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Another Senseless Drug War Death

Stunning developments in the 2009 police shooting of Georgia pastor Jonathan Ayers

Radley Balko
March 23, 2010

The Jonathan Ayers story was already outrageous enough. Last September, Ayers, a 28-year-old Baptist pastor from Lavonia, Georgia, was gunned down by a North Georgia narcotics task force in the parking lot of a gas station. Ayers had not been a suspect in any drug investigation. And even today, police acknowledge he was not using or trafficking in illicit drugs. Instead, Ayers had either been ministering to or having an affair with (depending on whom you believe) Johanna Kayla Jones Barrett, the actual target of the investigation.

Ayers is yet more collateral damage in the boundlessly tragic and wasteful drug war, as are his widowed wife Abigail and the child she was carrying at the time of his death. But that's really only the beginning of this mess. In a lawsuit filed last week, Abigail Ayers makes some astonishing new allegations about the competence of the police officers who killed her husband, the supervisors who hired them, and the law enforcement agencies and the grand jury that investigated Ayers' death. Most damning: The police officer who killed Ayers wasn't even authorized to be carrying a gun or a badge.

Hours before Ayers was killed, police say Johanna Barrett sold undercover officer Chance Oxner $50 worth of crack cocaine. According to an interview Barrett gave to the North Georgian newspaper shortly after Ayers' death, the pastor had seen her walking near a gas station on her way back to an extended-stay motel where she was living with her boyfriend. Ayers, who had known Barrett for a number of years, offered her a ride back to the motel and gave her the money in his pocket, $23, to help pay her rent.

The police were trailing Barrett at the time. But instead of apprehending her at the motel, they instead followed Ayers, the stranger they'd just seen give her a ride and hand her some cash.

Ayers then pulled into a nearby gas station to withdraw money from an ATM. Shortly after he got back into his car, a black Escalade tore into the parking lot. Three officers, all undercover, got out of the vehicle and pointed their guns at Ayers. The pastor, understandably, attempted to escape. As he pulled out of the station, Ayers grazed Officer Oxner with his car. Officer Billy Shane Harrison then opened fire, shooting Ayers in the stomach. (You can watch surveillance video of the altercation here.) Ayers continued to drive, fleeing the parking lot for about a thousand yards before eventually crashing his car. He died at the hospital.

Ayers’ last words to his family and medical staff were that he thought he was being robbed. The police found no illicit drugs in his car, and there was no trace of any illegal substance in his body.

If the story ended there, it would merely be enough to boil your blood. These officers jumped from an SUV waving their guns commando-style over a possible $50 drug transaction. Worse, the man they pounced upon wasn't the target of their investigation.

The police claimed they announced themselves, but it isn't difficult to see how Ayers—or anyone else—might have been confused in the commotion. It was a hot, late summer Georgia afternoon. Ayers likely had his windows up and his air conditioning on. The officers were undercover, dressed in shabby clothes and ski-mask caps. The badges they had hanging from their necks, seen in this photo, were far from conspicuous.

Let’s say that you (which would include 99 percent of the people reading this) aren't a drug dealer, or a mobster, or some other sort of career criminal. You've just returned to your car after getting cash from an ATM. An unmarked Escalade pulls up and three men jump out in masks and guns. Confusion and self-preservation is not only understandable, it ought to be predictable, even expected.

This would have been a grossly disproportionate way for these cops to have approached Barrett, their arctual suspect, much less a guy they sought to question only about the 10 minutes he'd just spent in the car with her.

The Stephens County, Georgia Sheriff's Department initially said Ayers was a drug suspect, but later had to retract. In her September interview with the North Georgian, Barrett told the paper that Ayers had been trying to help kick her drug habit, but later, while facing charges related to both the Ayers case and another incident, she told investigators that Ayers had in previous years paid her for sex. This testimony persuaded the grand jury not to indict the officers who killed Ayers. The pastor may have fled the police, the grand jury concluded, because he feared his reputation would be ruined if his relationship with Barrett were exposed.

District Attorney Brian Rickman praised the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for going to "very extraordinary lengths" to insure the investigation into the shooting was fair. But Abigail Ayers' civil suit (PDF) calls that assessment into question. The complaint alleges that Officer Harrison, the cop who shot Ayers, wasn't even authorized to arrest him. On the day Ayers was killed, Harrison had yet to take a series of firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. More astonishing, Harrison apparently had no training at all in the use of lethal force.

These allegations have since been confirmed by local TV station WSBTV and, after the fact, by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Despite the fact that Harrison had killed a man suspected of no crime months earlier without having undergone lethal-force training and certification, the officer was still carrying his badge and gun up until the time of the WSBTV report. Once the publicity hit, Harrison was suspended. Abigail Ayers' civil suit also alleges prior disciplinary problems with both officers Oxner and Harrison, including alleged drug use.

The wasteful use of public resources to pursue a petty drug offender and the aggressive and short-sighted apprehension of Jonathan Ayers that led to his death are bad enough. That a police officer untrained in the use of lethal force and unqualified to be holding a badge and gun was put on a narcotics task force, and then placed in a position where he was able to shoot and kill a non-suspect is worse. But the kicker has to be that the subsequent police-led investigations of this high-profile case failed to turn up such a critical piece of information. It ought to cast more doubt on the already dubious notion that police shootings should only be investigated by other police officers.

At the heart of this outrage, though, once again, is our increasingly demented, hysterical, all-too-literal drug war. Until we're ready to dispense with the notion that gun-toting cops in ski masks going commando at a public gas station is an appropriate response to an alleged $50 drug transaction, we're going to see a lot more Jonathan Ayerses.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Radley Balko is Senior Editor


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