Remembering Kathryn Johnston 10 years after deadly Atlanta police raid

92-year-old’s death sparked major changes in her community.
Gordon, left, and Motley admire a Janssen Robinson mural of Johnston painted on plywood over her boarded up home in the English Avenue community in 2008. CURTIS COMPTON /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Gordon, left, and Motley admire a Janssen Robinson mural of Johnston painted on plywood over her boarded up home in the English Avenue community in 2008. CURTIS COMPTON /

I keep trying to imagine how frightened Kathryn Johnston, 92, must have been that night police stormed her Elm Street home. Here’s what we know about the last minutes of her life.

Sometime around 7 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2006, three Atlanta police officers, dressed in plainclothes and wearing bulletproof vests, forced Johnston’s front door open.

Johnson fired on the officers but missed. They returned 39 shots, hitting her five or six times. Prosecutors would later say that one of them, Officer Jason R. Smith, handcuffed the elderly woman as she was dying.

That ought to tell you something about Smith and his partners, Gregg Junnier and Arthur Tesler, but it gets even worse.

We would later learn the trio lied that an informant had purchased drugs at Johnston’s home, lied about finding marijuana on the premises, lied about the whole thing.

It was sickening to watch.

For the longest time, Buckhead businessman John Gordon had been watching as one Atlanta police officer after the other abused his power. He could rattle off the details from the newspaper clippings he kept as if they were his name and date of birth.

The morning he ran across the shooting death of Kathryn Johnston, he was seething with anger. He had had enough.

In the year before her death, Johnston had installed extra locks and burglar bars on the doors and windows of her northwest Atlanta home and people say she kept an old rusty revolver at the ready for extra protection.

That’s how scared she was. It was all foreign to Gordon until he connected with the Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsey Street Baptist Church, and got a look around Johnston’s northwest Atlanta neighborhood. He couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I was shocked,” Gordon said. “The businesses that I’d been seeing along Northside Drive were a facade that masked what was immediately behind it. The poverty, the filth, the squalor, the emptiness in the eyes of the people that I saw felt like I’d been beamed to a third world village in a foreign land.

Gordon knew then he had to do something. He founded the Friends of English Avenue, a nonprofit organization that is improving the quality of life in the English Avenue community through green-space development and public safety initiatives.

As the 10th anniversary of Johnston’s death approaches, Gordon and Motley hope the rest of us will join them in keeping her memory alive with a month-long memorial beginning Nov. 4. On Nov. 17, an annual luncheon will be held at Lindsey Street Baptist Church followed by a town hall meeting on crime and a candlelight vigil. The memorial culminates Nov. 20 at the church with Kathryn Johnston Day.

Gordon will deliver the keynote address – “Generosity is a Virtue” – at the closing event.

Inspired by a quote from slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — “I need not do great things, I only need to do small things greatly” — Gordon said he’s simply been doing a lot of small things for the community as good as he can.

Those small things include planting two urban gardens on donated land, one parcel by Motley's church and another by Habitat for Humanity and the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority. He opened a food co-op in the community, and helped renovate dilapidated houses in the neighborhood which were provided rent-free to Atlanta police officers, whose presence helped reduce crime.

Homicides are down and the open drug trade and prostitution in that area are almost non-existent now, Gordon said.

When Gordon reached out to Motley after Johnston’s death, all he wanted to do was let the pastor know he cared. That was it. But neither men could get passed the pure horror of the elderly woman’s death.

“People will find every single excuse to justify the egregious acts because they want to support the police,” Gordon said. “So do I, but there wasn’t even a little way to justify what was done. It was a pattern of disrespect and abuse, and I was seeing it every 90 days.”

This time, though, the officers were sent to prison for their crimes and the city agreed to pay Johnston's family $4.9 million. In addition, a citizen's review board was formed to investigate complaints against police and corrections officers and make disciplinary recommendations.

“All life is sacred so to no degree am I diminishing that of brothers slaughtered everyday, but her (death) was so undeserving, so tragic, it touched the soul of the city,” Motley said. “All the young men and women killed in the community hadn’t had the (same) effect. This brought the eyes of the world to recognize a community that was unrecognizable.”

Like so many other cities across the country, Atlanta could’ve erupted into violence, crashed and burned as a result of Johnston’s death, but Motley got ahead of the raw emotion in the community and opened his church. Then he opened his arms to Gordon, and the Buckhead businessman responded in kind.

Because they did, Gordon said, English Avenue is changing for the better.

“I don’t have any more articles to clip,” he said.