Former Dade Sheriff Patrick Cannon at an Operation Good Neighbor community meeting in 2012. Cannon met with hostile audiences at those meetings and responded in kind.
Those who said former Dade Sheriff Patrick Cannon would never go to trial were proved right this week. When criminal trials start Monday in Dade Superior Court, Cannon’s high-profile, long-awaited case will not be among them. On Tuesday, he entered a negotiated guilty plea to the 18 criminal counts pending against him since July 2015.
Cannon was Dade’s sheriff from 2005-2012, when he was defeated in the Republican primary by current Sheriff Ray Cross. In January 2013, just after Cross moved into his new job, he announced that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) was investigating the department. “As far as I know, it’s something about the suits,” Cross told The Dade Sentinel at the time.
The new sheriff was referring to splashy headlines the previous month, when Cannon was discovered to have spent $3,643.99 on a county credit card for suits from Men’s Wearhouse and J.C. Penney during his lame-duck period after the election. He maintained his innocence at the time, saying he was entitled to a clothing allowance and needed the suits for court appearances.
Indeed, the guilty plea Cannon signed on April 10 still does not admit guilt. He answered “yes” to a question on the affidavit asking if he were pleading guilty; but the next question on the form was: “Are you in fact guilty of the offense?” and the answer was: “N/A, Alford.” An Alford plea indicates the defendant does not admit wrongdoing but acknowledges the evidence against him is strong enough that it might convince a judge or jury to convict him.
Cannon was charged with a string of violation-of-oath-by-public-officer and theft charges not in connection only with “the suits,” as Cross put it, but with his alleged use of public funds to pay his family cellphone bills and with accusations he sold confiscated property for his own gain.
The cellphone bill charges seemed easier to prove and more damning than the others—unlike the Men’s Wearhouse shopping spree, they did not start in Cannon’s lame-duck period but much earlier, some in 2010, and they recurred over and over into post-election 2012. The indictment lists each separately. They vary from a $272.39 bill up into the $300-plus and $400-plus range to amounts of $652.92 and $653.08. The payments were made both with a county credit card and from a Sheriff’s Department Citizens Bank and Trust bank account.
More counts against Cannon, alleging he had helped commit insurance fraud with a faked accident report, were dismissed earlier.
Cannon started his eight years as Dade’s top cop on a tide of goodwill, saying in an interview with The Dade Sentinel his was an administration of friendly community policing.
But by the beginning of the 2012 election year, goodwill was thin on the ground in the community for Cannon. At a series of town-hall-style meetings throughout Dade called Operation Good Neighbor, which began in February of that year, the then-sheriff met increasingly hostile audiences as he went from end to end of the county. He dealt with them by shouting them down, often seeming disoriented, defensive and angry, hand on hip where his gun was strapped.
The trend continued as the year ripened into summer, and at a debate among sheriff candidates on Aug. 7, Cannon scolded audience members who had participated in Facebook disparagement of him and warned them they would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And he said audience members wearing T-shirts supporting his opponent, Ray Cross, were drug abusers who had been convicted of crimes.
Cannon reminded Dade residents in that memorable speech how faithfully he had served them in 2011, when he had lost his own house to the April tornadoes that devastated the county. “I was right there with you,” he said. “I never backed down.”
He urged them to return to the solidarity and sense of community of that crisis time. “We’ve got to come together,” he said.
But it was too late. Beside Cannon’s unwinning way with audiences, voters had also been soured by a string of recent burglaries. Those burglaries had figured at the Operation Good Neighbor meetings and they arose again at the Aug. 7 debate, when Cannon replied to a question: “We can’t get everybody’s stuff back. It just don’t happen.”
Cannon and Cross emerged on top over a crowd of other contenders in the Republican primary that summer; then Cross beat Cannon in a runoff election and went on to defeat Democrat Philip Street in November.
Cannon was arrested in July 2015 but his trial was put off from fall term to spring term as the years passed. His defense attorney, courtroom star Chris Townley, entered a motion early on that the trial be moved to a location where Cannon was not so well known. But logistics would have been difficult if the trial left Dade because the witness list for the prosecution included virtually every cop in the county and many county officials as well.
All the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit judges had recused themselves from Cannon's case except one, who retired during the succession of continuances, and the former sheriff was assigned to an Atlanta-area judge who put his trial off twice more. Now the long string of anticlimaxes culminates in a final, larger anticlimax: A guilty plea that does not admit guilt.
Accordingly, the sentence is a jail term that does not involve jail: Five years a pop for each violation-of-oath charge, to be served consecutively, 10 for each theft charge, also to be served consecutively, all to be served on probation since Cannon is a first-time offender. It amounts to a total of 10 years on probation. As for the financial side, the ex-sheriff will pay $32 a month to the probation office plus $132 per month to pay back $7804 in restitution plus a $7500 fine.
Sheriff Cross did not return The Planet’s call requesting comment, and Dade County Executive Ted Rumley was unavailable on family business.