ATLANTA — A piece of Atlanta history could have been permanently destroyed Thursday had it not been for a group of quick-thinking tourists who stepped in when a woman allegedly tried to burn down Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home.
Laneisha Shantrice Henderson, a U.S. Navy veteran who earned medals for good conduct among other accolades during her four years in the service, was detained by the bystanders at the historic home on Auburn Avenue and taken into custody Thursday night. The 26-year-old former Navy sailor has been charged with second-degree criminal attempt to commit arson and interference with government property.
“That action saved an important part of American history tonight,” Atlanta police Chief Darin Schierbaum told reporters at the scene.
Officers were called to the location around 5:45 p.m., police said. Unlike many national monuments, there is no gate restricting access to the civil rights leader’s birth home, which attracts more than 700,000 visitors from around the world annually. The two-story Queen Anne-style house sits about 10 yards off the street in a historic preservation district, but Auburn Avenue is a busy public street with no traffic restrictions, making it difficult to secure the area.
Utah resident Zach Kempf, who was in town for business, was visiting the site after wrapping up his last day of work. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he and his coworker saw the woman approach the property with a can. At first, they thought she was a groundskeeper using the can to water plants, he said.
“She seemed a little agitated,” said Kempf, whose suspicions rose when the woman rushed passed them and up the porch steps, into a roped-off area, and started yanking on the front door. Those suspicions were confirmed when she started pouring the can’s contents onto the porch and bushes, and the smell of gasoline hit them.
That’s when Kempf started recording on his cellphone as police were called.
“What are you doing?” he is heard asking the woman.
In the video, obtained by the AJC, the woman is dressed in all black with no shoes and waves him away.
“No, that’s gasoline,” Kempf responds.
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