More than 100 people gathered Jan. 18 in Little Five Points to mourn the death of Manuel Esteban Paez, 26. Teran, known as Tortuguita, was protesting Atlanta’s planned public safety training center when police said Teran shot and wounded a state trooper. Police returned fire, killing Teran. (Photo by Logan C. Ritchie)

A 26-year-old protester camped out in a forest where Atlanta plans to build a public safety training center was killed by police this week after allegedly shooting and wounding a state trooper, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The Jan. 18 fatal shooting happened near Intrenchment Creek Park in DeKalb County while the GBI and other law enforcement agencies conducted a “planned clearing operation” to remove protesters of the training center. A heavy presence of Georgia State Patrol vehicles and other law enforcement vehicles were parked for hours along surrounding roads.

The protesters, known as forest defenders, are part of a grassroots “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement to end police brutality and protect the environment. They call Atlanta’s planned training center “Cop City.”

Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, known as Tortuguita, was shot and killed by police while protesting the planned Atlanta public safety training center. (Special)

The wounded trooper, whose name is not being released, is in stable condition after surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital. He was shot in the abdomen and was wearing a bullet proof vest, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

GBI identified the protester who was killed by police as Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26.

Defend the Atlanta activists said the protester is known as Tortuguita, or Tort. They said Tort split their time between Atlanta as a forest defender and coordinating mutual aid, and Florida, where they built housing in low-income communities devastated by hurricanes.

“In Tort’s name, we continue to fight to protect the forest and stop Cop City with love, rage, and a commitment to each other’s safety and well-being,” they said in a written statement.

GBI says police shot protester in self-defense, arrest several other activists

The GBI was the lead agency of the “clearing operation” that included Atlanta and DeKalb police, the Georgia State Patrol and other state law enforcement such as the Department of Natural Resources. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also participated.

GBI Director Mike Register said at a Jan. 18 press conference that officials from the multiple law enforcement agencies were “moving through various sectors of the property” off Constitution Road searching for protesters who were “illegally occupying the property.” He said Teran ,”without warning,” shot the Georgia State Patrol trooper.

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Other law enforcement officers returned fire in self-defense, Register said, and the protester was killed in the exchange of gunfire.

The GBI investigates shootings by law enforcement. The agency, despite its involvement in this shooting, will be investigating the fatal shooting of Teran.

The GBI issued a news release hours after the press conference that said police found Teran in a tent in the woods. Teran did not comply with verbal commands from officers and then shot the trooper, the GBI said. The GBI did not say what the verbal commands were. A handgun and shell casings were located at the scene, according to the GBI.

The GBI also released names of protesters arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, criminal trespass and who may face other charges. They are: Geoffrey Parsons, 20, of Maryland; Spencer Bernard Liberto, 29, of Pennsylvania; Matthew Ernest Macar, 30, of Pennsylvania; Timothy Murphy, 25, of Maine; Christopher Reynolds, 31, of Ohio; Teresa Shen, 31, of New York; and Sarah Wasilewski, 35, of Pennsylvania.

Approximately 25 campsites were located and removed from the area, the GBI said. The state agency also said “mortar style fireworks, multiple edged weapons, pellet rifles, gas masks, and a blow torch” were recovered from the site.

GBI agents remove a protester from the wooded area near Intrenchment Creek Park on Wednesday, Jan. 18. Several activists against the building of the Atlanta public safety training center were arrested and face domestic terrorism charges. (Dyana Bagby)

Register said law enforcement and people in the community have experienced for many months “growing criminal behavior and terroristic acts” committed by individuals and groups opposed to the building of Atlanta’s public safety training center. Criminal acts include arson, setting off explosives and intimidating area residents, he said.

“GBI and all our law enforcement agencies and partners embrace a citizen’s right to protest,” Register said. “But law enforcement can’t stand by while serious criminal acts are being committed that jeopardize the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect.”

“There’s a difference between protests and what’s happening there,” he added.

APD Chief Schierbaum attended the press conference but declined to comment, referring media to the GBI.

In December, several protesters were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, signaling a harder stance was being taken by law enforcement that includes more state and federal involvement. Previous arrests by Atlanta police resulted in criminal trespassing charges.

Activists skeptical of GBI’s version of police shooting

Those involved in the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement and more than 20 other social justice groups denounced the killing of Tort and questioned the GBI’s version of the shooting. They demanded the release of body camera footage of the shooting by Jan. 21. A GBI spokesperson told WABE there is no body camera footage of the incident.

“We are clearly observing a concerted effort by city and state forces to paint a picture of a dangerous ‘criminal’ who had to die,” according to the news release signed by groups such as the Abolitionist Teaching Network, Community Movement Builders and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

“This is a lie. This is always a lie. We are gathered in part here to disturb this dangerous propaganda,” the release said.

Protesters plan to gather Jan. 21 at Underground Atlanta for a “Stand Up-Fight Back” rally to remember Teran and speak out against police violence. Vigils for Teran and the Atlanta movement are planned this weekend in cities such as Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago and Charlotte, N.C.

Logan C. Ritchie contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.