Part-time snitch, full-time drug dealer – called upon to cover for Atlanta coppers who murdered Kathryn Johnston


Mural of Kathryn Johnston painted on a boarded-up window of her home

Eight officers approached the house, and they didn’t knock. The warrant police obtained, on the basis of a false affidavit, declared they didn’t have to — the house where their informant had bought crack that day, the affidavit said, had surveillance cameras, and those inside could be armed. Because they couldn’t kick down the security gate, two officers set upon it with a pry bar and a battering ram in the dark around 7 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2006.

Burglars, Kathryn Johnston probably thought, or worse — an elderly neighbor had recently been raped. No doubt she was terrified. That is why, as the cops got closer and closer, she found her gun. And why, as the door was opening, she fired one shot. It didn’t hit anyone. But it provoked a hail of return fire — 39 shots, 5 or 6 of which hit her (and some of which struck other policemen). By the time the officers burst inside, Kathryn Johnston lay in a pool of blood.

Waiting outside, in the back of a police van, was the small-time dealer who told the police there were drugs in the house…Three members of the narcotics team, working on their monthly quota of busts, rousted him from his spot in front of a store. Tell us where we can find some weight, they said, or you’re going to jail. The dealer climbed into a car with them and, a few blocks away, to save his own skin, pointed out Kathryn Johnston’s house — it stood out from the others on the block because it had a wheelchair ramp in front.

Alex White had already received a call from J. R. Smith, one of the officers from the unit. Smith sounded tense. “Hey, you got to help us out with something,” White told me Smith said….White said sure. He tried to be helpful to the police, do what they asked — willingness was one reason he was their most trusted informant for four years running. If White could help cover for them, Smith said, there would be good money in it for him.

“You made a buy today for us,” Smith explained. “Two $25 baggies of crack.”

“I did?” White asked. It took him a moment to register. “O.K. Who did I buy it from?”

“Dude named Sam.” Smith described the imaginary seller, told how Sam had taken his money then walked White to the back of the house and handed him the drugs as Smith and a fellow officer, Arthur Tesler, watched from a car across the street.

“O.K.,” White said. “Where?”

Smith said: “933 Neal Street. I’ll call you later.”

Now in the living room, the TV reporter was saying how a 92-year-old woman had died in the incident, and people were suggesting that the police had shot her. Two and two came together in White’s mind. They did it, he suddenly knew. They messed up. They killed that old lady. Now his heart pounded as the implications became clear. And they want me to cover for them.

RTFA. If life makes you as cynical as I am, you will be surprised by none of this.

No organized crime exists without payoffs to police and politicians. Even if there are arrests – that is nothing more than some of the dues gang grunts have to pay. That’s where the system of snitches and busts come in. If the coppers are going to look like they’re doing their job – they need arrests and convictions.

No matter if dealers get short time. That’s where judges come in.

But, one of the system’s rules is that the cops are never wrong. They never get indicted. They never do time. That’s what this story is about.

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