Home Authors Posts by Steve Fennessy

Steve Fennessy

Did Anthony Hill have to die?

0

When Grisselle Torres dialed 911 on March 9, 2015, all she wanted was some help. Not for her, but for Anthony Hill, a tenant at the apartment complex she managed. Hill was a young guy, just 26, and he’d lived in apartment O-8 since the previous July. Beyond that, Torres didn’t know much about him, except that his balcony faced her second-floor office, and, often, when she was arriving for work, he’d call down to her and wish her a good morning. Neighbors liked him, too; he’d play with their kids, remind them to pick up after themselves. He was, she’d later recall, a gentleman.

Together, the 181 units that Torres managed were called the Heights at Chamblee, which is a slightly ridiculous name, considering that the view looking south from the complex is the side of a berm, above which is Chamblee Tucker Road. To leave the Heights, it turns out, you have to go up.

A little after 11 on the morning of March 9, 2015, Hill had left the apartment he shared with his cousin, Kailen Alexander, to go to the gym. Planet Fitness is just a mile down the road, and Hill drove there in his Dodge Dart, checking in at 11:24 a.m. On his way out he chatted briefly with an employee about wanting to upgrade his iPhone. Hill, the employee recalls, was wearing red shorts and a tank top. But then Hill did something odd: He left the gym without taking his keys from behind the desk, bypassed his car altogether, and walked home. He left the car unlocked, not that there was much to steal, though a thief would have learned a lot about Hill from rummaging around the car’s interior. There were documents that showed that Hill was an Air Force veteran. There was his rental contract. And there was a priority-mail envelope containing his mental-health records.

Pedro Castillo, a maintenance supervisor at the Heights, saw Hill walking toward the complex. He was bobbing up and down as he walked. Castillo would tell state police investigators the next day that Hill was wearing just camouflage shorts. (Almost three years later, in a deposition, he’d say that Hill was wearing a shirt, too.)

Castillo saw Hill again a short while later, outside the leasing office. He and another maintenance worker, Deni Hechavarria, had been summoned there by Torres and assistant manager Solangel Rodriguez. At first, Rodriguez had seen Hill face-down on the sidewalk below the office. It seemed as if he’d fainted or was having a seizure, but then he stood and headed up the stairs to the entrance of the leasing office. Now it seemed like Hill was on drugs. He appeared to be pulling things out of his mouth. “Lock the door,” Torres told Rodriguez. From her room inside the leasing office, Torres couldn’t even see Hill but instead relied on what Rodriguez was relaying to her, with Hill on the other side of the glass door, knocking, waving, and calling out, “Hey, it’s me—Anthony,” then alternately crawling and jumping up and down on the landing, gripping the railing.

During the 911 call, Torres is carrying on two conversations—one with Rodriguez, who is observing Hill, and another with an increasingly annoyed emergency operator.

Torres: I don’t know if something happened to him. If you can send someone here, ’cause I don’t know what happened to him.
911: Did you ask her? Him? Ask her or him?
Torres: It’s a him.
911: It’s a what?
Torres: Hold on, hold on. He’s here. He’s awake. Now, he’s up. Yeah, no, I need—
911: —Ask him do he need—
Torres: —He’s on drugs—
911: Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am.
Torres: Yes.
911: Ask him if he needs the police or the paramedics.
Torres: Ay, I don’ t know. He . . . I closed my door and he’s, like, knocking on my door. But I think he’s, like, drugged.
911: What does he look like? He’s at the leasing office?
Torres: Yeah, he’s in the, in the . . .
911: Is he at the leasing office, ma’am?
Torres: Yes.
911: Okay, what does he look like? White, black, Hispanic male?
Torres: It’s . . . It’s light-skinned.
911: He’s a light-skinned black male?
Torres: Yeah.
911: What is he wearing?
Torres: He has no shirt, shorts. Um, yeah, send the police, better.
911: What is he wearing, ma’am?
Torres: Police. Huh?
911: What’s he wearing?
Torres: He’s wearing shorts, no shirt, no shoes. Ay, dios mío, se tira!

In court more than three years later, Torres explained that she exclaimed in Spanish because she thought Hill was about to jump off the balcony. Right about then, Castillo and Hechavarria walked up the stairs after seeing Hill knocking on the office door. Both men recalled asking Hill if he was okay.

“The devil is coming,” Hill said. “Help me. Help me.”

Officer Robert Olsen was eating lunch in his car in the Publix parking lot off North Druid Hills Road when the call came from dispatch. It was just past 1 p.m., seven hours since his 10-hour shift had begun. Olsen, who’s gone by “Chip” his whole life, was 52 but had been a cop for just seven years. He’d worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a program specialist, where he monitored “$125 to $140 million in commodity entitlement,” as he would testify. Unhappy, he quit to work for a friend’s company, but it involved sales, which “wasn’t a good fit,” his wife, Kathy, said in a phone interview. So, at 45, Olsen decided he wanted to be a cop. “He’d always wanted to be in the military, but [at his age] it wasn’t really an option,” she said. “So, he said, ‘I might as well be a police officer.’ It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s serving your community; it’s attention to detail.”

Beginning in January 2008, Olsen commuted from his home in north Fulton to Lithonia to train with cadets in the DeKalb County Police Academy, many young enough to be his children. On July 11, 2008, he graduated.

Olsen worked nights, and the sleep schedule was stressful, especially with a baby in the house, Kathy Olsen said. (Their only child, a son, is now nine.) “It didn’t make for a very happy family life,” she said. Eventually, he moved to days, working a series of desk jobs, including aide to a precinct commander. By March 2015, he had achieved the rank of MPO, or master police officer, right below sergeant.

The anatomy of a police shooting: Anthony Hill
Olsen, left, with Don Samuel, one of his attorneys

Photograph by Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Up until the day he first saw Anthony Hill, and despite responding to literally thousands of calls during the past seven years, Olsen had never once discharged his weapon in the line of duty. In fact, up until that day, he’d never even drawn his weapon on a suspect. As for his Taser, he’d deployed it just once, and it had not functioned properly. Every performance evaluation that GBI investigators found in Olsen’s personnel file showed him receiving ratings of Exceeds or Far Exceeds.

Along the way, he also received complaints. He was written up for using profanity during a traffic stop. A passenger complained that Olsen was rude to her husband, who was driving, after Olsen pulled him over for running a red light. Olsen allegedly demanded to know if the driver thought he was above the law. Though the complaint was found to be unsubstantiated, his bosses suggested Olsen get more training on his people skills.

Indeed, what’s notable about Olsen’s seven years as a DeKalb County cop is just how much training he had—1,948 hours from 2008 through 2014. While almost a thousand of those hours came during his first-year academy training, starting in 2009, he averaged more than 150 hours of training every year. For an officer to remain certified by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, it’s necessary to take at least 20 hours of training annually, including firearms testing and a one-hour “use of deadly force” class. Individual departments also have their own requirements. But as Olsen put it in court last year, “I searched out other opportunities to make myself . . . a better police officer.” In 2013, for example, he took an eight-hour FEMA course on police response to suicide-bombing attacks, a 24-hour course titled “Homeland Security and Terrorism Analysis,” and a four-hour seminar on elder financial abuse. He also underwent a one-hour class, in December 2010, concerning “excited delirium.” What he learned about the controversial syndrome would be pivotal in his explanation of what happened when he encountered Anthony Hill.

Being a cop “made him a little more cynical, seeing all of the preventable bad stuff,” Kathy Olsen said. “Whenever he’d have to go on a domestic-violence call and there were kids or animals involved, it takes a little piece of your soul.” Kathy, who married Robert Olsen in 2003, said her husband “doesn’t come across as a people person. He’s very reserved. But he can talk your ear off if given the right circumstances.”

On March 9, 2015, Olsen was working the North Central precinct. His territory within the precinct was referred to as 250, and his call sign was 251. The 250 territory roughly straddles Lawrenceville Highway, extending northeast from just outside Decatur to I-285.

At 1:03 p.m., dispatch radioed in. “251 day signal 53. 3028 Chamblee Tucker Road. The Heights at Chamblee apartments at the leasing office. Complainant advised possible signal 22 subject on the balcony. . . . Black male, light-skinned, no shirt, shorts, no shoes. Find out from the complainant.”

“251 clear,” Olsen replied. “Extended ETA.”

What Olsen heard was that a suspicious person—the “signal 53”—was seen at an apartment complex that was a full seven miles away. Beyond being suspicious, the man was, as the “signal 22” denoted, possibly demented. A signal 22 call is considered an emergency mental-health call, and the DeKalb County police manual says that, in addition to an officer, “a supervisor should also respond.” Olsen pulled out of the Publix parking lot and headed north on 285. He would be on his own.

Anthony Hill grew up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and was raised by his mother, Carolyn Giummo, and her parents, Theola and William Baylor. Hill was especially close to his grandfather, a career educator who was a pillar of his community in this part of the South Carolina Lowcountry. After William Baylor died in 2008, Hill had 3608—the years of his grandfather’s birth and death—tattooed on his chest, along with Baylor’s oft-repeated advice to his grandson: “Be sensible.”

Hill had always been precocious and loved music. “He could sing,” his mother said in a 2018 deposition. “He taught himself how to play the saxophone, the piano, the clarinet, the guitar. And he liked making beats and singing demos.”

The anatomy of a police shooting: Anthony Hill
Protesters took to the streets after Hill’s death.

Photograph by David Goldman/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Giummo said her son had wanted to attend the University of Tennessee to study music, but the University of South Carolina had offered him a scholarship; she said he had scored a perfect 36 on the English ACT. USC was closer to his family. “He could be home for the holidays,” she said, “because we spent every holiday together, every vacation.”

But in 2008, the same year that his grandfather died, Hill left USC, a year and a half after matriculating. That fall, he enlisted in the Air Force, where two of Hill’s uncles had also served.

In September 2010, Hill was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was a munitions specialist at Kandahar Airfield, the site of frequent suicide-bomber and rocket attacks by the Taliban. Kailen Alexander, Hill’s cousin and Atlanta roommate, would later recall that Hill spoke about seeing children killed. But when Air Force officials screened Hill for possible posttraumatic stress disorder after his return from Afghanistan, he denied being wounded or having witnessed casualties. Physicians determined he did not meet the criteria for PTSD.

In August 2011, five months after leaving Afghanistan, Hill reported to an Air Force nurse practitioner that he was feeling anxious and depressed. He was isolating from others. He described periods of intense creativity, always at night, during which he’d write music but then couldn’t recapture that creativity at other times. A month later he saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed him BuSpar for anxiety, as well as melatonin. After Hill complained that his brain was not “working properly,” that it was “rebooting,” his psychiatrist, in December 2011, prescribed Klonopin. The medication seemed to work, at least for a while: He rediscovered his music and was feeling more sociable.

Then, in February 2012, Hill had a setback. The anxiety returned. He was spending money recklessly—so much on recording equipment he was trying to return it—and not sleeping for days at a time. His speech became so fast that his girlfriend remarked on it.

Not long after, Hill was diagnosed as bipolar. Other medications followed, including one, Seroquel, that caused him to oversleep, making him late for his job at Moody Air Force Base. As doctors sought to find the right mix of medications that would stabilize Hill, he was forced to miss more and more work on the base. Hill had been described in his medical evaluation as a “sharp airman [who] is well-liked in his unit.” But the diagnosis—and the work he was missing as a result—ultimately made him a liability in the eyes of the military. “His absences from work impair our ability to properly forecast and schedule munitions production and inspections,” wrote his commander. “My recommendation is the member be separated from the USAF—no retraining.” Effective June 28, 2013, Hill was medically retired from the Air Force.

Outside the leasing office, on the second-floor landing, Pedro Castillo told Hill to go home. Hill had slumped to the floor and “kept saying things like, ‘The devil is coming’ and ‘I love you, Mommy.’”

“Where do I live?” Hill asked him.

“You live right there,” Castillo said, and pointed to Hill’s balcony just a few dozen feet away. Hill seemed to understand and left. With Hill gone, Castillo and Hechavarria went into the office, joining Torres and Rodriguez. But then, just a few minutes later, Castillo looked out through the blinds of the office window toward Hill’s balcony, and there he was—now completely naked. Hill climbed over his balcony railing, lowering himself gingerly to the ground-level patio. He set off in direction of the playground but then stopped to sit in the dirt, drawing his knees up toward his shoulders. For a second, he picked at his bare feet. Then, he lowered his head as if studying the ground between his legs.

You can see all this in a brief video that Hechavarria shot on his cellphone from the office that day. This is one of at least four that track the moments before and after Olsen’s encounter with Hill. A second video, also shot from the office, captured him seconds later on the playground, crouching in the dirt, like he’d seen a wild animal and didn’t want to spook it. Then, it appeared he was doing child’s pose in yoga, his face on the ground, he knees pulled up under his chest. After several seconds, he got up and walked calmly through the playground, past a trash can, past a slide, past a faded red bench. In the video, you can hear Torres on the phone again with 911. “The guy is walking naked all around the community,” she’s saying. The police still had not arrived. Just then, Hill’s gait changed, from an unaffected stride to something his fiancée would later describe to WSB-TV as “walking like a caveman.” He seemed to plod, his feet splayed, his knees bent at an exaggerated angle with each step.

The anatomy of a police shooting: Anthony Hill
The Heights at Chamblee after the shooting, which occurred in the parking lot pictured at the top of the photo.

Photograph by Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Torres asked Castillo and Hechavarria to follow Hill. “Guard him until the DeKalb police or whoever they are going to send will come.” Hill was continuing to talk to himself. He crouched in the gap between two of the buildings. Castillo and Hechavarria watched.

Minutes, perhaps seconds, later, Olsen pulled into the main entrance of the Heights at Chamblee. It was 1:19 p.m. On the way, he’d received updates from dispatch. First, that Torres had requested he hurry. Then, that the subject had “removed all his clothing.”

In a statement he’d later make to a grand jury, Olsen described what was going through his mind as he drove toward the Heights, a place he’d been to before. He knew children lived there. “I didn’t know if any of the children were in danger or if anybody else was in danger in the complex or not. But that was certainly something I was considering.”

Olsen went on: Dispatch had told him “about a person being naked and acting bizarrely,” which caused him to “be more mindful of my surroundings and to think about my training, about the dangers of encounters or confrontations with those that are doing drugs or have a mental disorder, a psychotic break. I was not scared, but I was on high alert.

“Also, the fact that he was reported to be naked was particularly important to me based on my training. I know from my training that when people are in a state like this, excited delirium or high on PCP or having a psychotic mental break, they often disrobe and become naked. I also know from my training that they can be impervious to pain. They are very dangerous individuals. They act irrationally and can exhibit superhuman strength when encountered.”

The phrase “excited delirium” was coined in the mid-1980s to describe a constellation of symptoms typically associated with a combination of mental illness and illicit drug use. In other words, it’s not a disease but a syndrome. Doctors can’t test for excited delirium. It is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5. Nor is it recognized by the American Medical Association. But police officers nationwide are trained on it, and in DeKalb County, a one-hour course on excited delirium taught to police officers references a 2009 white paper by the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“Excited delirium subjects are known to be irrational, often violent and relatively impervious to pain,” the white paper explains. “Unfortunately, almost everything taught to LEOs [law enforcement officers] about control of subjects relies on a suspect to be rational, appropriate, or to comply with painful stimuli. Tools and tactics available to LEOs (such as pepper spray, impact batons, joint lock maneuvers, punches and kicks, and [Tasers]) that are traditionally effective in controlling resisting subjects are likely to be less effective on [excited delirium] subjects. When methods such as pain compliance maneuvers or tools of force fail, the LEO is left with few options.”

Last year, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper found 18 cases nationwide of in-custody deaths that were blamed on excited delirium. In each of the deaths, some type of restraint was being used on the inmate.

The ACLU has called excited delirium a “convenient way [for police] to point the finger away from themselves and away from inconvenient truths about our criminal justice system.”

The Heights community is laid out in two L shapes, one L tucked into the other. The outside L consists of five buildings; the inside L, two buildings. Between each apartment building is a gap of about 25 feet, and as Olsen drove down one parking lot, he looked to his left through a gap and saw Hill, crouching naked. Olsen’s plan, as he described it to the grand jury, was to “approach [Hill] slowly and not drive right up on him . . . to keep a distance . . . and engage him in dialogue.”

The anatomy of a police shooting: Anthony Hill
      Olsen entered the complex from Chamblee Tucker Road and first saw Anthony Hill through the gap between two apartment buildings.
      Initial position of Anthony Hill when Olsen first saw him
      Where Olsen stopped his patrol car, and where he shot Hill
      Vantage point of Miguel Medina
      Vantage point of Pedro Castillo
      Office

Behind Olsen was a truck driven by Miguel Medina, a resident at the Heights. Medina has two children, and on the playground, he’d occasionally see Hill exercising, wearing a big set of earphones, singing softly.

When Olsen paused to look to his left and spotted Hill, Medina did, too. “I thought, well, that’s the problem,” Medina said in a deposition. “I’m going to go see how the police officer resolves this problem.” Keeping a distance of about 16 feet from the police car, Medina followed Olsen down the parking lot and around the curve that would bring them both into Hill’s view.

Accounts about what happened in the next 10 or 12 seconds differ slightly. Both Olsen and Medina say that as soon as Hill saw Olsen’s police car, he sprang to his feet and started running toward the car, closing the distance of about 150 feet. How fast? Olsen has described it as “sprinting,” while Medina called it “not running really fast.” Hill’s physique stuck in Olsen’s mind. “I’m thinking, ‘This guy is big. This guy looks like—he’s muscular, looks like a football player kind of build,’” he told GBI investigators. “When he was running, I saw the muscles pumping and his quadriceps through his legs were visible.” Castillo, who was standing about midway between where Hill had been crouching and where Olsen had stopped his car, described Hill as running toward Olsen with his arms above his head. But Medina said that Hill’s arms were never above his head.

If Hill was running with his arms above his head, might they have been a gesture of surrender? Or aggression? To Castillo, it looked like Hill had “tried to attack” Olsen, a characterization that Olsen has repeated consistently. (“He was attacking me,” Olsen told the grand jury. “I believe he was coming to hurt me. He was going to drive me back and head-first into the pavement and possibly take my gun.”) But it’s also relevant to note that Hill, who’d interned with his hometown police department as a teenager, had no arrest record. What’s more, three days before his death—and less than a year after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown—Hill, himself a black man, had come out on Facebook in defense of police: “The key thing to remember is, #blacklivesmatter, ABSOLUTELY, but not more so than any other life.”

Olsen put his car in park. A leftie, Olsen wore his gun, a Smith & Wesson M&P .40 caliber pistol, on his left hip. He said that, while he was getting out, a move that required him to pull the door latch twice to unlock it, he briefly took his eyes off of Hill. By the time Olsen got out, Hill had reached the front of his car. By that point, Castillo has said, Hill’s arms were down, his palms facing backward.

At various times, Castillo has provided differing, and sometimes contradictory, recollections. For instance, in court last year, Castillo said yes when asked if he’d walked Hill back to his apartment from the leasing office. Minutes later, he testified that Hill went by himself. In describing Hill to police just hours after the shooting, he estimated Hill to be 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. In a deposition almost three years later, he said Hill “wasn’t too tall. He was, like, five-eight, five-nine.” (Hill was 5 foot 9 and weighed 165 pounds.) To investigators after the shooting, he recalled Olsen telling Hill to stop “more than 10 times.” In subsequent descriptions, he said it was twice. Olsen himself said he yelled stop twice. Castillo is also the only witness to describe Hill as “laughing” while he ran toward the officer.

Everyone agrees that while his gun was trained on Hill, Olsen was backpedaling around the back of his car. “He continued charging directly at me,” Olsen told the grand jury. In his deposition, Castillo said Hill was still running at Hill “a little slower.” Castillo was asked if Hill ever slowed to a walk. “Yes. . . . As the police officer was walking backwards, [Hill] was walking going forward. . . . He was walking at the same rhythm that the police officer was.”

How long did all of this take? From the time when Olsen first pointed his gun at Hill to when he fired it twice was likely a matter of just four or five seconds. When the bullets tore into Hill—in his neck, and in his chest, just below his “Be sensible” tattoo—he was so close to Olsen that blood spatter ended up on the officer’s uniform.

In a deposition, an attorney asked Castillo what happened in the moments after Olsen shot Hill. “I only saw that he laid him down on the street, and he needed our help.”

“The officer needed your help?”

“Yes. He told us, ‘Help me. Help me.’”

Last year, prosecutors in Richmond, Virginia, declined to press charges against an officer who shot and killed an unarmed naked man who was running toward him. The May 2018 shooting was captured on the officer’s body-cam and showed 24-year-old Marcus-David Peters walking toward the officer, Michael Nyantakyi, whose Taser is drawn on Peters. As Peters gets closer, he’s heard exclaiming, “Back the f—k up! Put the Taser down, or I’ll kill you!” With Peters roughly eight feet away, Nyantakyi fired his Taser, but one of the prongs missed Peters, who kept coming. Nyantakyi pulled out his gun, firing twice. Peters died later that evening. Three months later, prosecutors determined that the shooting was a “justifiable homicide.”

In the shooting of Anthony Hill, Olsen, who was not wearing a body-cam, never drew his Taser. He said that when he got out of his car, Hill was too close to him and so there wasn’t time for the Taser. And since he was backpedaling as Hill kept advancing, Olsen said, he could not have mustered enough momentum with his baton to stop Hill. Pepper spray also wouldn’t have worked, he insisted; even if there was time to deploy it, Hill was so close that Olsen may have been incapacitated, too.

“My training led me to react the way I did.”

Olsen explained this to a DeKalb County grand jury on January 21, 2016. He spoke for 20 minutes, at the end of eight hours of testimony from other witnesses. “My training,” he said, “led me to react the way I did.” Olsen was not cross-examined, because Georgia law at the time (it has since changed) allowed police officers to make their cases to grand juries without permitting prosecutors any rebuttal or follow-up questions. Nevertheless, the grand jury indicted Olsen on six counts, including felony murder and aggravated assault.

Olsen’s indictment marked only the second time between 2010 and 2016—a time period that included 187 fatal shootings, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation—that a Georgia cop was prosecuted for a fatal on-duty shooting. Nationwide, from 2005 through June 2019, 104 nonfederal law-enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter as the result of an on-duty shooting; of the 80 cases that have been resolved, 35 ended in convictions, according to an analysis conducted by the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University.

“It’s an unconscionable decision that the district attorney has made to seek a murder conviction here,” Don Samuel, one of Olsen’s attorneys, said in an interview. “I feel more strongly about it than many other people, even on our side. There was no reason for the D.A. to seek a life sentence as if [Olsen] had this malicious response. Look at all the cases around the country. Nobody ever gets prosecuted in a situation like this.”

“Stepping out of the car and shooting the individual was excessive.”

Four days after he was indicted, Olsen resigned from the DeKalb police department. It was that or be fired. An internal review board determined that Olsen had used excessive force in his encounter with Hill. “Stepping out of the car and shooting the individual was excessive,” William Wallace, the DeKalb Police commander of internal affairs, said. Wallace listed all the less-lethal options Olsen had at his disposal—pepper spray, a baton, a Taser, his own hands, his communication skills, and his own car, with its windows and locking doors. Using his gun, Wallace said, “wasn’t the necessary amount of force to accomplish that law-enforcement goal or to make an arrest.”

Wallace’s remarks are part of a deposition in a federal lawsuit filed by Hill’s parents, Carolyn Giummo and Anthony Hill Sr., against DeKalb County and Olsen, alleging the wrongful death of their son. Beyond the specific allegations—that Olsen was insufficiently trained, that DeKalb County was ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the call, that Hill suffered and died as a result—the lawsuit puts Hill’s death into a larger context of how society has neglected the mentally ill. The nationwide deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill meant that “by 2010 there were only about 14 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, the same ratio as in 1850,” the lawsuit notes. That, combined with the increasing number of combat veterans in DeKalb County who need mental health care, has meant that DeKalb County cops are “more likely than not the first responders to situations involving mentally disturbed . . . individuals.” Seen in this light, the lawsuit seems to argue, a death such as Hill’s was almost an inevitability.

But in June, Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. dismissed the claims against DeKalb County, ruling that there’s nothing in the county’s training of its officers about excited delirium that could be considered the “moving force” behind Hill’s death. Batten pointed out that Olsen also took a 40-hour optional course called “Crisis Intervention Team” training, designed to help officers better respond to mental-health crisis calls. Still, the lawsuit against Olsen remains. Giummo declined to comment for this story, saying she did not want to interfere with Olsen’s criminal trial, which is set to begin September 23.

Olsen had hoped to avoid the criminal trial by arguing that, because he believed he was in fear for his life, he could claim immunity from prosecution. But after a two-day hearing in May 2018—likely a preview of the upcoming criminal trial—DeKalb County Judge J.P. Boulee ruled that Olsen failed to show that deadly force was necessary. “Any belief by [Olsen] that Hill was about to kill him and that deadly force was necessary to prevent the killing was not reasonable.”

Perhaps no testimony in Olsen’s murder trial will be as consequential as that of DeKalb Police Officer Lyn Anderson, who was the first backup that day to arrive on the scene. After he was shot, Hill had fallen face-first onto the pavement. “He attacked me,” Olsen told dispatch, according to audio of the transmission. A third video shows Olsen rushing to his driver’s-side door and popping the trunk release. Olsen told state investigators that he was getting his first-aid kit from the trunk, then went back to his car for his rubber gloves. He turned Hill onto his back. “I saw no respirations,” he told state police. “I checked for carotid pulse. I found none. The subject uttered a death rattle. I took off my gloves and at that time attempted to detain any witnesses.”

In a fourth video, this one shot by a resident from a second-floor balcony overlooking the scene, Olsen is seen crouching over Hill’s body, a pool of blood staining the pavement. Olsen brought his finger to Hill’s neck, presumably looking for a pulse. He waved his other hand toward witnesses, trying to keep them back. It’s hard to hear what Olsen is saying over the sound of a yapping dog, the approaching sirens, and the chatter of the residents shooting the video, but one question he asked is clearly audible: “Did you see what happened?” He directed the potential witnesses to sit down apart from one another.

Then Anderson pulled up. Olsen crouched again and motioned toward Hill’s body, the dead man’s torso covered in blood, his feet crossed at the ankle, one arm stretched to the side, his hand resting in a puddle of bright red.

At Olsen’s immunity hearing, Anderson testified that Olsen told him Hill came running toward Olsen “and started pounding on him.” Anderson referenced how Olsen had pantomimed what Hill had done. And indeed, in the video shot from the balcony, Olsen can be seen taking a step toward Anderson and twice raising his gloved fists in the air.

Said Anderson, “I was expecting to hear [Olsen] say that there was some type of weapon that was going to be used, whether it’s a stick or something that he came toward him with.”

For all his detailed recollection of what happened that afternoon, Olsen has said he has no memory of talking with Anderson at all. He has agreed that Hill never touched him.

“I did not intentionally lie to Officer Anderson,” Olsen told the grand jury. “I had no reason to lie to him. . . . I can’t imagine why I would have told him he banged on my chest because that’s not what Mr. Hill was doing. I certainly figured he was going to do a lot more to me than pound on my chest if he had tackled me.”

After her husband was indicted, Kathy Olsen recalled, “I basically had anxiety 24/7.” The entire experience—the indictment, the public outcry that brought protesters to the street, the prospect of a conviction—is “not an experience you can ever anticipate, or even know how to react,” she said. Both she and her husband are in therapy. They have kept their son in the dark about the shooting. “We have not told him anything about it,” she said. “We’re going to have to tell him something soon.”

The day that Anthony Hill died was his three-year anniversary with his fiancée, Bridget Anderson (no relation to Officer Anderson). She declined to comment for this story, citing Olsen’s upcoming trial, but on the day of Hill’s death, she told state police that he had stopped taking his medication about 10 days earlier. He found the side effects were too unpleasant, she said. She had noticed a change in Hill. For instance, Bridget Anderson described Hill as the “grammar police,” always texting in complete sentences. But that morning his texts had been fragments and, occasionally, nonsensical. In one text, he referenced “singing roaches.” Still, Anderson had never seen Hill act anywhere near as oddly as what she would see on witness videos. In the audio statement, Anderson alternates between sobs of grief and flashes of anger. “Why couldn’t they have tackled him instead of shot him?”

A month after the shooting, Anderson told the Guardian that Hill had sought help from the VA hospital but encountered hours-long wait times on the phone and VA staffers who tried to schedule appointments for him in other states. He self-medicated, she told the Guardian, with marijuana. “It helped to relax him, it helped slow down his speech, and helped him to sleep, because he did suffer from a lot of severe insomnia at times.”

Hill died in DeKalb County, which was the first county in the state to offer a mobile crisis team to respond to mental-health calls. Each team consists of a registered nurse and a police officer, who together respond to calls and evaluate the best next step for the patient and the people nearby. Where was the unit on the day Hill was shot? Out of service. Its shift didn’t start until 2 p.m.—40 minutes after Hill was shot dead.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

After Atlanta icon Herman Russell died, DNA proved Joycelyn Alston is a daughter he never knew. That’s when things got complicated.

0

JOYCELYN ALSTON IN HER BRONX HOME / PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREA FREMIOTTI

In 1983, when she was 24 and living in Washington, D.C., Joycelyn Darby Alston got a phone call from her mother, Veray, who said she’d be coming to town for a visit. There was something she needed to tell her daughter, and it was best done in person. Veray Darby lived with her husband, Richard, in the northeast Bronx, where they had raised Joyce and her three brothers in a narrow brick house that came with an inviting bay window and a $258 monthly mortgage.

As the only daughter in the Darby household, Joyce had held her own. She volunteered for pickup football games and played center on her high school basketball team. It helped that she was taller than her brothers. At home, when their parents were at work—Veray as a schoolteacher, Richard as a youth counselor—Joyce would also cook for the boys. After high school, she moved to Washington, D.C., for college, working at IHOP to help pay her tuition. Washington was both new and familiar to Joyce; she’d been born there, and two of her mother’s sisters still lived there. In fact, on the day that her mother came to visit, Joyce was living with one of her aunts and working at a department store.

When Joyce first saw her mother and the look on her face, she worried something had happened to her father. “Is Dad sick?” she asked. No, her mother said.

“Your father is not your father,” Veray told her.

Joyce didn’t understand. Was their marriage in trouble?

“No,” Veray said. Richard knew why his wife had made this trip. In fact, he had given it his blessing.

Joyce’s biological father, Veray explained, was someone else. She mentioned the man’s name, but it meant nothing to Joyce. “You could not sit there and tell me that Dad is not my dad,” she recalls today, from the kitchen table in the same Bronx home where she grew up and where she now lives, once again, with her mother, who’s 89.

To Joyce, her parents’ life together had—up until that day in 1983 when her mother visited her—seemed as conventional as any other couple’s in their working-class neighborhood. Richard doted on his only daughter, and encouraged his sons to keep a close eye on any boy who dared to date Joyce. When money was tight, Richard took on weekend work selling door-to-door. Indeed, it was while he was a Fuller Brush traveling salesman that he’d first met Veray back in the late 1950s. This was in Atlanta, where Veray had grown up, attending the Allen Temple A.M.E. Church in Summerhill. Richard Darby eventually proposed to Veray, marrying her in 1959, and the young couple settled down in Washington before ultimately moving to the Bronx.

But now the identity that had defined Joyce’s life—as the only daughter of Veray and Richard Darby—was crumbling.

“I was angry,” Joyce recalls. “I was bitter. Yeah. It was almost like, ‘You’re hurting Dad, you’re not hurting me. I’m not getting any benefit out of this. So why are you doing this to him?’” Her mother had wept. “Why now?” Joyce asked.

“It’s time,” Veray replied. “I’m tired of carrying this burden.” The burden would now be Joyce’s. “Okay,” Joyce said. “Then who the hell is Herman Russell?”

By any measure, the life of Herman J. Russell was astounding. Born into poverty, the youngest of eight children, he was an entrepreneurial prodigy. At eight, he had his own paper route. At 11, he joined his father on job sites, where Rogers Russell was a master plasterer. Young Herman mixed sand and cement to make mortar. At 12, he opened a shoeshine stand across the street from his childhood home at 776 Martin Street in Summerhill. (The stand was on city-owned land, and when the racist aldermen laughed the young man with the speech impediment out of City Hall after he asked permission to do business on the parcel, Russell opened the stand anyway.) Within a month, he was subcontracting—hiring a friend to also shine shoes, and taking a nickel off the top, half the amount Russell charged his customers. On a typical day, Russell would go home with $10 in his pocket, more than the average wage of the adults around him. And he took to heart his father’s advice: “Son, if you don’t make but 50 cents, save a portion of it.”

“An ugly fiction in the South was that black folks were lazy, that black folks didn’t want to work,” Russell wrote in his autobiography, Building Atlanta, which was published in 2014, the year he died. “I can’t imagine where that came from, because all we did was work, from can’t-see-in-the-morning until can’t-see-at-night, as the saying goes. The willingness to work, to be responsible for yourself as long as your body and mind were sound enough, was an important element of self-respect for black people.”

When Herman was 14, his father bought him his own set of tools, envisioning his son would follow in his footsteps. Rogers Russell was correct, but it’s doubtful that even he would have imagined how far his youngest child would go. At 16, with money he’d saved from the shoeshine stand and from helping his father, Herman paid $125 in cash for a vacant lot in Summerhill. With help from friends, and working on it in his spare time from school, Russell built a duplex on the parcel, using his savings to pay for the raw material. One day, a year after the house was complete, a stranger approached Russell to inform him that the young man had accidentally built the house on his property, and not on Russell’s, which was actually next door. The stranger laid out the paperwork to prove his case. Russell was mortified. At a loss, he suggested to the man that they simply switch lots. To Russell’s relief, the man agreed.

“I had not paid attention to important details,” Russell wrote. “I vowed that would never happen again.”

Herman Russell
Russell at a construction site in 1983

Lanna Swindler/AP

When he was 28, Herman Russell’s mother, Maggie, died. His father followed soon after. Rogers Russell’s thrift was borne out by his estate, which contained $12,000 in savings, an astounding amount then for a blue-collar worker with eight children. His will provided for only some of his children, since he’d written it in 1920, before his younger children, including Herman, were born. If Herman Russell felt any offense at his father’s oversight, he made no mention of it in his autobiography.

By then he likely didn’t need his father’s money anyway; six years earlier, his father had turned over his plastering business to Herman, who’d set to work immediately expanding it. H.J. Russell Plastering Company did work for general contractors across Atlanta, while also buying and building more rental units. The company grew so fast that Russell built his own headquarters in Castleberry Hill, complete with a gas pump out front for the company’s fleet of vehicles. In 1956, after a three-year courtship, Herman married Otelia Hackney, who’d grown up in Taliaferro County, midway between Atlanta and Augusta. Like Herman, Otelia was one of eight children. And like Herman, she was also strong-willed. When her friends suggested that Herman’s stammer should rule him out as a husband, Otelia was undeterred. “As long as I can understand him,” she replied, “don’t you worry about it.”

Russell used his speech impediment to his advantage, recalls Ambassador Andrew Young, who first met the builder not long after moving to Atlanta in 1961. “It made you reach out to him,” Young says. “It was almost like it was so hard for him to talk sometimes that you wanted to help him talk. What most people thought was a negative he turned into a positive.”

In 1959, the same year as his mother’s death, Herman and Otelia Russell welcomed their first child, Donata. Two boys—Jerome and Michael—followed. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the three siblings would learn they had another sister, older than all of them.

After Veray Darby told Joyce about her biological father, Joyce spoke with no one about it, except for a cousin. She didn’t tell her brothers. She didn’t discuss it further with her mother. She never mentioned it to Richard Darby, the man who raised her and whom she still saw as her father. She didn’t bring it up, nor did he. (In 1991, Richard Darby died of an aneurysm.) She never even told the man she’d marry.

Herman Russell: Joyce Alston
Veray and Richard Darby’s wedding photo from 1959

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

But at some point—Joyce estimates it was within a year of hearing the news in 1983—she wrote Herman Russell a letter. She was not sure what to say, and recalls discarding draft after draft. She settled finally on something brief—her name, her mother’s maiden name (Campbell), her aunts’ names, where the Campbell girls had grown up in Summerhill. Veray, a year older than Herman, was raised just a few blocks from the Rogers Russell house on Martin Street. The Campbell family and the Russell family also attended the same church, Allen Temple A.M.E. In the letter, Joyce remembers writing, “If you want to reach out to me, here’s my number.” She addressed the letter to the H.J. Russell Company in Atlanta and dropped it in the mail. She says she knew practically nothing about Russell or of his ever-growing stature.

What was she hoping for? “Just to get to know who [Russell] was,” she says. “‘Who are you? What do you look like? What do you do? What’s your favorite color? Who are you as a human being?’ And probably also, ‘Why?’ No matter what age you are—you could be 10, you could be 80—that information still stings.”

We live now in an age of websites that can populate your family tree going back generations. DNA tests can not only trace your lineage, but can predict with remarkable accuracy traits as banal as whether you’ll like the taste of cilantro, or whether your index finger is longer than your ring finger. All of these developments are in service to a fundamental human need—the need for connection, to know where you’re from. But 35 years ago, the best option Joyce had was the mail. She waited for a response. It never came. She sent a second letter. Again, nothing.

Herman Russell
Russell, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Andrew Young in Russell’s home on Shorter Terrace. King and others would often go for swims in Russell’s pool

Photograph by Noel Davis/AP

At the time she sent the letters, in the mid-1980s, Herman Russell had become one of the most prominent black businessmen in the nation, overseeing a vast empire of real estate and construction interests, as well as airport concessions. On its way to becoming the largest Minority Business Enterprise real estate firm in the country, the Russell company amassed vast holdings, much of it Section 8 housing that the company would not only build but manage. In the 1960s, Russell had used his growing fortune to help fund the civil rights movement, bailing protesters out of jail. The Russell home on Shorter Terrace became a retreat for the leaders of the movement; Young and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would occasionally stop by for a swim in Russell’s pool.

Russell was a tireless networker and political kingmaker, helping persuade Young to run for Congress in 1970. “Herman integrated my life in Atlanta,” Young says. “I had been almost totally aligned with the civil rights movement, and so all that the white community saw of me were stories in the papers from Birmingham, Selma, or someplace. They had no way of knowing me personally. Herman called me up one day and said, ‘I want you to come with me,’ and he took me to meet John Portman and Charlie Loudermilk. And they became my friends and supporters.”

Russell himself became an Atlanta icon. He helped bail out Grady Hospital. He contributed toward a fund that ensured that a trove of King’s private papers would stay in Atlanta and not be auctioned off. He established his own foundation. He became an informal adviser to politicians. He grew wealthy in ways he likely had never dreamed.

After her letters to Herman Russell went unacknowledged, Joyce went on with her life. She married in 1984, taking her husband’s name—Alston. They had their son, Antonio, in 1986. Joyce’s husband was an Army doctor, so the young family’s life together was spent on the move: Seattle, South Korea, Boston. In 1999, she and her husband divorced. She had managed to push the story of her biological father from her mind, but still, she says, “it always sticks with you.” Today, she describes the unanswered questions about her lineage as an “open wound.”

Herman Russell: Joyce Alston
Joyce Alston with her son, Antonio, in the Bronx home she shares with her mother, Veray.

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

“I could tell myself, ‘I’ll just keep living a good life,’ but that wound was always opening,” she says. “It never healed correctly. And when a wound doesn’t heal correctly, it leaves a scar.”

About five years ago, Veray Darby fell ill—so ill she was in intensive care. With her mother’s survival by no means assured, Joyce, who describes herself as very religious, began making promises to God. One of them was that if her mother survived, Joyce would try again to reach out to her biological father. By this point, Joyce’s curiosity was more than just academic; half her medical history, she realized, was unknown. Likewise, a quarter of her son’s medical history was a blank slate.

“I could tell myself, ‘I’ll just keep living a good life,’ but that wound was always opening.”

“I had a family line that I wanted to know,” she says. With Antonio now a young man, she felt it was important for him to know, too.

She called her cousin in Atlanta to discuss how to reach out, once again, to Russell. But she was too late. On November 15, 2014, Herman Russell had died.

“I beat myself up,” Joyce says. “I just missed him.” The questions she had imagined for so many years asking him—simple things such as his favorite food, or if he got into trouble as a kid—she could never ask.

Joyce had a choice: She could resume her life, or press on. Russell’s three children were very much alive. These were her siblings. Even though Russell himself was gone, perhaps she could come to know him a bit through them. “Whether they would receive me or not, I didn’t know,” she says. “But I wanted to meet them.”

In April 2015, Joyce retained the Atlanta fiduciary law firm of Gaslowitz Frankel to reach out to the Russells on her behalf. It made sense to her; after all, writing letters had yielded nothing. For her attorneys, the first priority was examining the plausibility of Joyce’s claim. Could she really be a daughter of Herman Russell? They interviewed her, her mother, and other relatives. The following narrative emerged:

In early 1958, Herman’s mother and Veray’s aunt were each ill and being treated at Grady Hospital. After her shift at the beauty parlor one day, Veray, then 28 and single, went to visit her aunt at Grady. At the hospital, she ran into Herman, a neighbor and friend she’d known since childhood. He offered her a ride home. One thing led to another.

Soon after realizing she was pregnant, Veray went to inform Russell. They agreed to meet at a bus stop. “We had a brief conversation about the pregnancy,” Veray Darby says, though she cannot recall the details of it. She does remember that before the two parted ways, Russell gave her a $50 bill. Not long after, Veray moved to Washington, D.C., where her sisters lived and where she reconnected with Richard Darby, whom she married after Joyce was born in December 1958. Although she visited Atlanta often in the ensuing years, Veray never again called the city home. She didn’t seek child support from Russell. During visits to Atlanta, she recalls, she would occasionally see Russell at church, but the two didn’t talk. At some point after Joyce’s birth, Veray says, she wrote Russell a letter. But, as with her daughter’s attempts years later, Veray never heard back.

In the summer of 2015, Joyce’s lawyers reached out to attorneys for the Russell siblings, informing them that their client claimed to be a child of Herman Russell. Not surprisingly, the Russells demanded a DNA test. For Joyce, the negotiations over the DNA test—who would pay, that the results must remain confidential, that her mother would also have to submit a sample—left her feeling marginalized, further distanced from the siblings she had yet to meet. Until then, Joyce had intentionally not researched much about the life of her biological father. Yes, she knew he was successful, but the way that the process was unfolding between lawyers on both sides led her to conclude that Herman Russell had not just been well-off, but wealthy. “I thought, ‘Am I entitled to something?’” she recalls.

In April 2016, the results came back, showing with 99.98 percent certainty that Joyce is Herman Russell’s daughter.

“In a case like this, most of the time, the critical issue is whether or not there is paternity,” says Craig Frankel, Joyce’s attorney. “Once you’ve established that there is a biological connection, the next issue is what share do you get?”

The question may seem straightforward, but as Joyce would find, nothing complicates family matters more than money.

In the fall of 2016, two years after Herman Russell’s death, Joyce traveled to Atlanta to meet the three siblings she’d never known. Half-siblings, technically, but as Joyce explains it, the family in which she had grown up made no such distinctions. You either were family, or you weren’t. And the Russells—Donata, Jerome, and Michael—were, indisputably.

“Two sisters, born just months apart almost 60 years earlier, were face to face for the first time.”

Confidentiality had been central to the discussions to this point. According to terms agreed to by both sides, Joyce and the Russells could discuss the matter with no one but each other.

“If they’re truly Herman Russell’s kids,” Veray had told her daughter before Joyce left for Atlanta, “they will receive you with open arms and love you.” At the hotel lounge where they had planned to meet, Joyce wasn’t sure whom to look for, but then a woman approached and said, “Are you Joycelyn?” It was Donata. They shook hands and sat down. Two sisters, born just months apart almost 60 years earlier, were face to face for the first time. Soon Michael arrived, and he immediately hugged Joyce. (Jerome was out of town.)

“We laughed, we talked about our kids, our careers,” Joyce says. “They told me a little about Herman Russell, what kind of father he was. We must have sat in that bar for two hours. We had a good time.” Joyce and Donata discussed their shared love of wine, and afterward, when Joyce went to walk back to her hotel, Donata insisted on giving her a ride.

Later, Joyce called her mother to tell her how it went. “She cried,” Joyce says. “She was so overjoyed. She was so thankful. She just kept saying, ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus.’”

In their only public comments on the matter, to the Atlanta Business Chronicle last September, the Russell siblings said they were curious to meet Joyce. “We were open to getting to know her,” Michael Russell said. Through a spokesman, the family declined to comment for this story.

For one of Atlanta’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Herman Russell kept his will short—just seven pages. There were no specific dollar amounts left to friends or family members, no special bequests of sentimental items. He requested to be buried next to Otelia, who had predeceased him in 2006. (In the years after Otelia’s death, he married Sylvia Anderson, then the president of AT&T Georgia.) Beyond naming his executors, Russell did just two things in his will. First, he defined his descendants, specifying that “my only children” were Donata, Michael, and Jerome. Second, he gave “all of the residue and remainder of my estate” to a trust he’d established before his death.

Every deceased person’s assets are divided into two categories—probate and nonprobate. Items owned solely by the decedent—a car, say, or the cash in an individual bank account—go through probate, the disposition of which is overseen by probate court, according to the wishes outlined in the will. But a vast catalog of holdings bypasses probate. These items—called nonprobate assets—include life insurance proceeds, retirement accounts, jointly-held real estate. They also include trusts.

As Frankel would find out, Russell had left “precious few assets” in his probate estate. The “lion’s share,” as he put it in court documents, were nonprobate assets, some of which Russell had transferred to his three children during his lifetime. A fundamental question now was whether Joyce Alston, a biological child, was entitled to a share of these assets. Georgia law is unclear, Frankel says. The advent of DNA testing may have removed any uncertainty when it comes to blood kinship, but the emotional, financial, and legal implications are as murky as ever.

The Georgia Supreme Court has weighed in—at least partially. In 2006, a Hall County native named John Buffington died at 64. Buffington had owned a large farm and had also built up a highway construction company. In his will, he provided for his two daughters and requested that anything left over in his estate pour over to a family trust, the trustees of which were his daughters. Buffington defined his children in the will very specifically—as “only the lawful blood descendants.” A woman named Regina Todd sued in probate court, arguing she deserved a portion of Buffington’s estate. Todd claimed to be Buffington’s biological daughter, the child of an extramarital affair. But in 2010, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against Todd, pointing in part to Buffington’s use of the word “lawful” in his will. It was “clearly and unambiguously” Buffington’s intent to provide only for his two daughters and not his out-of-wedlock child, the court ruled. In other words, you don’t need to name someone to disinherit them. But two justices dissented, with one, the late Harris Hines, calling the majority ruling a “giant step backwards in the development of the law in regard to the rights of biological children born without the benefit of marriage.”

Buffington had been aware of Todd’s existence, according to the court; he’d named her the beneficiary of two life insurance policies, and was even known to refer to her as “little bastard.” Buffington’s knowledge of Todd, and his deliberate omission of her in his will, was evidence of his intent, the court ruled. But what would have happened if he’d never known about her?


Joyce and the Russell siblings were getting to know each other. On a second trip to Atlanta, Joyce brought 32-year-old Antonio, to whom she’d recently broken the news. “Honestly,” Antonio recalls now, running his hand up his forehead, “the first thing that stuck out to me was, that explains my hairline versus Granddad’s, because his hair was so beautiful. I always wondered what happened to me.”

Herman Russell
Russell, right, with Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the legendary president of Morehouse College, and Atlanta mayor Sam Massell in 1971

Elissa Eubanks/AP

But as the conversations—between the family members, as well as between the lawyers—turned to money, the good feelings were dissipating. As part of the confidential negotiations, Frankel got to review Herman Russell’s Form 706, an IRS filing that outlined the value of his estate. Frankel also saw details of Russell’s life insurance policies, as well as the details of trusts he established in 1993 and in 2013. Indeed, it is the trusts—and not his will—where the details of his ultimate wishes are unspooled.

As it turned out, Russell had transferred most of his fortune during his lifetime, through a series of complex transactions, to his three children, as Frankel explained at a hearing last July before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Eric Dunaway. Among the transfers of assets that occurred while Russell was alive, Frankel explained in court, were the following:

  • In 1983, Russell put life insurance policies totaling approximately $5 million into a trust, the beneficiaries of which were his three children.
  • In 1993, he transferred $5 million in assets—including many real estate properties—to trusts in his children’s names. Technically speaking, he sold these assets, but the income generated by them—such as rent in Section 8 housing—often exceeded the amount the children needed to pay their father back, Frankel explained.
  • In 2013, Russell transferred majority ownership in his flagship company, as well as Concessions International, to trusts for each of his children, which he funded initially with $2.7 million—or $900,000 for each child, according to Frankel. In exchange, the children issued promissory notes that required no payment until 2020. If Russell died in the interim, the notes would be forgiven. The total value of the assets was roughly $28 million, although Frankel said in court he suspects the true value was closer to $50 million. “In any event,” Frankel told Judge Dunaway, “Mr. Russell did die within that seven-year period and effectively $28 million passed to his three known children at no tax.”

In court the same day, Luke Lantta, an attorney representing the Russell siblings, said Frankel made it sound like the assets were handed over freely as if they were a child’s allowance. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Each of the three Russell children had to earn what they received—working, learning the business, and earning their parents’ trust so they could ultimately be entrusted with these assets.” Nevertheless, Lantta said, more than 30 years later, someone else is coming in and trying to claim pieces of what their generation helped build.

“What would that say about his legacy? What does it say about him if he knew all these years that I existed?”

Notwithstanding the transfers Russell made to his three children during his lifetime, which totaled at least $38 million and which were all perfectly allowable under the law, he did not die a pauper. As Frankel explained in court, Russell left $10 million to his second wife. The “residue and remainder” of his estate that he cited in his will included a Midtown condominium, a vacation home on Lake Burton, as well as personal property. All of it went into yet another trust.

Frankel says Russell’s intentions, through estate planning done over decades, were clear: “To give his property, with minimal taxes, to his children.” Frankel estimates that the true value of Russell’s estate was north of $100 million, and could be as high as $200 million.

This is a good time to note that Joycelyn Alston works as an accountant. As a clearer picture of her birth father’s fortune began to emerge, it put into context the settlement offer she got from the Russells in the first days of 2017. The offer was $450,000, to be paid over two years, as well as her choice between a 10 percent interest in the Lake Burton vacation home or $500,000 paid over 10 years into a trust for her and her “lineal descendants,” with Joyce naming the trustee and the trustee paying the taxes. And the settlement was to remain confidential. To Joyce, it was insufficient.

“Just be fair, that’s all I’m saying,” Joyce says, explaining her expectations. “And when I say ‘Be fair,’ I’m not asking for a suitcase full of money. There’s other things. There’s things that can be set up for [Antonio], for my grandkids. There’s education, sitting on the board.” (Jerome Russell is president and executive director of the Herman J. Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which in 2016 reported $4.9 million in net assets.)

Joyce had imagined being introduced to the extended family, to assimilating, to having a seat at the table, figuratively and otherwise. But, as Frankel explains it, the Russells wanted to keep her existence private. Joyce began to take offense. A phone call she had with her newfound siblings, discussing a possible settlement, didn’t help. No disrespect, Joyce, she recalls one of them saying, but you didn’t earn it.

Joyce says she responded, “I paid my way through college, I raised my son, I’ve done well for myself, I have a good job, I’m well-educated, so I did earn it.”

Joyce is also motivated in part by the thought of her mother, who had never sought any money from Russell. Here was a way to make things right. “Give my mama some back child support—that’s my attitude,” Joyce says.

On the morning of January 9, 2017, Joyce sued the Estate of Herman Russell in Fulton Superior Court, seeking to be declared an heir and asking the court to effectively award her a share of Russell’s nonprobate assets equal to what he gave his three other children. That afternoon, Donata, as co-executor of her father’s estate, sued Joyce in Fulton County Probate Court. The suit acknowledged Joyce was Herman’s biological daughter but requested that the court exclude her from any share of Russell’s estate.

The matter that had been strictly hush-hush had become public record. (Well, not entirely public. Lawyers for the Russell siblings have persuaded the respective judges in both of those courtrooms—Judge Pinkie Toomer in Fulton County Probate Court and Dunaway in Fulton Superior Court—to keep swaths of the cases out of the public eye, effectively turning what are supposed to be open proceedings into closed ones.)

And, with the filing of the lawsuits, communications between Joyce and the Russell siblings ended.

Did Herman Russell know he had fathered a child out of wedlock? In the interview last September with the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the three Russell siblings said they simply didn’t know if their father knew about Joyce. However, their suit against Joyce in probate court asserted that Herman Russell “was aware that he may have biological children” other than Donata, Jerome, and Michael, and that he “chose not to provide for those potential other children in his estate planning documents.” The suit went on to state that when he executed his final will, their father was “aware that Ms. Alston claimed to be his biological child, and he chose not to provide for her in his estate planning documents.”

If the Russell siblings can demonstrate that their father knew about Joyce—after all, both Veray and Joyce said they wrote him letters over the years, though neither ever got a response—then the details would be similar to the Buffington case, and it’s likely Joyce’s case would fail in superior court.

But for the Russells, winning in court could come with unintended consequences. If he’d knowingly fathered a child and didn’t provide for her, the reputation he spent a lifetime building could be called into question. “What would that say about his legacy?” Joyce says. “What does it say about him if he knew all these years that I existed?”

Young, who’s not followed the case closely, says it is incomprehensible that Russell would knowingly turn his back on his own child. “He would never have neglected a child of his,” Young says. “If he had been aware of her, she’d at least have a trust fund and be guaranteed an education. He would never let a child of his not be part of his family.”

Assuming the parties can’t come to a settlement, Frankel believes the court’s ultimate decision will come to be known as the “Russell Doctrine”—whether an unknown heir is entitled to a portion of their deceased parent’s nonprobate estate. Joyce is less interested in making history. She wants what she believes is fair—and still hopes to get to know better the siblings with whom she was only starting to get acquainted.

“It had to be crazy for them,” Joyce says. “I have my own emotions about this, but I’m sure they have theirs, too. It’s like I told my son, I feel like we—me and the Russells—are like the clean-ups; we’re just cleaning up some mess that our parents made. We’re left to do it.”

POSTSCRIPT
On January 9, a week after this story had gone to press for our February 2019 issue, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Eric Dunaway dismissed Joycelyn Alston’s verified petition seeking heirship. He also dismissed Alston’s amended complaint that sought a share of Herman Russell’s estate. Dunaway cited many arguments in making his ruling, including that Georgia law prohibits a claim such as hers, and that the statute of limitations had run out. Dunaway ruled that because Alston is neither a “trustee nor a beneficiary,” she is not entitled to ask that the trusts that Herman Russell set up be terminated. (Read the entire 39-page ruling here.)

Luke Lantta, attorney for the Russell estate, said, “We are pleased that the court reached what we think is the right decision and one that allows everyone to move forward.”

But Craig Frankel, Alston’s attorney, said the legal battle isn’t over yet, and that his client would take her case to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised that the judge took the safe way out,” Frankel said. “This is a new area of law and [Judge Dunaway] is going to let the appellate courts decide. It’d be a shame if the Georgia courts hold that a biological child of a man who is wealthy has no rights simply because the father had enough money to do estate planning outside of probate.”

The probate case, concerning assets that Russell had outlined in his will, is still pending in Fulton County probate court.

This article appears in our February 2019 issue.

Monday Night Brewing agreed to host a Brian Kemp event. Outraged fans said, “Hold my beer.”

0

Monday Night and Georgia Governor Brian KempLate last month, Nathan Humphrey, director of the Georgia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, went looking for a place to host his group’s endorsement of Republican nominee Brian Kemp for governor. The NFIB represents primarily small businesses, and so it made sense to find a location that embodied a scrappy upstart.

As it turned out, Humphrey used to live around the corner from Monday Night Brewing in northwest Atlanta, where he was once “almost a regular,” as he described it. The owners, he said, “are literally the nicest guys in the industry.” The NFIB was also in the corner of independent brewers when the state finally loosened the draconian regulations that had kept breweries from selling beer directly to consumers. The change in the law has helped usher in a renaissance of small breweries in Georgia, and Monday Night, which celebrated its seventh anniversary this summer, opened a second facility last year on the BeltLine in southwest Atlanta. “They’re good Georgia employers and they’re putting people to work,” said Humphrey, who called the brewery to put in the request.

The brewery owners—Joel Iverson, Jeff Heck, and Jonathan Baker—were conflicted. Baker, for one, wanted to turn down the request, even though the brewery itself wouldn’t be endorsing Kemp, but merely hosting the event. Kemp, after all, was a lightning rod. He’d won the Republican primary against Casey Cagle by tacking far to the right, a move that secured Donald Trump’s endorsement—as well as the fear and loathing of vast swaths of Georgians. In one ad, Kemp boasted that he’d use his truck to “round up criminal illegals.” In another ad, he leveled a shotgun toward a young man who wanted to date Kemp’s daughter. A ProPublica reporter claimed that he heard Kemp tell a room full of donors in 2016 after watching a presidential debate that “Trump should have gone over there and groped her.” Last December, Kemp announced that if he were governor, he’d sign so-called “religious freedom” legislation that would permit businesses to discriminate against customers whose beliefs and lifestyles differed from those of the business owners. (Gov. Nathan Deal twice vetoed similar measures. After the primary, Kemp moved to the center, saying he would veto any legislation that veered from the federal standard.)

Iverson argued that Monday Night should host the event. After all, the brewery’s origins were about inclusion, whether from the left or right. When the three founders had first gotten together to brew beer on Monday nights more than a decade ago, Iverson said, some of his favorite moments were the discussions that would occur among people who held vastly different views. Plus, the brewery had hosted plenty of politicians before, Democrats and Republicans. What’s more, brewery policy was not to endorse candidates anyway (though Iverson has given individually to candidates over the years). So they said yes to the NFIB and to Kemp.

For the event last Wednesday at the brewery’s original location in northwest Atlanta, Humphrey was expecting no more than a couple of reporters. But then the TV cameras came in. The coverage found its way to Twitter, where the reaction was swift.

“Terribly disappointed in @MondayNight,” wrote one user.

“Well this is a gut punch,” wrote another.

“Fuck @MondayNight,” wrote another.

One commenter, Sarah Lawrence, expounded: “Really loved @MondayNight for coming to our neighborhood and getting involved in our community, but crushed they’d host (and benefit from) a fundraiser for a racist, xenophobic candidate. If y’all don’t draw the line there, where will you draw it?”

“We did not fully anticipate how much it would blow back,” Iverson said on Thursday by phone. (For the record, Iverson said, the brewery took no money in exchange for NFIB’s use of its space.) Through social media, Iverson began reaching out. “We were not Kemp supporters, many of our employees are very against him, and we realized there was probably nothing but downside from a PR perspective to having him come here,” Iverson wrote. “But ultimately we decided to do it anyway because we felt it was more consistent with both our purpose as a company, and because we have never refused any politician coming to our facility as a policy.” Iverson went on, in one of his replies, to evoke Monday Night’s origins in homebrewing, when “it was pretty cool to see people having dialogue from a place of learning and curiosity vs. judgment and segregation.”

Iverson told me his biggest concern was the neighbors of their Garage, on the southwest side. He said one neighbor, a person of color, explained his concerns to Iverson this way: “Honestly, it’s not a Republican or a Democrat thing. It’s Kemp. As a person of color who’s not in the majority white culture, when I see someone like Kemp and I see him welcomed at your brewery, then I think maybe I’m not welcome at your brewery.”

Iverson acknowledged he had looked at the Kemp appearance through his own lens, and hadn’t done enough to see it from different perspectives. Iverson has invited those who were dismayed at Kemp’s appearance to the brewery, where the three owners will sit down and hear more about what they could have done differently. “I want us to be a place that is welcoming to everyone,” Iverson said, “but we also have to hear the people in the community around us and hear their concerns.”

Of course, one thing Monday Night could have done differently was say no from the outset. But Iverson’s not sure that, even with hindsight, he’d do that. “How do we engage politics in our business? You could say completely ignore it. But I don’t think that’s an option.”

Monday Night isn’t the only Atlanta business getting grief for wading into political waters. A photo of Joseph Hsiao, a co-owner of two Flying Biscuit Cafe restaurants in Atlanta, hosting Kemp at a Flying Biscuit in 2015 has garnered similar opprobrium on social media, with some even calling for a boycott of the restaurant. (Hsiao and his business also contributed $2,000 to Kemp over the years.) The contribution, Hsiao told Project Q Atlanta in a story published Thursday, was “misconstrued. We’re focused on [Kemp’s] four-point plant to work with small businesses like ours.” And last month, the Atlanta Braves caught grief for co-sponsoring a fundraiser for Kemp.

Of course, Americans vote not just at the polling place but with their dollars—where they spend, and where they choose not to spend. Iverson wonders how far it can go. “If a person says ‘No Monday Night, no Flying Biscuit,’ then who’s next? Probably fifty percent of the businesses in Atlanta have contributed in some capacity to Kemp or to a PAC supporting him.”

Eight days after Kemp’s appearance at Monday Night Brewing, Humphrey was still feeling bad over the unintended consequences for his favorite Atlanta brewers. “If I’d known any of this, I never would have picked the location,” he said. “As a small business, there are just so many liabilities. You have to be scared of your own shadow. You always have to watch your back. You think you’re helping and trying to be nice, and it ends up biting you.”

Update 9/14/18: On Friday morning, after publication of this story, Monday Night Brewing released an official statement of “Our Core Beliefs.”

How far will Atlanta City Hall’s corruption probe go? Only BJay Pak knows.

BJay PakFormer federal prosecutors have a tendency to talk wistfully about their days making cases against bad guys, the full might of the U.S. government behind them.

“You represent the people of the United States,” says BJay Pak, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008 in the northern district of Georgia, an area that spans 46 counties including metro Atlanta. “We’re about the mission, not the politics. And once you get some discretion and power in making those choices that impact people directly in their lives, there’s great satisfaction in doing good and wearing the white hat.”

But the biggest white hat in any federal district is reserved for the U.S. attorney, who is appointed by the president, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and answers to the U.S. attorney general. In the northern district of Georgia, the U.S. attorney oversees approximately 105 federal prosecutors and decides what cases they pursue and what cases they leave to local authorities, acting as a kind of supercop—the political appointee who is, in theory anyway, above politics.

“While I am in full agreement that being assistant U.S. attorney is the best job you’ll ever have, being the U.S. attorney might be the most fulfilling and the most enjoyable,” says John Horn, who left the office last fall after 15 years, the last two of which were as U.S. attorney. Horn passed the reins to Pak, a Trump appointee who became the 26th U.S. attorney for the northern district of Georgia, overseeing the very office where he once worked.

“This was my dream job,” Pak says from his sixth floor office at the Richard B. Russell federal building, Mercedes-Benz Stadium looming out the window. Pak’s career path was influenced greatly by the events of 9/11, which he witnessed from his office at Alston & Bird in Atlanta. The panic and terror of that day galvanized him. “When you’re an immigrant”—Pak emigrated from South Korea when he was 9—“you view the United States as invincible,” he says. “You never imagine that somehow it would be shaken to its core.”

BJay Pak

The job as a prosecutor followed 9/11, then three terms as a state representative. As U.S. attorney now, Pak wields a tremendous power, able to marshal vast resources to fight crime. To some degree, he is beholden to Department of Justice priorities—in the Trump administration, violent crime and the opioid epidemic—but beyond those, Pak is free to direct his office as he sees fit. Pak’s own agenda includes fighting cybercrime, healthcare fraud, and public corruption, all areas that are of no surprise to Horn, now a partner at King & Spalding. “I think these are all entirely appropriate,” Horn says.

Every U.S. attorney must be nimble, responding to the evolving nature of crime in their district. For instance, Pak says, half of the violent crime in his office’s 46 counties is gang-related. In addition to homegrown groups, national gangs—such as the Gangster Disciples from Chicago and Crips, Bloods, and their subsets—are increasingly co-opting local gangs, Pak says. Thanks to organized crime statutes, federal courts are especially well-suited to try gang members, Pak says. The nature of the federal prison system, as well, permits authorities to send them thousands of miles away to serve their sentences. “When you remove that person who is directing the violence in that area, it allows that community to heal itself,” he says.

By the numbers

105
Number of prosecutors working under Pak

46
Number of Georgia counties Pak’s office oversees

When it comes to illegal drugs, Pak says the bigger problem in the northern district is not opioids so much as cocaine and methamphetamine. Indeed, opioid-related deaths in Georgia in 2016 numbered 918, a rate of 8.8 deaths per 100,000 persons. Ohio, by contrast, saw 3,613 opioid-related overdoses in 2016, a rate almost four times that of Georgia.

“Methamphetamine is still the number-one trafficked drug in our district,” Pak says. “We have every Mexican drug cartel that has a cell here operating in a wholesale environment.” Today, there is a glut of crystal meth. A kilo with a street value of $25,000 in the mid-2000s now retails for half that. DEA agents have told him meth is so cheap and readily available that dealers are giving free samples away to get users hooked. “Frankly, no one’s really focused on that right now, because the nationwide discussion is focused on opioids.”

The most prominent open investigation Pak inherited from Horn is the longstanding corruption pay-to-play probe at City Hall under the Kasim Reed administration. So far, four defendants have pleaded guilty to various charges, ranging from conspiring to accept bribes (Adam Smith, the city’s former chief procurement officer) to attempting to obstruct a federal investigation (Shandarrick Barnes, a former city employee who threw a brick through a witness’s window and littered rats on the ground outside his home). In April, Reverend Mitzi Bickers pleaded not guilty to an 11-count indictment charging that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city business to at least two contractors.

Reed left office in January, and Pak acknowledges the ongoing investigation represents a cloud over Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s new tenure. The two have not yet met formally, but he says Bottoms’s administration has moved faster than Reed’s in providing documents to the feds. So how long will the investigation take? Pak won’t say. “What I can tell you: It’s not going to last through the entire four years of the administration of Mayor Bottoms.”

Pak is looking to speed up the clock on the City Hall probe and many other cases. But, he says, it’s not about metrics. “What we’re going for is cases that have an impact in the community. I instructed people in our office . . . to be fearless, in the sense of, ‘Don’t fear that you’re going to lose a case.’ If it’s the right case, if it’s a risk that’s worth taking for the community, we need to do it.”

Update 8/15/18: This story has been updated to reflect Katrina Taylor-Parks pleading guilty in federal court to accepting bribes from a city vendor.”

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

Monday Night Brewing’s 7th anniversary will take two days to celebrate

Monday Night Brewing
The founders of Monday Night Brewing

Photograph by John E. McDonald

It’s a sign of how far Georgia craft beer has come in such a short time that Monday Night Brewing is now a seasoned veteran on the scene. In 2011, when MNB was founded, Georgia craft beer meant little more than SweetWater, Terrapin, and Atlanta Brewing Company. Today, the state boasts dozens of breweries, with more on the way.

Last September, timed to the new law that allows breweries to sell beer direct from their taprooms, Monday Night Brewing opened its expansion facility—called the Garage—just off the BeltLine in southwest Atlanta. Beyond giving the company an increased production capacity, the Garage also put craft beer—a phenomenon with a demographic heavy on white dudes—in the middle of a historically black neighborhood.

As a way to introduce itself to its neighbors, MNB provided free space (and beer) to nonprofits from around the city, hosting 30 events in the first 100 days and raising $280,000 for the organizations. Besides buying goodwill for MNB, the move also got people who’d never had reason to go to southwest Atlanta an opportunity to see the development of 426,000 square feet of warehouses. In the coming months, Wild Heaven Beer will also open a facility there, as well as a new brewery called Banyan Roots, ASW Distillery, and a third location of Hop City, the beer and wine retailer.

MNB is still run by its three cofounders, who famously met and bonded over beer during a Bible study group. Jeff Heck, Jonathan Baker, and Joel Iverson still control 100 percent of the voting shares of the brewery, which from day one has not been known for any one style of beer, but rather a variety.

“Variety” is the key word when it comes to MNB’s seventh anniversary party on August 4 and 5 at the Garage. On both days of the celebration, the brewery is rolling out some serious barrels—not just its core and seasonal beers, such as Han Brolo (which Paste magazine voted the best in a blind test of 151 pale ales from around the nation), but also obscure and one-off beers. So if you want a Piranha Dealer (a strawberry milkshake IPA), or Zhang Zishi (a barrel-aged hefeweizen), or a pineapple and vanilla Champagne IPA, or any of a few dozen others, the party is your best bet. (Sunday is family day; kids 12 and under are free.)

On the eve of the celebration, two of the three founders—Heck and Iverson—discussed how far the brewery has come, what the recent law changes has meant for their business, and what’s coming.

Monday Night Brewing

On its growth
Monday Night Brewing doesn’t disclose production numbers, but Iverson did allow that sales and production are both up between 35 and 40 percent year over year. MNB’s growth is reflected in its headcount—the brewery now employs 85 people, 45 of whom are full-time. And between its two taprooms—off Howell Mill in west Midtown and at the Garage—the brewery expects 170,000 people to visit this year.

“People ask us, ‘Did you ever imagine this?’” Heck said. “To be honest, we kinda did. We knew it was crazy but our goal was always to be about where we are now. What’s exciting to us now is feeling like we’re just at the starting gate. What’s surprising is how much mental energy it takes to make it a good place to work, to make [employees] feel fulfilled, to put them first while at the same time running a business.

“We do quarterly hands-on meetings [with employees]. We talk about the state of business. We’re transparent about our results, our profits, our goals. If you’re a full-time employee, you sign an NDA and we trust you, and we’re going to be completely up-front.”

On rebranding
In September 2017, Monday Night Brewing rebranded by launching a new can design. Shrunk down was the Mad Men-esque profile of the guy in the tie, fist in the air. (It’s actually Iverson’s likeness.) While the tie guy is still on the label, the dominant image is of a tie. What changes now is the pattern of the tie. The template evokes a similar rebranding by Three Taverns, which uses bold graphical typography to distinguish one beer from the other.

“As a brewery, your first five years are all about getting your brand out, front and center,” Iverson said. “The next five is all about the individual beer and its story. [With the new design], you still know it’s Monday Night but [the tie guy] is not the biggest thing on the can.”

On the effects of the law change
Georgia’s new law regarding on-premise sales permits breweries to sell up to 3,000 barrels of beer directly to consumers from their breweries. Each customer is allowed to buy up to a case a day directly from the brewery. Eliminating the distributor—the middleman, effectively—means higher margins for beermakers. SB85, as it’s called, “mostly helps small breweries starting out,” Iverson said. “Because they don’t have to start the way we did. It was a go-big-or-go-home state. Unless we built a massive system, where we were going to lose money for three years until we hit a volume [through distribution] where we can make money. What SB85 says is you don’t have to do that model. Instead, you can do high margin sales out of your taproom.”

For MNB, already established as one of Georiga’s major brewers, the law change’s effect on beer sales was nominal. Heck estimates that less than 10 percent of overall revenues are from taproom sales. Still, the law change did lead to the launch of the Hop Hut, a boutique brewing ancillary at the west Midtown location where brewers make small-batch beers, often sold only out of the taproom. The frequent releases mean customers not only have a reason to come back, but they’re also a testing ground for beers that could end up in brewery’s permanent portfolio.

“Our taproom is the place where people experience the brand,” Heck said. “Most people aren’t going to stop drinking Budweiser and start drinking Slap Fight because they see it on the Kroger shelf. But they’re going to start buying it off the Kroger shelf because they came to Monday Night and maybe tried a flight with four different beers. They meet employees, they had an experience, maybe they played cornhole. That’s why we think the taproom model is so critical for our continued growth.”

Monday Night Brewing Archipelago

On how big Georgia craft brewing can get
After a decade of averaging 10-plus percent growth in sales volume, national craft beer market has slowed. 2018 was just 5 percent up over the year before. Georgia, though, is still playing catch-up. As Iverson mentioned, the number of drinking age residents of Colorado and Oregon combined are roughly the same number as Georgia’s, but those two states together boast 614 craft brewers. Georgia still has fewer than 100.

“The pie is still growing in Georgia,” Heck said, “but at a slower rate.” Part of the reason of opening the Garage where MNB did was to widen the demographic. “The market is comprised of 22- to 35-year-old white males,” Iverson said. “For craft beer to keep growing it’s got to branch beyond that. That’s part of the mission of the Garage. We’re trying to get people who aren’t beer drinkers to come in and say, ‘Wow, this just redefined how I think about beer.’”

Tickets for the anniversary party can be purchased here.

In Atlanta, Joe Biden thanks and praises hospice nurses: “Simply put, you do God’s work.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden speaks at the Hospice Atlanta luncheon on Thursday.

Photograph by Jack Tuszynski

The amount of loss former vice president Joseph Biden has had to endure over his lifetime is staggering. In 1972, just weeks after Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time, his young wife, Neilia, and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. Their two sons, Beau and Hunter, were gravely injured. Biden took his oath of office from their hospital room.

In 2015, Beau Biden died of brain cancer. He was 46. As Joe Biden remarked Thursday, his family members have been the beneficiaries of hospice care “more than I’d like to acknowledge.” Beyond the care nurses gave Beau in his final days, Biden’s own parents, as well as his wife Jill’s, were also in hospice care before they passed.

“Simply put, you all do God’s work,” Biden said, addressing the nurses among the crowd gathered for the 70th anniversary of the Visiting Nurse Health System, which provides in-home medical and palliative care throughout metro Atlanta. Hospice Atlanta is part of Visiting Nurse, providing end-of-life care to patients at home and also at the Andrew and Eula Carlos Hospice Atlanta Center in Brookhaven. Hospice Atlanta also runs Camp STARS, a bereavement camp for families who’ve lost a loved one. Last year the organization provided more than $3.5 million in unreimbursed medical care for patients. Thursday’s benefit luncheon was for Hospice Atlanta, and Biden attended at the urging of his friend, Senator Johnny Isakson.

For Biden, who characteristically ignored his prepared remarks, the event was a way to say thanks to hospice nurses and the nursing profession in general. “Doctors allow you to live,” he said. “Nurses, you make us want to live. I just want to personally thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’re the most underrated profession in all the world.”

Although Beau Biden’s battle with brain cancer represented the Biden family’s most recent interaction with hospice care—and was the subject of Biden’s 2017 book Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose—the vice president also discussed the vital role hospice played in the deaths of his own parents, both of whom died at his home in Delaware, his father in 2002 and his mother in 2010.

Biden recalled the day a nurse came to him with a message: His father wished to see him.

“I went down, and he said, ‘Can you get your mom, Joey?” Biden recalled. When his mother arrived, Biden stepped aside, but overheard his father’s request of his mother, whom he’d always called “Pudding.”

“Puddin’,” Joseph Biden Sr. asked his wife, “is it okay if I go?”

As important as the comfort the nurses provided for the patients, Biden said, equally important was the reassurance they provided the family.

Biden spoke of “how profoundly [hospice nurses] affect the mental health of the family, who are losing part of their soul and their heart,” Biden said, occasionally wiping a tear. “What I don’t understand is how you have so much empathy, so much caring, and how you handle it. You’re truly remarkable people. Your presence is a blessing.”

Biden also plugged the Biden Cancer Initiative, launched last year to encourage more communication among researchers and doctors, and to marshal the various disciplines in a way to attack cancer in a more concerted way. “We’re trying to create a health care system that people think we already have. We should be able to say the affordability of cancer treatment is getting better, not worse. We can’t say that. We should be able to say that there’s widespread sharing of research data, and that medical records are easier and cheaper to get and share with researchers, but we can’t.

“But we can get there.”

Visiting Nurse Health System will host a fall fundraiser on October 6 at the Georgia Aquarium. For sponsorship and ticket information, call Dabney Hollis at 404-215-6011.


#BREAKING Former Vice President Joe Biden is in Atlanta speaking at the 70th anniversary of Visiting Nurse Health System. Read more here: https://on.11alive.com/2L9Hfa1

Posted by 11Alive on Thursday, May 17, 2018

In nearly every way, the Tex McIver verdict is confounding

Tex McIver verdict
Tex McIver watches Don Samuel during closing arguments on April 17.

Photograph by Bob Andres /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

Occasionally during the course of Tex McIver’s six-week trial in the shooting death of his wife, his bookkeeper and friend Rachel Styles would drive to the Cobb County condo where he was staying to drop off some meals for him. Pot roast one time. Crab cakes another. “Just comfort food,” she told me. She’d leave the meals with the concierge, because she was, to her chagrin, a witness for the prosecution, meaning she and Tex were forbidden from communicating. It was Styles who had made copies for Diane McIver of what Diane had described as her second will, a will that ultimately was never found, but which became a key facet in the prosecution’s argument that Tex wanted Diane dead.

Styles was in Florida when yesterday’s verdict came down, watching a live stream on YouTube. On the first count—malice murder—the jury foreman announced, “Not guilty.” But then came guilty verdicts on counts two through five, including felony murder. “I just started bawling,” Styles said this morning. “I was just hysterical.”

The Tex McIver trial was that rare murder case that compels our attention for reasons that transcend the voyeuristic. There were the circumstances of Diane’s death itself—Tex in the back seat of their Ford Expedition as they made their way from their Putnam County ranch back to Buckhead one late summer night in 2016; his request to Diane that she hand him his gun when they exited at Edgewood Avenue to avoid Connector traffic; Tex allegedly dozing off; and then the gun in his hand discharging after, he claimed, he was startled awake; the bullet passing clean through Diane’s abdomen, mortally wounding her. But the trial was about much more than that night. Through a parade of 80-plus witnesses, we got a look at a life of privilege—a stable of horses, trips to Europe, assistants and drivers and masseuses and caretakers, even a ranch—the kind of cossetted existence most of us can only imagine. And in addition to the details the witnesses laid bare—the elaborate birthday parties for their godson Austin Schwall, Diane’s fastidious control of her finances, the question of why she never formally amended her will despite clear evidence she wanted to—the trial itself was an opportunity to see attorneys at the top of their game.

Defense co-counsel Don Samuel

Photograph by Bob Andres /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

In McIver’s corner were three attorneys, two of whom—Bruce Harvey and Don Samuel—are the legal equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo on your soccer team. Harvey was so courtly it was almost easy to miss when he lapsed into sarcasm. Samuel played the heavy, at times leveling a look of such disdain at either a witness or Judge Robert McBurney he seemed like a tired professor fed up with his students. (On day 14, the ever-patient McBurney closed a long colloquy with Samuel with the admonition, “Don’t call me ‘your worship’ again. Okay? Thank you.”)

Tex McIver verdict
Chief Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker, with a photo of Diane McIver behind him, makes closing arguments for the prosecution on April 17.

Photograph by Bob Andres /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

Then there was chief prosecutor Clint Rucker, whose closing argument felt like the kind of summation you see in a movie. First, he set up a portrait of Diane McIver bigger than a desktop in front of the jury. He considered the photo for a moment, his hands clasped in contemplation, and then recited a poem. A poem!

“Who will stand for the little girl who was murdered and all alone?
Who will stand for the little girl who was now dead and without her own?
Who will stand for the little girl who came from humble means?
Who will stand for the little girl who fulfilled all her dreams?
Who will stand for the little girl who achieved much success?
Who will stand for the little girl whose love for Austin was endless?
Who will stand for Diane McIver?
She knew betrayal, hurt, and pain.
He was just coveting her money, again and again.
Who will stand for Diane McIver? A great woman she tried to be.
Who will stand for truth and justice—truth and justice—as she cries out, ‘Who will stand for me?’”

Within just hours of starting deliberations last Wednesday, the jury had a question: If we acquit on counts 1 through 4—which include the murder and aggravated assault charges—can we still convict on count 5, witness influencing? (The answer: Yes.) Jamila Hall, a partner at Jones Day law firm and former federal prosecutor, recalled to me a joke among prosecutors. “There’s always one jury question you don’t want to have and that’s, ‘How do you spell acquittal?’” she said. “That first series of jury questions were about as close to ‘How do you spell acquittal? as you can get.”

But then Wednesday turned to Thursday, then Friday, and then the weekend. Yesterday, the jury said it was deadlocked. McBurney gave them an Allen charge, essentially a plea to the jurors to reconcile their differences. With hours, they announced the verdict. McIver himself showed no emotion when the verdict was read, despite knowing the felony murder conviction, if upheld, means the 75-year-old would likely die in prison, even if McBurney makes him eligible for parole.

In many ways—in just about every way—the jury’s verdict was confounding. Acquitting Tex of malice murder meant the state had not proven that he had planned to kill his wife. But convicting him of aggravated assault meant he had intended to shoot her. “That he intended to hurt her but not kill her is totally inconsistent with the state’s theory, which is that he needed her dead in order to resolve his financial problems,” Hall said. Convicting him of aggravated assault was the felony the jury needed to convict him of felony murder, which is when a defendant kills another person in the commission of a felony. Intent to kill is not required.

Hall believes the McIver verdicts represent what’s called “jury nullification,” in which the jury could not agree on intent to kill, so compromised with a conviction of felony murder. “It doesn’t make legal sense,” Hall said. “There’s going to be a significant number of post-trial motions on this.” A central question the verdict raises, Hall said, is simply, “Was this decision just because the jury was convinced Tex McIver was a bad person?”

Beyond the apparent inconsistencies of the verdicts themselves, the trial was unusual for the number and scope of questions the jurors asked. Toward the conclusion of each witness’s testimony, McBurney would collect written questions from the jurors, and consult with the prosecution and defense about which to ask the witness. McBurney is the rare judge who permits them, and told the Fulton Daily Report that he was inspired to adopt the practice from the federal judge in the 2007 Scooter Libby trial. “I think folks seeking the truth ought to be able to do their job,” McBurney told the Daily Report. “It shouldn’t be a passive job. Lawyers don’t have a monopoly over common sense and what is relevant to a fact-finder’s mission.”

But the sheer number of questions—298—raises a potential avenue of appeal for the defense, Hall believes. “What defense lawyers will argue is that Judge McBurney’s policy of allowing jury questions allowed the jury to consider a case that hadn’t actually been put up,” she said. “The state has a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and if it fails to put forward certain theories or evidence, having this panoply of jury questions that might have been on issues that the state hadn’t raised could be an issue. For 298 juror questions to come in, you start to wonder if that tips the scale away from the state’s burden.”

Finally, by Rucker’s account and at least one juror’s, viewing the Ford Expedition where McIver shot his wife was pivotal in reaching its guilty verdicts. That the SUV was not admitted into evidence by the state—McBurney did it himself—is another potential path for appeal, Hall said. “Without the judge admitting the SUV after the close of evidence, the jury would not have been able to sit in the SUV while handling the firearm, something they did not do before the close of evidence. This is a potentially reversible error.”

Hall believes Rucker and his team of prosecutors overcame significant obstacles—a lack of a second will, and no real explanation for why Tex would pick that particular moment to ask for the gun, when by all accounts he had no part in the decision to exit the highway, giving him the excuse to ask for the gun. “I don’t know that the state did a good job at fleshing out opportunity and how that opportunity matched the intent they were trying to prove,” Hall said.

But Tex’s behavior after he shot Diane (directing their driver to take them all the way to Emory University Hospital, for example, when three hospitals were closer) and after her death (fretting about Social Security benefits; letting her cremains languish; auctioning off her belongings; the list goes on) was all grist for the prosecution. Says Hall: “What they did prove was that Tex acted in a completely callous and reckless manner after Diane was shot. They did a fantastic job of laying that all out. You can’t be convicted of murder for being a bad, awful person, but I think that’s what the government accomplished.”

Last Tuesday, as closing arguments were wrapping up, Styles, her testimony complete, finally had a quick chat with Tex. “He was just trying to keep his faith. I told him how much I missed him. He said he missed me and to keep praying.”

Now that verdict is in, Styles knows there’s a good chance her friend will never breathe free air again. “I’m crushed about it. I just have to put it in God’s hands that there’s a purpose out there, and we’ll just wait and see what that is. I’ll go to my grave knowing that Tex McIver did not kill Diane McIver on purpose. There is no way, because he loved that woman unbelievably.”

Correction: A previous version of the story said Tex McIver was staying in a Buckhead condo. This has been updated to reflect he was staying in a Cobb County condo.

A new documentary on Maynard Jackson delves deep into the struggles and scrutiny of Atlanta’s first black mayor

Maynard Jackson
Maynard Jackson, then Atlanta’s vice mayor, campaigning in downtown Atlanta in 1973. He went on to unseat Sam Massell.

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

One day three years ago, Maynard Jackson III woke up and felt a force compelling him to make a documentary about the life of his father.

Jackson is the only son of Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr., the 54th (and 56th) mayor of Atlanta, the first person of color to hold that office in the city, the man who not only built the airport as we know it today, but who once said that weeds would grow on the runways before he’d go back on his pledge to include more minority businesses in its construction.

Maynard III inherited much from his father—not just his name, but even his nickname, Buzzy (a label Mayor Jackson’s sisters gave him in youth because of the sound he made when he slept). Maynard III also was born with his father’s sea-green eyes and, most notably, the burden of high expectations. His grandfather, the mayor’s father, was pastor of historic Friendship Baptist Church, and Maynard III’s great-grandfather was John Wesley Dobbs, who brought thousands of black Atlantans onto the voter rolls and whose political clout led to the hiring of Atlanta’s first black police officers.

Mayor Jackson died in 2003 from a heart attack after collapsing at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. He was just 65, and his sudden passing affected his family in different ways. Valerie Jackson, his widow, says that for three entire years after his death, she’d wake up at 5 a.m., remember he was gone, and weep. For Maynard III, his father’s death left things forever unsaid between them that would haunt him. In many ways, in fact, Maynardwhich is screening April 14 and April 22 at the Atlanta Film Festival after showings at DOC NYC and the 2018 Pan African Film Festival, among others—is more than just a public history of a public figure, but also an exploration of the toll that a public life can exact on a family.

Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, Mayor Jackson’s first wife, distinctly remembers the tension that her ex-husband’s ambition caused in their marriage. In 1968, the couple traveled to North Carolina to show off their infant daughter to the baby’s grandparents. The future mayor returned to Atlanta early and, without telling his wife, borrowed $3,000 to qualify to run against incumbent Herman Talmadge for a United States Senate seat. The agreement with his wife had been that he’d pursue his law career, but the assassination of Robert Kennedy that year changed everything.

“He called me up and said, ‘This is what I have done’,” Bunnie recalls. “Now mind you, I was on maternity leave. We had just bought a little house. We had no savings. He had no job, and we had a baby. I said, ‘Maynard, how are we going to pay the house note?’ I was so pissed with him.”

Jackson’s Senate campaign ended in defeat, but his showing among Atlanta voters cleared the path to becoming vice mayor under Sam Massell and then, famously, to upsetting Massell in 1973 to become the city’s first black mayor. By then, he and Bunnie had three children—Elizabeth, Maynard III, and Brooke. Bunnie’s mother helped watch the children while their parents worked.

Sometime after his election, Atlanta’s newest mayor was featured in the pages of Ebony magazine. Several hundred miles away, a young woman just out of the Wharton School saw the spread and thought to herself, “Man, I want me a Maynard Jackson.” Her name was Valerie Richardson, and she would, as fate would have it, be set up with Jackson not long after his divorce from Bunnie. They would marry in 1977, and their union would produce Mayor Jackson’s third and fourth daughters, Valerie-Amanda and Alexandra.

Maynard Jackson
Wendy Eley Jackson and her husband, Maynard III.

Photograph by Kevin D. Liles

Maynard III, meanwhile, grew up navigating an age-old tension between the path he saw for himself and the one his father imagined for him. At five, he took up the drums, and, as he grew older, he’d practice as many as eight hours a day. “I wasn’t on the path to becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” Maynard III says now. But he felt the pressures, nonetheless. “I wasn’t oblivious to what was going on, to the line of succession. But my life was taking another turn.” He and his wife, Wendy Eley Jackson, are cofounders of Auburn Avenue Films. Between them, they have four children.

In the 1990s, writer Gary Pomerantz spent hours interviewing Mayor Jackson for what would become Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, an exhaustively researched book that tells the history of Atlanta through two families—Jackson’s and that of Ivan Allen, the city’s penultimate white mayor. The audio recordings of those discussions, stored at Emory University, would inform much of Maynard, and it was from those tapes that Maynard III heard, for the first time, that his father regretted not spending more time with his son. Except the mayor never told him that directly. Says Maynard III: “He could have just said, ‘Hey Buzz, let’s go fishing or something.’ I would have been very receptive to that. It was just perplexing that he was so frustrated about that but didn’t come to me.”

Such complicated realities are essential components of any comprehensive documentary, which is why the family turned to Sam Pollard to direct it. Pollard had edited Spike Lee’s movies and directed numerous documentaries, including Slavery by Another Name. Before he signed on to direct Maynard, Pollard insisted on creative control. “I didn’t want to do a hagiography,” he says. It was essential to Pollard, for instance, that he interview not just family members but also the mother of one of the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979–1981, for which Wayne Williams was ultimately held responsible. It would be hard to overstate the fear the murders instilled in black Atlanta during those days, or how it vexed the administration of Mayor Jackson, who ordered extra protection for his own children. Maynard III remembers ditching the security detail on more than one occasion to escape on his bike to a friend’s house.

Maynard Jackson
Maynard Jackson III and director Sam Pollard. Jackson’s drums are featured on the Maynard soundtrack.

Photograph by Jason Glasgow

Production on Maynard took more than two years. Wendy Eley Jackson is a veteran of the film and TV industry and one of the executive producers. The challenge, as she and everyone involved in the project encountered, was keeping the documentary to a digestible length. “There are 7,280 hours of research in this,” she says. “We interviewed 43 people, but less than half of that made the documentary.” Among those in the final cut are Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, Kasim Reed, Andrew Young, historian Maurice Hobson, as well as Bunnie, Valerie, and all five of Mayor Jackson’s children.

For the past 18 years, Valerie has hosted a talk show on WABE. Not long ago, one of her guests on Valerie Jackson in Conversation was the stage director Kenny Leon, who recalled Mayor Jackson talking about what he called “Scared Negro Disease.” “Black people who get into positions of power, they’re sometimes afraid to use that power to help others, because they don’t want to rock the boat,” Valerie says. “Kenny Leon said that when he heard those words from Maynard, he made it a point to never be afraid to use his power and position.”

Valerie, whose dining room table became covered with ephemera and mementos during the making of Maynard, says that her husband took great satisfaction in the work of the Maynard Jackson Youth Foundation Leadership Academy, which for more than 20 years has taught leadership skills to area high school students. In his later years, he’d meet with each Leadership class twice a month, guiding them, charming them, prodding them. The program continues today and has earned its students millions of dollars in scholarships. Valerie calls it her husband’s “most personal and precious accomplishment.”

It’s now been 15 years since Maynard Jackson’s death, but the issues the documentary explores—the city’s fraught racial history, the expectations placed on a black mayor, the scrutiny on minority contracts for city business—feel very relevant today. For Maynard III, though, the film’s goal is simpler: “He was the kind of guy I wish everybody got a chance to meet. He was able to touch you in a way that gives you hope.”

See the film: Maynard will play twice during the 42nd annual Atlanta Film Festival. The first screening is April 14 at 7 p.m. at the Plaza Theatre. The second screening is April 22 at 6 p.m. at the Rialto Center for the Arts. More information about the festival can be found here.

This article appears in our April 2018 issue.

“There’s still an enormous amount of racial distrust in Atlanta.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Fourteen days after she took office, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that she and Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, had reached an agreement where the city would transfer dozens of APS land deeds to the school district. Normally, this would not be newsworthy. But the transfer had stalled under Bottoms’s predecessor, Kasim Reed, who argued that APS did not have plans to ensure that conversions of old school buildings into housing included affordable units.

The announcement was a political win for Bottoms, who had been badgered on the campaign trail by predictions that her administration would be little more than an extension of the previous. Reed, whose final months in office were clouded both by the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall and a growing fatigue with his autocratic style, had endorsed then councilwoman Bottoms and, in the weeks leading up to the runoff, had focused his efforts on bringing out national Democrats to stump for her.

Bottoms’s margin of victory was almost as thin as Reed’s eight years before—and, as it turned out, against the same opponent, Mary Norwood. The 2017 results reminded us that in Atlanta, identity politics still play a decisive role in city elections. Six weeks into her term, Bottoms spoke to Atlanta magazine executive editor Steve Fennessy about the election, her efforts to raise $1 billion for affordable housing, whether she’ll endorse in the governor’s race, and the sexism she encounters as a woman who, besides being a mother of four, is the mayor of Georgia’s largest city.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you coming into office that maybe you weren’t anticipating?
Probably the biggest change is being able to sit still because I’ve been on the go. I’ve felt like I’ve had on roller skates even before the election began. The other big surprise has been my comfort level in this transition. It’s uncomfortable because it’s new, but not nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. I thought it would take me a lot longer to be confident in the job, because it’s really big and it’s new. It’s not to say that I still don’t have a ways to go, but I’m a lot more firm and solid than I expected to be.

So it’s revealed things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t anticipated or seen?
In many ways, yes. Sitting in the seat of mayor is very different than being a councilperson. The councilperson has an extremely important job, but you also have the luxury of doing a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. Sitting in this seat really is about leading in every single way and not just responding. There’s so much to respond to on any given day, while making sure that our priorities remain top of mind.

What are those priorities?
The big priority the first few weeks in office was pushing through cash bail bond legislation. Now, we’re dealing with the APS deeds and making sure we get those transferred. The overarching priorities remain affordability and equity, and education and crime. [There are] conversations we’re having at the state surrounding transit, jobs, and economic development.

You’ve said you want to raise $1 billion for affordable housing. How do you do that?
My goal is $500 million from the public sector and $500 million from the private sector. So much work is going on with different entities across the city, with nonprofits, with the public sector, but we’re not tracking that and working together collectively. This is an opportunity for us to all sit around the table and talk about where we are and where we need to go collectively.

When it comes to raising $500 million from the private sector, what’s the pitch?
I just got back from San Francisco. The top conversation is how unaffordable San Francisco is and how it’s impacting people’s lives. The example they gave is an average two-bedroom, I believe, is $1.3 million. They were able to measure within “x” number of years how long it’s been since a working-class family could afford to live in San Francisco. It was stunning. The pitch is, “Don’t let Atlanta become San Francisco. Don’t let Atlanta become New York.” We still have an opportunity to stop it because we can look at these other cities and see what the pitfalls are.

You have so many people talking about it who, on the surface, you wouldn’t think care, but they do. You have people who may be able to afford to live in the city. It may be the CEO of a company, but their son’s second-grade teacher can’t afford to live in the city. They’re driving in from Paulding County, so that CEO cares. Or maybe someone who owns a business who’s having trouble staffing their cashier position because [the potential employees] don’t have transportation and can’t afford to live in the city. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody cares. Now, we just have to collectively do something about it.

The affordability piece is a part of it, but so, obviously, is the equity piece. Again, I think it’s about giving people a reason to care. When you talk about income inequality and then you connect it to crime rates or any number of other things, then that makes people pay attention and want to do something about it.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

There’s housing displacement, and then there’s cultural displacement. Atlanta’s identity is so tethered to its black culture. Looking at development along the BeltLine, what are the tools at your disposal to preserve the essence of those neighborhoods?
It really is about education at a very basic level. My grandparents’ home is a block from the Westside Trail. They passed 20 years ago. My mother and her brothers have a home. Their children have homes. But nobody is thinking about this family home outside of a structure. So, I think it’s about educating people like my family and legacy families in these neighborhoods about what this structure means to the place and space in Atlanta. “This is the BeltLine. This is why you should care. This is why this family home is still important. This is why you shouldn’t sell it to the highest bidder.”

What I’ve found is that we begin these conversations at a very high level. If there’s a book with 10 chapters, we begin the conversations as if people have read chapters one through five. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into community meetings, and if I’ll say, “How many of you have heard of the BeltLine?” maybe 40 percent will raise their hands. “How many of you have been on the BeltLine?” Maybe 10 percent. There’s this assumption that everybody knows what it is and everybody appreciates it’s for them too, but they don’t know. We have to educate people, especially our legacy residents. “This is this cool, innovative, transformative project coming through your neighborhood. What is it? Why does it matter to you?”

A few years ago, I was speaking at the [Andrew & Walter] Young Family YMCA [in southwest Atlanta] to some teenagers. None of them had heard of the BeltLine, much less been on it. So, we took a field trip. To see the looks on these kids’ faces running down the BeltLine, it was as if I had taken them to Six Flags. I think, unfortunately in many neighborhoods, especially in African American communities, the thought of walking through a wooded trail is counterintuitive to safety. It may cut through your backyard, but who walks through the woods? It’s not something that happens in African American communities. So, it’s about education.

That education will solidify their connection to their home?
Absolutely. When someone comes through, and the family home has been paid off for the past 30 years, and they offer $50,000 in cash, you see that it’s worth a whole lot more than that, and it’s about something more than that.

What do you tell your kids about your job?
It’s more about what they tell me. I went to put something at the door last night so I would see it when I walked out the door. One of my kids said, “Bye, Mommy,” and I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” They all have very different perspectives. My seven-year-old son, who’s very thoughtful, came to me one day and said, “I’m so proud of you. You worked hard, and it was a tough race, and you did your best, and you won. You get a chance to make a difference.” For my younger kids, it is their entire life. My [seven-year-old] twins—all they’ve known is me as an elected official. I have a nine-year-old and a 15-year-old. My 15-year-old really is the only one who knows a different life. I think for them, they just adapt.

You’re mayor of the city of Atlanta. Your predecessor was single and didn’t have kids for a large part of his eight years in office. Is that a challenge?
I was laughing with one of the guys on the security detail. I said, “Gosh, up until January 2, I was the sole logistics director for this whole family organization, and I wonder how I did it every day.” I think we just stretch to the level of wherever we need to be. In that regard, there are a lot of women who do this all day, every day, and a lot of women who do it without any help from a husband, or a dad, or extended family. I am extremely fortunate that I have all of that. I have a great husband, I have a wonderful, energetic mother, got folk that I can call up when I’m in need. I’m fortunate. It takes a village, and I’ve been calling on my village a lot.

Voters in 2016 approved a one-penny sales tax increase that will fund $300 million in transit improvements over five years, in addition to $2.5 billion over 40 years for MARTA. What would you like to see tackled first?
Long-term, I am a big proponent of extension of some type of light rail throughout the city—whether it’s light rail, autonomous, whatever it may be, high rapid bus transit—some extension so that there is true connectivity throughout the city, so that people aren’t waiting at a bus stop for an hour in the dark for a bus to come.

I had a meeting this week where we talked about the bus rapid transit system. That’s a lot less expensive than light rail but accomplishes the same thing. I think you’ll start seeing things coming online within the next year or two [in areas around Turner Field]. Then, there’ll be a natural progression to extension in other places throughout the city. I think you will also begin to see this desire for other counties in the region not to be left out because it’s impacting their bottom line. There’s a reason Atlanta is attracting businesses, because although our MARTA system may not be ideal, it sure is better than Cobb and Gwinnett, and any number of other counties. I think what they’re starting to feel is they’re not true competitors because they don’t have the transit piece.

Certainly there was a productive relationship between Mayor Reed and Governor Nathan Deal. We’re electing a new governor this fall. Do you plan to endorse in the Democratic primary?
Once the Legislature gets out of session, that whole conversation will heat up. I suspect that I will [endorse] before the primary.

What will it take to elect a Democrat to the governor’s office?
I think that there has to be more meaningful voter registration throughout the state and not just the rhetoric of voter registration. There has to be real work done.

In an interview with Politico, you were asked about Mayor Reed and the pressures you felt on the campaign trail. You said, “There were a lot of critiques and criticisms toward me that just would not have been thrown towards a man. ‘Will she be her own person? Can she lead? Will she be a puppet?’ Things that I know are never asked of men or weren’t asked during this race.” You also said that you hadn’t dealt with as much sexism in your entire career as you had on the campaign trail.
I’ve grown up in Atlanta, and I just don’t recall there ever being a question asked of Kasim Reed during his run for mayor if he would be a puppet of Shirley Franklin, and how much influence Shirley Franklin would have on him. I think a lot of that was asked of me because I am a woman. There is this assumption: “Surely you can’t be smart, and you can’t be attractive, and you can’t be accomplished without it being because of something.” Men don’t have to explain themselves in that way. Pick a name. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush, any number of men have never felt the need to offer an explanation as to who they are and why they are.

I was always aware of race growing up in Atlanta but never so much of being a woman and all that entailed professionally until I entered public office, and having questions asked like, “You’re a mother. How can you be mayor?” I would be shocked if any man in the race were asked, “You’re a dad. How can you be mayor?” Quite often, those questions were asked by women, which was interesting.

Toward the end of his term, Mayor Reed said he was ready to leave. He said that the talk about him trying to maintain a level of influence was not going to be borne out by reality. But as somebody who’s new to this job, it’s also understandable that you’d want to talk to your predecessor. What communications have you had with the former mayor?
Actually, very limited communications. There have been some natural things that I’ve reached out to him and asked. “Hey, I understand you were working on ‘XYZ.’ Give me a little background on that.” He has been, I would say, very mindful of not interfering. He’s even said that to me. He’s available if I have a question, as all of the other previous mayors have offered themselves up as well. He’s one of any number of folk, if I need some guidance, I’d pick up the phone and ask.

What specifically can you do, or do you plan to do, to reform the procurement process to make it more transparent, to make it less prone to corruption?
We are launching our search for a new procurement head, along with several other searches in the city. As mayor, you’re signing multimillion dollar contracts with very limited information. You get a contract, and you sign it. My concern is, I don’t want to know a whole lot about how this vendor was selected, but if I’m ever called to explain why the vendor was selected, I also don’t have a lot of information. I need a recommendation from these folk looking at procurement on how to toe that line. You can’t have so much information that it appears that you will be influenced or trying to influence, but you also need to be confident in what you are signing off on, that you’re not signing contracts blindly.

Can you talk about the election and the racial divide that the results revealed?
What I learned is that there’s still an enormous amount of racial distrust in this city. The divide is much more glaring than I thought it would be. Part of it was that it was such a negative campaign. There were so many narratives that were put out there that I think really are typical of narratives put out on African American elected officials: “You’re all corrupt. You’re all unethical.”—these stereotypes. I was not expecting that in Atlanta. I especially wasn’t expecting it as it relates to me. I guess putting it out there was not as surprising to me as the fact that so many people bought into it. I think you look at the election map, and you see how it bore out.

We anticipate creating some type of citywide program to further this conversation because I don’t think it’s a productive conversation in the heat of battle. Again, I think it’s [about] getting people to care and engage when it’s not election time. We clearly still have a very long way to go in this city. Some people would say I was probably naive to be surprised about it, but it was still shocking to me in Atlanta. I thought that we were way beyond that. The election highlighted to me that we’re not. The wonderful thing: I’ve had probably more white people in the city ask me to make sure [this conversation] happens than African Americans. That’s very encouraging.

This article appears in our April 2018 issue.

Powering Down: Mayor Kasim Reed says goodbye to the only job he’s wanted since he was 13

Kasim Reed

TUESDAY, NOV. 7, 2017
10 P.M.
ELECTION NIGHT

In the Coretta Scott King suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency, the 59th mayor of Atlanta was doing something he’s never enjoyed nor been particularly good at. He was waiting. Waiting—and this was the worst part—to be summoned. Downstairs, the supporters of Keisha Lance Bottoms, his heir apparent, were also waiting, but at least they were sipping $11 well drinks and, when the DJ played the right song, doing the Wobble. Not that the mayor drinks. Or wobbles. He’d taken off his navy blue suit jacket and was sitting at the chair positioned at the center of the rectangular table, itself positioned at the center of the suite. There were TVs switched on at both ends of the room, and his friends and supporters and staffers clustered about them, waiting for the results to come in. This being Fulton County, where election returns take so long you’d think they were counting votes on an abacus, there was down time. Someone put a cold can of Coca-Cola on the table in front of the mayor, and he popped it open. He pulled out his phone and started scrolling.

A mayor of a big city has a gravitational force. The closer you get, the stronger the pull, until you find yourself in an orbit, and the next thing you know, you’re measuring your path against those of all the other satellites. Who’s drawing closer? Who’s pulling away? Kasim Reed had spent the last 2,865 days of his administration taking a tactical pleasure in the jockeying around him. From the outside, it may appear enervatingly chaotic—the backbiting, the scrambling for his audience and approval—but to a certain personality type, it can be motivating. It can drive them to excellence. As well as to exhaustion. Talk to those who worked for Reed for most or even all of his years in office, and they’ll mention the vacations they plan to take and the lost hours of sleep they plan to catch up on when he leaves in January. You’d search for a while before you found Reed veterans who weren’t quietly relieved their boss couldn’t run for four more years. The fact of the matter is (“the fact of the matter” being one of the mayor’s favorite turns of phrase, no doubt because it telegraphs that what’s to come is simply irrefutable) no one ever could outwork Kasim Reed.

Which brings up the opposing force, also called term limits. The mayor of Atlanta can serve no more than two successive terms, though she or he is free to run again after leaving office for at least one term. Maynard Jackson famously did that. But today, most would agree that Jackson’s third term was anticlimactic, which it was probably doomed to be, since his first two terms were propelled in part by the moral and political force that came with being the city’s first black mayor. Jackson made the city—and, most notably, the airport—the kind of place where black contractors and vendors and professionals were not just tolerated; they were encouraged. Jackson made room for them—by statute but also by fiat. He changed the culture of a city. That’s a tough act to follow, even if it’s your own.

When Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, a clock in City Hall counted backward the time left in office, down to the second. Reed never needed a clock. He’s known how much time he had left since he was sworn in on January 4, 2010. When he was a teenager, Reed began mapping out his life on three-by-five cards. Go to Howard. Then law school. Run for state representative. Win. Run for state senator. Win. Each accomplishment was a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal: becoming mayor of Atlanta. So, if you’re one of the people who soured on Reed during the past eight years (and they are legion, and include those who once called him friend), who find him too autocratic, a know-it-all, an egomaniac, consider this: He started planning for this job when he was in eighth grade. No, the real surprise would be if he cared what you thought.

Not that it hasn’t taken a toll. A few months before the general election, in front of a crowd of a hundred or so Atlantans, he was asked about what life will look like for him when he’s no longer mayor. He told the story about the three-by-five cards. “Obviously, I’m a damaged person for having executed on that plan, so I’m looking forward to just walking around,” he said. To read those words, it sounds like a joke, except he wasn’t smiling when he said it.

In the suite tonight were 20 or so guests of the mayor. New arrivals were carefully vetted by his security detail. Reed’s brother, Tracy, was there, along with Tracy’s wife. So was John Ahmann, the longtime ally of Reed who heads up the Westside Future Fund, the privately funded entity trying to resurrect the neighborhoods abutting the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Some of the other guests: Robert Ashe III, the chair of the MARTA board; Amy Phuong, the parks and recreation commissioner; Yvonne Cowser Yancy, commissioner of human resources; Mack Wilbourn, the airport franchisee who once hosted a fundraiser for President Obama at his house; Jeff Dickerson, the public relations consultant who’s a frequent guest on The Georgia Gang; Steve Brock, president of Brock Built homes; Michael Thrasher, founder of Thrasher Contracting & Trucking. The mood was subdued, as if no one seemed particularly sure how to act. Was this a happy occasion? A sad one? Even if Bottoms advanced, as she was expected to, it didn’t change the fact that Reed, whom they had worked for or supported for eight years, and sometimes more, was a short-timer.

Kasim Reed
Mayor Kasim Reed introduced Keisha Lance Bottoms the night of the general election. Bottoms would go on to beat Mary Norwood by the thinnest of margins (though Norwood would demand a recount).

Photograph by Audra Melton

Before midnight, Bottoms herself dropped by. She was on her way down to the ballroom to address her supporters. By now, the news was all but official: Bottoms would face off against Mary Norwood in four weeks. (Eight years ago, Norwood came just a few thousand votes short of winning the mayor’s seat outright in the general election, only to have Reed slip past her in the runoff, winning by 714 votes.) Everyone in the room stood and applauded when Bottoms entered.

Bottoms’s eight years on Atlanta’s city council overlapped precisely with the mayor’s two terms. In 2015, she was named executive director of the Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority. By then—or since then, it’s not clear—Reed had settled on her as his designated successor. During the coming weeks leading up to the runoff, Bottoms would find out just how far the mayor’s support would take her, but right now, she was here to thank everyone in the room for their help. There was more applause, and she laughed nervously and said if she cried, it would wreak havoc on her fake eyelashes. She ducked out. A few minutes later, Reed slipped his jacket back on, straightened his tie in the mirror, exited the room, took the elevator, then an escalator, strode past the camera risers in the Regency ballroom, and introduced the woman who would succeed him in the only job he’s ever really wanted.

TUESDAY, NOV. 21, 2017
14 DAYS BEFORE
THE RUNOFF

“Mayor Kasim Reed to make important announcement.” The advisory, proclaiming a 10 a.m. press conference in the mayor’s office, was tantalizingly vague. Or vaguely tantalizing. At precisely 10 a.m., the TV cameras were set up and white-balanced, the microphones positioned, and half of Reed’s cabinet, or so it seemed, stood shoulder to shoulder with a smattering of print and broadcast reporters. The minutes ticked past. At 10:20, we heard the mayor before we actually saw him. He was chuckling from down the hall. He strolled up to the podium and grinned. “Good morning!” he declared. “Wasn’t it nice of me to get you all together for a little fellowship?”

In any given week—on any given day—the mayor’s schedule is a mix of ribbon-cuttings, grip-and-grins, closed-door meetings, and countless phone calls. “I’m not a big user of emails,” Reed has said. Face to face is best, then phone. Emails are to be avoided. When the Braves announced they were leaving the city to build a new ballpark in Cobb County, City Hall released hundreds of emails to satisfy the various Open Records requests demanding all correspondence on the deal. There was just one email from the mayor’s account. Reed is an avid texter, though he does it on his personal cell phone, which presumably shields him from Open Records laws, and he rarely conducts business on his city-issued phone. Likewise, @MayorKasimReed, what you’d imagine would be his official Twitter account, has not been updated in more than six years. Not so for his personal Twitter account—@KasimReed—which boasts more than 414,000 followers (more than any other American mayor, he’ll tell you, except for Bill de Blasio in New York City). Reed’s approach is different from de Blasio’s, however, in that he uses Twitter not just as bullhorn, but as bludgeon. When, two weeks before the general election, WSB-TV reporter Richard Belcher tweeted a link to a story about corruption at City Hall, Reed responded, “You are working overtime to prop your candidates, Norwood & Aman up. A blind man with a blindfold on can see what you are trying to do.”

But today, the mayor was in a good mood. The city had closed on the sale of the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center to the Atlanta Housing Authority, which would work with a developer to convert the 20-acre site, just three blocks from MARTA, into a mixed-income residential and retail destination. Some 250 units in the $300 million development would be reserved for low- and middle-income tenants. It is, Reed said from behind the podium, “the largest commitment to affordable housing in the city of Atlanta in more than 15 years.”

Reed fielded a few questions, and all seemed fine, until one reporter asked him to comment on the news that morning that Ceasar Mitchell, the city council president, would endorse Norwood for mayor in the runoff against Bottoms. Just a few months earlier, the safe money had been on Norwood squaring off against Mitchell in the runoff. It was supposed to be Mitchell’s turn, after all. Eight years earlier, he’d sought out former Ambassador Andrew Young’s endorsement for mayor, but Young had already committed to Reed, and so, as Young tells it, the ambassador encouraged Mitchell to run for council president instead. Mitchell agreed, and in 2017, true to his word, Young endorsed Mitchell for mayor.

Fat lot of good it did Mitchell. Young may be a pastor, adviser to presidents, a civil rights icon, a former mayor himself, but his endorsement of Mitchell—rolled out during a brief lovefest at Paschal’s—was no match for Reed, who took visceral pleasure in using his bully pulpit to slag Mitchell. The list of Atlantans on Reed’s shitlist, and there really is no better word for it, is a long one—Egbert Perry (developer), Shirley Franklin (former mayor), William Perry (Georgia Ethics Watchdogs), Bill Torpy (Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist), Vincent Fort (state senator; failed mayoral candidate), Dale Russell (Fox 5 investigative reporter), Miguel Southwell (former airport chief, fired by Reed), maybe me after he reads this story—but at the top, arguably, is Mitchell. Why? Young told me that he believes it started back when the two men were teenagers, growing up minutes from each other in southwest Atlanta. Is Atlanta really that small of a town? Yes, it is.

Kasim Reed

Now, back to that question about Mitchell’s endorsement. Here’s something a different politician might have said: We’re here to talk about affordable housing, about how today’s announcement is delivering on a promise to make the most desirable neighborhoods in Atlanta affordable for all. There’s nothing more important.

Or, another politician: It’s a political season. The council president is free to endorse whomever he wants, but I’m confident the voters of Atlanta will see that his decision is motivated more by resentment toward me and disappointment at his sixth-place finish in the general election than out of any real belief that Mary Norwood will be the best mayor for all Atlantans. Endorsements should be just that—endorsements. Not settling grudges.

But Reed was never just another politician. This is what he said: “I’m totally unsurprised. It’s consistent with his career and why he’s getting ready to be fired. He’s a guy who doesn’t even have the decency to show up to work yesterday. Right? So, let’s follow that. He’s the council president, and yesterday, he turned over his responsibilities to [Councilmember] Andre Dickens, who did a fine job. What somebody who should have been mayor would have done is woke up, put on a suit, came to work, did their job. So, Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman—two losers.”

For precisely four seconds, there was silence in the room. Not even the click of a camera shutter. There are a lot of things that Reed will undoubtedly miss about being mayor—his security detail, his city-issued Yukon Denali, his courtiers, his spotlight, his power to shape an entire city—but these awkward silences . . . they are something else altogether. Because for him, they’re not awkward.

They’re fun.

“Anybody have anything else for the holiday?”

• • •

The best thing that ever happened to Reed as mayor occurred just after he was sworn in on his first day. He’d taken a MARTA train from the Civic Center to City Hall—he paid more attention to optics in the beginning than toward the end—where the finance people were waiting for him. For his signature, to be precise. Without signing a stack of tax anticipation notes, Reed would effectively be the boss of a company that couldn’t make payroll. For the young mayor, just 40, it was a “crystallizing” moment.

“I wanted to know why we were in that shape,” he told me in his office on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. “The reason we were in that shape is that [the city] had approved bloated pension packages and had made them retroactive. So, it was like that Mission: Impossible scene with the fuse. It was absorbing 18 percent of our cash.” The need for pension reform wasn’t a surprise to Reed; it had been a fraught topic on the campaign trail. But the urgency of the situation, laid bare by his first official act as mayor, focused him.

The Atlanta outside City Hall wasn’t doing any better. Office vacancy rates were at 18 percent and climbing. There was so much empty office space that experts figured it would take 10 years to fill it all—and that’s with no more new construction coming online. Remember how we used to worry Charlotte would overtake us?

“We had developers come in here and offer us all of their property just to save their credit,” Reed told me. “Really proud and distinguished men were trying to save their banking relationships and would come in and ask for the city to provide some help or perhaps purchase real estate because of the distress. People don’t really remember that.”

One of Reed’s favorite books is by a British educator named Michael Barber, who served in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in the early 21st century. Called Instruction to Deliver, the book explores how a politician might bridge the daunting gap between a promise made and a promise kept. Barber’s title under Blair was “chief adviser on delivery.” Across 436 wonky pages, Barber explores the concrete steps that the technocrats under Blair took to improve government services on the most granular level, from identifying low-performing train operators to measuring hospital wait times. It’s not easy reading, but for Reed, the rare politician who knows every big picture is simply a collection of small ones, it became a guidestar for his administration. Weekly department head meetings, where Atlanta commissioners and cabinet members would give status updates on projects and priorities (and where Reed would occasionally dress them down), mirrored the periodic “stock-takes” that Barber describes Blair hosting.

“If you don’t get the fundamentals right in government, people won’t believe you for the aspirational aspects of government,” Reed told the Brookings Institution’s Municipal Finance Conference in Washington, D.C., last summer. “If I’m getting hit over the head [going to] my car, don’t come to me talking about a program for kids. If there are potholes in my street, don’t come to me talking about money for greenspace.”

But of course the issue of pension reform was more than just a balance sheet problem; it was political. Unions were appalled that promised benefits for their members might be in jeopardy. “They realized that I was crazy,” Reed said. “The friends who helped make me mayor came into my office and they said, if you put a pension bill on the floor, we’re gonna go get ourselves another mayor.”

Although Reed had won by just 714 votes, he was still early in his term. It was time to test the waters. To ignore pension reform was not an option; even if the city somehow had still managed to avoid bankruptcy by the time he was up for reelection, to let it go unaddressed would not only violate a pledge he’d made on the campaign trail, it would hobble him from doing other things he’d promised, like opening the city recreation centers that budget cuts brought on by the Great Recession had left closed.

Kasim Reed

Ultimately, the solution that the council approved unanimously in 2011 was a hybrid of several proposals from the mayor and from council members that included a 401(k)-like plan, increased contributions from city employees, a longer vesting time, and a higher retirement age. Everyone took a piece of the credit, because everyone deserved a piece.

Yolanda Adrean, a freshman city councilmember at the time, chaired the finance committee during the pension reform debates and met occasionally with the mayor. “He listened to me,” said Adrean, who didn’t run for reelection in November. “He was patient. I know he has a reputation for being elbows-out, but if you go to him and you’re prepared with facts and you’re working for the common good, he respects that.”

Pension reform set the stage for everything to come. “Our pension costs have gone from 18.5 percent to about 14.5 today,” Reed told the Brookings conference. “We’ve saved $270 million in cash over a 10-year period, and we’ll save $500 million over a 30-year period. It became a joy to come to work because people could now come and work on other things besides laying people off and having furloughs.”

Though “joy” was not a word I heard anyone but Reed use in describing life at City Hall under him, it’s also true that those in his inner circle, especially during the early days, felt a sense of mission and purpose that was unlike anything they’d ever experienced before. As a boss, Reed’s philosophy was simple: Hire smart people, give them autonomy, and always have their backs. In exchange, he pushed them. Hard.

“He bets on people—and potential,” said Duriya Farooqui, who was a rare holdover from the administration of Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin. Since 2016, Farooqui has been executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a consortium of local business and civic leaders that acts as a kind of sounding board for the mayor. But in 2010, she was 33, deputy COO under Peter Aman, and assigned to negotiate with Delta on wrapping up the long-delayed international terminal.

“When I think about the initiatives and ambitions that the mayor had for the city that I was empowered to execute,” Farooqui said, “would I have given myself that charge if I was in his place at the time? Hell no.” In 2011, after COO Peter Aman left, Reed promoted Farooqui, and before she herself left in 2014, she negotiated for the city in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium discussions.

Reed and his team delivered results: The city’s credit rating is now AA+, one step below the highest ranking. He unloaded city-owned parcels—City Hall East, Underground Atlanta, Fort McPherson, the Civic Center, Turner Field—that were more trouble than they were worth, prompting some to label him the “real estate mayor.” He brokered a deal for the Falcons to build a new stadium. He partnered with Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a relationship that expedited the deepening of the Savannah port and made Reed more welcome in the city-hostile halls of the General Assembly.

Reed reopened every recreation center in the city, two-thirds of which had been shuttered when he took office, cleverly rebranding them as “Centers of Hope.” He championed LGBTQ rights, the BeltLine, sustainability, and mass transit. Under Reed, the police department hired its 2,000th officer, a goal articulated but not achieved by his two immediate predecessors. (It has since dipped back below that number.) All of this he did without raising property taxes while also building up cash reserves (as city law dictates he must do) to almost $200 million. Undoubtedly, he was helped along the way by national trends of falling crime rates and surging employment plus a generational renaissance of cities across the country, particularly in the Sun Belt, but Reed, a man who keeps careful score, does not need to grade his accomplishments on a curve.

There were losses. He campaigned tirelessly for the first T-SPLOST in 2012, a one percent sales tax referendum that would have funded $7.2 billion in transportation improvements across 10 counties. It failed miserably. And it was under Reed’s watch that the Braves negotiated with Cobb County in secret before announcing the franchise would build a new stadium there.

Atlanta’s rapid growth—$3.5 billion in new construction permits in 2016—has, paradoxically, focused a starker light on its failures. Four out of five black children in Atlanta grow up in impoverished neighborhoods, while just one in 20 white children do. The BeltLine has been a relentless engine for intown growth but increasingly at a cost to the homeowners and renters whose historic neighborhoods it transects. Unemployment rates for black Atlantans are three times that of white Atlantans. Atlanta remains the most economically divided city in the nation. The average credit score for a nonwhite Atlantan is 560—subprime—which makes them vulnerable to vulture lenders. To be black in Atlanta is, statistically speaking, to be poor in Atlanta. This phenomenon is far from unique to the administration of Kasim Reed, but as the percentage of white Atlantans begins to creep back to levels not seen since the early 1970s, and as the median price of a home hits record highs, the “Atlanta Way” has begun to look like the way to nowhere special.

• • •

Of course, there’s what Reed did in eight years, and there’s how he did it. “Kasim is like a bowling ball: Get the hell out of my way, or get knocked down,” said Andrew Young, who was first elected to lead City Hall in 1981. Young was hardly an accidental mayor, but he recalled being almost guilted into running after serving as former President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I had no idea what I was going to do as mayor until I became mayor,” he told me. So, he read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Reed, on the other hand, is very much a deliberate mayor, and the almost desperate urgency he’s maintained while in office left Young in awe. “In terms of being productive, I don’t think there’s any mayor who’s done more that’s beneficial to the city than he did.”

It was an appearance by then Mayor Young at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in the early 1980s that gave a 13-year-old Kasim Reed, who was sitting in the congregation, his life’s mission. Said Young: “I was told back when he was in college that he was too arrogant to succeed. I said, ‘No. Doing what he’s trying to do, you’ve got to be arrogant to try it.’ They said Maynard was arrogant. I probably am, too. But I know how to conceal it.”

If Reed ever was inclined to conceal his arrogance, he pretty much abandoned that pretense during his last year. In July, both WSB-TV and Fox 5 aired stories on an April trip that 10 city employees, including Reed, took to South Africa. Six of the plane tickets were business class, and the total airfare was almost $81,000. (After the reports, Reed’s office said that an unnamed NGO would reimburse the difference between the cost of business class and coach.) Similarly, 12 days before the general election, the AJC reported that leftover money in a political committee funded by local businesses to drum up support for the 2015 transit referendum went to help fund the campaigns of seven of Reed’s allies on city council. A “slush fund,” one mayoral candidate called it.

But no shadow over Reed’s final year—indeed over potentially his legacy—looms larger than the federal government’s ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) investigation into corruption at City Hall. So far, it’s ensnared two contractors (who are each serving prison sentences on charges they conspired to bribe an unnamed person $1 million in connection with city business) as well as Adam Smith, who was the city’s chief procurement officer until Reed fired him the day the FBI marched into City Hall and seized Smith’s computer. (Smith admitted to taking bribes in exchange for helping an unnamed vendor win a contract with the city; he’s to be sentenced this month.)

At the October sentencing of the two contractors, an assistant U.S. attorney said that “this year has brought into clear focus that corruption in the city of Atlanta is prolific.” It was that word—prolific—that especially alarmed and appalled Shirley Franklin. “It’s abominable,” she told me, “that any city contractor—people who’ve been here for years and years—thought during the last eight years that they had to pay someone $1 million to get a contract.”

To Franklin, Reed’s response—that his office has been cooperating fully with the investigation—was insufficient. “‘Cooperating’ with the U.S. attorney?” she said, incredulous. “What fool doesn’t? The adequate answer is, ‘I’m getting to the bottom of this, and I want to know what the U.S. attorney knows that I need to fix.’”

In February, in one of the most passive-aggressive acts in Atlanta political history, Reed called a press conference to announce the release of 1.5 million pages of City Hall documents that his administration had turned over to federal investigators. Dozens of the 400 banker boxes served as a backdrop for the photo op. “What I wasn’t going to allow to happen was for y’all to question my commitment to sunshine,” he said. Thousands of pages were printed in a font so small they were illegible. Reporters spent hours randomly riffling through the documents. If that was Reed’s idea of sunshine, everyone left with melanoma.

The question on everyone’s mind was—and remains—how “prolific” is the corruption at City Hall? At the press conference, one reporter asked Reed directly if he had taken a bribe. “Absolutely not,” Reed said. “I have never taken a bribe. I have given my life to this job. For seven years, day in and day out, I have poured myself into this job. I’ve wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13. And if you think that I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification, you don’t know me well, and you don’t know the plans that I have for my own life.”

Adrean, the outgoing city councilmember, told me that it’s the job of the mayor to address the calcified and corrosive culture of how procurement is done at City Hall. “So many of our contracts are legacy contracts that go on for 25 years. There’s so little disclosure of who these people are. We’re a public company. We’re funded by taxpayer dollars, and yet, the majority of our vendors are private businesses who don’t have the disclosure [rules] that public companies do.

“Until we get a mayor who’s absolutely serious about changing business as usual, we are going to have this long shadow across the city,” Adrean said. “The next council has to take [reform] seriously, or it’ll bring us to our knees.”

• • •

The 2017 campaign for mayor lacked the urgency and energy of eight years ago, thanks in part to the preposterous number of candidates (13, at one point) running to succeed Reed. Debates felt less like robust exchanges than tedious table readings from an ensemble cast that had grown weary of one another. Up until late summer, the safe money had been on Mitchell to make the runoff against Norwood, who was back again, undaunted eight years after her razor-thin loss to Reed. But Mitchell was languishing. Meanwhile, Cathy Woolard was finding her voice and competing with Aman, Reed’s former COO. And Bottoms, the sole black female candidate in a city where black women are the largest voting demographic, was breaking free of the pack, at least according to a poll in early October. By the time Reed went on V-103’s morning show to announce his endorsement on October 11, Bottoms had found momentum.

“She led the effort on pension reform. She helped me reopen every recreation center in the city of Atlanta. She led when I was fighting to make sure that every woman in the city of Atlanta received equal pay. She led when I wanted to open a women’s entrepreneurship initiative,” Reed told Ryan Cameron, the V-103 morning host. “I’m gonna do everything I can to see that this woman wins. She deserves it.” Then, cryptically, he added: “I want folks to look out for her and stop letting folks be so reckless talking about this black woman. I’m trying to check that.”

Cameron didn’t follow up, but Reed didn’t need him to; the mayor had done what he’d come to do. He’d given a public (if not full-throated) endorsement in the race to succeed him, and he’d also launched a warning shot that Bottoms’s opponents should be careful what they say about “this black woman.” Reed’s comments were a kind of preemptive strike. From now on, anyone who looked at Bottoms—at, for example, the donations from airport contractors that were helping fuel her campaign as they had Reed’s before—and concluded, or even worried, that a Bottoms administration would be merely an extension of his own, and that she was in his debt or, worse, in his thrall . . . well, to have those concerns meant you were sexist. Maybe even racist.

Jeff Dickerson, who used to work at the AJC and now runs his own public affairs firm, is a strident Reed defender. He believes that at least some of the criticism of Reed stems from a deep-seated discomfort with a black mayor who’s unapologetically forthright. “It’s another form of racism. When you’re as effective as [Reed] has been and all people talk about is your confrontational style, something’s wrong with that. If he were white and pugilistic or confrontational, they’d just say he was being an assertive, strong mayor . . . I say to myself, it’s time that an African-American male mayor should have license to be able to say whatever the hell’s on his mind. Everybody can’t be Barack Obama.”

As the December 5 runoff approached, though, and with Bottoms catching flak for her association with Reed, the mayor eased up. One week before the election, he spoke with me for an hour in his office. The “losers” comment had clearly done Bottoms no favors. Still, he didn’t like muzzling himself.

“To never respond,” he said, “is exactly what is wrong with politics right now. People elect you to win for them and fight for them. What I understood very early was that I am responsible for governing the people of the city of Atlanta. Sitting right here, my job approval is [in the] mid-60s . . . and the city’s ‘right track’ number is 69. I know all of this because we monitor it constantly. I know who my market is.”

Simply put, Reed explained, if Atlantans disapproved of his combative approach, then his approval numbers wouldn’t be so high. “If there was something showing up in our data that said that people did not like this in our focus groups, trust me, I’m a decent politician. I would adjust,” he said. The metrics justified the means.

And yet, he added, “if you do your research on me, I’ve never picked on anybody. Never. You can mine all of the data on me, and you will not find one time where I walked up to somebody and tapped their shoulder. That’s not even who I am. But what I believe from my father is that when people engage you in a way that is negative, you have to make it so terrible for them that they decide to pick on someone else.”

Reed often invokes his record of never having any legislation rejected by city council. Why not, I asked, use that traction to once and for all reform the procurement process in the city to make it more transparent and less susceptible to corruption? “I’ve really wracked my brain about it,” he replied. He cited ethics laws that he described as the “toughest” already in place, plus he’d prevailed in every significant court battle from would-be contractors claiming the deck was stacked against them. “The regret I have is that I think it caused me to take my guard down a bit and to become less vigilant.” He said that he’d hired a “leading law firm” to review every aspect of the procurement process, and that the firm had conducted “more than 40 interviews” before making their recommendations. (Later, Jenna Garland, a mayoral spokesperson, told me the city had issued a Request for Proposal for a consultant to review the procurement process but had yet to make a selection.)

I asked if he was frustrated that he’d be leaving office without the federal investigation being resolved. “No. I understand the perils of this job. Men who are better than me have had to go through this exact same kind of review. I run an organization with 8,500 people, and I take this extremely seriously. It is heartbreaking to me that this is happening. Anybody that looks at the way that I’ve run this government knows that I was trying to build something special. I believe that at the end of the day, we’re gonna receive a fair judgment. My personality is to keep running hard. I’m still so glad that I won.”

When he came into office, Reed was a bachelor. He was, by his own admission, “driven in an unhealthy and selfish way.” “The life I delayed”—marriage to Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, who gave birth to their daughter Maria Kristin in 2014—“is really filling my life now. I’m not gonna mislead you and say it fully fills it, but it certainly is much sweeter and slower and happier. My daughter, she just owns me.”

Not long after the next mayor is inaugurated, Reed and his family will board a flight for the Bahamas. “I’m going to have a month or two months where I’m going to be pretty much unrecognizable. And I want to learn Spanish.” After that? He expects he’ll join a university or a think tank before he maps out his next move. President Donald Trump’s victory scuttled any plans he might have had for a job in a Hillary Clinton administration, so the man with the five-year plans is feeling . . . unsettled. I asked if he would consider running for mayor again. “I don’t know,” he said. But he seemed eager to put to rest any thought that he’d play a behind-the-scenes role in a Bottoms administration. “I really have a strong ‘leave’ personality. I never wanted to be the guy who went back to his high school with his varsity jacket on. If you look at my career, I haven’t gone back.

“I’m ready to leave.”

POSTSCRIPT

On December 5, clinging to a 759-vote lead (a margin almost as thin as Reed’s 714-vote margin eight years earlier), Bottoms declared victory. I met with Reed briefly in his suite after Bottoms’s victory speech in a Hyatt Regency ballroom. Boxes of pizza sat opened on a countertop. Sarah-Elizabeth sat beside him. “My goal was for Keisha to be in the runoff,” Reed said. “Once that goal was achieved, my role changed to gathering influencers and focusing on raising the money that was necessary in a very short amount of time.” Due in part to their exasperation with Reed, many of his rivals endorsed Norwood. They included Mitchell, Franklin, Aman, and Woolard. In turn, Bottoms trotted out endorsements from celebrities like Killer Mike and T.I., while Reed leveraged his contacts with national Democrats to bring in New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Senator Kamala Harris. “They came in to stem that momentum that had been created [for Norwood] out of those endorsements.”

Reed was taking a special pleasure in the WSB poll that had come out days before the election that had shown Norwood with a six-point lead. Reed suspected that the poll hurt Norwood. “It caused her voters on the north side to feel like the race was won.”

He said he’d told Bottoms after the general election that he knew Norwood was beatable when his former opponent went home early that night. “I believe that she never recovered from losing to me. It’s the demon. You can see it in her.”

Reed had taken off his suit jacket. He leaned back. “I have a lot of peace.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.

Follow Us

61,264FansLike
109,883FollowersFollow
499,689FollowersFollow