Brutal Killing of a Woman and Her Dog in an Atlanta Park Reignites the Debate Over City’s Growing Crime Problem
Tim Craig, Washington Post, September 16, 2021
The last time Emma Clark saw her girlfriend, Katherine Janness, she was headed out for a late-night walk with her pit bull near Piedmont Park, a sprawling and popular 187-acre green space in Midtown.
An hour later, Janness had not returned home and wasn’t answering her calls, so Clark used an app to ping the location of her cellphone. The phone returned a signal from the edge of the park.
Clark took off on her bike and arrived at the park’s 10th Street gate around 1 a.m. Once inside, she saw Janness’s pit bull, Bowie, motionless on the ground. About 50 feet away lay Janness, dead.
“There was a slice on her face, like in an X pattern on her face,” said Clark, 30. “And there was a deep cut to her throat; it was cut all the way to the bone.”
Janness, 40, had been stabbed repeatedly and appeared to have been mutilated, police said. Her dog also was stabbed to death.
Although police and the FBI have said little publicly about the ongoing case, the brutal nature of the July 28 crime has rattled even veteran investigators.
“It’s a very frightening crime,” said Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, adding that evidence suggests the killer did not immediately flee the scene after the crime. “And that is strange,” she said. “Most people commit a murder and want to get the hell away because they don’t want to be caught.”
Crime in Atlanta has skyrocketed over the past two years. The city recently surpassed 110 homicides — up 15 percent compared with the same time last year. But the viciousness of Janness’s killing, combined with where it happened — in an upscale and vibrant area seen as a symbol of the city’s economic and cultural transformation over the past 20 years — has shaken residents.
Despite a relentless wave of gun violence that has killed hundreds of Black Atlantans in recent years, the death of Janness has struck a nerve among residents of the city’s upscale neighborhoods who have been mostly sheltered from the surge in violent crime that hit cities during the pandemic. Last year was the city’s deadliest in nearly three decades, and homicides are up 64 percent this year compared with 2019 — before the city was embroiled in turmoil over its police department and its handling of Black Lives Matter protests.
Janness also was the city’s first White homicide victim this year.
Atlanta’s crime rate is dominating the political debate in Georgia, a state that is expected to be key in next year’s midterm elections. Georgia Republicans believe a tough-on-crime message offers them a chance to win back suburban Atlanta-area voters after the party suffered punishing losses in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate contests.
In a recent speech to business leaders, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who is up for reelection next year and could be headed for a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams, warned that crime is the “most significant threat” to Georgia’s future.
“Simply put, if crime is rampant on the streets of your local community, businesses will look elsewhere, workforces will leave, visitors won’t show up and investment will stop,” said Kemp, who has called for a special session of the legislature to address the problem. “Our capital is facing a crime and public safety crisis,” he said.
Although many Democrats dismiss Kemp’s concerns as a partisan effort to rally conservatives to the polls by stoking fear, Willis, a Democrat, said the governor is right to be concerned.
Willis said the city’s criminal justice system is overwhelmed amid a shortage of police officers and ballistics experts needed to help solve crimes. Willis, who started the job in January, said her office is facing a backlog of 12,000 arrests from last year that have not resulted in formal charges, because of the pandemic and a shortage of jail space. She said it could take “years” to clear the logjam.
“The reality is, Atlanta and Fulton County are the center of the state, and if we are not safe here, it tears down the comfort level of everyone within the state of Georgia,” Willis said.
Gun violence accounts for much of Atlanta’s crime, and Black residents continue to suffer disproportionately.
Willis, the district attorney, also stressed that she does not have “another case that remotely matches” the evidence in Janness’s slaying.
Emma Clark said robbery did not appear to be a motive. “They didn’t take her phone,” she said. “She had $200 headphones, and they didn’t take those. They didn’t take her keys.”
Police have nonetheless called in the FBI to help with the investigation. A spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field office did not return calls seeking comment.
Thaddeus Johnson, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, said that although people assume the FBI only joins investigations that cross state boundaries or involve a possible federal crime, it is not uncommon for the bureau to assist local law enforcement agencies with crime-scene or forensic analysis.
Johnson, who is Black, noted that African Americans are about five times as likely as White Americans to be homicide victims, and he acknowledged that many of those deaths fail to elicit a massive police response or broad community outrage.
Yet, Johnson said Janness’s death is the type of crime that should receive outsize police resources. because it threatens to “pull away at the social cohesion of the city.”
“It was a very scary, intimate killing, and those sorts of crimes damage community cohesion, vitality and civility,” said Johnson, a former police officer and a senior fellow for the Council on Criminal Justice. “After these types of crimes, people don’t want go out at night and walk their dog at night, and people withdraw and panic.”
At a memorial held at the park for Janness, Lisa Lee, 37, and her partner, Leila Nolan, 44, said the homicide convinced them to apply for concealed-weapons permits. Both are cyclists who said they have also been disturbed by recent news reports about people on bikes and scooters being robbed.
“Everyone is a target in Atlanta right now,” Nolan said.
Willis echoed those concerns.
“Don’t go the damn gas station at 11 o’clock at night by yourself to pump gas,” said Willis, citing organized rings of criminals who have been carrying out carjackings. “There are people basically hunting, looking to harm you.”