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Retired NYPD cops visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home to take a picture. They caught an alleged would-be arsonist

<i>David Goldman/AP</i><br/>Martin Luther King jr. was born and lived the first 12 years of his life in this home in Atlanta
David Goldman/AP
Martin Luther King jr. was born and lived the first 12 years of his life in this home in Atlanta

By Macie Goldfarb and Ray Sanchez, CNN

(CNN) — Kenneth Dodson and younger brother Axel visited the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta Thursday to take a picture.

For a moment, it was like the retired New York City Police Department officers were back on the job. Someone called out that a woman had tried to burn down the late civil rights leader’s historic home.

“What do you think? Should we chase her?” Axel Dodson asked his brother.

“Yea, let’s get her,” Kenneth said.

Soon, the pair had captured the alleged arsonist and brought her back to the scene.

“You know, I made a collar with my little brother,” Kenneth Dodson said Saturday at an NYPD ceremony honoring the brothers with Outstanding Citizens Awards.

“We say when you see something, say something,” NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Tania Kinsella said. “Not only did they see something, they did something. And for that we commend you and we thank you.”

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell said the Dodson brothers “saved a part of American history.”

“They might’ve been retired that day, but they immediately put themselves on duty,” Chell said.

The Dodsons were among multiple bystanders who Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry DeBerry said likely saved the home from burning to the ground.

“It could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” DeBerry told CNN affiliate WSB.

Officers were called to the historic home in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood around 5:45 p.m. Thursday on a vandalism report, the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement. Police found multiple people had stopped a 26-year-old after she poured gasoline on the property, according to the statement.

Zach Kempf told WSB he saw the woman pouring gas on the home. Kempf, who was visiting the area from Utah, stepped up and blocked her after she picked up a lighter, he said.

“It was a little scary there for a minute because we didn’t know who she was. We didn’t know if she had weapons on her. We didn’t know anything,” Kempf said.

Kempf was with another tourist from Utah, and one of them alerted the Dodson brothers, according to WSB.

Kenneth Dodson recalled Saturday that he and his brother went to the King home only planning to take a photo when they sprung into action after hearing about the attempted arson and seeing the woman run away.

“I said I’m not chasing anybody,” Kenneth Dodson recalled with a smile. “I’ll get in the car and go after her but I’m not running after anybody.”

The former officers got in their cars and followed the woman down the street before Axel jumped out and chased her on foot. Kenneth jumped out to keep eyes on his brother.

The brothers yelled to the woman – who had made it onto a fence – to get down and they were soon on top of her. They then brought her back to the King home where Axel held her hands behind her back until Atlanta police arrived.

The woman, who CNN has not identified, was arrested and charged with attempted arson and interference with government property, Atlanta police said. She was being held at the Fulton County Jail.

The woman is a US Navy veteran, according to Navy spokesperson Cmdr. Andrew Bertucci. She served for four years before leaving in 2020.

“No matter how long you’ve been gone – I’ve been gone for some time – your policing kicks in,” Kenneth Dodson said Saturday.

Kenneth, who graduated from the police academy in 1984, said the two were in Atlanta visiting his father, who had asked them the day before whether the brothers missed being in law enforcement.

Kenneth told his father he did miss it, both for the adrenaline rush and the chance to help people.

But the best part of reliving those days, he said, was doing it with his brother.

“I always hoped that we would work together, and years later we did for one day,” said Kenneth Dodson, recalling a picture of Axel wearing his older brother’s floppy police hat on the day of his graduation from the academy.

“From that moment on he always said I want to do this, too,” said Kenneth Dodson, who had been assigned to the NYPD’s transportation bureau.

Kinsella and Chell presented the brothers with awards for their “dedication, sacrifice and outstanding service,” according to the chief of patrol.

There doesn’t appear to be permanent damage to the historic home, according to the National Park Service.

There was a strong gasoline odor that needed to be aired out, Ash Phillips, a historical architect with the National Park Service, told CNN. Crews worked to keep potential sparks away from the home, Phillips said, calling it an “irreplaceable resource.”

King’s birth home is a popular historical site that offers tours of where King was born and lived the first 12 years of his life, according to the National Park Service, though tours were recently suspended through November 2025 for rehabilitation work.

King’s parents moved into the home in 1926 when they got married, according to the National Park Service. Years later, the Kings moved to another Atlanta home. After King was assassinated in 1968, restoration work on the house began so that it could become a historic museum.

The King Center, a nonprofit founded by King’s wife, released a statement thanking the bystanders and the police.

“Fortunately the attempt was unsuccessful thanks to the brave intervention of good Samaritans and the quick response of law enforcement,” the statement said. “Our prayers are with the individual who allegedly committed this criminal act.”

Axel Dodson, assigned to the NYPD’s patrol service bureau before retirement, said: “I’m glad that we were all there … to help stop this from happening.”

CNN’s Dave Alsup and Aya Elamroussi contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Kenneth and Axel Dodson’s last name.

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