The 14 Words

Monday, 30 June 2014

Police kill innocent pastor as he helped out impoverished woman

Beloved minister and father-to-be senselessly killed in the Drug War.

TOCCOA, GA — A Georgia pastor was gunned down by police in his vehicle at a gas station during a botched sting over $50 worth of drugs. The pastor had nothing to do with drugs; he was giving a ride and money to an impoverished woman in his community.

Fatal encounter at the ATM

This story is about the killing of Jonathan Ayers, the pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Georgia. On September 1, 2009, Pastor Ayers, 28, was driving and recognized a woman walking that he had known for a number of years, Johanna Kayla Jones Barrett. Ms. Barrett had no permanent home and was living with her boyfriend at the Relax Inn, an extended-stay motel.

Pastor Ayers offered her a ride and gave her the $23 that was in his pocket to help her out with rent. Ayers had helped the woman in the past as part of his ministry, his wife later confirmed.

Ayers and Barrett then pulled into gas station in Toccoa, where the pastor proceeded in withdrawing another $20 from an ATM.

With cash in hand, Ayers then got back into his car. Immediately, a black SUV then veered into the gas station and 3 strange men hopped out and aimed guns at Ayers’ vehicle. Fearing for his life, Ayers attempted to evade the trio of belligerent gunmen.

Unfortunately, the hostile forces weren’t carjackers or armed robbers as they appeared. They were undercover police officers dressed in plainclothes who had been trailing Ms. Bennett, who had been suspected of getting high without government permission.

When Pastor Ayers put his car in reverse and mashed his gas pedal, his vehicle grazed (or nearly grazed) Agent Chance Oxner, of the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation & Suppression (NCIS) Team.

Agent Billy Shane Harrison opened fire, striking Ayers in the liver. Ayers’ vehicle continued a short distance until it crashed into a utility pole on the side of the road.

Gas station surveillance cameras captured the confrontation on video. View it here:

The incident, from the time the black SUV screeched to a halt, to the time Ayers was shot, lasted approximately ten seconds.  He had only picked up Ms. Barrett approximately ten minutes before the shooting.

‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’

As Pastor Ayers was picked up by ambulance, he reportedly told medical personnel that he thought he was being robbed and did not know the men were police officers.

Ayers survived approximately 4 hours after being shot; long enough to say goodbye to his young, pregnant wife, Abigail.  Before he died on the hospital operating table, he told her, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I didn’t do anything wrong… I love you. Take care of yourself.”

No drugs were found in Ayers’ vehicle or in his possession.  An autopsy showed no drugs in his system.  He was a complete bystander to the investigation — an investigation over a possible transaction involving $50 worth of drugs.

Daniel Parker, one of Ayers’ friends and former colleagues, spoke very highly of him, saying it was no surprise that he would have been helping a woman in need.  Parker told The Northeast Georgian, “He was the kind of guy who would do whatever he could to help you, that would give you what you needed and never complain about it.”

Jonathan Ayers had a blog, titled “New Beginnings.”  It contained inspirational messages related to his ministry, demonstrating his enthusiasm for his work and his life with Abby. Following his death, his widow posted a couple of final post-mortem notes to Jonathan’s readers.

Seeking Justice

Following the shooting, the department unsurprisingly defended the agents, backing their commando-style tactics and use of deadly force.  Harrison claimed that he believed the pastor was trying to run over police officers, and therefore felt it necessary to shoot him.  A grand jury ultimately agreed and declined to indict the officers on criminal charges.  After some paid time off, the agents all returned to duty without consequence.  This enraged some members of the community.

In 2010, Abigail Ayers filed a civil lawsuit (PDF) against the officers and agencies allegedly responsible for her husband’s death.  The lawsuit exposed a number of shocking details, such as the fact that Agent Harrison had not even completed the series of firearms training classes required by the department in his 40 days since being hired, and had no police training on the use of deadly force as a police officer.

Agent Harrison might have escaped criminal charges, but he did not escape the verdict in the civil case against him.  In 2014, over five years after the pastor’s killing, U.S. District Judge Richard Story declared that Billy Shane Harrison would not receive civil immunity for the shooting, and a jury determined that he was financially liable for Ayers’ death.

Judge Story found it unreasonable for Harrison to think “that Ayers posed an imminent threat of serious harm or that deadly force was necessary to prevent his escape.”

Harrison owes nearly $711,000 in attorneys’ fees, and more than $121,000 in expenses, plus a judgment of $1.64 million, for a total of nearly $2.47 million, Courthouse News Service reported.

The shooting of Jonathan Ayers goes down as yet another egregious killing that has occurred in the name of fighting the immeasurably unjust War on Drugs. Like so many others, it was completely avoidable. Changes in policy, both in enforcement tactics and in the laws themselves, could have eliminated the need for police to initiate a confrontation in the first place.

Unfortunately, America is still waiting for a ceasefire to be declared in the Drug War. As heaping amounts of collateral damage continue to build, the most conspicuous casualty is American justice.

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