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.
Born and raised in Florida, Wordes moved to Roswell in the '90s for a fresh start. In Tampa, he'd started his own auto wholesaling business under the tutelage of his friend John Spence, but the enterprise failed. Wordes had lost money, but he was eventually able to buy a home on a 22-year mortgage, continue fixing up and selling cars he bought for cheap, start a pest control business, and raise chickens. Talk to anyone who knew Wordes during the past several years and they'll describe him as intelligent, kind, often frustratingly stubborn, and endlessly dedicated to his animals. He taught local schoolchildren about chickens and started a group for fellow backyard chicken owners. On that group's site he wrote, "What's not to like about owning chickens? They have great personalities, are easy to care for, they don't pee on the carpet, and it's a blast to watch them with half a watermelon (chicken cocaine). Who needs Comedy Central when you have chicken TV?" He lovingly raised other animals as well.
In November 2009, one of Wordes' favorite pigs broke her leg in the thick mud the flood had created. He brought her to a veterinarian in Athens, and when it became clear she was a lost cause, the vet contacted Wordes and told him to hurry if he wanted to say his good-byes. Hurry he did. On his way to Athens on November 28, Wordes was pulled over in Barrow County while traveling 91 mph. His license was seized and suspended.
About the same time, Roswell's city council amended its poultry ordinance, endangering Wordes' ability to keep chickens (at least as many as he'd become accustomed to keeping). He was also fighting citations from code enforcement for having too many cars parked on his property and for moving soil on his land — the engineering department said illegally — to mitigate further flooding inside his home. "During these investigations," a Roswell police officer wrote in his report, "it was learned that Wordes' drivers license was suspended." Wordes attended a December 14 city council meeting to argue the code violations. As he drove off, he was pulled over by Roswell police and was arrested for driving with a suspended license.
If Wordes was being targeted by the City of Roswell, if he was being forced out of his home, and was eventually driven to suicide, the obvious question is, "Why?" Why would a city spend so much of its time, effort, and resources to terrorize one guy? "It turned into a personal thing for the city, I think," Wordes' friend Jessica says. "Because Andrew wouldn't stop and wouldn't back down and every time he came out against them, he made them look bad. And rightfully so. He exposed them." CL attempted to contact Mayor Jere Wood as well as the director of Code Enforcement, but didn't hear back. A city spokesperson insisted to the AJC that the entire city was "saddened" by Wordes' death.
The new chicken ordinance that was passed in late December of 2009 limits to six the number of chickens that can be kept on a piece of property the size of Wordes'. Again Wordes fought, and again he won. Judge Hilliard ruled that Wordes and his chickens would be "grandfathered in." Hilliard did, however, sentence Wordes to community service for the vehicles on his property and for illegally grading his land.
Friend Lee Fleck sees the situation much like Jessica does. "Roswell's legal department was publicly humiliated locally, statewide, and even nationally [by Andrew]," he says. "These arrogant individuals took offense to being put in their places by the 'Chicken Man,' and so vengeance was in order."
Meanwhile, a more conspiratorial theory gained traction: that Roswell wanted Wordes off his property so it could eventually turn the land into green space. His property is slated to become parkland in Roswell's 2030 plan, along with other properties along the creek that runs behind Wordes' home. Planning Director Brad Townsend has said that there are no immediate plans or funds to move forward with that part of the project. Says Fleck, "There's a lot of talk about the 2030 plan, greenspace — that's the right-wingers and Tea Partiers getting carried away."
Even if that particular motivation seems farfetched, Fleck remains very convinced his friend was targeted.
For a year and a half after he was arrested and briefly jailed for driving with a suspended license, Wordes' problems continued. Just a few days after the arrest, he reported to police that he'd found a note on his door that read, "You and the chickens are dead." (He was unable to produce the note for police, saying he'd crumpled it up and tossed it into the creek.) He received frequent visits from code enforcement about the cars and the chickens. He was issued multiple traffic tickets for offenses, including driving with a broken brake light, with an expired tag, and without insurance.
In December 2010, Wordes decided enough was enough when he discovered that Roswell Code Enforcement Director Vicki Barclay had contacted his mortgage holder, an elderly woman named Dora Hardeman, and, according to Wordes, urged her to evict him. Wordes filed an official complaint against Barclay, claiming she'd illegally contacted Hardeman, violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and Mayor Wood — who'd long been Wordes' ally — called for an internal investigation. Barclay admitted that she had contacted Hardeman, but only to ask if Hardeman planned to evict Wordes — she'd heard from neighbors that Wordes was going to be evicted soon and, if that were the case, the city wouldn't move forward with a civil suit against him for maintaining a "nuisance property." (Six months later, in May 2011, the city filed a civil suit against Wordes.) Barclay was cleared of any wrongdoing, even though city protocol at the time said mortgage holders should only be contacted once the city has been notified — officially, presumably — that a home is in foreclosure or is about to be foreclosed. Wordes was behind on his payments but didn't believe that lived up to the city's standards for contacting a mortgage holder. Hardeman eventually sold Wordes' mortgage to an unknown party, an investment company based out of Ohio listed as the custodian, which foreclosed on Wordes' home in January 2012.
To this day, Fleck maintains that immediately after his friend lodged the complaint against Barclay, Roswell police placed Wordes under surveillance, staking out his home and the businesses he visited. Fleck says the surveillance stopped only when he complained to Mayor Wood.
On Wordes' final day, as he holed up in his house, surrounded by Fulton County Marshals set to evict him, two men were trying to save him, in very different ways.
Ryan Strickland, the foreclosure attorney he'd retained just a few days prior, was at the courthouse filing an emergency motion to stop the eviction. (He didn't yet realize it would be taking place that day.) Strickland felt good about their chances of winning a wrongful foreclosure case. In 2008, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation requiring that homeowners be provided with their mortgage holder's contact information when they're notified of a foreclosure so they can at least try to strike an agreement and avoid losing their homes. Wordes' notice listed only "Equity Trust Company, Custodian FBO 9191 IRA," which Strickland says is vague and odd, in that it doesn't identify who owns the mortgage. (He says the custodian, Equity Trust Company, wouldn't be authorized to negotiate on behalf of the actual mortgage holder.) Strickland has handled hundreds of foreclosure cases, and even he couldn't figure out who actually held the mortgage. "We felt confident that we had a good case," he says. "I don't take these cases on unless I think we can win. At the end of the day, he'd been wrongfully foreclosed and would have been entitle to damages or to getting his home back."
Meanwhile, in a car headed from Chicago, John Spence, Wordes' friend of 27 years, was on his way to Roswell to insist his friend come back to Florida with him. He arrived in Georgia on Monday night and checked into a motel. He'd been trying to get Wordes on his cell phone, with no success — his voicemail was full. Once Spence did reach him, he planned to ask him to breakfast on Tuesday morning so he could set him straight. "We were gonna have a showdown," Spence says. "For the first time in my life, I was gonna tell him what to do, to get in my car and come home."
By the time he arrived in Georgia, it was too late.
The final year of Wordes' life seems especially sad. He was destitute. At one point or another, each of his utilities had been turned off — water, gas, electric. In the months before his death, with no gas heat, he was using only a wood stove to heat his home. Wordes also suffered from Crohn's disease, which, probably compounded by stress, had caused him to lose a lot of weight. A real low point came in July 2011, when Wordes returned home from a Herman Cain rally in Atlanta to discover that some of his chickens had been set loose and were wandering the yard. In the days that followed, the chickens began to die. Convinced the birds had been poisoned, Wordes brought a few in for toxicology tests, but the tests came back inconclusive. Worse, some accused Wordes of killing his own birds by starving them to death. "That discredited Andrew a lot with his chicken friends," Fleck says.
About a month later, Wordes was sentenced to 90 days in jail for failing to complete his community service (for the illegal grading incident) and for missing an appointment with his probation officer. He was released in early November 2011, and returned home to find that his home had been ransacked, and that several of his guns were missing, including five handguns, two shotguns, and two AK-47s.
There were signs, of course, that he'd reached his limit. A phone conversation Spence had with Wordes in mid-February left him deeply concerned about his friend's state of mind. Spence says Wordes told him, "John, I'm gonna go downstairs, turn the gas on, and light up a cigarette." Shortly after, the phone cut out. Panicked, Spence called Roswell police and asked that they check on Wordes' welfare. It was a false alarm — Wordes' phone had just run out of juice — but Spence says Wordes "yelled and screamed" at him, furious that the police, the enemy, had been sent to his house. The two men talked just one last time before the explosion.
Wordes' is a narrative with themes that appeal greatly to the "Don't tread on me" set. NaturalNews.com, a health website targeting those willing to spend $30 on audiobooks preparing them for pandemics, recently posted a time line of Wordes' case. Here's the preface:
"A heroic patriot and defender of freedom and liberty has fallen victim to the barbarous tyranny of the state. After being mercilessly terrorized by an escalating series of regulatory attacks carried out by Roswell, GA 'code enforcement' administrators, Andrew Wordes died ... following an explosion that took place at his home as county marshals attempted to forcibly evict him from his property."
It concludes, "The blood of Andrew Wordes is now on the hands of the City of Roswell and its code enforcement workers who drove him to violently take his own life."
Overwrought as it is, the manner in which Wordes took his life was decidedly dramatic — although no one knows for sure if he intended it to be. His girlfriend, Angela Harris, a fellow backyard poultry keeper who lives in Arizona, says he'd taken to making references to the Ruby Ridge massacre in Idaho during phone conversations. She says they discussed living together, too, if he could get just a little money by selling the house. Then, he told her, he could move to Arizona and they could buy a little place, and she could move out of the "piece of crap" trailer in her parents' backyard. "[But] anybody who knew him well," she says, "knew he wasn't going to walk away."
His friend John Spence believes Wordes was absolutely making a statement. "I think it was his way of saying, 'You didn't win. You didn't get my house.'" The house will probably be torn down now, and all the scraps Wordes left behind — the chicken coops, the shed where he kept his roosters so they wouldn't crow in the morning, the maroon Mercedes he was pulled over in so many times — will go with it.
As determined as Wordes might've been to make a final lasting statement, Spence can't help but wonder what would've happened if things had worked out just a little differently. "I've kind of beat myself up," Spence says. "I tried everything I could. But if I had been a day earlier, maybe it would've worked."
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