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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Clearing up confusion over Standard murder

Like many locals, I was shocked and, frankly, a little pissed off when I read in the AJC over the weekend that Atlanta police had unexpectedly changed nearly every important detail that had previously been reported about last week's late-night armed robbery at the Standard and the shooting death of bartender John Henderson.

click to enlarge John Henderson
  • John Henderson

If Henderson hadn't been killed "execution-style," as the initial AJC headline blared, then why say he had been? Was his female co-worker hiding in a cabinet during the shooting, as WSB-TV had reported, or not? Sometimes, in order to trip up or mislead the criminals, the cops don't tell everything they know about a crime, but it didn't make sense that the public narrative of the event could have been so far off.

After talking to Lt. Keith Meadows, commander of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit, I've reached the conclusion that the press snafu over the Henderson murder was brought about by a combination of vague, inconclusive information offered by the police and a competitive news environment in which reporters race to make their stories as definitive as possible — often before all the facts are nailed down.

In other words, what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

Meadows conceded that detectives were initially mistaken about how Henderson was killed. (Readers should be warned that some of what follows is fairly graphic.)

"We originally thought he was killed execution-style because a bullet was found in the blood on the floor next to his head," he told me. But Meadows insisted that, when talking to reporters, he had qualified that description as being the prevailing theory, not as certainty.

Only after the medical examiner looked at the body was it confirmed that Henderson had not been shot in the head at point-blank range. Detectives went back to the crime scene and found no indentation in the floor, suggesting that the bullet found in the pool of blood had likely fallen there after having ricocheted off another surface.

Also, a second bullet hole in Henderson's head was determined to be an exit wound, meaning he'd been shot only once in the head, not twice as police initially believed.

As for the female bartender who was with Henderson when the robbery took place, Meadows said he told reporters as little as possible about where she was or what she saw at the time of the shooting because he was concerned that her life could be in danger.

"The less description I give of a witness, the less desperate the criminals get," he explained, adding that he didn't even release her name to the press.

But by the weekend, bartender Ashley Elder had already given two on-camera interviews about her ordeal — to WSB-TV and Fox 5 — so there was no further reason to withhold her name.

Why, however, was it reported she had hidden in a cabinet during the shooting? Surely the killers themselves knew that wasn't true. Meadows said he had initially described her as crouching behind a cabinet. Reporters had asked him if she was hiding. Sure, he told them.

"My hope was to give the impression that she hadn't seen much," he said. Somehow, the description of Elder hiding behind a cabinet was reported as Elder hiding inside a cabinet.

Look, I don't claim to know for certain how the morning-after information about the murder got so distorted. I'm not in a position to lay the blame on the cops or my fellow journalists, but I can say I'm familiar with a reporter's desire to return to the newsroom with as few gaps in his reporting as possible. And I've certainly seen examples when, in the frenzy of debriefing and negotiation between a reporter and his editor (or producer, for the TV folks), sometimes holes get filled in or dots connected that shouldn't be because all the facts aren't yet available. I suspect that may have been what happened in this case.

As terrible and tragic as the current version of Henderson's shooting remains, it cannot be argued that the description of gangs of armed robbers executing their victims in cold blood had an especially chilling effect on the Atlanta community. The police did right to set the record straight over the weekend, even if they came out looking the worse for it in many people's eyes.

Let's hope they're able to catch Henderson's killers soon. Maybe it will help that the reward for turning in these thugs has now topped $21,000.

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