To many residents Vanessa Elaine Thrasher's joint was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak neighborhood in northwest Atlanta.
The 53-year-old owner of O.T.'s Lounge Soul Food Grill worked ceaselessly the past few years to provide a gathering spot to get a juicy burger, an icy beer or a cold dose of inspiration for those who were misdirected.
But a shooting there last year and concerns that a cash business might draw trouble had family members urging Thrasher to think about another line of work.
Those misgivings came true early Thursday when she was shot to death inside her business near closing time. Thrasher was set to be a witness in a murder trial starting Monday and authorities initially suspected her killing was meant to silence her testimony.
But the motive of her killing seems to be more mundane: robbery.
"It looks like a sad coincidence," said Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. "I think that someone saw it as easy pickings for a robbery."
Police arrested a man Friday in the case and were looking for three more suspects, Howard said.
The suspect in custody, Otis Ricks Jr., 23, is no stranger to Fulton authorities. He has been arrested at least eight times since 2006, five of those times for robbery. Three of those times he was charged with having a gun. Twice, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Howard said he did not know why Ricks was no longer incarcerated, given such a long rap sheet. "It seems he's been around for a while," he said in an interview Friday afternoon. "I'm evaluating it and trying to see why he's still around."
Alfred Barnes, a municipal worker who frequents O.T.'s, said he was angered over the shooting, a sentiment expressed by many others in the community.
"I can't wait for them to catch these cowards who did this," he said. "We lost a big-hearted individual who worked to make our neighborhood a better place. It's just a dying area, to be honest. She was one of the people trying to keep it from dying."
Open since 1971 in a small strip mall on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, O.T's carried the initials of Thrasher's late father -- Otis Thrasher. The lounge was renowned for thick burgers and as a place to watch ballgames on TV, shoot pool or catch up with friends.
Thrasher, who was known as "Elaine," took over O.T.'s about four years ago. She updated the interior and offered live music, Barnes said. "She opened it up to a younger crowd," he said.
Thrasher touted the fact that it was named the "Best Neighborhood Spot" on an Internet site. She advertised drink specials and pool tournaments in real time on the Facebook site she set up for her business. Often, she let people know she was "crunking" after midnight and they had time to stop by.
In other postings, she urged women to stop letting men treat them like sex objects. And she often told her friends and customers to keep working hard, giving "shout outs" to those who stayed in school.
"Congratulations to All Graduates, on every level," she wrote in May. "Young people stop dropping out of school. Be a leader and a lone wolf and don't quit, no matter what."
Friends said that she kept Internet access in her business and let people use her computer to apply for jobs and do research.
"She motivated a lot of people," said Willie Bates, a friend who worked as DJ at the lounge. "She was like everybody's mama."
But with any night-time establishment, there are problems.
In May 2011, Jerome "Curly" White, a friend of Thrasher's who worked as a bouncer, was shot while breaking up a fight. The bullet lodged in his elbow but he died a month later from complications.
"I'm tired of all the ... gun play," Thrasher wrote on Facebook. "Black people, let's lay down the guns. Try to settle it another way."
William Perkins, is still set to be tried Monday in the killing, Howard said. Lavanda Heard, the other man in that fight, recently accepted a plea in the case.
Bates said the shooting had hurt business the past year.
"It kind of scared away people," said Bates.
"I don't think she was worried," Bates said. "She had a lot of people coming around and a lot of people in the neighborhood knew her and knew her family."
But, he added, "a lot of new people were moving into the neighborhood. I guess some of them thought she was making money because she was fixing up the business."
Howard said Thrasher was closing up early Thursday when she was robbed and shot several times. He did not want to release details until the other suspects were arrested. He said there were others at the lounge at the time.
A police officer was patrolling the area when he heard several gunshots. The officer stopped a man leaving the lounge "in a panic," police said. But he turned out to be a robbery victim, not a suspect.
While detaining that man, two suspects strolled away, police said.
According to jail records, Ricks has spent a total of about 29 months in the Fulton jail since 2006. The records concerning his 2009 arrest -- he had three robbery and two gun arrests by then -- indicate he had been sentenced to a boot camp program by Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey.
The court files paint Ricks as a criminal on a trajectory of increasing violence, from car burglaries to home invasions. He'd been in trouble since he was 13.
In 2008, he and another gunman allegedly forced their way into the Campbellton road home of Jonathan and Agnes Finney during a robbery. They pistol whipped the man and then abused the paralyzed Agnes, aiming a gun at her and grabbing her in the wheel chair she used since suffering a stroke, according to the indictment.
A witness identified Ricks as one of the gunmen, according to the police report.
He spent nine months in jail, according to jail records, and was released in April 2009. But in November 2009, he was back in jail again on robbery charges.
Last November, he was arrested by police after they heard gunshots outside a nightclub. "The barrel to the pistol was warm to the touch, indicating that it was recently discharged," a police officer wrote in the report.
The gun had been stolen. It is not clear if that case has been resolved.
Asked about descriptions of the community being "high crime," Howard said, "It's strange we have grown comfortable allowing communities to exist like they are. It's terrible you can't open the doors to a business without being killed," he said. "I hope people will say, 'Why are we putting up with this in Atlanta?'"
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.