A key figure in an 11-year-old legal fight against the City of Pendergrass was killed in the line of duty Sunday night.
Bill Garner, 53, a deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, was killed after he had stopped to assist with a wreck on I-85 around 7 p.m. Another vehicle lost control and hit Garner as he was standing outside his patrol car, according to published reports. The driver of the vehicle was charged with vehicular homicide.
Garner, a former officer with Pendergrass, was one of the "whistleblowers" involved in the multi-year legal battle against the town. He had won a large court settlement in the suit, which is still involved in appeal litigation.
Garner, along with former town clerk Katherine Rintoul, first sued the city in 2009 in federal court. They lost that round, but subsequently filed suit in superior court in 2011 alleging that the city had violated the state’s Whistleblower Act. Rintoul was fired in what the city said was a financial crisis layoff in 2009 while Garner resigned later that year under what he said were hostile working conditions.
Before they were fired or resigned, both Rintoul and Garner, along with another police officer, complained to Pendergrass Mayor Monk Tolbert in July 2009 about the misuse of city funds and allegations that city administrator Rob Russell had been “fixing” city traffic tickets.
But instead of backing the whistleblowers, Tolbert backed Russell and fired Rintoul and four other city employees in what was portrayed at the time as a layoff for financial reasons.
The whistleblowers then went public with their allegations, which hit like a bombshell and got extensive media coverage throughout the state.
In October 2009, a group of Pendergrass citizens attempted to recall the Pendergrass City Council, but that effort failed following a court hearing at which the judge refused to let it proceed.
Meanwhile, the GBI and other agencies were called in to investigate the allegations, but no charges were ever filed against city employees by the district attorney’s office.
In November, 2017, a 14-member jury, after nine days of court action, found that Pendergrass had violated the Georgia Whistleblower Act.
Rintoul was awarded $218,000 in lost wages and $300,000 in damages by the jury while Garner was awarded $175,000 in lost wages and $372,600 in damages.
In 2018, the judge ordered Pendergrass to pay an additional $156,600 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs.
The verdict was upheld on appeal in March 2020.
Pendergrass is now appealing the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.