Many people on the rundown northwest Atlanta street where Kathryn Johnston lived fortify their windows with metal bars and arm themselves for protection.
Johnston, 92, was no exception.
She was waiting with her gun on Tuesday night when a group of plainclothes officers with a warrant knocked down her door in a search for drugs, police said. She opened fire, wounding three officers, before being shot to death, police said.
Assistant Police Chief Alan Dreher called the killing “tragic and unfortunate” but said the officers were justified in returning fire.
“You don’t know who’s in the house until you open that door,” Dreher said Wednesday. “And once they forced open the door, they were immediately fired upon.”
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a civil rights activist and spokesman for Johnston’s family, said he could understand why the elderly woman would arm herself.
“She was afraid,” Hutchins said. “This is a horrifying situation in a neighborhood where crime happens often. This incident is a result of a mix-up.”
The officers had gone to the old woman’s house with a search warrant after buying drugs there from a man known only as Sam, police said. Police issued a “John Doe” warrant on Wednesday for the arrest of Sam, believed to be in his early to mid 30s, who allegedly sold the drugs to the undercover agent. Dreher would not say how the dealer knew Johnston.
Investigators also said they found drugs in the home after Johnston was killed. Officer Joe Cobb, a police spokesman, said the type of drug involved would not be disclosed until it was verified by the crime lab.
District Attorney Paul Howard said that his office is looking into the shooting but that a preliminary review indicates the officers had a right to search the home.
‘Roughest neighborhood in Georgia’Crime and drugs are a part of the landscape in the rough neighborhood where Johnston lived, and her neighbors said they do what it takes to protect themselves.
“It’s the roughest neighborhood in Georgia,” said 56-year-old Allen Pernel, who lives a few blocks from Johnston’s home. “If she thought somebody was coming into her house, she did what any of us would have done.”
Al Harley, a 50-year-old homeless man who hangs out in front of a neighborhood convenience store, said residents follow a sort of credo: “Don’t let anyone disrespect your door.”
The police chief said the officers had identified themselves and then forced open the door of Johnson’s house of 17 years. Johnston was alone in her house, police said.
Bullets struck Investigator Gary Smith, 38, in the leg and Investigator Cary Bond, 38, in the arm. Investigator Gregg Junnier, 40, was hit in the leg, the face and his bulletproof vest. They were taken to the hospital and are expected to recover.
Johnston had no children and her closest relative was a 75-year-old niece, neighbors said.
“She hardly came outside her home,” said Tameka Walker, 28, who lives behind Johnston’s house and used to visit her. “She’s not a 92-year-old grouchy old woman you think she was. She’s a very nice person.”