Belkis Tera, mother of slain activist Manuel Teran, speaks at a press conference in Decatur on March 13. A photo of Manuel can be seen behind her.

Georgia law enforcement authorities say the environmental activist killed in January at the site of Atlanta’s controversial planned public safety training center shot at state troopers first after a trooper fired pepper balls into the activist’s tent during an operation to clear people out of the area, according to a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The AJC obtained use-of-force incident reports from the Georgia Department of Public Safety through an open records request for the Jan. 18 fatal shooting of Manuel Paez Terán, 26, who was known as Tortuguita and used they/them pronouns. The shooting happened in the South River Forest in DeKalb County where the city of Atlanta plans to build a $90 million public safety training center, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents.

Terán was found inside a tent and briefly spoke to officers but refused to leave, according to the police reports. Because Terán refused to leave, a state trooper fired pepper balls into the tent. The reports say Terán then shot at officers first, and six officers returned fire. A state trooper was also wounded.

A site plan for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. (Atlanta Police Foundation)

“I knew the suspect in the tent was shooting at us because I could hear the gun shots coming from inside of the tent,” said a report written by a Georgia Department of Public Safety corporal. “I could see the front of the tent door flapping as the bullets ripped through it and I could hear bullets striking the vegetation surrounding me.”

The corporal’s report also said he told Terán that officers were about to fire chemical agents into the tent and that Terán would be charged with criminal trespassing, the AJC reported.

Terán’s death sparked protests nationwide and internationally. Earlier this month, more than 20 people were arrested at a music festival in the South River Forest after Atlanta Police said many of them broke off from the festival and conducted a “coordinated attack” on the training center’s construction site, including throwing rocks and fireworks at police and burning construction equipment.

State troopers do not wear body cameras. Activists and Terán’s family have questioned the GBI’s account of the shooting and asked for transparency into the investigation. The family and their lawyers held a press conference earlier this month and said an independent autopsy showed Terán was shot 14 times while probably seated in a cross-legged position with their hands raised.

Atlanta News First posted a copy of an incident report of fatal shooting. In a statement, Terán’s family said, “The GBI is investigating its own tragic operation.” The family also noted that the officer narratives were “drafted weeks or, in some cases, months after the incident.”

“When officers drafted these statements, each had the opportunity to review the publicly available video and the press releases issued by the GBI,” the family said in the statement. “As the GBI has acknowledged, ‘memory and perception are fragile,’ and outside factors can influence witness statements.”

An official autopsy from the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet been released.

Terán was one of many protesters who joined the autonomous Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City movement to try to stop construction of the training center after it was approved by the Atlanta City Council in 2021 despite overwhelming public opposition.

The protesters say the training center will further militarize police as well as destroy hundreds of acres of trees that will harm the environment in South DeKalb County, a majority Black community.

APD and city officials say the training center is needed to boost morale, retention and recruitment of police officers as well as provide space to ensure officers receive 21st century training.

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