Killing in the Name of Stolen Children
A man was killed in the hunt for the Amber Alert-level abduction of Blaise Barnett last month. His death deserves more attention.
Ali Farah pointed at what remained of his doorframe.
He was half awake when he heard someone kick in the first door to the building, he said. Then he heard a second door come down, the one to his apartment. Then the third, to his bedroom.
Farah showed me a line of interior doors in the dilapidated apartment, each with a frame broken at the handle. We stood in his bedroom — a sparely appointed space with a couple of mattresses, stacks of water bottles and little else. Farah had avoided going out for months during the pandemic. Now two people had broken into his home.
A man and a woman stood in front of his bed that night. “Where is the son?” the woman asked him, Farah said. The man, gun in hand, said “if I walk toward the lady, I will shoot you,’” Farah added. He raised his hands.
Farah had been shot before, and was not eager to repeat the experience. Farah is a refugee immigrant who fled war in Sudan. No one since had threatened him with such violence, not until the night of November 11. Not even at Brannon Hill.
I’m looking at what happened here because it’s an extraordinary example of how poverty creates the conditions for violence. It is unlikely that anyone living at Brannon Hill committed the kidnapping that set off the search. But Brannon Hill bears the cost, because the people there are easy to victimize.
It can be hard to talk with folks at Brannon Hill. Most of its residents are former refugees like Farah who stay close to community resources in Clarkston in the only way poverty leaves to them. A gang of Rolling 60s Crips had used Brannon Hill as an open-air drug market for a time. They’re gone now, I am told, though the malaise and the fear of strangers remain.
Farah called me yesterday, wondering if there’s any way to get some help repairing his door. Farah doesn’t have money. Few in Brannon Hill do.
A few minutes after threatening Farah — and after kicking in uncounted other doors across the complex that night — Delarius and Santanta Miller confronted a 60-year-old Somali refugee, Aziz Hassan, during their search. Police say Delarius Miller shot Hassan dead.
In the wake of a deadly night time raid by vigilantes looking for kidnappers, that fear seems justifiable.
Blaise seems no worse for wear, munching on a doughnut that none of us think he should be eating, visions of a one-year-old bouncing around Dunkin Donuts in a sugar high on our mind.
I met with Blaise and his mom Deonna Bray in Chamblee a few days ago. Blaise is fine. Deonna is struggling, still.
An Amber Alert for a different child abduction startled her the night before. Family members started calling her, asking if Blaise was okay, Bray said. “He’s right here. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s not Blaise,” she reassured them. “I’m not really okay yet. Stuff just started running through my head. But no, he’s right here.”
Bray is looking to move. She’s been targeted with hate mail and weird threats. Someone faked a ransom demand online. Others accuse her of fabricating the ordeal for donations. The suspicion is absurd in this case, a product of Internet culture that immediately looks for conspiracy when error is sufficient explanation.
A better understanding of the circumstances of the abduction might help here. Bray told the media they had been shopping that night, which raised some questions. She was short on sleep and reluctant to get into the details in the moments after a thief stole their new car around 1 a.m. with Blaise in the back. With Blaise at home, it’s easier to discuss.
Deonna and her husband Xavier Barnett had been having an argument, she said. Rather than do that at home, they got into the car for a discussion. “If we’re going through something and just want to take a drive, that’s what we do. We take a drive to talk out our feelings.”
The two came home, late. They got out of the car. One might surmise the two may still have been at it. For a moment, they stepped away from the car with the child in the back seat. And amid the distraction, a shifty kid watching the two from across the street saw a free car to take.
“We beat ourselves up,” Bray said. “We couldn’t believe it. Like, instantly, we just said ‘sorry, sorry’ to each other. We had just got into this big argument and all of a sudden our baby is gone. And with our car. You don’t even understand how devastated we were at that point. Was this God telling us to get our shit together and stop arguing? We just said I’m sorry to each other.”
This could have happened to virtually anyone. No grand conspiracy required.
Blaise was found 37 hours later in the backseat of a car in a driveway more or less across the street from the Clarkston Police Department. Police believe the baby had been in the back of that car for most of the time of the abduction, but went undiscovered because the homeowner worked from home and didn’t use the car.
The thief dumped the stolen SUV at Brannon Hill. A rough path up a short steep hill connects the back of the condo complex to the parking lot of the Nam Dae Mun supermarket on Memorial Drive. People drop things at Brannon Hill all the time. Usually it’s tires or old mattresses. Sometimes it’s people. Because that’s what people think of the place: a dumping ground.
When I talk about how violence is concentrated among the very, very poor of Atlanta, I am thinking about places like Brannon Hill. People do not give one unvarnished shit about what happens in Brannon Hill. And that attitude cost a man his life last month.
Brannon Hill has been deeply troubled for decades. I wrote about it at length a few years ago for Vice. A few hundred people survive there in units that should be condemned as uninhabitable. The condominiums cannot be insured against damage because of the condition of the buildings and the history of fires, so conditions keep deteriorating.
DeKalb county refrains from condemning the place outright because the process is legally cumbersome and because the county has nowhere to relocate the people living there. It is housing of last resort, depicted as a land of squatters and outlaws, derided (falsely) as a no-go zone for police.
Brannon Hill went through a spate of attention after my stories began to circulate. The county began demolishing buildings. The one pictured above is gone, replaced by an open field rapidly filling with trash as a dumping ground.
The violence at and around Brannon Hill has increased since then, however.
Brannon Hill proper has a murder every four to six months and a robbery or aggravated assault about once every six weeks. With fewer than 500 permanent residents, that’s a murder rate of 400 per 100,000, about 10 times that of Atlanta and 70 times the national average.
That’s cherry picking, a bit, of course. There are about 19,000 people in the census blocks around Brannon Hill … but the number of murders close to the condo complex also increases. Including Aziz Hassan, five people have been killed within a half mile of the center of the complex in the last six months alone.
These crimes are largely a product of desperation. People come to Brannon Hill because addiction, criminal records and poverty leave them nowhere else to go. The former refugees who live there are prey for predators looking for an easy meal, because they tend to refrain from calling the police.
It is into this environment that a pack of hunters looking for a child kidnapper thrust themselves.
Levi’s Calls — the Georgia version of an Amber Alert — are rare, even with regard to missing children. The state averages about four a year. “Its goal is simple: Locate a child and an abductor quickly before any harm comes to the child,” as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation describes it. An alert is meant to galvanize an immediate response from the public.
Deonna Bray made two passes through Brannon Hill with her family that day, she said.
“I am the one that started to bring in search that last time that we went,” she said. “I said, ‘Let's go to Brannon Hill, again. I'm not feeling it. I want to go back.’ … They told me he’s not there. I don't care. So, check again.”
While checking on the second pass, her group had an angry confrontation with Aziz Hassan, said Bray’s mother Tanithia Miller.
“I know when we started it was a nice search,” Miller said. “I’m Christian, you know? And that same guy. I'm so hurt that he died later on. But he was so rude to us. I swear to you. I know. He's like, there’s no damn baby over here. I guess they don't like us. I don't know.”
Darkness fell. Bray and Miller went home, they said. Others apparently remained or returned later to keep looking.
“Most of the doors here were kicked in,” said Osama Bured, a taxi driver and unofficial leader within the Brannon Hill community. He said someone shot a dog while they were searching. “You don’t have the right to take the law into your hands.”
Ali Farah was not the first person who awoke to people with guns in their hands. Others in the complex described similar encounters. But Aziz Hassan appears to have been the last.
According to the police report, around 11:30 p.m. Hassan’s wife Shadan Noory believed someone was trying to steal the rims from his truck. Hassan, father of a developmentally-disabled 25-year-old, argued again with people from the search party.
Farah identified Delarius and Santanta Miller as the two who kicked in his door earlier that night. The Miller’s — cousins of the baby’s father, according to the police, though Deonna says they are no relation — and Hassan faced off.
“Mr. Hassan then told the two subjects to leave the location and the two subjects did,” the DeKalb County police report states. “Approximately 15 minutes later the same two subjects returned, this time with more people with them. [Hassan’s son Halkawt] Aziz stated there were approximately 4 or 5 unknown subjects with at least one or two black females, and the rest being males. Mr. Aziz stated the subjects were making threats towards them and making derogatory comments toward Ms. Noory while damaging their 2004 Ford Escape.
“Mr. Aziz stated that’s when Mr. Hassan grabbed his handgun and went outside to confront the subjects. Mr. Aziz stated he did not see the altercation outside and moments later he heard multiple gunshots. Mr. Aziz stated that’s when he observed Mr. Hassan shot and laying on the ground. Mr. Aziz stated Ms. Noory rushed to Mr. Hassan and grabbed the firearm from his possession and secured it in their drawer inside their home.”
Police arrested Delarius Miller on the spot. A few days later after talking to more witnesses, DeKalb investigators arrested Santanta on a felony murder charge.
I’m not writing this to cast aspersions on Deonna Bray or her family. She’s been through hell. Based on my conversation with her, I don’t think she directed anyone to kick in doors in Brannon Hill and certainly not to shoot anyone.
But this tragedy illustrates a problem with the way we react to crime.
I’ve seen pictures of people at gas stations in Atlanta with a fuel pump in one hand and a Glock in the other, looking around like they expect to be jumped any minute. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2020, about 1,019 violent crimes occurred at gas stations or convenience stores in Georgia, which is to say about once every once every five years for any randomly chosen gas station in Georgia. For the “high-risk” gas stations and convenience stores in “sketchy” parts of Atlanta, it might be 10 times the risk … or once every six months. The average gas station sees more than 1,000 transactions a day.
Crimes at gas stations are more common than other places, sure. But do they merit the provocation of a gun in hand? Almost certainly not.
It’s a trope, though, usually pushed by conservative white men posting comments with an avatar of a guy wearing sunglasses behind the seat of a car. An honest assessment of risk is less important to some people than looking for another opportunity to demonize “urban” communities — read: Black people — as magnets for crime.
And yet, I imagine that people tromping through Brannon Hill as armed vigilantes felt fully justified by the immediate risk to a child … and the perceived risk to themselves.
There’s a thread connecting this behavior: the sense that the police are either ineffective or actively hostile. A search party like the one that went through Brannon Hill forms because people do not believe that the police can — or will — search as diligently as family and friends might. That posture may be more true among people of color, who may dismiss the efforts of police on behalf of a Black child as performative.
The drive to protect oneself from crime and the sense of police as a hostile force pull at each other. Poor communities get caught in the middle, like Brannon Hill did last month.
Blaise Barnett deserved justice. But so does Aziz Hassan.