May 29 marks the first anniversary of a looting and vandalism spree that stunned Buckhead’s business districts and spawned still-unsolved mysteries about its motives — especially the possible involvement of out-of-state burglary rings.

Coinciding with massive, peaceful protests downtown about George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, some of the looting and vandalism there and in Buckhead appeared to be conducted by rioters who deviated from those demonstrations. But some of the Buckhead thefts had evidence of organized crime, and incidents at shopping centers in nearby Dunwoody and Sandy Springs added to the mystery.

Workers board up shattered windows at the Cyan at Peachtree apartments at 3380 Peachtree Road May 30, 2020. (File)

The mystery started May 28 with social media calls for looting at the Lenox Marketplace and Phipps Plaza malls, apparently in reference to looting happening at the time in Minneapolis during Floyd-related protests. Nothing happened that day, but those malls — and many, many other businesses — were looted and damaged the following night. 

Across Buckhead, large groups of people smashed windows of businesses and apartment buildings, set fire to several stores and restaurants, and stole items from shelves. Some damaged fire trucks. Police walled off the Lenox Square mall and Gov. Brian Kemp authorized a call-up of the National Guard. 

A smashed-out window in a fire truck that was responding early on May 30, 2020 to a fire at Del Frisco’s Grille in Buckhead during rioting. The image is from a video posted to social media by the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department.

Meanwhile, police in Dunwoody said, about 150 to 200 vehicles — many with obscured or out-of-state license plates — showed up at Perimeter Mall in waves. But no looting happened or anything worse than shooting off of some fireworks. Dunwoody Police attempted to stop one driver whose vehicle had a flat tire, a Stone Mountain man who was accused of being unlicensed and fled on foot. There are no current court records about his case and his phone number is out of service. A Decatur woman named in a police report as a passenger in his vehicle declined to comment about what happened that night.

And in Sandy Springs, just across the Buckhead border, there were two commercial burglaries and a gathering of people in a parking lot where two out-of-state men were arrested on such minor charges as loitering. Sandy Springs Police at the time expressed concern the gathering was related to the Atlanta looting, but did not respond to a recent comment request about that investigation.

Back in Buckhead, stories soon emerged about organized burglars. Juanita Baranco, co-founder of Mercedes-Benz of Buckhead and other local car dealerships, said at a July 2020 Buckhead Business Association event that during the looting, one of her employees armed himself and confronted two men who had broken in and were taking keys for vehicles. The men left, she said, with one telling the other that the business was “not on the list anyway.”

Chuck’s Firearms on Miami Circle had 42 guns stolen within 20 minutes by at least three groups of burglars, some wearing skull masks and using cars with out-of-state plates, according to federal investigators and store owner Jim Hinsdale. 

A surveillance image of some of the suspects in the May 30, 2020 burglary at Chuck’s Firearms. (ATF)

“Mine was not looting,” said Hinsdale. “It was planned, intended — out-of-town people that saw an opportunity … to enjoy time in the store without any disruption.” It was a case, he said, where “bad guys capitalized on the opportunity of not-peaceful protesting.”

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) joined an industry group in offering a $15,000 reward for information about suspects, to no avail. “As of today, no arrests have been made and no one has claimed the reward,” said Cherice Williams, a spokesperson for the ATF’s Atlanta office, on April 23. 

Hinsdale said he was told two of the guns had been found — one in metro Atlanta and one in New York state.

The main entrance to Lenox Square mall from its Peachtree Road parking lot was boarded up on Election Day, Nov. 3. (File)

The looting and vandalism had lasting effect in feeding crime fears already fueled by a local and citywide rise in gun violence. On presidential election day, Nov. 3, Lenox Square and other businesses boarded themselves up in fear of more rioting sparked by an apparently prank social media post circulated by Mary Norwood, the chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and now a City Council candidate. Norwood said she was concerned that “we have May all over again.” 

Hinsdale said business is going well at Chuck’s Firearms due to “fear and paranoia” about the “lawlessness of society.” 

“I’ve got little old ladies in their 80s from both ends of the economic scale… saying, ‘I’ve lived here all my life and I don’t feel safe,’” he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.