A week after the explosion that killed Andrew Wordes, all is quiet on Alpine Drive. Not just quiet, but eerily so, since signs of the blast — and what led up to it — are everywhere.
Several of the modest split-level home's first-floor windows, which burst when the house went up in flames, have been boarded up. But just in front of the house, piles of wreckage remain — mangled window frames, charred two-by-fours, pink puffs of insulation. The brick around the windows and doors is stained black from smoke, and there's a hole in the roof where the flames licked through. At the bottom of the sloping driveway is Wordes' late-model maroon Mercedes, its hood ornament askew. The backyard is a mess, but it has been for a while, at least based on photos submitted to the city of Roswell by an unhappy neighbor. For a long time it was more of a mini-barnyard than a backyard, home to dozens of chickens, quail, and other small fowl, as well as the occasional pig or goat. The red shed that resembles a barn sits open, and several chicken coops, their bottoms sagging with age and wear, sit empty save for some molted feathers.
From the remains of the explosion to the remains of Wordes' life, the property feels like a movie set abandoned after filming wrapped. But in the driveway lies a sad reminder of reality: an issue of the Roswell Neighbor in its soggy plastic bag, with the headline "Chicken Man Laid to Rest."
Andrew Wordes became known as Roswell's "Chicken Man" when he fought the city of Roswell and twice won the right to raise birds in his backyard. By many accounts, that's where Wordes' troubles began. Following his victories came the flood, followed by countless traffic and code enforcement citations, a period of incarceration, mounting financial woes, foreclosure, and a final scene that began and ended with a bang.
On March 26, Fulton County Marshals arrived at Wordes' house with an eviction order and attempted to coax him out. Wordes had no intention of leaving — not through the front door, anyway. After a two-hour standoff, he called the cell phone of a WSB-TV reporter who was on the scene and requested everyone clear the area; something was going to happen and, according to Wordes, it wasn't going to be pretty.
It's not known exactly what happened next, but moments later there was a crash and a squeal. The house shuddered — lifted off the ground, an observer said — and went up in flames with Wordes inside. Fire officials say Wordes had doused the inside of the home with gasoline and lit it up.
That explosion a month ago brought to a dramatic end a years-long ordeal that destroyed Wordes' finances. It was, Wordes believed (and many agree), the result of a calculated campaign against him orchestrated by the City of Roswell. His good friend Lee Fleck, a former candidate for Roswell City Council, says, "Honestly, there is no doubt in my mind that Andrew Wordes was singled out by the City of Roswell and his right to use his property was placed in a straitjacket based upon what others deemed best." In another conversation he adds, "This is not about Andrew Wordes, it's not about chickens — it's about individuals who harassed this man any way they could to the point that he eventually took his own life." Court files, police records, and code enforcement documents indicate that Wordes certainly made regular appearances on their radar.
Roswell officials have dismissed the notion that Wordes was targeted unfairly, but that hasn't kept the media — particularly the right-wing media — from running with the premise. One headline reads, "City of Roswell, GA, bullies Andrew Wordes to death over his backyard chickens." It's sexy, but it's a vast oversimplification of a story that had devolved to a point that it was, by its end, hardly about chickens. The dramatic fashion in which he ended his life has already made Wordes something of a folk hero — a man who, in the right-wing political narrative, fought "the good fight" against a local government's relentless attempts to limit his freedom. In this scenario, Roswell is positioned squarely as the villain. One of Wordes' friends, a local political blogger named Jessica, told CL, "If there are ghosts, Andrew will haunt [Roswell]." In a way, he's already doing just that.
About a month before his death, Wordes granted an interview to conservative talk radio host Rusty Humphries. "The City of Roswell government is out of control," he told Humphries. "And they've come after me." He spent five minutes detailing his allegations: the original fight over his ability to keep chickens, which led to intimidation from code enforcement; his assertion that a Roswell official contacted and threatened his mortgage holder; how he was jailed for grading his property; and finally, telling the audience that he faced imminent eviction from his home. "They could be here today, they could be here tomorrow," he said. "There's no way of telling."
Humphries, still preoccupied with the first aspect of the story, asked ,"OK, could you say [to the city], 'Take the chickens just leave me alone?'"
"Sure," Wordes said. "When they write me a check for the property damage." At that point, Wordes admitted the property was "uninhabitable."
The chicken battle went on for years. In January 2009, Wordes was cited by Roswell code enforcement for keeping between 20 and 25 chickens. He was given three days to remove all "chickens, roosters, and poultry" from his property. Wordes argued that the chickens weren't livestock, but pets (even though he occasionally slaughtered one for a meal). His attorney at the time, former Gov. Roy Barnes, argued that Roswell's ordinance was vague, and Municipal Judge Maurice Hilliard agreed. In May of that year, Hilliard dismissed the city's case against Wordes, allowing him to keep his chickens.
In the months that followed, two crucial things happened. First, to ward off code enforcement officers he felt had already overstepped their bounds, Wordes posted a "no trespassing" sign on a tree in his front yard. Quoting Georgia law, the sign read, "Posted: No trespassing — Trespassing will be constructed as a bodily threat and treated as such in accordance with GA SB396 Signed April 27, 2006." Wordes was an enthusiastic and prolific collector of guns, and Lee Fleck says certain individuals at City Hall construed the sign as a threat. No charges were filed, but Fleck says, "That lit a fuse, and it was just a snowball effect from there."
Then came the flood. Wordes' 1-acre property is positioned on a flood plain where two creeks meet. In fall 2009, his home was inundated by several feet of floodwater. His basement filled, his living room was damaged. The water was high enough in his yard that his 28-foot boat smacked up against the side of the shed when the water sloshed. Wordes and many others didn't consider it an act of God, rather a result of city negligence — according to them, the surrounding area had been overdeveloped and the city had failed to update its storm water drainage infrastructure.
The flood was an unfortunately perfect metaphor, a tragedy that drowned Wordes financially and legally, setting in motion events that left him gasping for air until his last days.
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