Woman charged with arson attempt on MLK Jr. birthplace

Tourists restrained the 26-year-old suspect after spotting her trying to ignite the Atlanta landmark

An Atlanta woman was arrested for allegedly attempting to burn down civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace on Thursday after two tourists spotted her pouring gasoline over the front porch of the home.

Laneisha Shantrice Henderson was charged with criminal attempt arson and criminal attempt interference with government property, Atlanta police officials have confirmed.

The visitors spotted and began filming Henderson as she poured the contents of a giant red gas can over the porch of the landmarked home. Footage posted to social media shows Henderson making no attempt to hide what she is doing as she swings the large container back and forth over the historic home’s porch.

BREAKING UPDATE: Woman charged with pouring gasoline, trying to burn down Martin Luther King Jr.’s Atlanta birth home, according to police.
Here’s what we know: https://t.co/4jdq6B3r8l pic.twitter.com/x7JpHQNAzK

— WSB-TV (@wsbtv) December 8, 2023

When Henderson pulled out a lighter and the tourists realized what she was doing, one of them stepped in to “block” her from setting the place alight, he told local ABC affiliate WSB-TV.

It was a little scary there for a minute because we didn’t know who she was, we didn’t know if she had weapons on her, we didn’t know anything,” visitor Zach Kempf said. While they waited for local police, two off-duty New York Police Department officers helped restrain the would-be arsonist.

The Atlanta Police and Fire Departments are reportedly working with several district attorneys’ offices, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the FBI to investigate what might have led up to the attempted arson. Henderson could face federal charges, as the King house is a national park site. 

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The woman’s father told WSB-TV that his daughter was a veteran and was “suffering from mental illness.” 

Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry DeBerry credited the tourists’ quick intervention for saving the historic site. “It could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” he said. 

While the house usually offers visitors half-hour tours, it was already closed to the public for renovations before the incident, though it’s not clear if Henderson or any of the tourists were aware. 

The National Park Service told CNN there did not appear to be any lasting damage to the structure, but said crews were working to protect it from sparks while airing the gasoline smell out. 

The King Center, a nonprofit founded by the slain civil rights leader’s wife, thanked local law enforcement and the “good Samaritans” who had stepped in to save the day. “Our prayers are with the individual who allegedly committed this criminal act,” the center said in a statement on Thursday.

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