Atlanta police say undercover officers bought drugs from a man inside the home of a 92-year-old woman hours before she was killed in a gunbattle that left three officers wounded.
Neighbors and family members say Kathryn Johnston was a feeble and frightened woman who rarely let people into her home, even when it was just friends bringing groceries.
Police are investigating how the deadly Tuesday night confrontation came about.
The woman apparently heard police breaking through the burglar bar door before breaking down her front door. Johnston was ready. She fired her revolver and five shots struck the officers just as they rushed in the door. One was hit three times and the other two once each. All were later released from Grady Memorial Hospital.
Medical examiners said the woman was shot twice in the chest and in "other extremities."
"It was a very tragic and unfortunate incident," said Assistant Chief Alan Dreher at a news conference, filling in for Chief Richard Pennington, who was away for the holiday.
The Rev. Markell Hutchins, a local activist, agrees with Dreher, at least on that point.
"This is one of the most tragic cases of police-involved use of force, not only in Atlanta, but in the nation," said Hutchins, who had counseled the family, and set up a meeting with a law firm. "It appears Mrs. Johnston was a model citizen. A good citizen and a matriarch of the community."
State Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta) summed up what many people were saying all day: "A confrontation with police and a 92-year-old woman don't go together."
Dreher said undercover officers purchased unspecified narcotics from a man inside Johnston's home on Neal Street in northwest Atlanta just a few hours earlier and had returned just after 7 p.m. with a "no knock" warrant to search the house.
The basis for the search warrant was not known because State Court Administrator Stefani Searcy refused to release a copy of the warrant Wednesday. State law considers all such documents public record but Searcy cited "office policy" as her reason for withholding the warrant.
Dreher said no one was arrested, but officers found suspected narcotics in the house.
He said he did not know if the suspect, whom police did not name, had any relation to the dead woman. Dreher said police do not think Johnston was selling drugs but knew little else about her.
The assistant chief said Johnston should have recognized the men as officers even though they were not wearing uniforms. He said all three wore bulletproof vests that had the word "Police" across the front and back. He said they shouted they were police as they burst through the door.
But he added "there's been no predeterminations made in this case."
"There is going to be a complete, thorough investigation," he said. The department's internal affairs unit and the district attorney's office will conduct an investigation.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, at the request of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's office, sent forensic specialists to Johnston's home Wednesday to gather ballistic evidence, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.
Also Wednesday, police said they had issued a "John Doe" arrest warrant for the man they said sold illegal drugs to an undercover agent in Johnston's home. Such warrants are issued when the true identity of the suspect is unknown.
'Not All Officers' Fired Their Weapons
It was not clear how many times Johnston was shot. Dreher said "not all officers" discharged their weapons.
All three officers are on leave with pay until the investigation is complete.
Gary Smith, 38, a 13-year APD veteran, was shot in the left leg. Cary Bond, also 38, a 14-year department veteran, was shot in the left arm. And Gregg Junnier, 40, with 18 years in the department, was shot three times -- his left cheek, his leg and the center front of his vest.
Dreher said the three drug officers were well-trained and had served hundreds of warrants over the years. Even though the officers weren't required to knock before entering the house, they did, Dreher said.
"No knock" warrants are frequently issued so police can get inside before suspects can destroy or flush any drugs.
Wednesday night about 100 people assembled for a vigil in the street in front of Johnston's home, holding candles, praying and singing hymns, such as "Come By Here, My Lord," while investigators were inside.
Hutchins said the purpose of the gathering was to pull the neighborhood together around the tragedy. And he said he was hopeful the investigation "will get at the truth, and we're going to be empowered by that."
The shooting was the talk of the neighborhood, which is less than a mile northwest of the Georgia Dome and near the Atlanta University campus.
By most accounts, the block where Johnston lived is quiet and unassuming. Yards are neat, and many of the residents are elderly. But, of the 15 homes on the block, three are either abandoned or empty and six have burglar bars on windows and doors. And the Johnston home is just a block east of an area known as "The Bluff," a section so beset with drugs and crime that federal authorities and Atlanta police have targeted it with an effort called Project Safe Neighborhoods.
The program brings increased drug and gun enforcement, as well as inspections for codes violations. Dozens of homes have been torn down since 2002 to prevent blight.
Darrell Watkins of Atlanta, one of the people gathered for the prayer vigil, said the neighborhood is "one of the worst in the city," but looking at Johnston's home, he said it hardly looks like the site of drug activity: "It's got a wheelchair ramp out front, and it's real clean," he said.
Activist Hutchins agreed that the neighborhood is crime-ridden, "but if this were Buckhead or Midtown there would have been a much different set of circumstances," he said. "These police officers felt comfortable shooting first and asking questions later."
'She Wouldn't Open Her Door for Anybody'
Earlier in the day, neighbor Keith Coachman recalled Johnston as a nice old woman who was cautious. Coachman, who did yard work for Johnston, said she always urged him to get his work done early.
"She was scared, she would go to bed around 5 or 6 and she wouldn't open her door for anybody," he said.
Sallie Strickland, who has lived on the street for 51 years, agreed the old woman lived in fear. "I'd bring groceries and she'd say, 'Set them on the porch,' " said Strickland. "Then she'd lock the doors right away."
The only people she ever saw in the house were her niece and nephews.
Neighbor Reginald McAfee said he was cooking when he heard the shots. When he went over to see the commotion, he said the last person he would have suspected to be involved was Johnston.
"The cops went to the wrong house," McAfee said, echoing suspicion expressed across the neighborhood.
The Rev. R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, said his group would conduct its own investigation.
"I want to make sure the people in this neighborhood don't fear the police more than [they fear] the criminals," he said.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.