Under the streets and now above, Atlanta can’t get a break

One can only ponder what cataclysm will befall Atlanta this week.

Two weeks ago, its aging water system left city residents dry or boiling for days on end. Mayor Andre Dickens deemed it a “wake up call” to remedy long-delayed action in government’s most basic function.

Last week, two violent episodes in the space of a couple of hours shook city government’s other basic function: Public safety. On Tuesday afternoon, four people (including the alleged gunman) were shot and wounded at the food court in the iconic Peachtree Center.

Two hours later, a mentally ill man allegedly hijacked a bus, held passengers hostage and killed a man before embarking on a wild highway chase straight out of the 1990s movie “Speed.”

Police Chief Darin Schierbaum quickly noted the suspects had long rap sheets. The alleged mall shooter had 11 previous arrests. The alleged bus hijacker had 19. It’s almost an APD job description to complain about the judicial system’s revolving door.

Crews worked on a broken main on West Peachtree Street at 11th Street in Midtown, with nearby residents warned of impacts to their water service as the crisis reached its fourth day Monday, June 3, 2024. Water had been gushing out of the broken main until Monday morning, when workers were seen pumping out water. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

After the first shooting, Joseph Eric Grier, 39, talked with a gaggle of reporters in a moth-bitten T-shirt, saying he had witnessed the crime. He spoke in frenetic, non-sensical bursts — about banking, his size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds), his felony past, his inmate number, his parole officer, being unable to possess a handgun because of his criminal past and that he was bipolar and off his meds.

“I’m in a manic episode right now,” he said.

While speaking to reporters, he spoke of the gunman in the food court: “I’m bigger than this dude. He got a little pistol that ain’t gonna do (nothing), I’ll take that from him.”

Some 30 minutes later, police say, he did exactly that. Grier boarded a Gwinnett County bus just blocks away and allegedly got into a fight with a passenger, who pulled out a gun. Grier took the gun in the struggle, shot him and “ordered the bus driver to flee the scene while threatening passengers with the gun,” the GBI said.

The passenger, Ernest Byrd, 58, was the father of seven and grandfather of just as many. In a wrenching coincidence, he worked with people dealing with mental health illness, his family said.

The wild, tragic afternoon brought to bear all sorts of issues cities must address: Violent crime, mental illness, perception of downtowns, recidivism, gun ownership, minor disputes that escalate to violence. Even transit.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks in a press conference with Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, where they brief the media about the shooting that happened at the Peachtree Center food court on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

“I think mental health is at play,” Dickens told reporters last week.

“You’re talking about an individual who knows he has a mental health challenge, so that enters the conversation,” he added. “How do we as a society deal with individuals who have mental challenges?”

That, Mr. Mayor, is an agonizing question that has forever plagued humanity. And downtown Atlanta collects more than its share of troubled and disturbed people.

The Peachtree Center shooting occurred after Jeremy Malone, 34, got into an altercation with a stranger. Malone then allegedly shot the man and then wounded two older women, police said, before he was shot by an off-duty Atlanta cop working there.

Malone, a pint-sized man known as “Kutthroat,” would be considered a mutt as criminals go. He has a robbery conviction from when he was 17, causing him to be incarcerated seven years.

Since then, he’s been in and out of jail and prison, facing charges like theft, drug possession, reckless conduct, aggravated assault, threatening a woman with a knife and being a felon in possession of a gun.

Last year, Malone pleaded guilty to the latter offense and was given time served by a DeKalb County judge, based on having previously been incarcerated — on and off — for about a year on the charge, WSB-TV reported.

WSB said Malone was indicted in December in Fulton for allegedly threatening a woman with a knife. He was out on bond last week.

Grier has been in trouble for 20 years starting with a child molestation conviction in 2005, one for aggravated assault three years later and another in 2011, according to state prison records. He was released in late 2014.

A relative has told news crews that Grier, who has some college education, can be a kind, stable person. When he is on his meds.

But his arrest record shows him to be a troubled, even dangerous, person.

In 2017, he was arrested in DeKalb on a charge of indecent exposure and another time for family violence.

In 2018, he was arrested for violating a restraining order and spent five months in Fulton jail after having been ordered to take anger management classes and stay away from his victim.

In 2019 he was arrested in Atlanta on aggravated battery charges. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months (he did 15) and was given three and a half years on probation, ordered to enter a substance abuse program and steer clear of his two victims.

In 2023, Grier was arrested with a gun in DeKalb and did another three months.

Now he is back in, probably forever.

Dickens is saying last week’s tragedy and chaos is another wakeup call for society to address mental illness and criminals who take no heed.

But rebuilding a long-decaying water system, a billion-dollar-plus fix will be, oddly enough, easier.

With that, you map out the network, draw up engineer plans, beg the feds for grants, hit up the residents for more money and then get to work.

That will be hard, no doubt. But the other issue is much more endemic.