steps in. The top of his balding head reaches just past Gibson’s shoulders.
“I’m fine, sir. How are you?”
“You been behaving yourself?” The doors close.
“This man here is in an all-women’s unit,” Keenan says to the rest of the elevator’s occupants. Then, turning back to Gibson, who works in the GBI’s criminal-history record repository: “The only man there, right?”
“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for him. I don’t know how he keeps his sanity.”
“He told me if he ever sees me on the roof jumping off,” says Gibson, “he’ll know why.”
“I tell him, ‘Go to the highest part of the building and jump off. Do it right.’”
There’s laughter all around, but Gibson’s sounds nervous.
Ding. Keenan steps out of the elevator and passes the front desk. A few employees in the lobby stare curiously—maybe with a little concern—as the director of the GBI escorts a visitor to the parking lot.
He ambles up to a white Chevy Tahoe, parked in one of the spots closest to the building. There’s no vanity plate, no GBI markings, no chauffeur ready to roll. “This is a standard police package,” says Keenan of his work vehicle. (His personal transport: a 2000 Toyota 4Runner with 190,000 miles.) “The only difference is, I’ve got an 800 radio and a VHF radio in here so I can talk to anybody and everybody. Not that I use it much.” He flicks an internal switch and more than a dozen blue lights flash from the Tahoe’s exterior. “I actually found an agent who had more lights than I do,” Keenan says. “He feels the same way about emergency equipment.”
“These are speed-rated tires,” he continues, bending over stiffly to give the thick rubber a slap. “They’re rated at 160 miles per hour. ’Course this vehicle won’t do 160. But these won’t blow out. It’s also got a heavy-duty alternator, heavy-duty oil cooler, special suspension, 5.8-liter engine.” It’s made for performance and speed.
Inside the Tahoe, the tour continues: There’s bottled water, three days’ worth of fresh clothes, four umbrellas, a fire extinguisher he once used to put out a bus engine fire en route to giving a college lecture (“my navy suit got covered in gray powder”), a trauma kit (“where I can get to it easy”), a floor jack (“I help broke-down folks when I can”), a standard-issue bulletproof vest (“if I have to wear that, things have really gone downhill”), a defibrillator (“I stood over a guy who died ’cause there wasn’t one of these”), a shotgun (no comment), and a cylindrical pillow (“for my damn back”). He’s almost always on the phone while he’s driving; otherwise he listens to audiobooks. The last one was Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.
In a purposeful life like Keenan’s, there’s no time for music, and the Tahoe never plays any: “As Ulysses S. Grant said,” he recalls, “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.” No time for social media, either: “I’m roadkill on the information highway. I don’t do anything but email.” Still, there is time for washing this vehicle by hand: “I’ve always believed that if the state provides me with an automobile, the least I can do is keep it clean.”
Vernon Keenan’s father was a mortician who owned a funeral home in southeast Georgia. Keenan basically grew up there, around the bodies. One of his earliest memories is being in the morgue while his dad embalmed a young child. He was sitting on a stool, watching, when his mother came in and said the child had been abused. Seven years old then, Keenan was fundamentally altered by the experience, though its influence on his life didn’t occur to him until many years later.
He leans back now in his swivel chair in a conference room of the three-story brick building in DeKalb County that houses the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where he’s worked for forty years. Behind him sits the GBI parking lot and front door. If danger approaches, he’ll see it. He hates surprises, values preparedness above all else. That’s why he carries extra GBI clothes in the back of the Tahoe: just in case something bad happens somewhere in Georgia—as it inevitably will—and he has to stay overnight. His initials, VMK, are stitched into his shirt pocket, if anyone needs reminding: Vernon Mack Keenan Jr., director of the GBI.
He wears rimless glasses (he’s farsighted), has close-cropped brown hair that has fled—like a follicular criminal—from his face, and a paunch that he’s proudly carried through a dozen Peachtree Road Races. He’s several inches shy of six feet, his short arms resting on the sides of his swivel chair. “The best thing that ever happened to me,” Keenan is saying, “was when I was in the fifth grade, our television tore up. Dad didn’t have the money to get it fixed, so we had an entire summer without television. And my aunt had all the Reader’s Digests since 1935. I read every one.” The world was more complex—and full of communists—than he realized.
Keenan’s accent comes courtesy of Waycross, Georgia, where he grew up with four siblings, choosing Scouts and books over sports and trouble. Along with his unimposing looks, his accent has led many to underestimate him over the years. The word “on” is own; “killed” is keeled; and “siren” is sigh-reen. This is how you talk in southeast Georgia. Valdosta State College, Columbus State University, the Command College of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police: These places, where he earned degrees, don’t erase a man’s accent or his sense of purpose; they affirm it. “Dern lucky,” for instance, is how he describes what happened at DeKalb’s McNair elementary school last August, when Michael Brandon Hill showed up with an assault rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition—but no one died.
After spending a year as a police officer in DeKalb County in 1972, he became a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in northwest Georgia, where he worked cases as hard as any agent in the bureau, without having to manage anyone else. Thirty years and hundreds of arrests later, having risen in rank—if not total job satisfaction—to deputy director, Keenan was on his first cruise with his wife, Joan, when he was asked to climb the final rung of the ladder and become the agency’s acting director. The request came by phone. “We were in the middle of the damn Caribbean,” he says. “We decided the best thing to do was have a drink.”
Then Governor Sonny Perdue officially named Keenan the GBI’s director in 2003. “Vernon impressed me as the kind of professional who was always looking for the truth,” says Perdue. “He was not out for fanfare or personal aggrandizement. I felt that he had almost a righteous inclination to play it straight down the middle, which is exactly what you need in law enforcement.”
“Some people,” says former GBI agent John Cagle, “want to attribute success to how much experience you have or how many schools you’ve been to or classes you’ve taken. But when it comes down to the nut-cutting of being successful as a police officer, GBI agent, or director, it’s who’s willing to work hard. If you are, you’ll win. You won’t find anyone who’ll describe Vernon Keenan as someone who’s not in it to win it.”
Keenan and the GBI are, in essence, Georgia law enforcement’s permanent backup plan. The GBI performs state-level criminal investigations—often requested by a local agency, such as a small police department in a rural part of the state—using the only full-service crime laboratory in Georgia. The lab has six branches and eight departments, and they specialize in things like fingerprints, trace evidence, toxicology, and firearms. (The firearm lab has around 800 prop guns—of all standard calibers and models—and every kind of ammunition commonly available. It’s a militiaman’s wet dream.) With these and other tools, they go after government corruption, elder abuse, identity theft, mortgage fraud, bomb threats, and exploitation of children. They also perform 3,000 autopsies a year and maintain a criminal-history record system with 3.8 million fingerprints—the number of people arrested in Georgia since 1972, when the database was created.
The director carefully manages this teeming, high-tech, seventy-six-year-old law enforcement agency, which has 691 employees and a budget of $79.6 million to keep it moving. As a bookish boy, he didn’t imagine that solving crimes involved so much paperwork and people management, and he seems slightly annoyed about this as an adult. “The closer you are to the streets,” he says, “the more enjoyable it is. Every promotion takes you one step further from hands-on investigation.” He’s like the manager of a champion baseball team who wishes he were still platooning in right field.
Cagle, who’s known Keenan for thirty years, compares him to Joe Friday from Dragnet: “A straight-up guy. A top-notch investigator. If a bad thing happened to your family, you’d like Vernon’s help.” Perdue agrees: “‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ From his fedora on down, he’s a classic, iconic gumshoe. You could do a movie about him and he’d be typecast perfectly.”
Former GBI spokesman John Bankhead, who’s known Keenan for twenty-five years, adds with a chuckle, “He’s smarter than he looks.” You can’t get anyone to say something worse than that about him. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Vernon lie about anything,” says Moses Ector, a former GBI agent who’s known him for forty-two years. “He never varied from any policy. We called him straitlaced.” He doesn’t even cuss at perps—murderers, rapists, pedophiles—when he makes arrests.
Keenan never figured he’d be investigating teachers too, as the GBI did during the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. He even testified last year in the high-profile ordeal’s first case brought to trial—extremely unusual for the head of the bureau. It was the trial of administrator Tamara Cotman, who was charged with influencing a witness. The district attorney sent Keenan a subpoena and asked him to give background on the GBI’s involvement in the case. “I testified about the number of agents we’d devoted to the investigation,” he says, “and some related issues. The governor testified too. I didn’t have a choice; they subpoenaed me. But I’d never turn down a prosecutor’s request to testify if I’m needed and it’s legitimate.” In September, Cotman was found not guilty.
“I don’t disagree with juries’ findings,” Keenan says. “I wonder sometimes how things occur. But I don’t disagree with court rulings. I don’t disagree with a prosecutor’s decision. I believe for the criminal justice system to work, you’ve got to remain in your lane. Our lane is criminal investigation. It keeps things simple.”
Currently, Keenan oversees 238 GBI agents—down from 316 a dozen years ago. “It means that we conduct fewer investigations,” he says. “It pains the agents and the GBI to turn down requests for assistance, but less agents means less work. Our priority is crimes against children, violent crimes, and public corruption.” (Cagle: “You can’t do the things people had expected for so many years. It’s tough on everybody, especially the director. If there’s any way possible, he’ll send someone. But sooner or later, you’re just out of agents.”) Keenan is molding the GBI’s remaining agents in his Super Square image. They go after the worst crimes in a state with 10 million people—those that, he says, have “a compelling state interest. It’s all we can do to respond to death cases.” On an average weekend, agents investigate between two and five deaths, “depending,” says Keenan, “on what meanness is going on.” Typically, there’s plenty.
Take what happened to a little girl named Jorelys Rivera: She disappeared in Canton in 2011. Local police couldn’t find her. Two days later, at 10 o’clock at night, they requested the GBI’s assistance. By seven the next morning, there were seventy state officers on the ground. “It was,” says Keenan, “like the dogs of war were turned loose.” The GBI set up a perimeter around the scene where the child went missing. Within five hours, they found the child’s body inside a trash compactor as it was being hauled away to be searched. Days later the GBI and local authorities made an arrest, which led to a conviction. Rivera was seven years old, the same age as Keenan when he saw the abused child on the metal table in his daddy’s morgue.
Rather than list his duties as director in the abstract, Keenan prefers to use examples. Take the day of the near shooting at the McNair school in August, the last time he turned on the Tahoe’s blue lights. He calls it “pretty typical of how things go for me.”
He got up around five, as usual. Read emails, noting the important ones; he gets around fifty a day. (“I don’t deal with anything that’s not strictly professional. I don’t read an email unless I know the person who’s sending it or it’s got a government IP address. If I miss something, I’ve got two others paying attention.”) Looked at the AJC for a while, then USA Today. Watched a TV news story on his iPad. He didn’t get any calls around six, when people who know his schedule will often give him a try. But he did read some background materials for a meeting before heading into the office around seven to see Dan Kirk, the GBI’s assistant director, and Kris Sperry, the chief medical examiner, about resources in the examiner’s office. In the middle of it, Kirk got a call from the GBI’s director of professional standards, Fred Mays.
“Well,” says Keenan, “Fred happens to be in a restaurant with DeKalb officers eating at a table next to him when a 911 call comes in about an active shooter at McNair. Any time you have something like that, all the officers go. You’ve gotta make an intervention. DeKalb County has one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state, but the school is less than six minutes away from us with blue lights. So we jump up. Dan makes the mistake of getting in the car with me. But we get there. They’d just taken the perpetrator into custody. Chief Cedric Alexander was coming up the road. We met and talked, and then Michael Thurman, the superintendent of the school system, came out. I called the governor’s office. Then the three of us got in the chief’s car.
“We decided we needed to make a statement to the press. So we say, okay, we’ve got the school buses coming in to move the children away from the school—because they were still searching to see if there’s another shooter or an explosive device in there. They set up a staging area over at the Walmart parking lot where parents can come pick their children up. The plan was for the buses to pull the way they normally do to the front of the school, and the children would come out by grades and get on. All we’ve gotta do is get these kids out of there. Then the head of the DeKalb police bomb unit comes over and says, ‘We’ve had three different bomb dogs alert us on a vehicle trunk in the front parking lot.’ Thurman says, ‘What does that mean?’ Chief Alexander and I both said at the same time: ‘It means we can’t use the front of the school to get the kids out of here!’
“So we came up with a plan to cut through two fences and go through neighbor yards and get to a parallel street where buses ran. I got the FBI to help get the children escorted to the buses. I called GBI headquarters and told the senior inspector to get over to the Walmart parking lot and organize a release of the children to the parents. Because now your problem has shifted: The active shooter has gone away, and we’ve got 800 kids that gotta be released to parents and caregivers outside the normal way of doing business. Well, that’s a pedophile’s candy store. DeKalb police and GBI folks made a plan: The child is on the bus; a teacher’s there with a roster; the parent shows an agent an ID; agent takes a picture of the parent and the child; then they release the child. Now we know who’s got what. So that was the day. I missed some meetings.”
He drums his fingers on the table and looks over at his press assistant. We’ve been sitting at the conference table for about an hour. During that time, someone, somewhere, did something bad that will require his exhaustive attention.
He leans back further in his chair, trying to remember his age: sixty-three. “If you stay this long,” he says, “you become the director.”
That’s a deliberate simplification, part of Keenan’s aw-shucks persona. “It’s by design,” says Dale Mann, former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, who’s known Keenan for decades. “You’d be sadly mistaken if you looked at him and saw a yokel. He wants to roll you in with that Southern-boy charm.”
After appointing Keenan director of the GBI, says Sonny Perdue, “it was not a department that I ever worried about. His honesty, integrity, transparency, and work ethic trickled down.” Keenan received Georgia’s police chief of the year award in 2008. He was also put on the executive committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has showcased the GBI’s work units, giving them several awards. All of the accolades help dispel the entrenched “Bubba” image of Georgia law enforcement.
“People think of the potbellied sheriff,” says Frank V. Rotondo, director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “They think Dukes of Hazzard. So when you see the GBI get national recognition, it changes the country’s attitude toward the state.”
Rotondo worked as a police chief in Helen in the early nineties. He’d come from a 3,000-officer agency in New York to this twenty-man outpost. “The officers didn’t even know how to do statements, let alone fingerprints.” Rotondo laughs now, but this is one of the reasons why the GBI is so important: leading the way on matters of procedure and practice. Keenan met with the Georgia Department of Human Services’ aging division two years ago, after legislation was passed banning unlicensed senior homes, and soon began turning the state’s attention toward elder abuse, producing and circulating a video about this “hidden crime” for police departments. He has also educated officers on how to deal with the mentally ill, and he stood up for racial equality before many others.
“I was the first [African American] to do many things at the GBI,” says Hogansville police chief Moses Ector, who worked his way up to assistant deputy director of the bureau during a long career. “And 90 percent of it was because of Vernon’s guidance. When I came here, a year before him, it was a racist organization. He’s played a very important role in transitioning from the good ol’ boy system.” He required agents to have college and management training, for starters.
Of course, not everything he says and does is gospel. Take the gray fedora, his only flourish. “When he became the deputy director of the investigative division,” says Cagle, “he started wearing it. We all wondered, ‘What the heck is he doing?’” Keenan says the reason isn’t sun or style: “Agents don’t ever have to worry about where I’m at when we’re on the scene.” He pauses. “I sure as hell ain’t gonna be back at headquarters if something major is going on.”
There have been plenty of major events during his career, from the Olympics to the G8 Summit at Sea Island. But it’s the personal ones, like the 2008 case of Meredith Emerson, that agents recall. Emerson was a UGA alum hiking Blood Mountain with her dog when Gary Michael Hilton murdered and decapitated her one January day. Driving to work one morning, still disturbed weeks after the girl’s body was discovered, Cagle got a call from the GBI’s chaplain; Keenan had arranged it.
The director of the GBI has only two interests outside of law enforcement: reading history, especially on the Civil War (he considered teaching), and picture framing. He did all the frames in the GBI’s conference room and many elsewhere in the building. It began as a frugal measure in 1980, when he decided it was too expensive to commercially frame a picture of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress he wanted to put in his office. A state trooper friend, who had a framing business on the side, gave him some lessons. He invested $100 in equipment, and he hasn’t looked back: Keenan now boasts a professional-grade framing setup in his basement. He likes putting military prints in traditional wooden frames. He does it, his wife says, because when he’s framing he can’t think about work. Or shouldn’t: He’s been to the emergency room twice because he wasn’t paying enough attention to the glass.
His motto? I’ll frame anyone but you. He chuckles at his own joke.
Keenan likes to drive too. He drives fast, maybe recklessly, usually jacked up on coffee—he’ll skip meals, but never caffeine—and, though he has a GPS in the Tahoe, he gets lost easily. Fortunately, he’s got a siren to clear a path, and usually someone he’s coerced into riding shotgun to help get him there. For about twenty-five years, that man was John Bankhead, who retired from the GBI last April.
The men were virtually inseparable: They jogged together during lunch breaks and after work (“he lectured me on history while we ran,” says Bankhead) and even bought the same grill (“he makes a tasty ham”). During the search for Emerson and the subsequent arrest of Hilton, they shared a cabin for a few nights; Bankhead borrowed pants and a shirt from his boss.
Once, while driving to a shoot-out in Middle Georgia, they got in a fight over a Frappuccino: “He was going about 125 miles per hour,” says Bankhead, “and I had the bright idea to roll my window down and toss it.” The car got messy. “He had all this electronic equipment, papers flying everywhere, and I was trying to wipe it off for the rest of the drive.” Keenan: “The lesson is, you don’t roll down a window going that fast.” Cagle: “All you can do is hope and pray.”
The director sometimes says things agents don’t want him to, or things that contradict the GBI’s media policy. “I confronted him one time,” says Bankhead, “and he said, ‘It’s my damn policy.’ He can do what he wants.” And he wants to keep the public apprised. Journalists too: He pushed for the publication of A Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia, a handbook that’s been distributed to hundreds of officers throughout the state.
In his pursuit of protecting and informing the public, Keenan’s never shown great concern for his personal safety. Bankhead remembers driving around Athens with him in 2011 during the pursuit of cop-killer Jamie Hood. They arrived on the scene, outside an apartment complex where Hood was thought to be hiding, and “next thing you know,” says Bankhead, “I see Vernon behind the SWAT team. They’re all geared up with armor and bulletproof vests. Vernon just had on his hat.”
Rhonda Cook, an AJC reporter who’s covered Keenan for twenty years, says he doesn’t often show emotion, “but you know it’s there.” Occasionally, it appears. He hired the GBI’s first forensic sketch artist, Marla Lawson, who retired last summer. As a parting gift, Lawson presented him a portrait. “I was interviewing Vernon,” says Cook, “and Marla walked in with the portrait, and you could tell he was struggling.” Keenan: “Marla caught me off guard. I’m not a touchy-feely-type person. I don’t like people doing things for me; I like doing things for people. Also, who’d want a picture of me?”
He hasn’t hung it yet. Hanging it would feel like real retirement, like the end. “The DeKalb County SWAT team will have to remove Vernon from headquarters,” says Cagle. “He’s not gonna leave on his own.” (With the governor’s blessing, he did “retire” for a day in 2007, returning to receive both the pension he’d earned after all those years and his salary. He made $147,722.88 last year.) He has no interest in any other jobs or appointments; he wants to stay in Georgia, chasing bad guys in the Tahoe, eating the cookies and cakes his mother still sends to the GBI.
He travels too, once in a while. He’s talked Civil War history with a Chinese detective beside Mao Tse-tung’s tomb. Last July, he visited Tbilisi in the nation of Georgia for the third time. He, Dale Mann, and LaGrange police chief Louis Dekmar led leadership training for the command staff of the country’s national police. “He’d use his folksy expressions a lot,” says Dekmar. “Like, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ The translator started translating and then says, ‘Why would you want to skin a cat?’” Keenan cracked up.
His folksiness and jokes don’t just serve to entertain and keep guards down: Over the years they’ve warded off cynicism—a common hazard in his line of work.
“The longer I’ve done this,” says Keenan, “the more I believe there are very few truly evil people in the world. Most criminals made bad judgment calls. They succumbed to greed. They were stupid. But that doesn’t make them evil. I’ve probably met five or six [evil people] in my career.” One killed the child in Canton. Another killed Meredith Emerson. “But I really believe they’re the exception.”
In 1975, Keenan helped convict a man named Jimmy Dean Hester for burning down the Forsyth County Courthouse. Hester was sentenced to something like fourteen years. In 2012, Keenan got a call from the GBI’s lobby: A man named Hester wanted to speak to him. “I’ll talk to anybody reasonable,” says Keenan. “I said, ‘Bring him up.’” Jimmy Dean Hester walked into the conference room and said, according to Keenan, “Remember me? You sent me to prison.” Keenan replied, “That’s exactly right.” Then Hester said something even more surprising: Thank you.
The ex-convict said he’d left prison, married, started a family, and become an electrician. If he hadn’t gone to prison, he told Keenan, he was either going to kill someone or be killed. Prison allowed him to straighten his life out. Keenan paused, reconsidering the strange conversation. “I’m thinking he was sincere.”
Photographs by Christopher T. Martin.
This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.