Personnel files released of state troopers who fatally shot 'Cop City' activist one year ago

Friends, family and supporters of environmental activist Manuel "Tortuguita" Teran hold a press conference on Feb. 6, 2023. Teran was shot and killed near the site of Atlanta's controversial public safety training center one year ago on Thursday. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

This article was updated on Jan. 22, 2024 at 12:27p.m.

Manuel Teran, a 26-year-old environmental activist who also went by the nickname “Tortuguita,” was shot and killed near the site of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center one year ago on Thursday.

While a special prosecutor cleared the state troopers at the scene of any criminal charges in October, he has declined to disclose any additional records until a separate RICO and domestic terrorism case against more than 60 protesters over alleged efforts to halt construction is resolved.

The family has also temporarily dismissed a lawsuit for access to records on Teran’s death.

However, WABE obtained all six state troopers’ personnel records, including promotions, departmental assignments, commendations and allegations of misconduct.

They show at least one state trooper had previously been involved in a case of “friendly fire,” and another state trooper voluntarily resigned from the state’s SWAT team months after Teran’s shooting. Georgia State Patrol said it was a “personal decision made by him.”

Law enforcement officers from various agencies were clearing the woods of protesters camping near the site that they call “Cop City” on Jan. 18, 2023, when gunfire started, leaving one protester dead and a state trooper wounded. (Matthew Pearson/WABE) (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

‘Speculation is not evidence,’ argues GBI

According to body camera footage released by the Atlanta Police Department, multiple law enforcement agencies were clearing the woods of protesters camping near the site that they call “Cop City” on Jan. 18, 2023, when the officers heard four distinct gunshots. Then, dozens more.

“Is this target practice?” one officer says in the video.

Later, he adds, “Man, you fucked your own officer up.”

Teran’s family and the activist community seized on the comment almost immediately, suggesting that the state trooper wounded during the shooting could have been hit by friendly fire. But, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation shut down those rumors, citing its ongoing investigation at the time that had so far revealed Teran had a gun that they purchased in 2020. Teran used they/them pronouns.

“Speculation is not evidence,” the agency said in February. “The GBI is continuing to investigate the incident from January 18th and is being as comprehensive in the investigation as possible. The initial assessment given by the GBI concerning the incident is still valid. Our investigation will continue to look at every aspect, to include statements made at the scene, and each will be evaluated.” 

The special prosecutor assigned to review the case declined to comment on whether the possibility of friendly fire was considered.

According to the GBI, Teran fired first from inside a tent, wounding Trooper First Class Jerry Parrish. Other state troopers fired back.

The GBI alleged there’s no direct video evidence of the shooting, only the aftermath, because troopers don’t generally wear body cameras. The gunshots heard in the videos are from those worn by nearby Atlanta police officers.

But, Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Teran, said at a press conference in March that she doesn’t trust the official narrative.

“All Manuel wanted to do was to protect a forest, preserve the good of a land for all people, create awareness and help organize different communities,” she said. “They had no malice and no intention of committing illegal acts. They were a pacifist.”

The family has received few answers to their questions ever since, leaving room for more speculation.

A private autopsy showed Teran suffered more than a dozen gunshot wounds. It also stated it was impossible to know whether Teran was holding a gun.

Opponents of the controversial Atlanta public safety training center hold a rally on March 9, 2023 in Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Georgia trooper investigated for several incidents on the job

The state troopers’ personnel records state all six were members of the state’s SWAT team. And, that they were allowed to return to full duty from administrative leave with pay five days after the shooting.

Georgia State Patrol told WABE their return to work was in accordance with departmental policy.

One of the troopers, Jonathan Salcedo, was investigated in 2015 for firing a weapon he was not qualified to use during a shootout that left a 36-year-old man dead and two deputies hurt, according to the documents. A district attorney in northwest Georgia found one of the deputies who had been wounded was struck by friendly fire.

However, Salcedo was exonerated after the local district attorney and the Georgia Department of Public Safety agreed that no policy had been violated. 

“Tpr. Salcedo’s actions by using a weapon he was not qualified with was covered within DPS Policy Manuel #10.01.4 General Provisions (A)(2) ‘Any other provision notwithstanding, members may use any weapon (or use any weapon in any manner) if emergency circumstances make it immediately necessary to do so to prevent serious bodily injury or death,'” the findings state.

That same year, Salcedo was investigated for several incidents, including operating his vehicle “in an unsafe manner” and an “at-fault collision.”

He was issued a “documented verbal warning” and a “letter of concern,” but his supervisors still commended him in his performance reviews for “usually” making sound judgments when making decisions.

Court documents show he was also the subject of several lawsuits. But over the years, he continued to be transferred and promoted.

Wounded trooper honored at state Capitol

According to the city of Atlanta, the training center is now 75% complete. The first phase is expected to open by the end of the year. The cost has also risen by almost $20 million, but state and local officials have doubled down on their support.

“This facility,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said during his State of the State address last week, “will provide our law enforcement officers, firefighters and additional first responders the critical tools and knowledge as well as the skills needed to keep themselves and our community safe.”

One of his special guests was the trooper who was wounded in the shooting last year. 

“Trooper First Class Jerry Parrish, would you please stand with your wife Kelly, and let us thank you for your great service?” Kemp said.

According to the governor, Parrish underwent several surgeries and spent the better part of a year in recovery.

The names of the state troopers involved in the shooting were redacted from incident reports and weren’t publicly disclosed by authorities until the special prosecutor issued his report in October.

People in Atlanta and across the country are hosting solidarity events to honor Teran this week. Protests have been ongoing for more than two years.

“Viva, viva Tortuguita” has become a part of the chants raised by protesters who say they fear the training center will lead to more police violence.