Pubdate: Fri, 29 Jan 2010
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Rhonda Cook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Bookmark: (Rev. Jonathan Ayers)


Shooting Of North Georgia Minister Splits Community

By the time Billy Shane Harrison received the Christmas card depicting
Hell, he was numb to the damnation he had endured since he pulled the
trigger and killed a fleeing man on Sept. 1.

The man that Harrison, a Stephens County sheriff's deputy, killed in
downtown Toccoa was Jonathan Ayers - a young, popular preacher who had
inadvertently stepped into an undercover drug investigation.

The shooting in a convenience store parking lot, captured on video by
a surveillance camera, has been the subject of an unrelenting debate
that has, at times, been ugly in this northeast Georgia town of 9,000.
The 14-second incident has split this otherwise pro-law enforcement
corner of the state.

On one side are those who believe the district attorney, the Stephens
County sheriff, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, area law
enforcement and the grand jury were corrupted because they were
determined to protect one of their own.

"The community reaction has been mostly negative," said the Rev. Bob
Claytor, pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Toccoa. He said the
official explanation of what happened "flew in the face of credulity."

On the other side are those who say Harrison and fellow deputy Chance
Oxner did the best they could with the information they had when they
tried to stop Ayers from driving away. Harrison and Oxner told
investigators they saw a woman, Kayla Barrett, whom they planned to
arrest later that day on drug charges get into Ayers' car and they saw
him give her money.  The two said they thought the driver of the
burgundy Honda may have been her drug source.

Local law enforcement knew sorting out the shooting would be
difficult. From the moment the 28-year-old Lavonia Shoal Creek Baptist
Church minister was shot, the rumors began.

"People are so ramped up and emotional," Mike Ayers of the Georgia
Bureau of Investigation told the AJC. Mike Ayers, who was in charge of
the investigation for the GBI, is not related to Jonathan Ayers.

"I knew then that no matter what the investigation showed, it was
going to be a terrible situation," said Brian Rickman, the district
attorney for the Mountain Judicial Circuit, which includes Stephens
and two other counties.

Rickman told the AJC  that calls to his office started the day after
the shooting. "'Tell your boss we demand justice for these murdering
thugs,'"  was one of the first messages left for him, Rickman said.

The GBI was called in. A national expert on police shootings was
consulted. Gwinnett County's district attorney and a retired DA were
asked to review the case.

For three days in  December, a grand jury was presented with the
interviews and watched the video. In the end, the jury decided the
shooting was justified.

Though Ayers' widow announced this week that she would file a federal
lawsuit over her husband's death, her attorney said she is not a part
of the backlash campaign against the investigation.

"Neither the family or Mrs. Ayers have embraced any of this," attorney
Richard Hendrix said.

Still, many residents are unconvinced. "The video seemed to be the
main catalyst for a lot of anger," Rickman said. The surveillance
video was on the Internet within a day of the shooting, fueling
speculation and half-accounts that were repeated online and in letters
to area newspapers.

The black-and-white video shows a dark Escalade pulling past some gas
pumps and two men getting out. Oxner, who was working undercover, is
briefly out of the frame while Harrison can be seen lifting his right
hand to his side, which he said was to lift his shirt so his holstered
weapon would be visible. But critics say that is when Harrison pulled
his gun.

In a split second, Ayers' car is seen backing up and striking Oxner,
and Harrison shoots. Harrison said he initially thought his partner
was seriously injured or dead and he thought the car was going to hit
him, too.

According to Joe Key, an expert on police shootings, the time between
the car hitting Oxner and Harrison pulling the trigger was a quarter
of a second.

One of Harrison's two shots hit Ayers. Yards down the street, Ayers'
car jumped a curb and hit a tree. He died four hours later at the
local hospital of  his gunshot wound.

Claytor, whose son was a close friend of Ayers, said within hours of
the shooting, law enforcement started "spinning this story" and
"covering their tracks." For example, Claytor said, the first media
reports said Ayers was involved in the drug trade. Police later said
that was not true.

Rumors continue to feed the fire. Some contend Ayers was running
because he didn't want the police to expose a secret part of his life:
Barrett told investigators that she and Ayers had been having an
affair for years. Up until that moment, Ayers was known to most as a
man devoted to his family and faith.

Some say Ayers was obviously frightened by two men running to his car
and he did not know they were police, though witnesses told the grand
jury they heard Harrison and Oxner identify themselves.

"If an unmarked Escalade truck pulled up where I was and two guys
dressed like drug dealers jumped out with guns drawn and approached
me, I don't think I would wait around one second to find out who they
were or what their motives were," one person wrote in a letter to the
Toccoa Record. "I think I would try to run over them or get away the
best way I could."

Claytor said the fact that Harrison shot as Ayers was clearly driving
away also gnaws at many.

"I don't want someone on a task force or as a law enforcement officer
who shoots first and asks questions later, and unfortunately, that's
what  we have here," Claytor told the AJC.

Stan Turpin of Clarksville, about 15 miles from Toccoa, is another
outspoken critic of the investigation.

"He was an unarmed man. He shouldn't have been killed," Turpin told
the AJC.

When the grand jury exonerated Harrison and Oxner on Dec. 15, the
controversy flared anew.

"The vigilantes will get their justice, hopefully, in civil court. The
grand jury hearing was the most one-sided miscarriage of justice that
I have ever heard of. The Bible says an eye for an eye," one reader
wrote the Toccoa Record. "They will suffer the consequences."

Rev. Mike Franklin with The Torch, the Church of God located in
Demorest, Ga., knows Harrison and Oxner and also knew Ayers. Franklin
said Ayers touched a lot of people and that makes it hard for some to
accept that he may have had a relationship with Barrett. His wife was
expecting their first child.

"How does a young man, who does so many wonderful things, have a dark
side ... that wound up getting him killed?" Franklin said in an
interview with the AJC.

Franklin said if the person shot that day had been "a druggie, a thug,
a person of disrepute, then it could have been a completely different
response from the public.

"The unfortunate thing for me is people who claim to be forgiven by
God are unwilling to forgive others," Franklin said.

Harrison said he is expecting a lawsuit. He says he and his wife have
been followed, even down the mile-long dirt road to their house. He
suspects they are private detectives.

And he continues to get  anonymous messages, including the Christmas
card depicting Hell.

"Dear Billy Shane," was written inside the card. "You may escape
justice in this life but you will never escape the final judgment and
eternal damnation for your actions!" 
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