Off-duty police officers and tourists on Thursday helped to stop a woman setting fire to the house where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta after she doused the property in gasoline, authorities said.
The 26-year-old woman was confronted by a pair of visitors from Utah as she poured fuel on the porch of the house, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said. Two off-duty New York City Police Department officers who had been visiting the home then pursued the suspect and detained her until local law enforcement arrived, Schierbaum added.
“That action saved an important part of American history tonight,” the police chief said.
One of the tourists from Utah, Zach Kempf, said he initially thought the woman was watering shrubs in front of the house. Kempf told The New York Times he and the co-worker with whom he was visiting the home then asked the woman “what she was doing” as she tried to open the screen door, but “she didn’t respond.”
It was then that she allegedly emptied a five-gallon container on the porch and retrieved a lighter she’d left in the grass next to the porch. Kempf said he blocked the woman with his body as she attempted to get back onto the porch while holding the lighter.
He told the Times the woman had a “nervous energy” but “wasn’t aggressive” and eventually backed down, turning around and walking off down the street. Kempf said he called 911 and “yelled at the two guys down the street that she was trying to set the house on fire and to follow her.”
Kempf said the men—the off-duty NYPD cops—restrained the woman. He added that later, after local officers arrived at the scene, the suspect’s father and three sisters showed up after tracking her location from her phone. Her family described the woman as a veteran who was in mental distress, according to Kempf.
The Atlanta Police Department said the woman was arrested for attempted arson as well as interference with government property. In a statement, the King Center said an “individual attempted to set fire to this historic property” but was fortunately unsuccessful “thanks to the brave intervention of good samaritans and the quick response of law enforcement.”
“If the witnesses hadn’t been here and interrupted what she was doing, it could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry DeBerry told reports.
Built in 1895, the two-story Queen Anne-style house is where Dr. King lived for the first 12 years of his life, according to the National Park Service, which bought the property in 2018. The house was closed in November “to allow for an extensive rehabilitation project,” the National Park Service said, and it is expected to remain closed until November 2025.