Woman tried to kill dog in Florida before MLK house arson attempt, prosecutors say

Defendant’s bond denied during hearing in Fulton; federal charges possible
Laneisha Henderson was arrested Dec. 7, when she was accused of pouring gasoline on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home.

Credit: Atlanta Police Department

Credit: Atlanta Police Department

Laneisha Henderson was arrested Dec. 7, when she was accused of pouring gasoline on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home.

A woman accused of pouring gasoline on the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. and trying to light it on fire in December was caught on video hanging her family’s dog from a tree in Florida, shooting at it and attempting to burn it before she came to Atlanta, according to state prosecutors.

Laneisha Henderson, 26, of Eufaula, Alabama, appeared in Fulton County Superior Court on Tuesday for her preliminary hearing on charges related to the Dec. 7 incident at the MLK house on Auburn Avenue. One count of interference with government property was dropped, and a second count of second-degree arson was modified. Henderson is now charged with criminal attempt to commit a felony of first-degree arson.

Because Henderson’s charges were modified, Judge Ashley Drake heard bond arguments from both the prosecution and defense.

While no evidence was presented, the state prosecutor said Henderson had disappeared from her mother’s home in Eufaula in the days leading up to the incident at the MLK house. Henderson resurfaced on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where the prosecutor said she was seen on security cameras with her family’s dog. She hung it from a tree and pulled a gun, firing several shots at the dog but missing, the prosecutor said, before finally trying to set fire to the animal. Prosecutors did not say if the dog was killed or share any further information about its condition.

Henderson drove to Atlanta after leaving FAMU, the prosecutor said. From the time she disappeared in Eufaula until she arrived in Atlanta, her family was unaware of her location. Several of her family members live in Atlanta and some of her relatives showed up at the MLK house after her arrest, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. However, no family members identified themselves in the courtroom.

The witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing included Atlanta police Officer Eric Frank, who was at the scene when Henderson was arrested, and National Park Ranger David Denaj, a law enforcement officer stationed at the MLK Jr. National Historical Park who was present for much of the aftermath and cleanup.

Frank testified that after Henderson was arrested and taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for a mental health evaluation, she slipped from her handcuffs and tried to escape. She also struggled to get away and had to be physically restrained by the two witnesses who intervened in her arson attempt, Frank said.

The incident was captured on video by a witness, and Frank said his interviews with witnesses at the scene were recorded by his body-worn camera. However, the security cameras at the MLK house were not operational on the day of the incident, he said.

One of the main points of debate during the hearing was the extent of the damage caused by pouring gasoline on the house. Denaj, who said he left when the park closed that evening and was called back to the scene by police around 7:30 p.m., was present as firefighters cleaned and treated the house.

Denaj said it was sprayed with cleansing foam and that most of the gasoline had dissipated by the time firefighters declared it safe around 11:30 p.m. A rug that had been drenched in gas had to be thrown away, he said. National Park Service officials are assessing the damage to the house and its landscaping as part of their own investigation to determine whether to bring federal charges against Henderson, Denaj said.

No insurance company was involved in the cleanup or damage assessment because the property is owned by the U.S. government, which can self-insure its holdings, Denaj said.

Henderson’s attorney argued that no lasting damage was caused by the gasoline, and the witnesses and prosecutors could not say how much the cleanup cost. The defense then asked for the count of criminal interference with government property to be dismissed, and Drake agreed.

Henderson, who wore a mask and her short hair half-up in a small bun, was taken back to the Fulton jail, where she will remain without bond. She did not look at the gallery and only spoke quietly to her public defender. Her attorney said she had no ability to pay bond of any amount.

Henderson is a U.S. Navy veteran who served for four years and earned medals for good conduct. She has been unemployed for the past year and living with her mother, who was recovering from surgery, her attorney said.

The day she was arrested, a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Henderson posted a reference to Dwight York, the leader of a Georgia-based extremist group called the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Nuwaubianism is best understood as a cult that promotes a bizarre and complicated ‘theology.’” York was convicted of multiple charges, including child molestation, in New York in 2004 and remains in prison there after receiving a 135-year sentence.