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Family of activist killed near ‘Cop City’ site demands answers, plans press conference in Decatur

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Family of activist killed near ‘Cop City’ site demands answers, plans press conference in Decatur

People gather at Underground Atlanta on Jan. 21, 2023, in response to the death of forest defender Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Esteban Paez Teran, 26, who was shot and killed by a Georgia State Trooper earlier in the week during a sweep of the future site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — The family of an activist shot by police near the site of a police training center in DeKalb County is demanding answers and has a press conference planned in Decatur on Monday.

Police officers shot and killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Teran, 26, on Jan. 18 near an 85-acre police/fire training facility located in DeKalb County’s South River Forest. Activists call it “Cop City.” A State Trooper was also shot and wounded. Police allege Teran had a gun and have provided evidence that Teran purchased a gun in 2020.

Attorneys sent a press release to some local media outlets on Friday. However, the number at the top of the press release has been disconnected and Decaturish was unable to contact the attorneys named in the press release. The press release also does not use Teran’s preferred pronouns (they / them). Other local journalists confirmed they had been able to reach the attorneys representing the family and confirmed the press release’s authenticity.

The press release quotes local Civil Rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits and Teran’s mother, Belkis Teran.

“Results of a private autopsy reveal that several different officers shot environmental activists Manuel Esteban Paez Teran at least 13 times,” the press release says. “Law enforcement continues to evade simple questions about the killing.”

The family is holding a press conference on Monday, Feb. 6, at 10 a.m. outside the historic DeKalb Courthouse, which is located at 101 East Court Square in Decatur.

“Manny was a kind person who helped anyone who needed it. He was a pacifist. They say he shot a police officer. I do not believe it.” his mother, Belkis Teran, says in the press release. “I do not understand why they will not even privately explain to us what happened to our child.”

The press release describes Teran as “an environmental activist protesting the destruction of a forest in a historically Black neighborhood to build a privately owned and operated police training center known as Cop City.”

Teran’s death escalated tensions about the training center and has led to calls for an independent investigation. Tensions were already high before Teran’s death. Several activists were arrested during a police sweep of the training center site in December. Those activists who now face charges of domestic terrorism. There was no body camera footage of Teran’s shooting, and officials won’t identify the injured trooper, citing concerns for their safety.

Protesters gathered at Underground Atlanta on Jan. 21 in response to Teran’s death. Following the Jan. 21 protest, a smaller group of demonstrators smashed windows and torched a police car. Activists arrested following that protest were accused of domestic terrorism as well.

Following the Jan. 21 protest, Gov. Brian Kemp called up 1,000 National Guard troops and declared a State of Emergency in response to the protests.

Several law enforcement agencies are part of a multi-jurisdictional task force working to remove activists from the property.

The task force members are: GBI — the agency investigating Teran’s death —  the Atlanta Police Department, the FBI, the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, the DeKalb County Police Department, the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, the Georgia State Patrol, and the Department of Natural Resources.

On Jan. 25, District Attorney Sherry Boston recused herself from reviewing the results of the GBI’s investigation into Teran’s shooting and death due to her office’s involvement in the task force. But the GBI doesn’t plan to step aside and will continue leading that investigation.

Last week, several Democratic state senators released a statement that mourned Teran’s death, condemned “violence” from activists, and stopped short of asking for the GBI to step aside.

“We believe there are many unanswered questions about what happened during the incident, and we encourage a thorough independent investigation to determine the facts,” the statement says. “We are disappointed that there is no body-camera footage available and believe we must ask the hard questions about why that is and what we can do to ensure that such transparency and accountability is guaranteed going forward.”

The senators’ statement said protests about the training center site should be civil.

“There is no room for violence in our community,” the senators said. “The city of Atlanta has a long history of successful nonviolent civil disobedience. But it must remain peaceful, orderly, and disciplined.”

The statement was signed by Democratic state Sens. Gail Davenport (SD-44), Jason Esteves (SD-6), Nabilah Islam (SD-7), Kim Jackson (SD-41), David Lucas (SD-26), Josh McLaurin (SD-14) and Nan Orrock (SD-36). An earlier version of the statement was also signed by Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent (SD-42), but her name was later removed.

Parent told Decaturish her name was included in error.

“I hadn’t signed on to the statement,” she said. “Since I’m the caucus chair, it was an error to have me on it.”

Attorney Filipovits said there are holes in the GBI’s story.

“The GBI has selectively released information about Manny’s death,” Filipovits said in the press release. “They claim Manny failed to follow orders. What orders? The GBI has not talked about the fact that Manny faced a firing squad, when those shots were fired, or who fired them.”

The press release from Teran’s family says the GBI hasn’t said if there are other recordings of the shooting, such as audio or cameras attached to aerial drones and helicopters. The family wants the GBI to release all audio and video recordings connected to Teran’s death.

“Any evidence, even if it is only an audio recording, will help the family piece together what happened on the morning of Jan. 18. This information is critical, and it is being withheld,” Attorney Spears said in the press release.

The family says Teran’s death is the “first time any environmental activist in the United States has been killed by the government.”

Local officials are determined to move forward with constructing the training center.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, on Jan. 31, announced an agreement to ensure the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will protect and enhance the environment, spur local business and serve as a community resource.

During the press conference, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said the site will be a “vital piece of infrastructure” that will serve the city’s police and fire departments training needs and be a community asset for residents.

“Today, I am pleased to report that we have reached an agreement with DeKalb County to issue the construction permit and move this project forward,” Dickens said.

Reporter Zoe Seiler and Intern Jaedon Mason contributed to this story. 

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