The following story is something of Atlanta lore, repressed by most everyone who was forced to contend with it. It first started as rumors of pedophilia and sexual assault floating around that were surely too unsettling to be true, before spiraling out of control into a grotesque reality. Lots of skateboarders in Atlanta were peripheral to the events chronicled here, including my group of friends. At the time, many of us simply wrote it off as, “shit happens,” or “we didn’t know the full story.” It wasn’t until years later, when I mentioned the Atnalta Foundation to a group unfamiliar with the Atlanta skate scene, that I realized how disturbing this story was. To this day, I struggle to compartmentalize the good times spent with friends at the Atnalta Foundation, knowing now of the horrors and abuse lurking just below the surface.
Several people in Atlanta told me this story was better left unsaid. But, ultimately, we pursued this story because shining light on these abuses of power, no matter how horrendous, is important to bettering the skateboarding community. It’s upsetting that things like this can happen in skateboarding, but it’s even more upsetting when these things go unspoken, leaving space for other sexual predators to go on without personal consequence. Hopefully, this story will start to break down some of that silence.
The names of the survivors have been changed to protect their anonymity, but the stories documented below are all true.
In 2009, the building standing at 613 Somerset Terrace in northern Atlanta was razed, leaving behind three levels of smooth-concrete separated by a narrow pathway. The Atlanta skate scene is at a constant loss for new spots, and, perched toward the top of North Avenue, one of the highest and most-traversed points in Atlanta, this one was beckoning to be skated.
As word trickled out, crews and skaters soon made their way to the top of the hill, either to hang out and drink beers at the end of the day or to try their luck throwing a trick across the gap that spanned one slab to another. The location wasn’t limited to locals: Thrasher kicked off their 2010 Skate Rock tour with an all-day session at the slab, and a few members of the Emerica team made a pit stop at North Avenue to film some last-minute hammers for Stay Gold.
Later that summer, David Aitken, the owner of a local brand called Atnalta (a purposeful misspelling of ‘Atlanta’), and his colleague Kyle Sanders installed a red angle iron cinder block ledge and a blue a-frame on the main slab. Unbeknownst to the local kids, the lot was in danger of being developed until David signed a temporary lease on the lot, allowing him to build and maintain obstacles there until condo construction was scheduled to begin in 2012. Both David and Kyle lived in a loft right across the street, as well, so they seemed to be in a perfect position to take care of the lot. All of this was especially odd, given neither of the two skated.
“I think my very first impression of David was just, ‘Who the fuck is this random old rich dude?'” Sammy Foster, a local skateboarder and filmer, told me.
“free boards, weed, and booze made us just gravitate toward David”
No one really knew where David’s money came from, though there were rumors that he and his brother made a fortune fixing intentional bugs in their father’s billing and payroll software for big hotel chains. Regardless, he could afford a loft, a couple of cars, plenty of intoxicants, and two skate brands. One of them, Atnalta Skateboards, which he bought in the late ’00s, came with a relatively known and respected team at the time. “He thought it was a good way to legitimize himself in the Atlanta skate scene,” said Sammy, and it seemed to work.
After several of his friends got on Atnalta, Sammy, who was 20 years old at the time, found himself hanging out with David and spending more and more time at the North Avenue foundation spot.
“Being close friends with them, and the fact [our friends] got free boards, weed, and booze, made us just gravitate toward David for the perks of being around him,” Sammy admitted. “I now realize the reason he kept all of us around was to make it seem less weird that there were also tons of twelve and thirteen-year-olds around him all the time too.”
One of those kids was Michael Cooper. Michael tumbled into David’s sphere of influence after meeting at a contest in 2005, when he was ten years old. Michael thought of David as “a super cool dude trying to help out the younger dudes in the skateboarding community,” though his parents “got an off-kilter feeling about him almost immediately.”
“He’d have a bunch of people staying over at his house, and I was usually there as well,” Michael started. “At first, I didn’t participate in the drinking or use of drugs, but after constantly being around it from the older folks who were over there, I eventually became curious and smoked weed with him the first time when I was eleven years old. I had heard people mention things about how he was weird and shit for hanging out with younger kids, but I didn’t really think anything of it at the time because of all the fun shit we were getting to do.” (This is a normal dynamic in professional skateboarding, where team riders as young as teenagers and as old as their thirties might grow close, and the lines of legality and morality are blurred.)
In late-2010, The North Avenue foundation, now under David’s management, started to change rapidly. New obstacles went up at a dizzying pace–jersey barriers, granite benches, flat bars, manual pads–all designed and built by actual skateboarders to ensure everything was well-made and that his skate spot would stay packed. But gone were the days of just showing up and skating the spot worry-free: participants now had to sign waivers–”a mere formality”–and everyone was subject to finicky rules. For example, you were strictly forbidden from grinding the edge of a manual pad that didn’t have angle iron on it. What’s more, a barbed-wire fence was erected around the perimeter, and a coded gate was installed, ensuring only people friendly with David would have access to the Atnalta playground. Violators, including those who let “strangers” into the park, were personally banned for any time from a week to permanently.
David’s straight-laced approach to skateboarding didn’t mesh well with everyone in Atlanta. After an incident involving some smashed pumpkins and a crude “Kid Fucker” tag spray-painted on the street outside the spot, tensions rose, cameras were installed, and in November of 2010, everyone associated with a prominent local skate shop was banned from the facility.
“If you don’t get your child molesting ass off of me, we’re gonna have some problems.”
By the beginning of 2011, construction ramped up to the point where the North Avenue foundation was a full-blown skatepark, complete with a pyramid, vert wall, handrails, and bad graffiti murals. Fewer and fewer older skateboarders were going to the spot, but they were quickly replaced by the young kids lured there. It’s around this time that Sammy, anxious to premiere his latest video featuring most of the Atnalta team, accepted an offer from David to show it at the foundation for a few hundred dollars.
The night of the premiere, immediately after the video was over, the party escalated and some members of the crowd started throwing bottles. David wrongly pinned a local named Robert Watson as the culprit and got in his face. As people tried to break up the fight, Robert told David, “If you don’t get your child molesting ass off of me, we’re gonna have some problems.”
As the fight spilled into the street, Robert broke a window, leading to Kyle putting him in a chokehold and pulling him to the ground as David dealt numerous blows to the incapacitated Robert.
Rumors had been floating around about David’s penchant for hanging out with younger boys, which had prompted Robert’s insult, but nothing criminal was substantiated at the time. “In his loft, David had this huge mural over a giant semi-circle skylight on the wall of his vaulted-ceiling living room […] that made me think that David had some lost childhood, Michael Jackson shit going on,” Sammy told me. “I hoped that he was trying to vicariously relive that missed childhood through the skaters he surrounded himself with. Yeah, I was really fucking wrong.”
After the fight at Sammy’s video premiere, the situation at the foundation spot got even more morally suspect. The skatepark was no longer a semi-public affair; rather, it was open only to his most loyal–and often, his youngest–followers. In May 2011, a slip-n-slide was built, spanning the gap between two of the slabs.
David and Kyle kept the Atnalta Foundation running for another year, keeping busy by hosting contests and maintaining the spot’s existing infrastructure. David was still running two brands, and young kids were still coming downtown to skate his skatepark and hang out in his loft every weekend. And then one day, someone noticed something odd about an alarm clock in Aitken’s bathroom.
“One day, I’m sitting at my computer editing footage, and I get a call,” Sammy told me. “I pick up the phone and my friend Paul is freaking out, saying he’s coming over and that he has something to show me.” When Paul arrived at Sammy’s, he rushed to the computer and image searched ‘alarm clock hidden camera.’ After poring over pages of images, Paul recognized what he’d been looking for. “That one! That’s the one I found in David Aitken’s bathroom.”
Paul had noticed that the clock was wired to a small box attached to the wall, and, after investigating, he discovered a small, built-in hidden camera concealed in the alarm clock’s speaker holes. The camera was motion activated and placed on the bathroom counter directly facing the shower. “Where all those twelve and thirteen-year-olds routinely showered,” said Sammy. “You can put two and two together.”
“From this moment forward, everything was, ‘Fuck David Aitken.’ I went back onto my YouTube and changed all the names of the edits from the Atnalta foundation to things like ‘Joe Paterno Memorial Skatepark.’ That was probably immature, but I wanted him to know that we were catching onto his dirty secrets, without directly confronting him about it.”
Even when Sammy contacted the Atlanta Police Department’s Special Victims Unit to alert them to the predator in the skate scene’s midst, he ran into one of the barriers that often keeps people like David from being prosecuted. “The sergeant basically told me I needed to find a minor who was willing to come forward and testify to everything that was going on at David Aitken’s loft,” said Sammy. “I remember telling him, ‘How am I supposed to do that? How do I convince a fourteen-year-old kid to testify in court, in front of their parents, that they have been drinking, smoking weed, taking pills, every weekend night for years while they have been staying at their sponsor’s house?’”
Come Fall 2011, David’s paranoia started rising to new and scary levels. When a couple of local skaters hopped the fence late one night, they were run off by several hooded figures wielding guns. Apparently, David had recently installed motion-activated security cameras that would alert him in his apartment should they be triggered.
The Atnalta Foundation officially closed down on October 12, 2012. If you asked any of the naive kids who frequented the spot, they’d tell you it was because David “had enough of people disrespecting him and his park.” But, in reality, the Atnalta Foundation was never intended to last more than a few years. It was nothing more than a ploy for David to further insert himself into the Atlanta skate scene and groom potential victims, including Michael, who David had first sexually assaulted in his loft back in 2006.
“The first time [David abused me] was the very first night I had ever gotten high, when I was eleven years old,” Michael divulged. “The second time was maybe only a few months later. I had started drinking and smoking over there regularly, [and] David started telling me to take this pill that he called a ‘hangover pill,’ which I later found out was Xanax.”
It’s a sad statistic that less than a quarter of kids that have been molested are able to come forward and tell someone that they’ve been abused, and even then, only 3% of those offenders are ever caught and prosecuted. Michael was just one of two victims to eventually speak out about the abuse David inflicted on them.
In May 2013, still operating under the guise of innocence, David ceded control of his two brands to an unwitting team rider’s family before fleeing the country, claiming on Facebook that he “accepted a job out west in Colorado.” Later that month, one of David’s victims, who chose not to talk to us for this article, came forward and told their story to the Fulton County District Attorney, and the police finally got moving.
Less than a quarter of kids that have been molested are able to come forward and tell someone that they’ve been abused.
David was arrested on July 7th in Bocas del Toro, Panama, wanted by Interpol for the alleged crimes of pedophilia and arms trafficking. He had $22,000 in cash, photography equipment, a cell phone, a laptop and a tablet on his person. He was extradited back to Atlanta and formally charged with child molestation, sexual battery of a minor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of marijuana, possession of a controlled substance, possession of cocaine, and several counts of possession of firearms.
After three years of the case waiting in legal limbo, with the prosecution relying on only a single victim’s story, Michael, now 21 years old, began to feel an overwhelming wave of guilt creep over him. “I had no intention of ever telling anyone,” Michael admitted. “It fucked me up for a long time. But I eventually felt guilty about my friend having to go through the trial alone, so I voiced what had happened to the DA as much as it killed me to finally admit to someone what had happened.”
“As corny as it sounds, it was extremely freeing,” he added. “A lot of people finally understood why I had become the person I was.” After Michael’s experiences with David, he had turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope with the trauma. Michael told me, “I got involved in a lot heavier of substances trying to block it out of my memory because it affected the way I interacted with people so much.”
David Francis Aitken’s trial started on August 14th, 2017. Ten days later, he stood emotionless as the judge read the verdict: guilty of three counts of child molestation and two counts of aggravated child molestation. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, plus an additional forty years with no chance of parole.
The Atnalta Foundation has long since been demolished. In its place stands a stack of condos, indistinguishable from the others that have sprung up throughout Atlanta over the past five years. For all intents and purposes, Atnalta and Hate City, David’s other brand, don’t exist beyond name rights, but the scars David Aitken left upon a community will be felt for generations to come.
Many of those young skaters in David’s circle have gone off the grid, saddled with drug addictions. One even died due to an overdose. And skateboarding, the pure thing that drew these kids toward the Atnalta foundation in the first place, was sullied forevermore for many of them, including Michael. “The experience had a pretty negative effect on my feelings toward skateboarding,” Michael told me. “Don’t get me wrong, skateboarding will be number one in my heart forever, but I was never really able to put together why I distanced myself so much from the one thing in life that I loved. I think I subconsciously associated skating with that memory. And, as my mental state got worse and worse, I became more and more disconnected from skateboarding.”
At the time of reporting, Michael has been clean for a year. Despite the difficulty, coming forward was something Michael is proud to have done. “Knowing he’ll never get out of prison, and no one else will have to endure what I went through for so long really hits home for me.”
the scars David Aitken left upon a community will be felt for generations to come.
As skateboarding matures, we need to acknowledge that the existing support system tends to fail the survivors of sexual assault. Too often accusers aren’t believed, and their accounts are discredited by those in positions of power. Even more often, the stigma around discussing these issues results in them going unreported, sometimes leading to mental issues, addiction, self-harm, and other long-term trauma for the affected. Though this isn’t an issue isolated to skateboarding, we should be especially wary about predators infiltrating skateboarding. While working on this article, several people mentioned they knew of similar stories from their own scenes that were just swept under the rug.
People like David have received the benefit of the doubt far too often and for far too long. Active self-policing of our communities through vigilant questioning and normalizing healthy boundaries between peers of various ages are two ways to help stop this kind of thing from happening in skateboarding again. If you or someone you know has information that could stop this kind of abuse from happening in your community, don’t hesitate to talk to someone.
The National Sexual Abuse Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.