Clark took off on her bike and arrived at the park’s 10th Street gate around 1 a.m. Once inside, she saw Janness’s pit bull, Bowie, motionless on the ground. About 50 feet away lay Janness, dead.
“There was a slice on her face, like in an X pattern on her face,” said Clark, 30. “And there was a deep cut to her throat; it was cut all the way to the bone.”
Janness, 40, had been stabbed repeatedly and appeared to have been mutilated, police said. Her dog also was stabbed to death.
Although police and the FBI have said little publicly about the ongoing case, the brutal nature of the July 28 crime has rattled even veteran investigators.
“It’s a very frightening crime,” said Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, adding that evidence suggests the killer did not immediately flee the scene after the crime. “And that is strange,” she said. “Most people commit a murder and want to get the hell away because they don’t want to be caught.”
Crime in Atlanta has skyrocketed over the past two years. The city recently surpassed 110 homicides — up 15 percent compared with the same time last year. But the viciousness of Janness’s killing, combined with where it happened — in an upscale and vibrant area seen as a symbol of the city’s economic and cultural transformation over the past 20 years — has shaken residents.
Despite a relentless wave of gun violence that has killed hundreds of Black Atlantans in recent years, the death of Janness has struck a nerve among residents of the city’s upscale neighborhoods who have been mostly sheltered from the surge in violent crime that hit cities during the pandemic. Last year was the city’s deadliest in nearly three decades, and homicides are up 64 percent this year compared with 2019 — before the city was embroiled in turmoil over its police department and its handling of Black Lives Matter protests.
Janness also was the city’s first White homicide victim this year.
Atlanta’s crime rate is dominating the political debate in Georgia, a state that is expected to be key in next year’s midterm elections. Georgia Republicans believe a tough-on-crime message offers them a chance to win back suburban Atlanta-area voters after the party suffered punishing losses in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate contests.
In a recent speech to business leaders, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who is up for reelection next year and could be headed for a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams, warned that crime is the “most significant threat” to Georgia’s future.
“Simply put, if crime is rampant on the streets of your local community, businesses will look elsewhere, workforces will leave, visitors won’t show up and investment will stop,” said Kemp, who has called for a special session of the legislature to address the problem. “Our capital is facing a crime and public safety crisis,” he said.
Although many Democrats dismiss Kemp’s concerns as a partisan effort to rally conservatives to the polls by stoking fear, Willis, a Democrat, said the governor is right to be concerned.
Willis said the city’s criminal justice system is overwhelmed amid a shortage of police officers and ballistics experts needed to help solve crimes. Willis, who started the job in January, said her office is facing a backlog of 12,000 arrests from last year that have not resulted in formal charges, because of the pandemic and a shortage of jail space. She said it could take “years” to clear the logjam.
“The reality is, Atlanta and Fulton County are the center of the state, and if we are not safe here, it tears down the comfort level of everyone within the state of Georgia,” Willis said.
A changing city
Gun violence accounts for much of Atlanta’s crime, and Black residents continue to suffer disproportionately.
On Aug. 20, for example, the city was rattled after a 25-year-old man and his 35-year-old sister were shot dead while sitting in a vehicle in southwest Atlanta. The sister’s boyfriend was charged with murder and possession of a weapon by a felon in the slayings, according to media reports.
But the gruesome death of Janness continues to dominate coverage here. A former pine forest, Piedmont Park was first widely used by the public in the late 1880s. It was the site of the exhibition hall where Booker T. Washington delivered his famous “Atlanta Compromise” address to try to soothe post-Civil War racial tensions.
In the early 1900s, the city acquired the land as a public park, but by the end of the century it had fallen into disrepair. Residents and wealthy philanthropists stepped in to salvage the park in the 1990s, raising tens of millions dollars to revitalize it with sports fields, running and bike trails and expansive green spaces.
Although Atlanta’s Grant Park near downtown is still referred to as the city’s “playground,” Piedmont Park represents the front lawn for neighborhoods powering the city’s transformation into a hub of medical, entertainment and technology companies.
“It’s the green heart of Atlanta,” said Penelope Cheroff, who specializes in commercial real estate.
Along the western edge of the park, 50 major redevelopment projects have been completed in Midtown over the past decade, said Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance. Nineteen other major projects are under construction in the 1.2-square-mile district. Midtown is home to 17,000 residents and accommodates 45,000 visitors and office workers each workday, even during the pandemic.
Atlanta has added 78,000 residents over the past decade, according to census data, and its population gains have largely been driven by an influx of White residents. About 70 percent of Midtown residents are White, with a median household income of $98,000, compared with the citywide median of $60,000, according to the Midtown Alliance.
“We have been seeing empty nesters giving up their homes and moving into the city, and we are seeing young people in tech and the film industry moving into the city,” said Tony Rizzuto, past president of the Midtown Neighborhood Association. “Midtown is now where the law firms, architectural firms and graphic arts firms have relocated.”
A community wonders: Why?
Janness, who grew up in Detroit, moved to Atlanta and settled in Midtown around 2006 to pursue her passion for music and the arts, said Katie Hahn, a former girlfriend.
“Her words to me were, ‘Detroit was a ghost town, and I have to get out and make music.’ ” Hahn recalled. “She was a wonderful singer and songwriter of beautiful lyrics.”
Janness also worked as a bartender at an Italian restaurant at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, where the rainbow crosswalks denote the area’s significance as the center of the area’s LGBTQ community, and a haven.
The intersection also marks the last place Janness was spotted by city security cameras.
A few days after her killing, Atlanta police released video footage of Janness and her dog walking through the intersection at 12:07 a.m., about 30 minutes after she told Clark she was going for a walk.
Clark discovered her body inside the park about four blocks from the intersection. Atlanta police released a recording of the 911 call.
“I’m at the entrance to Piedmont Park. I was just searching for my girlfriend’s phone because I couldn’t find her,” Clark said, sounding breathless. “She’s dead. She’s here at Piedmont Park. Please help.”
At a vigil for Janness the following evening, Clark’s father warned there was “a monster on the loose in the city of Atlanta.”
“Katie can’t be seen,” said Joe Clark, who is a city council member in Fayetteville, Ga., referring to Janness by the nickname she used. “You can’t look at her.”
On the same night Janness was killed, an 18-year-old woman was found fatally shot in a park in suburban Atlanta, fueling rumors that a serial killer was on the loose. But Atlanta police quickly concluded that the two homicides were not connected.
Willis, the district attorney, also stressed that she does not have “another case that remotely matches” the evidence in Janness’s slaying.
Emma Clark said robbery did not appear to be a motive. “They didn’t take her phone,” she said. “She had $200 headphones, and they didn’t take those. They didn’t take her keys.”
Atlanta police have not released information about a possible motive or suspect, except to say no one has been ruled out. City officials and community leaders have downplayed suggestions that Janness’s slaying could have been a hate crime.
Police have nonetheless called in the FBI to help with the investigation. A spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field office did not return calls seeking comment.
Thaddeus Johnson, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, said that although people assume the FBI only joins investigations that cross state boundaries or involve a possible federal crime, it is not uncommon for the bureau to assist local law enforcement agencies with crime-scene or forensic analysis.
Johnson, who is Black, noted that African Americans are about five times as likely as White Americans to be homicide victims, and he acknowledged that many of those deaths fail to elicit a massive police response or broad community outrage.
Yet, Johnson said Janness’s death is the type of crime that should receive outsize police resources. because it threatens to “pull away at the social cohesion of the city.”
“It was a very scary, intimate killing, and those sorts of crimes damage community cohesion, vitality and civility,” said Johnson, a former police officer and a senior fellow for the Council on Criminal Justice. “After these types of crimes, people don’t want go out at night and walk their dog at night, and people withdraw and panic.”
Many residents also were outraged to learn that the city had just nine security cameras monitoring the massive park, and it is unclear how many of them were working on the night Janness was killed.
“You had nine cameras covering 187 acres?” said Chris McKinley, who lives in a neighborhood that borders the park. “I got more cameras on my house, and they work.”
Chad Darnell, a film writer and director who lives adjacent to the park, said the lack of video footage — at least that has been released publicly — has left residents struggling to determine where Janness went after she moved on from the intersection.
“Was she trying to exit the park, or did someone jump her and drag her into the park?” said Darnell, who added that some of his friends are considering leaving the city.
William Compton, vice president of the Piedmont Heights Civic Association, in a wealthy neighborhood that borders the park, said Janness’s killing happened as residents were already worried about an increase in property crimes.
Now, Compton said, “a lot of residents don’t know what to think.”
“You can’t really point to this and say, ‘Hey, crime is increasing because we have an increase in gang violence, or someone is out to rob someone. . . . None of that fits in this case,” Compton said. “This was someone brutally murdered for no apparent reason, and on top of that, the lady had a pit bull with her.”
'Everyone is a target'
At a memorial held at the park for Janness, Lisa Lee, 37, and her partner, Leila Nolan, 44, said the homicide convinced them to apply for concealed-weapons permits. Both are cyclists who said they have also been disturbed by recent news reports about people on bikes and scooters being robbed.
“Everyone is a target in Atlanta right now,” Nolan said.
Willis echoed those concerns.
“Don’t go the damn gas station at 11 o’clock at night by yourself to pump gas,” said Willis, citing organized rings of criminals who have been carrying out carjackings. “There are people basically hunting, looking to harm you.”
Yet instead of moving, many Midtown Atlanta residents said they plan to channel their frustration into the upcoming mayor’s race. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) announced in May she would not seek reelection, and 14 candidates are seeking to replace her.
Amanda Wagner, who frequently jogs in Piedmont Park, said the city is suffering an “unbelievable” crime spike. She said she thinks some of the city’s Democratic leaders went too far last year by embracing calls to shift resources away from the police.
At the same time, Wagner said, she worries Kemp and other state Republicans will use the city’s crime problem to their political advantage. She hopes voters rally around a unifying mayoral candidate, citing Abrams’s upbeat efforts last year to boost Democratic turnout in the presidential and Senate races.
“It’s a mess, with the mayor having to step down, and our police situation,” said Wagner, 65. “It just seems that the city is in a state of chaos, but I think we really have to be positive and come together as a city.”
Green, of the Midtown Alliance, said he remains optimistic about the city’s future. He noted the homicide rate is still about half of what it was in the early 1990s during the crack cocaine epidemic.
And at least so far, Green said he sees no sign that corporations are rethinking their investments in the city. Midtown plans to add 1.3 million square feet of office space, 3,000 residential units and 600 hotel rooms in coming years, he said.
“It’s an election year where there are top issues — crime, crime and crime,” Green said. “But I see no indications that crime or people’s perceptions of crime are impacting people’s decision about investing in our city.”
But Clark is not sure whether she will remain in Midtown. If Bowie couldn’t keep her family safe, Clark said, she isn’t sure anyone can.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Bowie tried to defend her,” Clark said. “He was about 50 pounds. He had a huge mouth, and he was a fast dog. . . . I am sure he tried his best.”
Ted Mellnik and Jennifer Jenkins in Washington contributed to this report.