At first glance, Preston Heard appears to have little in common with Larry Specht.

The young Dunwoody attorney dresses in Polo shirts. Specht’s attire is blue collar, his Southern drawl more distinct.

But the two men have an important connection, one that could become part of an effort to stop plans to build a house on land that also contains a family cemetery. Both men say they are direct descendants of the Confederate veteran buried there, Judge John Heard.

And another possible relative has emerged. Nancy Thompson Smith, of Duluth, contacted the paper and said she is the great granddaughter of Judge Heard.

Neighbors trying to save the cemetery are scouring genealogy websites to find other Heard descendants. Heard, who was married twice, had 23 children.

The neighbors believe finding more descendants is important to their case. When Judge Heard deeded the cemetery in 1900, he said its sole purpose was as a cemetery for his family and his heirs.

Smith said other family members would likely object to any plans to develop the property, and she questions how it wound up in private hands.

“No one person ever had the right to sell this property,” Smith said in an email. “There are quite a few family members involved, and I feel that all of them would have to be contacted before such a sale could take place. There would be hundreds, if not thousands, involved, and all would have to agree to such a sale. The proceeds would then have to be divided among all of them. However, I am quite sure that none of the descendants would ever want this historical property sold.”

Specht and Preston Heard say they have an interest in making sure the cemetery’s new owner, Christopher Mills, doesn’t succeed in his lawsuit against the city of Sandy Springs. Mills, a local real estate lawyer, sued the city because it denied his application for a building permit because of the cemetery at the end of Heards Drive.

Mills has declined to comment on his pending lawsuit.

Preston Heard says he is contemplating his next move. Preston says he is the great great grandson of Judge John Heard. His father, Paul Heard Jr., was minority leader in the state House from 1991 to 1992 and ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1994.

He has been contacted by attorney Wright Mitchell, who is representing Specht, regarding possible legal action. Before he does anything, he says he needs to talk with his four siblings.

“I do think it’s at least curious that this guy would want to build on land against the clear wishes of the neighbors. That means more to me than the family heritage aspect,” Preston Heard said. “I don’t know if that’s how my siblings and family would feel.”

In addition to his three sisters and brother, Preston also has two children.

Mills acquired the property because his in-laws, Wanda and Henry Cline, obtained it from a Heard descendant. The Clines paid back taxes on the property to a company that purchased the tax deed. The sale of the property for back taxes may have been a mistake made by Fulton County. Cemeteries are exempt from property taxes.

In his lawsuit, Mills said that in 2007, Mary Ann Elsner, another Heard heir, legally transferred the property to his in-laws, who then sold it to Mills. Mills said in the lawsuit he can build on the property because it was sold outside the Heard family.

Mary Ann Elsner, listed as Mary Ellis in most of the older records, signed legal documents claiming to be the sole surviving heir of Carl Heard Jr., her brother, who was a descendant of Judge John Heard.

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of