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Two members of Cumming Police Department recall time on Atlanta homicide unit for ‘Atlanta Justice’ TV series
Atlanta Justice Esquilin and Stephens
Cumming Police Department’s Sgt. Nicole Esquilin and Capt. JD Stephens were recently featured on 'Atlanta Justice,' where they went over cases that happened during their time on the Atlanta Police Department's homicide unit. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

All six episodes of the first season of Atlanta Justice can be found on TV on the ID Channel or on the channel's website


Cumming Police Department’s Sgt. Nicole Esquilin and Capt. JD Stephens have a lot of stories from their time as partners on the Atlanta Homicide unit, and recently, they’ve been sharing those stories with the whole country.

Esquilin, Stephens and several of the murders they investigated were recently highlighted on Investigation Discovery’s ‘Atlanta Justice,’ which just wrapped up its first six-episode season. 

“Homicide is probably one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever have because we work for the families,” Stephens said. “And in the show, you’ll see me, and I said, ‘Hey failure is not an option.’”

The series features interviews with Esquilin, Stephens and Atlanta prosecutors going through the details of crimes, the backstories of their victims and what went into solving the cases as actors recreate some of those scenes.

Esquilin said she has worked on a few series before dealing with crimes in Atlanta and was working on another show when producers approached her about ‘Atlanta Justice,’ and she asked Stephens to join.

In the beginning, both Esquilin and Stephens said they had doubts about doing the show, with concerns that it might come off “Hollywoodized” or focusing on them as detectives rather than the victims or the team effort that goes into an arrest.

“I feel like we had so many great homicide detectives that never got the recognition because it’s really a thankless job,” Esquilin said, “and I really wanted to highlight that we had one of the best clear-up rates in the U.S. and wanted to highlight all of the good detectives.”

Stephens said he doesn’t usually watch police shows but was happy with the final product. 

“I think how the show portrays the victims and how we work for them – not the mayor, not the chief, not the police department – but our community is what I wanted to portray,” he said.

“I feel the same way. I feel like the show was done with class and professionalism, which was obviously our biggest concern,” Esquilin continued.  “I didn’t want it to look cheesy. I didn’t want it to be about us.”

Stephens started at the APD in 1998, where he was first served on patrol, the Red Dog drug unit and undercover narcotics before serving from 1998 to 2010 on the homicide unit. After leaving homicide, he spent 10 years with the FBI’s violent crime task force.

During both the interview and the show, Stephens stressed the significance of the bond between the investigator and the family of the victim to who they have to deliver the news.

“You’ve always got to remember this, when you go to that family’s house and you knock on that door, you’re about to deliver the worst news that they’re going to get in their life,” he said. “There is no worse news you are going to get than you lost a loved one, you lost a child, and it’s not an accident, it’s a murder.”

He said that connection can mean late-night phone calls when family members can’t sleep, helping them deal with the tragedy and, even during the filming of the show, them calling to make sure they could take part in the show.

In an incident covered in one of the episodes, a teenager was killed on her 17th birthday, and Stephens had to give the news to the family.

He recalled that the victims’ father told him, “’you won’t solve this because y’all don’t care about us, and that broke my heart.”

When an arrest was finally made, Stephens said he and the father shook hands.

Stephens said he not only got emotional recounting the murder on the show but also when he saw the episode for the first time and the father spoke. 

“The night of the show, I’m laying in bed with my wife watching it, and it shows him start talking about me on the show, and I started crying,” he said. “I’m a 54-year-old man, and I started crying over something that happened back then because I’ve seen the hurt.”

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Esquilin, who worked with the homicide unit from 2003 to 2010, said she started with APD in 1994 and has worked on foot patrol, in east Atlanta, in the vice and narcotics unit and the sex crimes unit before coming to homicide. 

 “To me, the reason that was my goal was because looking in from the outside, they were this elite unit, just a really great group of guys and smart… just a great group of people to learn from,” she said. “When I finally got there, I felt like I was really at the pinnacle.”

Eventually, Esquilin and Stephens were partnered together and worked alongside Mark Cooper, who served on the homicide unit from 2002-11 and also now works for the Cumming Police Department.

Between the three of them, they have served as lead investigator for more than 250 murders in Atlanta: 122 for Stephens, 52 for Esquilin and 70-80, Stephens estimated, for Cooper.

“She has strengths and weaknesses, and I have strengths and weaknesses,” Stephens said, “and when we come together as a team, I know what hers are and she knows what mine are, so she’ll look at me and say, ‘Hey, I need you to go interview somebody’ or she’ll go do this and research that and everybody does it.”

While they were the lead investigators for hundreds of murders, Esquilin said they had been part of thousands and wanted to highlight the team effort that goes into an investigation rather than making individual detectives look like mastermind experts.

“My goal was to show what reality really is,” she said. “Sometimes, we don’t get the confession, sometimes we don’t get the murder weapon and sometimes we’re flawed, just like any other human, but what separates us in Atlanta is the care and the passion, and that’s what I hope resonates.”

Stephens said there was something else he wanted to make sure was included in the show: the homicide unit’s well-known fedora hats, which both Stephens and the actor portraying him wear in the series. 

“That hat has been around since the 1920s, and when you solve your first homicide, we have a thing called the passing of the hat, and you get your first fedora, and it’s bought by everyone in that unit,” he said. “We have a closed meeting, we have rituals that we do, and we give you your first fedora. And when you leave, they give you that fedora in a shadowbox. That fedora represents [investigators] from the 1920s all the way up to this day.”

Both Esquilin and Stephens’ hats are displayed in their CPD offices.

He said, if the show is renewed for a second season, he hopes a future episode will detail the history of the hats and those who came before. 

Stephens said he hopes the Cumming Police Department, where he was hired in November 2019, never have to work a homicide, but if they do, he’s interested in bringing the hat tradition to the department.

A month later, Esquilin came to the department and has since been building and operating CPD’s criminal investigation department.

With Esquilin, Stephens and Cooper bringing their Atlanta experience to Cumming, Stephens credited Police Chief David Marsh, who hired them, for reinvigorating the department. 

“The chief and I have hired, I think, five Atlanta guys, and think about that, they’ve been through riots, all kind of different situations that normal police agencies don’t go through,” he said. “So, we know what they’ve done, what they’re capable of and what they’ve been through. The chief is doing a great job building this police department. We’re bringing quality people here, and we’re going to take this department places it’s never been before.”