LAVONIA, Ga. (ABP) — Members of a Southern Baptist church in Northeast Georgia want answers about the police-shooting death of their 29-year-old pastor in a drug-sting operation gone wrong.
Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., died during the night of Sept. 1, hours after being shot by undercover police officers outside a gas station where he had just gotten money from an ATM machine.
The Stephens County Sheriff's Office initially identified the shooting victim as a suspect involved in a drug transaction. Later officials clarified that drug enforcement agents were not investigating Ayers, but a woman who was riding in his car whom he had dropped off moments earlier.
Officials said the officers didn't know who Ayers was and wanted to talk to him. They were in plain clothes, but they claim they wore badges around their necks and identified themselves as police when they asked him to open his car door. Instead, they say, Ayers put the car in reverse and fled, striking one officer and causing minor injuries.
Police fired at the fleeing vehicle. One bullet struck Ayers in the abdomen. He managed to drive away but crashed about a half mile away. Police found him conscious and alert, but he died several hours later after surgery.
Police said after striking the officer, Ayers drove his car toward another officer in a "threatening manner." Friends and family believe Ayers thought the men were going to rob him and that he got scared and tried to run away.
Police have not identified the woman, who is charged with selling cocaine. Ayers' sister, Rebecca Floyd, said her younger brother was known to help strangers.
"I could bet my life on it that he did not know her," Floyd told television station WYFF News 4. "I could bet my life on it, because that's the kind of person he was. He was a good Christian man…. His goal was to lead souls to Christ."
Roger Shirley, a member of Shoal Creek, told the Anderson, S.C., Independent Mail that Ayers had led 18 people to Christ and baptized 12 in the little more than a year since he became pastor of the struggling congregation, founded in 1789. Shirley said he believed the pastor was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ayers had recently started a blog, where he described having "three loves in my life: Jesus Christ, my wife, Abby, and the Church." The couple's first baby is due in February.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting. The officers involved are on administrative leave with pay.
Ayers' brother-in-law, Matt Carpenter, told AccessNorthGa.com that the family was first informed Ayers died in a traffic accident, and then that he had been shot. Hours later, they learned he died in an officer-involved shooting.
A surveillance video shows Ayers calmly entering the store a few minutes before the shooting. A black Cadillac Escalade SUV pulls up next to a gas pump beside his car. A man jumps out before it comes to a complete stop. Ayers attempts to drive away, as officers chase after and fire shots at the car.
Ayers' funeral service is scheduled at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 4, at Shoal Creek Baptist Church.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.