OPINION: Home where Kathryn Johnston died gets a rebirth

A crew from the group HEY! pulls down the rotten wooden ramp leading to the home of Kathryn Johnston, who was killed there by police in 2006. Photo by Bill Torpy
A crew from the group HEY! pulls down the rotten wooden ramp leading to the home of Kathryn Johnston, who was killed there by police in 2006. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

There’s almost an otherworldliness to entering the brick bungalow on Neal Street.

The first thought walking in the doorway is how cramped and dark it is. The burglar bar door that Atlanta narcotics officers frantically tore open is long gone. There’s a stumpy, narrow hallway attached to a tiny front room where a terrified 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston stood with her revolver. She died in that spot in a fusillade of 39 bullets after squeezing a shot off at the invaders.

The dirty shag rug where she lay bleeding, and handcuffed, is still there, as is her unplugged maroon La-Z-Boy. The bullet holes in the walls have been patched up by a well-intentioned worker, although the home’s owner kind of wishes they hadn’t been.

The November 2006 killing of an elderly lady who had nothing to do with the drug trade was one of this century’s most horrifying events in Atlanta. Three cops went to prison for falsifying warrants to enter the house they mistakenly thought was a drug house. Then the house sat vacant in the near northwest Atlanta neighborhood for 15 years, becoming a shrine to the misbegotten War on Drugs, as well as to urban decay.

Last weekend, a group of enthusiastic workers tore down the rotting wooden ramp that led to Ms. Johnston’s porch. The young men involved in this operation have called themselves the “Waterboyz,” the street-corner entrepreneurs who peddle bottled water to motorists. Last year, those selling water came under fire, as some of them plying their trade did so too vociferously.

Young men sell water at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Photo by Bill Torpy/AJC
Young men sell water at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Photo by Bill Torpy/AJC

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

A couple of adults from the area — a former Marine named Marc “KD” Boyd and his roommate, KaCey Venning — stepped in to try to help them peddle their water in a more orderly manner. Boyd and Venning met as AmeriCorps teachers in Atlanta schools and later started an after-school program called HEY! (Helping Empower Youth). That’s how they came to approaching the kids on the corners.

At first, they outfitted them with neon vests and instructions on how to politely, and safely, approach cars. Then they went further, throwing in some life lessons, job skills and structure into lives often untethered to order, comfort and direction.

Since last summer, the gatherings have been in the back of Boyd and Venning’s home. But one day, Ms. Johnston’s home will become a place where those programs can happen. That is, after a major renovation. Remember, the place has been rotting away since the night they carried out her body.

A mural of Ms. Johnston that was painted and placed in front of the house was stolen. Boyd said it later showed up in New York.

In the past few weeks, crews have cleared debris from around the house to get it ready for interior work.

Standing in the front room where Ms. Johnston died, perhaps 12 feet from the door, Boyd said: “It feels, I dunno, haunted is not the right word. But I respect the place. Even the boys respect it. They watch their mouths here. I put the spirit of Kathryn Johnston to them. They grew up hearing about this.”

The La-Z-Boy chair in the room where Kathryn Johnston was killed is the only furniture left in her home. Photo by Bill Torpy
The La-Z-Boy chair in the room where Kathryn Johnston was killed is the only furniture left in her home. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Of course, most of them were infants or toddlers when it happened and may not recall much about it, other than knowing that her name is on a nearby city park in a neighborhood seeing slow renewal as gentrification pushes from all directions.

“This will mean a lot; this will be like our house,” said Quintavious Williams, a 17-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High who works at Chick-fil-A when he’s not selling water.

Quinton Hosch, also 17 and a Douglass High student, said: “It feels good we’re taking on her legacy. We have to do the right thing. We have to make this something.”

Asked about the after-school lessons the past year, he said, “I’ve been learning to be a young entrepreneur and how to adjust to things I’m not used to.”

So, what are some of the lessons? I asked.

“Working hard, working on talking skills and how to respect people more,” Hosch said. “I’ve learned that I can be a leader, that people look up to me.”

Boyd will try to muster the troops in some rudimentary construction skills while getting the place ready for renewal.

So now, the trick is hitting up foundations, companies, charities, individuals — anyone they can think of — for funding to make it happen. Boyd said half the money for the roof has been raised. But the place needs new electrical and water lines, as well as a ton of other stuff.

“We had struggled for a place; I think this was meant to be,” said Katie Kissell, a member of HEY!, as we explored the house.

So, how’d you come up with this place?

Well, that is, as Paul Harvey used to say, “The rest of the story.”

The home was purchased eight years ago by Rick Warren, an Atlanta man who got a ton of bad press years ago after former Mayor Kasim Reed tried to get him put in jail. Warren had purchased a bunch of properties — like 150 of them ― in poor areas and many of them were falling apart.

Warren owns some long-dilapidated apartments around the corner on Joseph Lowery Boulevard and is tearing them down, and will allow the Washington High agriculture program to use the land for 10 years. He got to talking to some do-gooders and the name of the HEY! folks came up and ... Voila, the property is theirs for five years for $1 a year. In fact, Warren said he’d like to see the program continue there even after that time.

“I thought that it was very important with the history of that property that something positive and life-changing should happen there,” he said. “I didn’t think it’d be this long before we found a partnership.

“Their timing is good because we’re getting cranked up to work on a lot of properties” in the area, said Warren. He added he’ll have subcontractors working nearby and they can either help with some of the work or get materials at good prices. “If some of the kids think that this could be their calling and want to learn real estate or construction, then that could be a good off-shoot.”

Marc KD Boyd, right, the co-founder of HEY!, and A.B Roberts admire the work done at the former home of Kathryn Johnston, who was killed by police in 2006. Photo by Bill Torpy
Marc KD Boyd, right, the co-founder of HEY!, and A.B Roberts admire the work done at the former home of Kathryn Johnston, who was killed by police in 2006. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The neighbors, who were polled beforehand, agree. “I like to see young people doing things like this,” an elderly lady sitting on her porch told me.

Venning, one of HEY’s co-founders, said she knew of Warren and “when I heard who it was (donating the house) I thought, ‘This can go either one of two ways.’ But I think people should give him more of a chance than they do.”

She added that it has been an astounding confluence of events occurring when the “WaterBoyz” are setting up shop in Kathryn Johnston’s old house, afforded to them by Rick Warren.

“This is pulling together so many of the polarizing stories from the West Side from the past couple of decades,” Venning said.

“It’s funny how these things circle around,” Warren said.

The guy’s not kidding, is he?

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