Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake speaks at a Dec. 20 press conference to address allegations a girlfriend of bomber Anthony Warner made in August 2019. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)
Early Christmas morning, we saw again that Nashville’s police officers represent the best of their profession. The six heroic men and women who ran towards danger to evacuate Second Avenue in the minutes before the suicide bombing acted with bravery and resolve.
Unfortunately, in the week that followed, their leaders have demonstrated neither. Since the bombing, we’ve learned that MNPD received a specific, credible report warning them last year about the suicide bomber, Anthony Warner. For opaque reasons, officers did little to investigate Warner and, as the debris on Second Avenue proves, nothing to stop him.
This news is as damning as it seems. Put plainly, a reasonably competent investigation of Warner in 2019 almost certainly would have prevented the bombing.
I should know. A few years ago, I was the federal prosecutor in Nashville responsible for bombing investigations like this one. From that experience, and nearly fifteen years working on criminal cases, I can say that Chief Drake’s recent defense of his department’s actions simply isn’t credible.
Consider two claims he’s made repeatedly.
First, at last week’s press conference, Drake asserted that MNPD “had no legal basis for search warrants or subpoenas” based on what it knew in 2019. Second, in response to questions by reporters, Drake claimed that “there was nothing else” his officers could have done to investigate Warner other than perhaps “followed up more.”
Both statements are false. For starters, police don’t need any evidence to issue a subpoena; subpoenas are investigative tools that police and prosecutors use to develop evidence and move a case forward. More importantly, the standard of evidence needed for a search warrant is “probable cause.” That’s a legal term, but suffice to say it’s a low bar.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, police must only show a “fair probability” of criminal activity to establish “probable cause,” and this probability is something less than a 50/50 chance that a crime has been committed. The information shared with officers about Warner easily reached that threshold.
Warner’s own girlfriend said he was “building bombs in the RV trailer at his residence.” That’s a crime, and the person reporting it wasn’t anonymous. She was someone with access to his home and the ability to observe what he did there. Moreover, any concerns about her credibility were mitigated by the fact she could face criminal charges if she were lying. In a similar case decided fifteen years ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a search warrant for a residence based primarily on a statement by the suspect’s girlfriend that she “saw cocaine in [his] closet.”
But MNPD had even more disturbing information to present to a judge here. Warner’s lawyer was concerned, too. He told officers that Warner “frequently talk[ed] about . . . bomb making” and was “capable of making a bomb.” That’s alarming; lawyers rarely make that type of statement about a client. When officers arrived at Warner’s home, they saw the RV and “several security cameras and wires attached to an alarm sign on the front door.” Photographs of the residence show multiple “No Trespassing” signs. While there’s nothing illegal about cameras, alarms, or signs, their presence suggests that Warner might be paranoid. A competent investigator normally would connect this possible paranoia with the tip that the occupant was building a bomb.
Together, these facts established a “fair probability” of criminal activity. If officers had taken the next obvious investigative step of requesting a search warrant, there’s not a judge in town who would’ve denied it. And if MNPD needed more evidence, there was plenty its officers could’ve done to obtain it.
According to MNPD, their officers went to Warner’s home, tried to speak with him, checked his criminal record, and asked his lawyer for permission to search the RV, which was denied. That’s it. If Drake believes that’s all his officers could’ve done to investigate, he’s badly mistaken about their capabilities. In cases with far less at stake, his officers routinely search through trash cans, install video cameras to conduct surveillance, review phone and utility records, interview neighbors and associates, and direct informants to interact with suspects.
These are basic, well-worn investigative techniques. In his thirty-year career, I’d wager that Drake participated in all of them. Given all this, it’s clear that Drake has misled the public about the facts surrounding MNPD’s failure to stop the bombing.
As a former prosecutor, I don’t say this lightly. Some of the best men and women I’ve known are the agents and officers I’ve worked with to investigate cases and solve crimes. They know that the truth matters when they pursue justice, and as a result they protect their credibility zealously.
Chief Drake hasn’t been nearly as careful. No matter his motives, that’s unacceptable.
Your move, Mayor Cooper.
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