Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Oconee County GOP Meeting Includes Tributes To Slain Nursing Student And Plea For Election Of Yalamanchili As District Attorney

***Epps Featured Speaker

The murder of nursing student Laken Hope Riley, whose body was found in a wooded area on the University of Georgia campus last Thursday, dominated the Monday meeting of the Oconee County Republican Party.

At the very beginning of the meeting, Greg Ziesenhene, field representative for Rep. Mike Collins, offered condolences for the family of Riley.

Oconee County Attorney Kevin Epps, featured speaker at the meeting, referred to Riley frequently as he updated the standing-room only crowd on his work to expose issues in the office of District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat.

Kalki Yalamanchili, who is seeking to get on the November ballot as an Independent to challenge Gonzalez, ended his comments by asking for prayers for the family of Riley.

And Kathy Hurley, Party Chair, gave an emotional closing to the meeting by referring to her reaction as a parent to Riley's death. 

In his comments, Epps repeatedly tied the death of Riley to the what became the main focus of the meeting–getting Yalamanchili on the ballot and defeating Gonzalez in November.

Epps told the gathered Republicans that Gonzalez was not “capable” of prosecuting Jose Antonio Ibarra, who has been charged with the murder of Riley.

Front And Back

Rep. Collins had been scheduled as the main speaker for the February 26 meeting, but Party Chair Hurley announced on Feb. 22 that she had been informed of a need to reschedule his appearance.

Field Representative Ziesenhene, who came in Collins’ stead, told the group as the meeting got underway that Collins “wants to let you know that thoughts and prayers and our hearts go out to the family of Laken Riley.”

“I can say right now that the Congressman is outraged by this,” he said.

“I want to echo what everyone has said about the loss of Laken Riley,” Hurley said in closing the meeting.

“My daughter is close to her age. She went to UGA,” she continued. “I saw that news and I checked my phone to see where my child was. It is a natural reaction you have.”

“They are our most precious people,” she said.

Riley, 22, had attended the University of Georgia and was a nursing student at Augusta University's campus in Athens at the time of her death.

Epps And Update

Epps filed a writ of mandamus on behalf of Jarrod Miller of Athens against Gonzalez in March of last year saying Gonzalez was not performing her job. He has been persistent in tracking the work of Gonzalez since that time.

Epps 2/26/2024

Epps spoke at the August and November meetings of the Oconee County Republican Party about that work, and he picked up on Monday where he left off in November. (The original post mistakenly said December, when I posted the report. I apologize for the error.)

Before doing that, however, Epps spoke about Riley, and “said a lot of times in these cases, it becomes about the accused, instead of the victim, and we have to keep focusing on what happened in our community. Let’s take a moment of silence for the Riley family.”

“A lot has happened, a lot of happened, since I last stood up and talked to you about our situation in Athens,” Epps said after the silence ended.

He said he has repeatedly had problems getting information from Gonzalez in response to freedom of information requests and “spoliation letters” he has sent her.

A “spoliation letter” requests that the recipient preserve evidence relevant for potential litigation.

“I learned that Deborah Gonzalez three weeks ago sent her laptops to the IT Department in Athens-Clarke County to be destroyed,” he said. “All of them. We got word of it, and I immediately contacted the IT department and said here is a copy of the spoliation letter.”

He said that four of the laptops had not been destroyed and had been sent back to the District Attorney Office.

Criticism Of Prosecution

Epps referred to several court cases, including that of David Ellis Ippisch, who earlier this month was found not guilty in Superior Court of rape and kidnapping. 

Epps said that Gonzalez had mishandled the prosecution.

Epps said he has frequently been asked by the media, “do you believe that she (Gonzalez) is capable of prosecuting the Laken Riley aggressor?”

“I have answered that question that there is no way she is able to do it,” he said.

“She is down to three–three–ADAs, one of which refuses to go to court,” he said. ADA is an Assistant District Attorney.

I asked Gonzalez in an email message on Tuesday the level of staffing of her office, but I have not received a response.

In her January newletter, Gonzales said she had one Assistant District Attorney for each of the Circuit’s four courts, but Epps said one of those has recently resigned.

Gonzalez said on Monday that Sheila Ross will prosecute the murder case against Ibarra, 26. Ross is director of capital litigation at the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

Shift To Election

Yalamanchili was standing in the back of the room as Epps spoke, and Epps made frequent callouts to him.

Epps 2/26/2024

Epps said Yalamanchili “is not running as a Republican. He’s not running as a Democrat. He’s running as an Independent.”

“If you do not sign his petition and you don’t show up, you are going to get four more years of this,” he said. “And it is getting worse, and worse, and worse.”

Yalamanchili has until July 9 to get 5,694 signatures on a petition to get his name on the ballot. 

“Trump, Biden, whatever. That’s not the most important thing on the ballot this go around,” he said. “It’s our local community. And we are directly associated with Athens-Clarke County.” (The two counties make up the Western Judicial Circuit.)

“We are directly associated with this DA. We are directly associated with incompetence. And we have to stop this,” he said.

“I challenge each and every one of you to leave this meeting for God’s sake and contact 20 of your friends and tell them who Kalki is,” Epps said.

“Tell them to sign the petition,” he said. “And tell them to vote. Because if you don’t you’re doing an injustice.”

“You want to honor Riley?” Epps shouted. “Get out and vote. And stop this. This is sickening.”

Death Penalty

Epps paused after that impassioned plea and thanked his audience, but he didn’t leave the front of the room.

Gonzalez said she would not seek the death penalty in her campaign in 2020, Epps reminded the audience.

This led Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton, who was Chief of Police at the University of Georgia until his retirement in 2004, to comment from the audience.

“She’s already said she won’t go after the death penalty, so there’s no reason why she won’t take a plea,” he said. “Why would she want to go to trial? And she’s got a history of making really bad decisions.”

“We’ve got to get him on the ballot,” Horton said, referring to Yalamanchili. “You’ve got to call people. Because that guy is going to do it to somebody else. Somewhere, if not in Clarke County.”

“We’ve got to get him elected,” he said of Yalamanchili. “We don’t need any more examples. So get those signatures.”

Yalamanchili Responded

Shortly after Horton made his comment, Yalamanchili came forward and told the audience that “I’m running because we deserve a District Attorney’s Office that can deliver justice for victims. And we don’t have one right now.”

Yalamanchili 2/15/2024

He said that Gonzalez “wants to elevate her political profile” rather than prosecute cases.

Yalamanchile said he served as a prosecutor for six and half years at the beginning of his career, including as a felony prosecutor in the Western Judicial Circuit for five and a half years.

In that capacity, he said, he has met frequently with victims of crimes.

“This community and those crime victims deserve a District Attorney’s Office that’s committed to delivering justice for those victims and is capable of delivering justice for those victims,” he said.

“That’s the kind of office that I want to build for this Circuit,” he said. “An office that does the right thing, the right way, regardless of whether anyone’s watching. And holds people accountable for the crimes that they have committed.”

“Caitlin, my wife and I,” he said. “Our heart’s break for Riley’s family for what happened to Laken.”

“I hope you will, as we have, cover that family in prayers and ask that they can have comfort and room and time to grieve the loss of a child–something that none of us should have to experience,” he said in closing his comments.

1 comment:

Jim Gaither said...

It was all the way back in 2022 that the local GOP dug in against independent candidates for the BoE elections. Their appointed member to the county board charged with running elections went so far as to vote not to accept signatures collected for two independent candidates, for no stated reason he could produce, despite the Board staff earlier verifying the signatures and the legality of their collections.

Now things are different of course. Politicizing tragedy is the norm for many partisans, especially when outrage can be aimed at a DA who 1)beat the GOP in the election after 2)beating Kemp in the courts.

The only benefit to the renewed pummeling of Gonzalez is the energy and moral panic it takes away from local book-banning efforts.

For the record, I always support independent candidates. I don't know now which DA candidate I'll support in November. I never favor using tragedy for gain.