Why did Christian Henderson die?
What a recent murder says about the safety of East Atlanta
On the evening of March 7, Christian Henderson took his fiancee out to celebrate. Days earlier, he'd even mentioned to one of his closest friends, Michael Gramley, where he was planning to go: a new restaurant in East Atlanta called Iris.
Iris' opening introduced East Atlanta Village to fine dining — serving duck confit and martinis in a chicly restored garage. If you knew Henderson, the choice of Iris made sense. He was a gourmand and wine connoisseur, recalls Gramley, who met Henderson when they both worked behind the bar at Buckhead Diner.
Henderson went on to work as a wine sommelier and, in the weeks before his death, took a new job at an Atlanta-based wine purveyor.
Henderson and Emily Stanley walked out of Iris at about 10:15 p.m., past the refurbished Victorians on Haas Avenue and toward their car. Henderson was seconds away from a bullet tearing through his pelvis for refusing to give two thugs his wallet. The injury would lead, in 12 days, to his death at 32.
Stanley would soon be standing by helplessly as the man she intended to marry crumbled and the two men who robbed them ran off, having taken her purse and any hope for the future she planned.
"Right after it happened, somebody was pulling out of our parking lot and his fiancee said, 'Do you have a phone? Will you call 911?' And they did," Iris' general manager, Alan Raines, recalls. "That was the first call."
The couple stumbled back into the restaurant. Raines says Henderson, clutching his gut, wasn't sure if he'd been pierced or grazed. A doctor at the bar tried to steady him while they waited — and waited — for the ambulance.
Despite two more calls to 911, one from the restaurant and one from a cell phone, the ambulance took more than a half-hour to arrive.
That angers Raines and others who work or live in East Atlanta. It's as if the neighborhood is off the charts when it comes to certain government services, they claim.
For the group of businesses that first ventured into East Atlanta in the 1990s — and the ones which, like Iris, are taking the neighborhood to new level of sophistication — lobbying for basic protection has become a recurring and aggravating theme.
Local businesses pool funds for off-duty officers. Up until Henderson's death, there was no foot patrol in East Atlanta Village.
"Business owners and community members agree that we need a more focused police presence," says Ken Rose, president of the East Atlanta Community Association.
Rose and Raines say they've been asking for months for an East Atlanta police mini-precinct, like the one a few miles up Moreland Avenue in Little Five Points.
"We all honestly believe that it probably could have been avoided if we just had some kind of all-the-time presence," Raines says of Henderson's death. "But we also just want to make sure everybody knows that it's pretty much a fluke and that people should feel safe to come to East Atlanta."
Maj. Jerry Banda, chief lawman over the district that includes East Atlanta, agrees with Raines that East Atlanta is no more dangerous than other neighborhoods. He also says, however, that it's well protected.
"In Virginia-Highland last year, they had a little rash of robberies, like one every three or four or five weeks for about four months. So it can happen to any entertainment area," Banda says. "If there were a bunch of armed robberies occurring over [in East Atlanta], that would be one thing. This one isn't even a rash of robberies. We only had one."
Banda also points out that a bike cop roams the businesses and residences of East Atlanta during the day, and one on a mini-motorcycle patrols at night. He says that in response to Henderson's murder, he's placed a foot patroller in East Atlanta until 2 a.m. for the next month.
As for a mini-precinct, the community must pay for it, as businesses did in Little Five Points. One East Atlanta landlord already has offered the use of a building for free. Still, Banda says he's not a fan of the mini-precinct; an officer has to stay in the building 7 a.m.-11 p.m. — an officer Banda thinks belongs on the streets.
Atlanta Police spokesman Sgt. John Quigley says Banda's district, which includes East Atlanta, Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland has seen crime decrease by 11 percent in the past year.
Pushed for more specific numbers, however, numbers that show how violent crime compares in the different neighborhoods, Quigley urges caution. He says the residential area surrounding East Atlanta Village has far more crime than those surrounding Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland.
There were 135 violent crimes (aggravated assaults, robberies, rapes and homicides) in East Atlanta in 2002, down by at least 30 from the two previous years. There were 81 in Little Five, 55 in Virginia-Highland.
To make its customers feel more secure, Iris has hired its own security guard and now offers valet parking, a service they planned before March 7. The restaurant also has offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the Henderson case. Raines believes the money will soon be paid. Banda will only say: "We're bringing somebody in for questioning, but nobody's been formally charged."
Through hard work and sacrifice, the people who've built up East Atlanta created something hip and unique rather than tired and generic. The feeling is that you're on the Lower East Side — not of Atlanta but of Manhattan.
But with that exploration, there come certain dangers.
In the fall of 2001, a local musician was shot in the face after catching a man breaking into his car. Two months later, a bar owner leaving work interrupted another car break-in and told the thief he was calling 911 on his cell phone. The man ran toward the bar owner, so he shot the thief with the gun he kept in his truck. The thief died. Police found that the shooting was justified.
Almost a year later, Henderson's attackers killed him for his fiancee's bank card, her cell phone and $19.
"It is a reflection of the popularity of East Atlanta and its transitional phase," Don Bender, landlord to several East Atlanta business owners, says of neighborhood crime. "During a transitional phase, we will have to deal with crime. And we can't back away from it. We can't shy away from it. We have to deal with it dead on."
Iris will be co-sponsoring several fundraisers for Henderson's family in the coming weeks, the first of which will be a crawfish boil and silent auction Sunday, April 6, 1-5 p.m. at Tiburon Grille. The $35 cost includes food and beer. For more information, visit www.christianhenderson.com.
Anyone with information regarding Henderson's death should contact Atlanta Police at 404-853-4235.