Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 2010
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Rhonda Cook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Bookmark: (Rev. Jonathan Ayers)


An undercover drug officer who shot and killed a minister in Toccoa
last September was not a certified peace officer at the time,
according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit filed by the Rev. Jonathan Ayers' widow also claims
Stephens County deputy Billy Shane Harrison was not properly trained
and the sheriff who assigned him to the joint Mountain Judicial
Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team should
have known not to put him on the team.

Abigail Ayers' lawsuit was expected. But some of the claims in it
allege unsavory sides of Harrison and his partner, Chance Oxner, much
like the investigative file of the shooting said the preacher had a
secret life involving a years-long relationship with a prostitute.

The federal lawsuit also says Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley
and Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, who assigned Harrison and
Oxner to the task force, ignored problems the two deputies allegedly

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, said the
two sheriffs "developed and maintained policies or customs exhibiting
a deliberate indifference" to constitutional rights and the training
of deputies on the task force.

The preacher's widow is asking to be compensated for her pain and
suffering and the loss of income that her 28-year-old husband would
have earned.

She accuses the two deputies and their supervisor, Kyle Bryant, of
wrongful death, assault and battery, false arrest and subjecting her
husband to mental and physical pain. The suit says the two sheriffs
abdicated their responsibilities. The complaint also says Shirley and
Harrison were negligent because the deputy worked even though he had
not kept up with his training and he was not a certified law
enforcement officer.

"Billy was trained on the weapon he was using at the time of this
incident," said  Gus McDonald, who is Harrison's personal attorney.
"In addition, Billy has been trained on the use of force multiple
times throughout his law enforcement career. The allegation that Billy
was not certified at the time of this incident is false."

Terry Williams --  the attorney for Harrison, Oxner, the sheriffs and
the task force -- said the officers were "well qualified and
experienced and have good reputations." He said the evidence will show
the use of deadly force was reasonable and "in response to Mr. Ayers'
actions which placed the officers at risk of serious bodily injury or
death. It is most unfortunate that Mr. Ayers decided to flee and
thereby endanger the officers. We regret the loss of Mr. Ayers' life
and extend sympathies to his family."

The Sept. 1 shooting in a convenience store parking lot, captured on
surveillance video, was the subject of an unrelenting debate in
Toccoa, a northeast Georgia town of 9,000. The 14-second incident has
split this otherwise pro-law-enforcement corner of the state.

Ayers, the pastor at Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia,
inadvertently stepped into the middle of an undercover drug operation
when he was seen with a suspected drug dealer, and admitted
prostitute, just as the task force was planning to arrest her for a
$50 drug transaction.

The undercover officers saw the woman, Kyla Barrett, get out of Ayers'
Honda at an extended stay motel in Toccoa.

The minster drove a short distance to a Shell station to get $20 from
the ATM to replace the money he had just given to her, and that is
where Harrison, Oxner and Bryant, wearing plain clothes and in an
unmarked Escalade, tried to stop him.

According to the video, they tried to block Ayers' Honda with their
SUV and Oxner and Harrison got out.

The deputies said they showed Ayers their badges on chains around
their necks and identified themselves as police officers, but the
minister wouldn't stop. Harrison said he shot because he though Oxner
had been hit and killed and because he feared he, too, would be hurt.

Authorities said they suspected Ayers fled because he feared his
secret life and his relationship with Barrett was about to become public.

A grand jury, using information gathered by the Georgia Bureau of
Investigation, determined last December that there was nothing to
support bringing criminal charges.

But Ayers' family and friends insist the minister was running because
he was afraid that drug dealers were trying to rob him.

Ayers, wounded, crashed his Honda into a utility pole down the street
from the convenience store. The minister died later at the hospital.

The suit said the three agents - with Bryant driving the SUV - were
"dressed in such a manner as to convince unsuspecting members of the
public that they were not police officers but were instead drug
dealers and/or criminals."

Oxner's and Harrison's "personal appearance and lack of personal
grooming ... would indicate to any reasonable person who saw them that
they were not police officers but very likely drug dealers and/or
criminals," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit raises questions about both deputies' pasts and Harrison's

The lawsuit says Oxner has been convicted of theft by taking and "had
a reported history of alcohol abuse and suspected (by the Habersham
Sheriff's Office) participation in illegal drug activities." Still
Terrell, the sheriff in Habersham County, assigned Oxner to the drug
task force, the lawsuit said.

Harrison, according to the suit, "illegally used marijuana on multiple
occasions" and may have lied to a former employer.

"Outside of the personnel records, Billy will not affirm, deny or
comment on these allegations," McDonald said.

According to the lawsuit, "It was also known that [Harrison] had not
been qualified on the use of the weapon entrusted to him and that he
had been given no training on use of force." His certification lapsed
on Dec. 31, 2008, because he had not kept up with the state's training
requirements, the suit said.

Consequently, the suit said, Harrison shot and killed Ayers because of
his "lack of professionalism and training."

McDonald said none of that is true. 
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