Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán’s Family Seeks Transparency in Police Killing

Atlanta – The family of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, the forest defender killed by police in Atlanta’s South River Forest, addressed the public for the first time Monday to ask for transparency in the state’s investigation into the killing.

While some details about the Jan. 18 killing have slowly emerged, lawyers representing Terán’s relatives said the family has yet to receive a response of any kind from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about the details of Tortuguita’s death.

On January 30, the family hand delivered a letter to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the agency overseeing the investigation, requesting a meeting with the agency, attorney Brian Spears said. The letter was delivered in hope of receiving an explanation of the details that led to Terán’s killing, but it has gone unanswered, Spears said.

Lawyers representing the family have petitioned the GBI to release audio and video recordings from any agencies involved in the raid that day. While Georgia State Patrol troopers aren’t required to wear body-worn cameras, other agencies present for the raid are equipped with them. The GBI has said that no other body-worn camera footage from that day is available. Lawyers also asked for any drone and surveillance camera footage from the site, but have not gotten a response, Spears said.

The calls for transparency come after an independent autopsy, which lawyers said was completed last Tuesday, revealed that Terán was shot at least 13 times by multiple people. To date, there has not been a full accounting of the events surrounding Tortuguita’s killing.

The GBI has cited its ongoing investigation into the killing as a reason to withhold information about January’s deadly raid. But Spears contended that there’s no reason to keep the information private since the state cannot bring charges against a dead person.

Alongside the demands for clarity and information about the killing, family members shared memories of Terán.

Belkis Terán, Tortuguita’s mother, addressed the crowd and shared memories of Terán as a compassionate, dedicated environmentalist who had committed years of their life to helping others.

“Killing a person who was sleeping in the forest does not make sense to me,” Terán said. “We are living a horror.”

While expressing her grief at the loss of a child, she also shared gratitude for the response from the community in the wake of Terán’s killing.

“On the other hand, as a family, we are also amazed and grateful for so much love, support and solidarity that we have received,” she went on to say.

Tortuguita’s father, Joel Paez, shared similar memories of Terán as a compassionate person who had long shown care for others. Paez urged others to remember Tortuguita for their work and dedication.

“We [are] certain that Manuel will live forever with all of us and those around the world who are meeting him since January 18,” Paez said. “Manuel left us a legacy.”

Daniel Paez, Terán’s brother, drew from his service in the US Navy and called on the police to stand up to unjust orders and intervene when they see wrongdoing.

Terán’s killing happened amid an escalation of police repression against ‘Cop City’ protestors, which has resulted in at least 19 people being charged with domestic terrorism since December.

“We don’t know what caused officers to shoot Manuel over 13 times, but we cannot ignore the context of Manuel’s death,” Jeff Filipovits, a lawyer specializing in civil rights litigation, said at Monday’s event.

Filipovits drew a connection between the historic trope of “outside agitators,” which has been used for decades to de-legitimize protest movements, with the state’s use of domestic terrorism charges against ‘Cop City’ opponents.

Among the justifications for domestic terrorism charges, according to arrest warrants, are claims that protestors were sitting in trees wearing camouflage and gas masks, sleeping in a hammock with another defendant, being a “known member” of a prison abolition group, and being present in the forest when a Georgia State Patrol trooper was shot last month.

One defendant facing domestic terrorism charges is accused of occupying a tree house and refusing to come down, resulting in a “12 hour standoff with police,” according to a warrant.

“They used to call that a sit-in protest,” Filipovits said. “Now it’s terrorism.”

Shortly before the public addresses began on Monday morning, police launched another multi-jurisdictional raid in Weelaunee, also known as the South River Forest, where the city plans to construct its ‘Cop City’ training facility.

Images from the operation show heavily armed police arriving in armored personnel carriers, equipped with rifles and other weapons. The last raid in the South River Forest, on January 18, resulted in Tortuguita’s killing.

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