Family longs for closure after woman’s killing at southwest Atlanta park

STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

‘I just don’t want it to become a cold case,’ says her mother

Shortly before Elexcia Banks died, the 40-year-old called to wish her grandmother a happy birthday.

Family had gathered at her grandmother’s house the afternoon of March 26. Banks, who couldn’t make it, wanted to hear about the flowers they’d planted in the garden as a birthday gift. Sounding happy and silly as ever, Banks called out through the phone: “Bye, everybody!”

“Bye,” they sang back.

Within hours, Banks was shot and killed at Deerwood Park in southwest Atlanta. Banks had been relaxing with friends after work when gunfire erupted. Police say Banks may have been an innocent bystander to someone else’s fight. They still haven’t found whoever was responsible.

Banks, recalled by family as hardworking and loving, is one of two women killed in Atlanta parks in 2021. Katherine Janness, 40, a bartender who moonlighted as a singer songwriter, was found stabbed to death, along with her dog, in Piedmont Park on July 28. That case also is unsolved.

Janness’ case was covered extensively in local media and led city officials to increase security at parks. Banks’ mother, Mildred Barnett, doesn’t want her daughter, whose homicide garnered much less coverage, or her case to be forgotten.

Caption
Mildred Barnett (R) poses for a photograph with her daughter Valencia Wells and her grandkids outside her Riverdale home Monday, October 25, 2021 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Mildred Barnett (R) poses for a photograph with her daughter Valencia Wells and her grandkids outside her Riverdale home Monday, October 25, 2021 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Mildred Barnett (R) poses for a photograph with her daughter Valencia Wells and her grandkids outside her Riverdale home Monday, October 25, 2021 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“I just don’t want it to become a cold case,” Barnett said. “I just do not want it to sit in the files and get dust on it.”

Friends on Friday night

When Barnett thinks of her daughter, she thinks of her humor. Banks wouldn’t let too much time pass before she’d try to make someone laugh. She often quoted from the movies “Friday” and “Coming to America,” changing her voice to imitate the characters. The humor came from her dad Pain Banks’ side.

“She kept us laughing,” agreed her aunt, Edith Banks.

Elexcia Banks, who grew up in Decatur and East Point, liked to stay home or visit family, especially nieces and nephews. Banks couldn’t have children, Barnett said, because of complications from brain surgeries she’d had as a child and teenager.

Banks did have a regular Friday night outing. She went to Deerwood Park with coworkers, including her boyfriend, from a road construction crew. Banks was a flagger who directed traffic, though Barnett said most people knew Banks as “Waffle House Girl” from her 25 years as a waitress and cook at various locations.

Around 7 p.m. March 26, Banks and her group were near the Alexandria Drive entrance to Deerwood Park when gunshots rang out from the street, which dead-ends at the entrance of the park, a police report said.

Video from home security camera shows a person climb from the back seat of a car and fire toward the park without aiming. He climbs back in the back seat, and the car flees. Police released the footage to the public the next day, hoping to elicit tips. The video shows the shooter firing toward the side of the park entrance where Banks was. Police say she may not have been the intended target. Video shows other people in the area.

“It had nothing to do with her,” Barnett said. She’s learned from witnesses that her daughter was sitting on top of a green picnic table and wasn’t able to get down as shots rang out. “She didn’t have time to scatter.”

Police recently released a photo of a man they say they would like to speak with about the shooting. It’s unclear if police have identified him.

Park crime

Serious crime in Atlanta parks seems to be trending downward, with 165 incidents reported in 2021 as of Oct. 4. In 2020, crime in parks was on par with 2018 and 2019 with a total of 335, according to the Atlanta Police Department.

Piedmont Park, which sees more reported crimes than any other city park, saw 153 serious crimes from the start of 2018 through Oct. 4. Of those, 11 were classified as violent, the rest as property crimes.

Crime stats: Atlanta parks

  1. Piedmont Park: 153 total crimes reported from 2018 to early October 2021, 11 violent crimes, 142 property crimes.
  2. Freedom Park: 71 total crimes (5 violent, 66 property)
  3. Chastain Memorial Park: 59 (all property)
  4. Historic Fourth Ward Park: 52 (7 violent, 45 property)
  5. Grant Park: 51 (11, 40)
  6. Robert W. Woodruff Park: 41 (23 violent, 18 property)
  7. Selena S. Butler Park: 39 (4 violent, 35 property)
  8. Ben Hill Park: 29 (5 violent, 24 property)
  9. John A. White Park: 28 (4 violent, 24 property)
  10. South Bend Park: 26 (11 violent, 15 property)
  11. Atlanta Memorial Park: 25 (all property)
  12. Rosa L. Burney Park: 24 (16 violent, 8 property)
  13. Frankie Allen Park: 20 (1 violent, 19 property)
  14. Mozley Park: 20 (5 violent, 15 property)
  15. Adams Park:19 (3 violent, 16 property)
  16. Central Park: 19 (3 violent, 16 property)
  17. Washington Park: 19 (8 violent, 11 property)
  18. Center Hill Park: 18 (3 violent, 15 property)
  19. Anderson Park:17 (3 violent, 14 property)
  20. Adair Park II: 15 (5 violent, 10 property)

Source: Atlanta Police Department

But the city, like other major America cities, has seen a rise in violent crime. Last year was a historically deadly one as authorities investigated 157 homicides, the most since 1996. Atlanta authorities have investigated at least 132 homicides this year. The tally was 117 this time last year.

In May, the city council approved a plan to hire retired Atlanta police officers to patrol parks. Parks department officials say they’re working with police on a new security plan.

The city is also choosing high-priority areas to install cameras that feed into the Loudermilk Video Integration Center. The center, largely funded by private donations through the Atlanta Police Foundation, houses analysts who manage and monitor the city’s 11,000 cameras, installed at parks, intersections, parking lots and other places people gather.

‘Afraid of parks’

The scene of Banks’ killing — a public park in the daylight — makes the aching worse for her mother. Barnett had always been the mom, then the grandmother, who took all the kids to the park. Parks were supposed to be safe.

Then she received a call from a cousin, who’d heard the news before the police could reach Barnett. “Lexi’s been shot in the head, and she’s dead.”

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Mildred Barnett, the mother of Elexcia Banks, stands next to a memorial for her daughter, who was shot and killed in Deerborn Park on March 26 in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Mildred Barnett, the mother of Elexcia Banks, stands next to a memorial for her daughter, who was shot and killed in Deerborn Park on March 26 in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Mildred Barnett, the mother of Elexcia Banks, stands next to a memorial for her daughter, who was shot and killed in Deerborn Park on March 26 in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“What?” Barnett yelled. “What?”

Barnett collapsed in shock and tears. She went to Deerwood Park for a memorial for her daughter but decided never to go back, at least not for recreation. Next to the bench where Banks had been sitting is a small memorial of stuffed animals and plastic flowers, beaten by the rain and heat.

“I’m afraid of parks now,” Barnett said. “And my grandbabies are suffering from that. I haven’t taken them to a park since Lexi got shot, but I’m going to keep asking God to help me with that.”