0

Death threat or harmless outburst? Sides disagree

LAWRENCEVILLE - Ever been so angry that you felt like killing somebody? Ever said so out loud?

While you may not mean anything serious by such a remark, in today's world of terrorism and courthouse shootings, a comment threatening someone's life could land you in jail.

It did for Robert Ashley Walker.

Walker, 44, faces charges of terroristic threats and intimidation of a court officer, and if convicted on both counts he could face up to 10 years in prison. His wife says Walker is a wonderful father of two teenage boys, a stalwart employee of a fence installation company and a devoted husband, hardly the type to go on a deadly shooting rampage.

But authorities took a statement Walker made about Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter on March 23 seriously, mostly because he has been involved in two gun-related incidents in the past 10 years. They say his criminal history made Walker a credible threat.

"I don't know that you can really say this was blown out of proportion when you have someone who's been arrested for discharging firearms on prior occasions," said Assistant District Attorney Dan Mayfield, who is assigned to prosecute the case. "I would say there is a realistic danger."

Walker pleaded guilty in December 1996 to a misdemeanor charge of pointing a pistol at another for chasing down three Duluth High School students who had egged his wife's school bus and confronting the boys with a gun.

In July 2005, Walker pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for pursuing a drunk driver who had struck a car he and his wife were riding in. Walker allegedly fired two gunshots at the impaired driver's tires in an attempt to stop the man from fleeing.

In both of those previous convictions, felony charges against Walker were reduced to misdemeanors with the prosecutor's approval. He was not sentenced to serve any prison time; instead, he was placed on probation for a year.

A judge even ordered that several guns confiscated from Walker following the incidents should be returned, and that's where the latest problems surfaced.

Walker was nearing the end of his 12-month probation on the disorderly conduct charge when he met with a probation officer on March 23. Walker asked about two guns and a knife belonging to him that police had seized.

That's when he learned somehow a misunderstanding occurred and his property had been destroyed. The Gwinnett County Police Department sent Walker a letter telling him to come pick up the weapons, but the guns and knife were destroyed because no one came to get them, Mayfield said.

It was unclear whether Walker ever got the notice. He was outraged that $2,000 of his personal property had been destroyed, said Walker's wife, Denice.

Walker is a member of the National Rifle Association who believes strongly in the right to bear arms, she said.

"He was mad, and in my opinion had a right to be," Denice Walker said. "The county destroyed property that was supposed to be returned and we had been fighting for months to get it back."

In his anger, Walker is accused of spouting off a litany of threats to his probation officer. He then had a telephone conversation with someone who is "a member of the criminal justice system" in which he continued to make menacing remarks, Mayfield said.

"During that conversation, the defendant continued to be angry and upset. The threat made to Danny was that he would get his guns and then go and slit Danny Porter's throat," Mayfield said. "He also made generalized threats that blood would spill and he would fill body bags and there would be bodies in the street."

Walker went home from that Thursday meeting and spent the next three days relaxing and gardening with his wife, Denice Walker said. She claimed he didn't say much about the meeting and didn't seem particularly upset upon returning home.

Denice Walker insisted her husband doesn't have a bad temper - he is just "the kind of person who stands up for what is right."

When the couple left their house for a quiet stroll through their neighborhood on Monday, several police officers dressed in plain clothes drove up and arrested Walker. He was handcuffed and taken to the Gwinnett County Detention Center in Lawrenceville, where is being held without bond.

Walker apparently didn't realize the turmoil his remarks had created.

Alerted to the alleged threat, Porter and members of his staff had researched Walker's history and decided Porter could be in danger. Porter, his mother, wife, ex-wife and 18-year-old son were placed under surveillance immediately after the alleged threat was made.

The following day, one of Porter's investigators accompanied him from his office to a guest speaking engagement for the first annual Gwinnett County Valor Awards and back. Porter also spent the weekend laying low around his house, afraid to venture out even to a video or hardware store for fear of bumping into Walker.

Porter said he doesn't often get credible death threats. He has never met Walker. But this alleged threat got Porter riled up. He said he was more concerned with his family members' safety than his own well-being.

"I don't want to surrender my life to some person who chooses to make threats against me," Porter said. "It really makes me angry. If you let yourself, you can really allow yourself to get frightened."

Porter will ask the state Attorney General's Office to appoint a special prosecutor for Walker. There is a conflict of interest with his office prosecuting a case where he is the intended victim, Porter said.

A probable cause hearing is Wednesday.

Perhaps then Walker's defense attorney can explain to authorities the true intent behind his words.

"I think what's got him so upset is that nobody will listen to him," Denice Walker said.