DACULA -- On the morning of Oct. 5, John Fanning lay beneath brush and leaves in a wooded area near his Dacula home. In happier times, the father of three, called "Johnny" by friends, was a Gwinnett zoning board member and owner of a small business. But now SWAT deputies were at the fringes of the woods searching for him, as was the law enforcement helicopter overhead.
Finding Fanning was not difficult. The probation tracking device he was wearing emitted a signal that gave away his earthen location.
Police who documented Fanning's side of the story found human bite marks on his arm, chest and near his right eye. It was the mark, Fanning said, of his estranged wife. The previous night, she had invited him to the home they once shared and set a trap, he told police, meant to stoke jealously and prove him an unfit father.
Back at the Fanning household on Bold Springs Road in Dacula, a residence Gwinnett police had responded to 21 times in less than three years (nine times for domestic disputes), police found smashed furniture in the foyer and other signs of a struggle in a living room, kitchen and master bathroom. Fanning's wife, Lesley, 31, wept in the front yard, wearing a T-shirt and red sweat pants, her breath reeking of alcohol in the morning chill, according to a police report.
She told police Johnny, 34, had come over the previous night to discuss their pending divorce and financial situation before he had to report to federal prison. He flew into a rage, she claimed, about 4 a.m., beating her with a table in the foyer, then smashing a phone when their youngest son tried to call 911. Police noted injuries to her arms, legs, feet, torso and face.
The alleged clash marked the latest unsavory event in a tumultuous year for Johnny, a key figure in an ongoing corruption saga involving underhanded payments to Gwinnett officials and promises of cocaine royalties. So volatile is the situation with Lesley, a federal judge contemplated taking Johnny into custody last month as a means of protecting him from his wife. "I don't want a bigger tragedy to occur than already has," said U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell. The judge was referring to Lesley's arrest on charges she tried to bring a handgun to a child-custody hearing a few days earlier.
Amid the pending divorce, mounting criminal charges and a swelling roster of attorneys, the Fannings' two sons (ages 10 and 9) and daughter (4) remain in limbo, as their father is bound for prison and their mother faces charges of her own. Johnny is being held at the Gwinnett County Jail without bond on high-level felonies stemming from the Oct. 5 arrest. Lesley could not be reached for comment this week.
"There's no doubt that it's no longer a healthy relationship," said family law attorney Kathryn Franklin, retained by Johnny to represent him in the divorce.
Prior to Friday, the most serious allegations of violence between the Fannings happened in January, four months after Johnny's takedown by federal authorities. Attorney Bill Thomas, appointed to represent Johnny in the federal case, said the effect a looming federal prosecution had on the marriage was likely significant.
"This has obviously been a very difficult time for Mr. Fanning, who made some poor choices and judgment," Thomas said. "You can imagine that would have an effect on one's marriage.
"Garden sheers and a gun
A Gwinnett police officer on patrol Feb. 1 spotted a GMC Envoy near a Dacula fire station with a woman leaning out of the drivers seat. The officer's first thought: This woman has morning sickness.
In fact, the driver was Lesley Fanning, crying and visibly shaking. Lesley's husband, she told the officer, had thrown her purse and cellphone out of his vehicle the previous night, somewhere along Harbins Road. She was searching for the items.
"The female said that I should be familiar with her since the police have been to her house several times," Officer E.A. Cline wrote in a report.
While Lesley's face rang no bells, her demeanor piqued the officer's concern. She explained that an argument between she and Johnny had become "heated" the prior night, and that after he hit her and fell upon her, she bit his arm. As the fight progressed, she fetched 10-inch garden sheers and swung, badly cutting her husband's hand. He reportedly rushed to the hospital, tossed out her items and told nurses he'd cut his hand on sheet metal in his barn.
Johnny had gone to stay with his mother, Shirley Lasseter, then a Gwinnett County Commissioner, at her Duluth apartment. His version went that his wife's prescription drug and alcohol abuse had sparked the fight, and she slapped and bit him as they wrestled for a phone. Police noted abrasions on Johnny's forehead and arms, a bite mark on his right forearm and six stitches in his hand.
Lesley was charged with aggravated assault and later indicted. Johnny was arrested on lesser charges of misdemeanor battery and obstruction of a 911 call. Both were ordered to not contact the other. Both cases are pending.
As Johnny became publicly embroiled in the political corruption probe, his wife steered clear of trouble, until Sept. 12, when an X-ray machine at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center showed a loaded pistol in her purse. Inside the purse, court security found 10 rounds of ammunition and a variety of Oxycodone, hydrocodone, amphetamine and other medication in a prescription bottle. Her destination that afternoon was a custody hearing attended by her husband, officials said.
Longtime family friend Jerry Robb, president of the Duluth Civitan Club, a service organization, said Johnny was brought up in a "bad life" and raised primarily by his father, with whom he has almost no contact.
"Johnny has a temper, but I wouldn't say it's an abnormal temper, at least from my personal experience," Robb said this week.
Johnny is one of Lasseter's four children. Like her son, she's been condemned to years in federal prison.
In February 2011, Lasseter appointed Johnny to a one-year term on the county's zoning appeals board. Within months, according to federal authorities, corruption began when Lasseter and Johnny teamed with Carl "Skip" Cain, 65, to leverage their positions for payoffs.
Cain, a Flowery Branch business associate of Lasseter's, was paid $10,000 by an undercover agent posing as a businessman for brokering the involvement of Lasseter and her son. Johnny's payment was to be a 50 percent ownership stake in a pawn shop business proposed for Boggs Road near Duluth. The bribes would top $36,000.
Johnny and Cain's crimes escalated when they traveled to the New York area in September 2011 to retrieve what they thought was four kilograms of cocaine from drug traffickers; the substances was actually sham drugs provided by undercover FBI agents. They flew back to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport with the supposed drugs in a storage compartment, and both were instructed to deliver two kilograms. They were arrested a short time later.
Standing before the federal judge, Johnny expressed regrets to the court, the community and his family, explaining, "I got presented with what seemed like a quick opportunity to make some money." His younger brother, Justin, would tell the court both his mother and brother were simply desperate to pay bills.
Johnny owned a company called Amazing Lawn and Landscaping, based at his Dacula home. The Georgia Secretary of State's office dissolved that company last month when Fanning failed to file an annual registration, records show.
Johnny was sentenced to 57 months, which he requested to serve as close to Atlanta as possible. Thomas, the attorney, said it's likely he'll serve at least 85 percent of the sentence.
As with Lasseter, the judge allowed Johnny to voluntarily surrender to the federal prison bureau in several weeks, allowing him to tend to affairs and spend more time with his children. Thomas said he has yet to receive a notice for his jailed client to report to prison. What impact the federal sentence will have on his local charges is not yet clear.
A federal prosecutor said an agreement must be reached with the local District Attorney's Office in such cases.
"This is an interesting situation, but it's not uncommon that you would have people in federal custody that have state charges, and vice versa," Thomas said. "There are systems in place to work that out."
Johnny is scheduled for a probable cause hearing Wednesday on charges he beat his wife with a table, held her against her will and prevented her from calling 911, all in the presence of children.
In another Gwinnett courtroom that day, his sister, Jennifer Limon, will be making her case for temporary custody of the Fanning children.
That Limon, a divorced mother of two, should take temporary custody was Johnny's idea, said Franklin, his attorney. In a complaint, Limon claims the children's mother tested positive last month for cocaine and methamphetamine, and is therefore unfit to parent. (Limon said Friday she was advised not to comment to media while court matters are pending).
Franklin said the goal for now is to keep the children out of state custody.
"It's going to be interesting to see how we proceed with this," she said. "Johnny is going to go spend some time in prison, and hopefully mom will get some help.
"We hope out of this comes a healthy co-parenting relationship."