Police records: GBI planned raid that resulted in death of 'Cop City' protester

FILE - Belkis Terán, left, Daniel Paez, center, and Pedro Terán, family members of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, right, embrace during a news conference, Monday, March 13, 2023, in Decatur, Ga. Georgia authorities allege that in January 2023, state troopers fatally shot an environmental protester who had fired at authorities after a trooper shot pepper balls into the protester’s tent, according to incident reports. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, File)

Official incident reports of the January shooting that killed a protester at the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in South Dekalb County were filed a month after the deadly raid, according to records obtained by WABE.

The records come from the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to requests for comment. It is unclear why or how the department was able to release the reports after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation blocked the City of Atlanta from releasing additional video evidence in February.

Authorities say they were at the site on Jan. 18 to clear protesters who, for more than a year, have been camping near the site of the future $90-million, 85-acre police and firefighter training center they derisively call “Cop City.” Half a dozen protesters had already been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for allegedly trying to prevent the construction of the project.

In total, the officers’ narratives are 20 pages long. They state 26-year-old environmental activist, Manuel Paez Terán, was going to be arrested for criminal trespassing after refusing to come out from inside a tent on the wooded land.

One report written by a corporal over the special operations group within the Georgia Department of Public Safety states that after being told of the charge, Terán unzipped a small section of the tent’s front door, looked through the mosquito net briefly at each officer and zipped the tent back up, refusing to leave.

At one point, Terán is quoted as saying, “No, I want you to leave.”

The corporal said he was instructed to discharge his pepper ball system into the tent, and that he concurred with the order being “the best course of action at that time.”

“If the subject were allowed to barricade within the tent with no action taken, we would have had to forcibly open the tent and then forcibly removed the subject from the tent, which greatly increases the risk of injury to all parties involved,” the corporal states. “Furthermore, we knew domestic terrorist suspects were present on the property and known to be armed and extremely violent.”

Several other officers said in their reports they were fearful or on high alert during the operation, because of what they had been told about the protesters. The corporal said he then discharged about five rounds of pepper balls into the back left corner of the tent through the small opening and away from Teran. Moments later, Terán allegedly fired the first gunshot from inside the tent.

Six officers returned fire. During the exchange, a 45-year-old state trooper was shot in the lower abdomen and later transported to a local hospital, according to the reports. He was expected to recover. The names of all officers involved have been redacted.

The GBI is now investigating the incident.

The corporal states that weeks before the shooting, his team and other law enforcement agencies had been officially requested to assist the GBI with the raid. Days before it took place, he received a plan from the agency outlining a proposed method for clearing the site.

“Upon review of the document, I observed several pieces of information that stood out to me,” the corporal states. “To begin, a primary objective of the operation was to detect and arrest domestic terrorists that were currently criminally trespassing on the land while committing other crimes on the property.”

“Their (GBI) investigation had identified approximately 30 domestic terrorists actively on the property,” he continues, “who were disrupting and intimidating contractors lawfully performing work on private land.”

The corporal said that before they encountered Teran, officers found multiple people in tents spread out over a large area in the woods. He said everyone was compliant, and they were all turned over to the GBI without incident.

The GBI and other law enforcement agencies involved in the raid have released few details about what led up to the shooting.

While the GBI says preliminary evidence supports authorities’ assertions and that the trooper was shot with a bullet from a gun Teran legally purchased in 2020, protesters question whether Teran was really shot in self-defense.

An autopsy commissioned by Teran’s family allegedly shows Teran suffered more than a dozen gunshot wounds while sitting cross-legged on the ground, with both hands in the air. The autopsy states it’s impossible to know whether Teran was holding a gun.

In a statement, Teran’s family said they want more details and an explanation. They have also called for an independent investigation.

“The GBI is investigating its own tragic operation,” Teran’s family states. “When officers drafted these statements, each had the opportunity to review the publicly available video and the press releases issued by the GBI. As the GBI has acknowledged, ‘memory and perception are fragile,’ and outside factors can influence witness statements.”

The GBI said it does not have any more information to release.