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Wife files lawsuit in pastor’s death

Jonathan Ayers shot in September by drug enforcement officers

POSTED: March 16, 2010 12:10 p.m.

A Gainesville woman has filed a federal lawsuit in connection with the September shooting death of her pastor husband by an undercover North Georgia drug enforcement officer.

Abigail Marilyn Ayers, the widow of Jonathan Ayers, filed suit against three officers with the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Suppression Unit and the sheriffs of Habersham and Stephens counties.

Ayers, a 28-year-old pastor at the small Shoal Creek Baptist Church of Lavonia, was shot Sept. 1 outside a Toccoa convenience store by plainclothes drug agents.

Police said three drug agents tried to block Ayers’ car after he dropped off a woman known to have been involved in illegal drug transactions. They say Ayers backed his car into one agent and another fired at him as he maneuvered his car in a threatening manner.

A Stephens County grand jury cleared the agents of criminal wrongdoing in December.

The lawsuit claims wrongful death, assault and battery, false arrest, negligent use of a motor vehicle and breach of duties. It seeks unspecified compensatory damages and damages for pain and suffering.

Abby Ayers’ attorney, Gainesville lawyer Roland Stroberg, declined to comment beyond the contents of the 49-page lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuit claims that the two undercover officers, including the officer who has acknowledged firing the fatal shot, Billy Shane Harrison, were dressed in a manner "to convince unsuspecting members of the public that they were not police officers but instead drug dealers and/or criminals, since this was part of their undercover role."

The woman Ayers was seen with before the shooting, Kayla Barrett, had offered to sell undercover officers $50 worth of crack cocaine a few hours beforehand, according to the suit.

Ayers had "no connection with the drug investigation," according to the suit.

The lawsuit alleges that undercover agents wanted to stop Ayers and question him but had no warrant for his arrest or "articulable suspicion" that Ayers was either armed or dangerous.

An officer approached Ayers by "rushing at (Ayers) on foot while pointing a weapon at him (and) did startle, frighten and confuse (him) as to his intentions," according to the lawsuit.

Ayers, according to the lawsuit, was "attempting to flee from what would reasonably be perceived as an attempted armed robbery and assault."

"A reasonable law enforcement official would understand that if he were dressed as a criminal and acting as a criminal that he might very well be perceived as a criminal, particularly if he rushed at an unsuspecting private citizen and suddenly descended upon their person while brandishing a weapon," according to the lawsuit.

"Reasonable police officers know because of foreseeable confusion that could be created by rushing at a suspect while dressed in plain clothes as a possible criminal ... that if the purpose of the approach was merely to question them, they should instead ... call for a backup unit or uniformed officer (or) don police jackets and/or law enforcement gear which would clearly identify themselves as law enforcement officials before approaching either the vehicle or suspect," according to the lawsuit.

Terry Williams, the Buford attorney representing the defendants, said he believes the court "will see these officers acted reasonably under the total facts and circumstances."

"We believe it was a reasonable use of deadly force in a situation where they believed their lives were in danger, and I think this will ultimately be shown in this civil case," Williams said.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, a defendant in the lawsuit, said Tuesday he could not comment on it.

The Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Suppression team meets on Friday and likely will discuss the pending litigation then, Terrell said.



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