ATLANTA — For the first time in public, the family of the activist shot and killed at the future site of Atlanta's law enforcement training facility is questioning the narrative surrounding their loved one's death.
Monday morning, Manuel Esteban Paez Teran's mother called for more details from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in the name of transparency.
Belkis Teran, whose native language is Spanish, said her son was a pacifist adding "the killing of a person who was sleeping in the forest does not make sense to me." Her son is accused of shooting a Georgia State Patrol trooper; the GBI said the ballistic analysis shows the projectile recovered from the trooper's wound matches Paez Teran's gun.
The GBI has said Paez Teran was killed in return fire on Jan. 18. The family said in a release that a private autopsy shows he was shot at least 13 times. The GBI has not released the investigative autopsy.
Paez Teran's mother said the family is "horrified by all that has happened to Manuel." Their father also expressed shock during the news conference, which can be viewed in the video below.
"We are heartbroken of the circumstances by which their life was taken from us," their father said.
Paez Teran's father said he is also praying for the full recovery of the GSP trooper who was shot the same day his son was killed.
"I pray for all individuals unjustly accused of terrorism who, like my child, want to preserve and protect just a piece of forest perfectly created by God," he added.
The press conference occurred as the GBI confirmed another multi-agency clearing operation was happening at the future site of the training center. No one was arrested during the operation, authorities said.
The GBI released a statement after the news conference saying they intend to update Paez Teran's family as they continue to look into the actions that took place on Jan. 19. The agency said it is not releasing any videos as they're maintaining the integrity of the investigation and asks for patience as they work to be thorough in their case. The GBI's full statement can be read here.
What led up to the shooting at 'Cop City'
Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, was shot and killed during the operation, after allegedly firing at law enforcement. A Georgia State Patrol trooper was shot in the incident.
The protest movement against "Cop City" has contested official accounts of the shooting, saying it isn't clear who fired the first shot or if Paez Teran, who was also known in the activist circle as Tortuguita, ever actually fired. Paez Teran used they/them pronouns.
The protest movement has noted in particular the lack of bodycam video to verify the official account of events provided by the GBI. While state law enforcement officers, such as GSP troopers, do not wear bodycams, the GBI has said bodycam videos exist of the aftermath of the incident. However, an Atlanta City councilperson said the video available doesn't really answer the lingering questions surrounding the shooting.
Tortuguita's mother included a statement in the release saying she does not believe the official version of her child's death.
“Manny was a kind person who helped anyone who needed it. He was a pacifist. They say he shot a police officer. I do not believe it,” Belkis Teran said. “I do not understand why they will not even privately explain to us what happened to our child.”
The protest movement has mushroomed in the wake of Tortuguita's death, and activists have said responsibility for their killing lies with increasingly aggressive law enforcement tactics to clear the tree encampments activists have lived at in the South River Forest for more than a year.
Protests immediately following the death through Downtown Atlanta resulted in some demonstrators lighting a police vehicle on fire and breaking windows at buildings, including one targeted for housing the Atlanta Police Foundation. Six people were arrested after those demonstrations.
So far at least 14 people have been arrested in the forest and are accused of domestic terrorism.
The protesters have opposed the facility on environmental and historical grounds, saying it would decimate one of the largest preserved forest areas in the city and desecrate historically Native American land of the Muscogee Creek people, who once lived in the woods and called it the Weelaunee Forest before being displaced by white settlers in the early 19th century.
They also oppose it on the grounds that the land was once the site of the Old Prison Farm, a jail complex that was billed during its operation in the mid-20th Century as an "Honor Farm" where prisoners farmed the land as a "dignified means of imprisonment," a practice which has since been scrutinized for its profit generation and exploitation of unpaid labor.
The law enforcement community has argued the training facility would be a crucial component in stabilizing the police force, aiding in recruitment and retention after low morale and departures following the racial and criminal justice protests of 2020.
They also said it would improve training and community ties, framing it as an answer to police reform demands stemming from the 2020 protests to eliminate contentious policing practices and reduce tensions.
Atlanta Police have characterized the tree-sitters occupying the forest as outsiders and highlighted that many who have been arrested have origins outside Georgia. In addition to the loosely organized encampment/forest defender movement, there has however also been visible local opposition from community groups who oppose the facility both environmentally and for its placement in a predominantly Black section of the city.
Kwame Olufemi of Community Movement told 11Alive's La'Tasha Givens last year it was "clearly not for us, it’s not for our community and it’s going to be adverse to us and our people."
As for the investigation into Paez Teran's death, the GBI will conclude its findings and a special prosecutor will oversee the case.