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Visitors to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home stop a woman from setting fire to it

A woman is facing charges after pouring what appears to be gasoline on the porch of the  Queen Anne style house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the first 12 years of his life. The home was not damaged.
Historic American Buildings Survey/ Library of Congress
A woman is facing charges after pouring what appears to be gasoline on the porch of the Queen Anne style house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the first 12 years of his life. The home was not damaged.

The scene had all the makings of a horrific tragedy: On Thursday, a woman emptied what looked to be a large red can of gasoline all over the front porch of the house where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta. She was seemingly intent on burning the historic home down.

But two visitors from Utah who had come to see the historic site were watching the woman — and they acted quickly to save it, standing in her way when she tried to bring a lighter onto the porch. When the woman tried to leave the scene, two other visitors stopped her and held her until police arrived.

"Their quick action saved the jewel of our city, something very important to Atlanta," Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum told local TV stations at the scene. Praising the bystanders who intervened, he added, "That action saved an important part of American history tonight."

Police arrived at the home around 5:45 p.m., after getting a 911 call about vandalism at the homejust east of downtown Atlanta.

The officers found "two what we believe to be off-duty NYPD officers who'd been visiting the center that had the individual detained," Schierbaum said, adding that the officers had chased the woman down as she attempted to flee.

In an update, Atlanta Police identified the woman as Laneisha Shantrice Henderson, 26. She has now been charged with arson and interfering with government property.

No damage to the King historic home, fire official says

Witness videos posted online showed a Black woman, later identified as Henderson, sloshing liquid from a red container onto the walls, windows and porch of the King home. After she was detained by the off-duty officers, footage showed her being held down on the sidewalk.

"Are you comfortable?" a woman standing next to Henderson asks her.

"I'm fine," Henderson replies.

Atlanta Fire Battallion Chief Jerry DeBerry said that the woman had poured gas on the house. A hazmat team came to the house to "mitigate the gasoline," he said, to make sure the home remains safe.

"If the witnesses hadn't been here and interrupted what she was doing, I mean, it could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames," DeBerry said, speaking alongside the police chief.

"It was really about the timing and the witness being in the right place at the right time," he added. "We're going to be able to mitigate this with no damage to the property at all."

Woman could face federal charges

Henderson was to undergo an evaluation at a hospital before being transferred to Fulton County Jail. Atlanta police is in contact with her family as it tries to determine her possible motives, Schierbaum said.

Police are also in touch with federal agencies such as the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Schierbaum said. Depending on what facts emerge, Henderson could face federal charges.

The two-story Queen Anne style house at 501 Auburn Ave. is where the pivotal civil rights leader was born and lived for 12 years; it's also an icon of Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and a National Park Service historic park. The home, which dates to 1895, was recently closed to visitors for a yearlong rehabilitation.

In response to the fire threat, the King Center thanked the members of the public who interrupted the apparent arson attempt, as well as the multiple agencies that responded.

"Our prayers are with the individual who allegedly committed this criminal act," the center said in a statement sent to NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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