Shooting of North Georgia minister splits community

By the time Billy Shane Harrison received the Christmas card depicting Hell, he was numb to the damnation he had endured since he pulled the trigger and killed a fleeing man on Sept. 1.

The man that Harrison, a Stephens County sheriff's deputy, killed in downtown Toccoa was Jonathan Ayers – a young, popular preacher who had inadvertently stepped into an undercover drug investigation.

The shooting in a convenience store parking lot, captured on video by a surveillance camera, has been the subject of an unrelenting debate that has, at times, been ugly in this northeast Georgia town of 9,000. The 14-second incident has split this otherwise pro-law enforcement corner of the state.

On one side are those who believe the district attorney, the Stephens County sheriff, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, area law enforcement and the grand jury were corrupted because they were determined to protect one of their own.

"The community reaction has been mostly negative," said the Rev. Bob Claytor, pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Toccoa. He said the official explanation of what happened "flew in the face of credulity."

On the other side are those who say Harrison and fellow deputy Chance Oxner did the best they could with the information they had when they tried to stop Ayers from driving away. Harrison and Oxner told investigators they saw a woman, Kayla Barrett, whom they planned to arrest later that day on drug charges get into Ayers' car and they saw him give her money.  The two said they thought the driver of the burgundy Honda may have been her drug source.

Local law enforcement knew sorting out the shooting would be difficult. From the moment the 28-year-old Lavonia Shoal Creek Baptist Church minister was shot, the rumors began.

"People are so ramped up and emotional," Mike Ayers of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told the AJC. Mike Ayers, who was in charge of the investigation for the GBI, is not related to Jonathan Ayers.

“I knew then that no matter what the investigation showed, it was going to be a terrible situation,” said Brian Rickman, the district attorney for the Mountain Judicial Circuit, which includes Stephens and two other counties.

Rickman told the AJC  that calls to his office started the day after the shooting. "‘Tell your boss we demand justice for these murdering thugs,'"  was one of the first messages left for him, Rickman said.

The GBI was called in. A national expert on police shootings was consulted. Gwinnett County’s district attorney and a retired DA were asked to review the case.

For three days in  December, a grand jury was presented with the interviews and watched the video. In the end, the jury decided the shooting was justified.

Though Ayers’ widow announced this week that she would file a federal lawsuit over her husband's death, her attorney said she is not a part of the backlash campaign against the investigation.

“Neither the family or Mrs. Ayers have embraced any of this,” attorney Richard Hendrix said.

Still, many residents are unconvinced. "The video seemed to be the main catalyst for a lot of anger," Rickman said. The surveillance video was on the Internet within a day of the shooting, fueling speculation and half-accounts that were repeated online and in letters to area newspapers.

The black-and-white video shows a dark Escalade pulling past some gas pumps and two men getting out. Oxner, who was working undercover, is briefly out of the frame while Harrison can be seen lifting his right hand to his side, which he said was to lift his shirt so his holstered weapon would be visible. But critics say that is when Harrison pulled his gun.

In a split second, Ayers’ car is seen backing up and striking Oxner, and Harrison shoots. Harrison said he initially thought his partner was seriously injured or dead and he thought the car was going to hit him, too.

According to Joe Key, an expert on police shootings, the time between the car hitting Oxner and Harrison pulling the trigger was a quarter of a second.

One of Harrison's two shots hit Ayers. Yards down the street, Ayers’ car jumped a curb and hit a tree. He died four hours later at the local hospital of  his gunshot wound.

Claytor, whose son was a close friend of Ayers, said within hours of the shooting, law enforcement started "spinning this story" and "covering their tracks." For example, Claytor said, the first media reports said Ayers was involved in the drug trade. Police later said that was not true.

Rumors continue to feed the fire. Some contend Ayers was running because he didn't want the police to expose a secret part of his life: Barrett told investigators that she and Ayers had been having an affair for years. Up until that moment, Ayers was known to most as a man devoted to his family and faith.

Some say Ayers was obviously frightened by two men running to his car and he did not know they were police, though witnesses told the grand jury they heard Harrison and Oxner identify themselves.

"If an unmarked Escalade truck pulled up where I was and two guys dressed like drug dealers jumped out with guns drawn and approached me, I don't think I would wait around one second to find out who they were or what their motives were," one person wrote in a letter to the Toccoa Record. "I think I would try to run over them or get away the best way I could."

Claytor said the fact that Harrison shot as Ayers was clearly driving away also gnaws at many.

"I don't want someone on a task force or as a law enforcement officer who shoots first and asks questions later, and unfortunately, that's what  we have here," Claytor told the AJC.

Stan Turpin of Clarksville, about 15 miles from Toccoa, is another outspoken critic of the investigation.

"He was an unarmed man. He shouldn't have been killed," Turpin told the AJC.

When the grand jury exonerated Harrison and Oxner on Dec. 15, the controversy flared anew.

"The vigilantes will get their justice, hopefully, in civil court. The grand jury hearing was the most one-sided miscarriage of justice that I have ever heard of. The Bible says an eye for an eye,” one reader wrote the Toccoa Record. "They will suffer the consequences."

Rev. Mike Franklin with The Torch, the Church of God located in Demorest, Ga., knows Harrison and Oxner and also knew Ayers. Franklin said Ayers touched a lot of people and that makes it hard for some to accept that he may have had a relationship with Barrett. His wife was expecting their first child.

"How does a young man, who does so many wonderful things, have a dark side … that wound up getting him killed?" Franklin said in an interview with the AJC.

Franklin said if the person shot that day had been "a druggie, a thug, a person of disrepute, then it could have been a completely different response from the public.

"The unfortunate thing for me is people who claim to be forgiven by God are unwilling to forgive others," Franklin said.

Harrison said he is expecting a lawsuit. He says he and his wife have been followed, even down the mile-long dirt road to their house. He suspects they are private detectives.

And he continues to get  anonymous messages, including the Christmas card depicting Hell.

"Dear Billy Shane," was written inside the card. "You may escape justice in this life but you will never escape the final judgment and eternal damnation for your actions!"