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Family of activist killed near ‘Cop City’ demands answers, say activist was shot 13 times

Crime and public safety Decatur Trending

Family of activist killed near ‘Cop City’ demands answers, say activist was shot 13 times

Belkis Teran, mother of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, spoke during a press conference on Monday, Feb. 6, alongside Joel Teran, Daniel Paez and Attorney Jeff Filipovits on the Decatur Square. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — The family of an activist shot by police near the site of a police training center wants more information about the events that led up to the shooting.

During a press conference in Decatur on Monday, Feb. 6, the family asked for a meeting with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and asked that the agency release any audio or video recordings from the incident.

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.

“We are horrified by all that has happened to Manuel. I never thought that taking care of a park would be a dangerous thing. Killing a person who was sleeping in the forest does not make sense to me,” said Belkis Teran, Manuel’s mother.

She added that all Manuel wanted to do was protect the forest, raise awareness and help organize various communities.

“They had no malice and no intention of committing illegal acts,” Belkis Teran said. “They were a pacifist and had no intention of resorting to violence as a way of defending [themselves]. Manuel was a defender of the forest. Manuel had a heart full of love for people, animals, and the trees. Manuel has a great interest in helping the disenfranchised, the voiceless, those unable to defend themselves.”

Daniel Paez, Teran’s brother, offered a call to action for police officers.

“Find your moral courage and place your nation over loyalty to individuals, forcefully stop each from killing civilians,” Paez said.

“I am … missing my best friend,” he added. “I don’t really have many friends. I was fine with just Manny, even though I had to share Manny to their cause. I loved them so much and now my family is being put through this.”

Attorneys representing the family, Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits, said Teran was shot by law enforcement 12 to 13 times, possibly more.

“We have selected information released from the GBI. They are not answering questions. They are not providing the family with any information to understand what happened in the forest on Jan. 18,” Filipovits said. “Whatever happened in the forest, [their] family deserves to know, the public deserves to know.”

Spears said Teran’s body was released to their family last Tuesday and a private autopsy was conducted that afternoon.

“As a result of the private autopsy, we learned the shocking news that it appears that Manuel was shot over 12 times and was shot by several different firearms. Multiple officers riddled [their] body with bullets,” Spears said.

The attorneys have also sent a letter to law enforcement agencies involved and asked the GBI to meet with the Teran family to explain what happened to their child.

“Our goal is to get answers for Manuel’s mother, father and family, what happened to their son and why,” Spears said.

The family is asking again asking for any audio or video, recordings, including any drone footage, as well as the investigative report. Spears said there is no reason to withhold this information.

On Feb. 6, the GBI said the agency owes it to the state trooper and Teran to complete a thorough investigation, according to a press release.

“When we began our case, we contacted and spoke with Teran’s family. We intend to follow up with the family as the investigation progresses,” the press release states.

The GBI is investigating that actions of all people connected to the incident at the public safety training center site, including Teran and law enforcement.

“This investigation consists of several types of evidence, including witness statements, forensic tests results, results of scene processing, and more,” the GBI said. “GBI agents are still in the process of reviewing numerous body worn camera videos connected to this incident.  Any video recovered relating to the case, to include audio, will be analyzed as part of the investigative process.”

The agency is not releasing video currently, as officers are conducting interviews and want to “maintain the integrity of the investigation.”

Once the investigation is complete, the GBI’s case file will be given to a special prosecutor.

“Our OIS investigations typically average about 60 to 90 days to complete,” the GBI said in the press release. “When this particular investigation is completed, as previously stated, it will be given to a special prosecutor to determine next steps.”

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, law enforcement was on the site of the public safety training center on Monday, clearing the property in anticipation of construction beginning soon. Police made no arrests during the operation on Monday, the GBI said in a press release.

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 they said would 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 during the press conference on Jan. 31.

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.

During a legislative town hall on Feb. 5 at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, one constituent in attendance at the town hall asked the legislators about police accountability measures when it comes to wearing body cameras. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D- Decatur) said there’s a conflict in part due to lack of information.

“I think it’s an embarrassment that the state patrol didn’t have body cameras in relation to the disputed facts of who shot what first in DeKalb County, not far from here,” Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said. “We need to know what happened, and that is a realistic conversation.”

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 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.”

Parent later told Decaturish that the GBI is the main state agency that investigates officer-involved shooting, so if they didn’t investigate this shooting, it would be treating this incident different from other officer-involved shootings.

“I don’t have an indication that the GBI is unfair about the way they go about these investigations. I don’t really have a problem with it, right now,” Parent said.

Rep. Becky Evans (D- Atlanta) said she trusts the GBI.

Editor and Publisher Dan Whisenhunt and Intern Jaedon Mason contributed to this story. 

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