Arrests in Forsyth County raise questions of free speech, politics

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Atlanta, GA - 6/10/02 - Residents of Forsyth County who speak out against their government officials may do so at their peril.

Two political activists, David Milum and Terrance Sweeney, have been arrested -- and one was jailed overnight -- for alleged aggressive behavior toward county officials.

On April 18, David Milum was sitting in the kitchen of his house on Jot Em Down Road when two deputies walked in, without knocking, he says, and arrested him on a "good behavior" warrant.

Milum's offense?

He had frightened County Commissioner Marcie Kreager during a conversation outside the county administration building the previous day. He didn't threaten her. He didn't touch her. He just scared her.

Kreager immediately reported the incident to a Forsyth County deputy who instructed her on how to get a "good behavior" warrant. Good behavior warrants, mostly used to prevent domestic violence, do not allege criminal acts.

Forsyth Magistrate Barbara Cole issued the warrant based on Kreager's story and ordered Milum's arrest. At a hearing the following day, Magistrate Randall Meincke, ordered Milum to stay away from Kreager, her home and business.

Milum and his supporters believe his jailing was improper since he wasn't actually charged with a crime.

Kreager and Milum have somewhat different stories about what happened that day outside the county administration building. They agree that Milum made no verbal threats or gestures.

To Milum, the whole affair is a thinly veiled retaliation for his criticism of government officials.

"It was a setup," said Milum. "They want me to stay out of the courthouse."

Milum and Sweeney are among a group of residents who believe government in the fast-growing metro county is corrupt. Over the past couple of years, they and other activists have pried into what they consider questionable zoning, illegal land deals and ethics lapses. They generally have made pests of themselves at the courthouse. All, Milum says, was done in the public's interest to ferret out corruption.

"This," Milum said of his arrest, "was retaliatory."

The controversy has raged in the local newspaper and has even spilled over into cyberspace, where critics have a Web site devoted to county government-bashing.

Milum said he went to the county office on April 17 to talk with the zoning administrator about what he considered an improper zoning of property owned by County Solicitor Leslie Abernathy. He said Kreager approached him and asked why he was in the employees' smoking shed outside the administration building. Milum said he began telling her about the zoning.

At that point, he said, Kreager, became agitated and began yelling, "You're stalking me. You stalk me everywhere I go. Get back!"

"It scared me," said the burly Milum.

Kreager insists that Milum approached her and in a loud and intimidating voice said he had evidence that would put someone in prison.

"I did indeed feel threatened," she said. "His tone. His mannerism. I asked him to step back several times, and he didn't. He kept getting close to me. He acted like it made him mad that I asked him to step back.

"I'm sorry," Kreager continued, fighting back tears. "You don't have any idea how this man frightens me."

This wasn't the first time Kreager called for police protection, though.

Last year she called for a sheriff's escort to avoid a group of Chestattee residents who had gathered at the administration building in protest of a landfill in their community, according to Sheriff Ted Paxton.

The group led by R. Gray Smith was holding a news conference, Paxton said.

"As I recall, she [Kreager] was coming to the building," Paxton said. "She was fearful of a confrontation because the situation had gotten heated."

Kreager said that Milum has a history of violence. He pleaded guilty to breaking merchandise in a dispute with a local store owner several years ago, he said. He also acknowledges he shot and killed a man in self-defense many years ago.

As for Milum's spending a night in jail, Kreager said she had nothing to do with that. "His issue is with the court system," Kreager said.

Kreager said she has been disappointed with news coverage of the incident. "It concerns me that he was portrayed as the victim," she said. "I'm the victim."

The Sweeney case grew from a March 7 incident at a Forsyth County Republican Party meeting.

Sweeney was passing out leaflets claiming he had evidence that several county officials conspired to steal $4 million in county funds in a land deal. Sweeney and Chief Voter Registrar Gary Smith got into in a confrontation that was witnessed by several people, including County Commission Chairman John Kieffer.

Smith took out a criminal arrest warrant accusing Sweeney of threatening to "knock my block off." Sweeney denies making any such threats.

Gray Smith, who isn't related to Gary Smith, also witnessed the incident. He said it was instigated by Gary Smith.

At an April 9 hearing, Cole issued a disorderly conduct warrant against Sweeney.

Then, after reading Sweeney's leaflet, she issued a warrant accusing him of criminal defamation against Kieffer. Kieffer says he didn't ask for the defamation warrant, but says he agreed to sign it after Cole asked him if he would be willing to do so.

"It kind of put me on the spot," he said. "I didn't have any interest in doing this."

A day or two later, Cole telephoned to say she was withdrawing the defamation charge, Kieffer said.

Kieffer thinks Sweeney's and Milum's behavior crossed the line.

Like Milum, Sweeney has a record. He pleaded guilty to a minor assault charge in New York several years ago as the result of a barroom brawl. Sweeney said he was fined $250.

"That makes me nervous," said Kieffer. "I don't have any problem with people exercising their free speech. It's when they go beyond it that concerns me."


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