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Family demands answers over 'Cop City' activist's death

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — The environmental activist killed by authorities in an Atlanta-area forest last month was shot at least a dozen times, the slain protester’s family said Monday while urging officials to release more information about the death of the 26-year-old who went by the name Tortuguita.

The news conference was held outside a Decatur courthouse just as a large contingent of law enforcement officers accompanied contractors and heavy equipment near the South River Forest about 6 miles (10 kilometers) away, to begin clearing the woods for a planned police and firefighter training center that opponents call “Cop City," news outlets reported.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said officers killed Tortuguita in self-defense on Jan. 18 after the protester, whose given name was Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, shot a state trooper while authorities cleared activists from the forested site.

Tortuguita’s mother, father and brother, as well as their attorneys, said the GBI has been silent instead of responding to the family’s pleas for information about last month's fatal shooting.

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Civil rights attorney Jeff Filipovits said the details offered by authorities so far do not make sense with those who knew Tortuguita to be a “kind (and) compassionate person," — not a “domestic terrorist,” a charge that has been filed in recent months against nearly 20 protesters accused of being part of the leftist “Stop Cop City" movement.

“The family needs answers,” Filipovits said. “So far we've had selective information released by the GBI. They are not answering questions. They are not providing the family with any information to understand what happened in the forest.”

The GBI has said no body camera or dashcam footage of the shooting exists, and that ballistics evidence shows that the injured trooper was shot with a bullet from a gun that Tortuguita had legally purchased in 2020.

Filipovits said the GBI refuses to say whether there was any audio or video recordings from drones, helicopters or other surveillance cameras that could have been in use during the incident.

Following the news conference, the GBI released a statement asking for patience, saying it is “not releasing any videos currently because agents are continuing to conduct key interviews and want to maintain the integrity of the investigation.”

“We owe it to the Trooper and (Paez) Teran to complete a thorough investigation,” the GBI said. “When we began our case, we contacted and spoke with (Paez) Teran’s family. We intend to follow up with the family as the investigation progresses.”

Filipovits' law partner Brian Spears said that Tortuguita’s body was released to the family last week and that they had an independent autopsy conducted. They said the autopsy found that Tortuguita was shot 12 or 13 times, perhaps more, from multiple firearms.

The protester's body was “riddled with bullets,” Spears said.

City Council approved the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the city after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

In addition to classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for authorities to rehearse raids.

Tortuguita had moved from Florida months ago to join the activists in the woods who had been protesting for over a year by camping out at the site and building platforms in surrounding trees.

Self-described “forest defenders” say that building the 85-acre (34-hectare) training center would involve cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging. They also oppose investing so much money in a project which they say will be used to practice “urban warfare.”

Tortuguita chose the moniker – which is Spanish for “Little Turtle” – over their given name.

“Manuel was a warrior for the whole of humanity," Tortuguita’s father Joel Paez said Monday. “I told him, 'Manuel, you cannot worry about the whole world ... You are not Greta Thunberg.’ I was wrong.”

Tortuguita's death prompted a large Jan. 21 demonstration in downtown Atlanta that erupted into violence as a masked contingent lit a police cruiser on fire, and threw rocks and launched fireworks at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation, shattering windows. No injuries were reported, but six people were arrested that night and charged with domestic terrorism.

Since then, local officials have vowed to continue to move forward with the project, with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announcing last week that land disturbance permits had been approved for the project.

The GBI said in a news release that authorities from multiple law enforcement agencies conducted a clearing operation of the site Monday as part of “an ongoing effort to ensure that the site of the future City of Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is safe and secure.” The GBI said no arrests were made.