TOCCOA, Ga. (ABP) — A vigil is planned Oct. 3 to show support for the family of a Baptist pastor shot dead a month earlier by undercover police officers in a drug investigation gone wrong.
Members of Shoal Creek Baptist Church, a rural congregation in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northeastern Georgia, initially planned to rally in memory of their slain pastor, Jonathan Ayers, from 10 a.m. till noon this Saturday at the Stephens County Courthouse in Toccoa, Ga. After learning that if the crowd exceeds 50 persons they could be ordered to disperse for meeting without a license, organizers moved the gathering spot to nearby Grace Baptist Church.
Bob Claytor, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, said he received a phone call from one of the organizers asking permission to use the church's parking lot as a meeting place. Claytor, who knew Ayers well and recently accompanied him on a mission trip to Zambia, said he was happy to comply, but cannot participate personally because of previous plans. "We're just trying in any way we can to help the family," Claytor said by telephone Oct. 1.
Though billed as a Christian gathering to offer prayers and support for Ayers' family, the group also hopes to issue a call for justice in the slaying of a popular 29-year-old preacher gunned down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Police say Ayers was spotted in a car Sept. 1 with 26-year-old Joanna Kayla Barrett, the subject of an investigation by a multi-county drug task force. After dropping Barrett off at a motel where she was staying, detectives followed Ayers to a nearby gas station, where he went inside to withdraw money from an ATM machine.
Surveillance cameras show Ayers' car preparing to leave, a man in plain clothes jumping out of a black SUV pulling up at a pump next to him, Ayers' car backing up before pulling out of the parking lot and officers firing shots at the fleeing vehicle.
Police say they didn't know who Ayers was and wanted to question him. They said he tried to run over the officers and struck one of them. They say they identified themselves as police and were wearing badges around their necks when they ordered him to stop.
Family members believe Ayers thought the men were trying to rob him, and in the commotion he either could not hear what they were shouting or panicked and tried to run away. Either way, they insist there was no reason for shooting at him.
"I just want them to explain to me why they murdered my son and look at me in my eye and tell me why they murdered him," Ayers' mother, Abigail Nelson, said in an interview with Fox 5 News in Atlanta.
"Why couldn't they have just taken him down when he was coming out of the store and just found out that he was innocent, or shoot his tires out?" Nelson asked. "They just didn't have to shoot into his car."
One of the bullets hit Ayers' liver. He made it about a half mile before crashing the car. When paramedics arrived, he asked who shot him, supporting the family's belief that if he had known they were police we wouldn't have fled.
Before going into surgery, Ayers assured his wife, 16 weeks pregnant with their first child, that he had done nothing wrong. He told her he loved her and to take care of herself. He died about an hour after his operation.
At last report, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was waiting on crime lab reports in the case. They plan to turn over results of their investigation to the local district attorney. The two officers involved were placed on administrative leave.
Local authorities at first said the then-unidentified shooting victim was a suspect. Later they clarified that agents were not investigating Ayers, but a woman seen riding in his car.
Ayers' brother in law told local media that the family was first told Ayers was in a traffic accident, and then that he had been shot. It wasn't until hours later they learned he died as the result of an officer-involved shooting.
After the shooting, police arrested both Barrett and her fiancé. Barrett, out of jail on $25,000 bond on two charges of selling cocaine, told The Northeast Georgian that Ayers was ministering to her and did nothing wrong.
"I've known him a while — about six or seven years," Barrett said. She described him as "a pastor and a friend," who had been lecturing her over time to straighten out her life and get off drugs.
She said Ayers also knew her fiancé, who is still in jail, and stopped to talk to him whenever he passed and in several visits to the motel.
Barrett said on the day of the shooting, she was walking from a gas station back to the motel. Eleven days earlier she had had a miscarriage and was having difficulty walking. She said Ayers stopped and offered her a ride.
On the way back to the motel, Barrett said she told Ayers about her miscarriage. She also said her fiancé, who was staying with her, was hurt and unable to work. She said Ayers asked if he could help her with back rent, and then gave her $23, all the cash he was carrying.
About 15 minutes later, Barrett said she heard gunfire, but she didn't learn until three days later that Ayers was the one who had been shot. "My lawyer had to tell me he was dead," she said.
Ayers' widow, Abby, is considering legal action. A fund to help with family expenses has been established at Stephens Federal Bank in Toccoa. On Sept. 17 Abby Ayers learned their baby, due in February, is a boy. She plans to name him after his father.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
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