This past January, I wrote briefly about the police killing of a forest defender named Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán . When I posted that, we didn’t know much, including who the victim was, but I pointed out that the story given by the cops – that Tortuguita had fired on them first – was probably a lie. The primary reason for that assumption was the simple fact that cops lie all the time, about pretty much everything. The secondary reason is that while there probably are activists out there who would feel justified in attacking police, I cannot believe that they’d go about it by facing an advancing wall of armed cops head-on, without any cover. My assumption seems to be well-founded, and I think I should provide a content warning for descriptions of gunshot wounds going forward.
The people who knew Tortuguita said that they were a pacifist, and as far as anyone knew, they were unarmed. Then came the body cam footage from cops who were nearby, saying that the gunfire they heard sounded suppressed (some of the cops’ weapons had silencers) and responding to someone on the radio implying that the cop who did get shot was the victim of “friendly fire”. Then came the autopsy commissioned by Tortuguita’s family, which indicated that they’d been hit by dozens of bullets – so many that their paths through their body frequently intersected.
And now, we have the official autopsy, revealing, in addition to the horrifying damage to their body, zero gunpowder residue on Tortuguita’s hands, meaning zero evidence that they had fired a gun.
DeKalb county’s autopsy, released to the media through open records requests on Wednesday, offers no support for the notion that Paez Terán fired a weapon, stating that “gunpowder residue is not seen on the hands” or clothes of Paez Terán. Residue on the hands might indicate that a person fired a gun, but neither this analysis nor a test known as the GSR kit is foolproof, according to experts.
Patrick Bailey, director of the DeKalb county medical examiner’s office, told the Guardian that the county forwarded evidence to the GBI for them to perform the GSR kit, or gunshot residue test.
Nonetheless, the autopsy report does little to clarify what actually happened that day, except for noting in 19 pages of clinical detail the 57 gunshot wounds that Paez Terán received, employing every letter of the alphabet more than once to label the injuries.
“I tried to read the whole thing – in the end it was a little too much,” said Daniel Paez, Manuel’s older brother, reached at his home in Texas. “The very fact that they’re talking about Manny, and how they died – I didn’t even want to share it with our mother, since the pain of losing Manny continues to haunt us; it doesn’t seem to get better.”
“It’s just brutal,” said Wingo Smith, one of the team of attorneys representing the Paez Terán family. “It’s just gruesome, the effect of the shots on their body, the actual devastation.” Smith and his colleagues received the autopsy results and met with staff at the DeKalb medical examiner’s office last week, and shared the report with the Paez Terán family.
I want to note, here, that we don’t seem to have any body cam footage from the officers that killed Tortuguita. It’s almost like there’s either something to hide so they won’t release it, or the cops went in with an intent to kill, and so turned of the cameras. I have no evidence for this, of course, other than the fact that they apparently lied about what happened, and the fact that, once again, body cam footage of the event is either being held back, or doesn’t exist. According to the Intercept article I linked earlier, the cops initially lied by saying there wasn’t any footage at all, then walked that back partially, saying there was footage of the aftermath (which they’re not releasing).
I’ve felt this way for a while, but I think there’s ample reason to view this killing as an extrajudicial execution for the crime of opposing them. They went in ready to kill, and that’s exactly what they did. That would explain the inconsistencies in the story, it would fit what everyone around Tortuguita had to say about who they were, and it would explain why there’s no footage of the shooting – because the cops didn’t want there to be.
This is exactly the shit that the movement to defend the Atlanta forest is trying to stop. A huge facility for cops to train in urban warfare is just another level of militarization, on top of the harm done to the community by destroying the forest. Tortuguita was killed for trying to stop that. Crimethinc goes into more detail in their post Atlanta Police and Georgia State Patrol are Guilty of Murder: The Evidence and the Motive:
Gunshot residue tests are held to be reliable indicators of whether a person has fired a gun, scientifically and legally speaking. Gunshot residue can wear off over a period of four to six hours, but as mentioned in the autopsy, Tortuguita’s hands were bagged shortly after the murder, in order that if there was any gunshot residue on their hands, it would be preserved. According to the “Investigator Narrative” included in the autopsy, the official who prepared that narrative reported to the scene of the murder within two and a half hours and “covered the hands with white handbags to preserve any trace evidence.”
We can be sure that Atlanta authorities missed no opportunity to secure and publicize any evidence that could corroborate their narrative that Tortuguita shot first. Instead, because the autopsy showed that Tortuguita did not fire a gun at all, the results of the Dekalb County autopsy were suppressed for months.
Is it possible that Tortuguita somehow fired a gun while wearing gloves, or fired a gun and then cleaned their hands? According to the Dekalb County autopsy, Tortuguita experienced at least 57 gunshot wounds; this video shows that all of the gunfire occurred in less than eleven seconds.1 That means that Tortuguita died within a few seconds of the first shot, whoever fired it. In the instants between the first couple shots and their death, there was no time for Tortuguita to remove and conceal gloves, nor to clean gunshot residue off their hands.
To all that evidence, we must add the findings of the second autopsy, the one that Tortuguita’s family commissioned, which found that Tortuguita was “likely sitting cross-legged with their hands up” when they were killed.
This is consistent with the gunshot wounds described in the autopsy conducted by the Dekalb County Medical Examiner:
• Right Forearm and Hand—fractures of the index finger and thumb metacarpal. […]
• Left Forearm and Hand—fracture of the middle finger proximal phalange.
As can be seen in the diagram included in the Dekalb County autopsy, bullets struck Tortuguita in both their left hand and their right hand. If they had been holding a gun in either of those hands, the gun would have been struck by a bullet, leaving evidence that Tortuguita had been holding the gun when police opened fire. Atlanta authorities would have eagerly released that evidence in order to corroborate their narrative.
They have done no such thing. They did release a photograph of the gun that they allege was in Tortuguita’s possession—but in the photograph, the gun does not show any sign of having been struck by a bullet.
It follows that Tortuguita did not fire a gun on the morning of January 18, 2023.2
In that case, how did it occur that an officer was shot that day, and with a bullet allegedly matching a handgun registered to Tortuguita that was found on the scene?
According to an early Georgia Bureau of Investigation press release,
The handgun is described as a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm. Forensic ballistic analysis has confirmed that the projectile recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Teran’s handgun.
In fact, Georgia State Patrol—the officers who murdered Tortuguita—are all standard-issued firearms that use 9mm ammunition. According to the “Investigator Narrative” included in the Dekalb County autopsy, during the killing of Tortuguita,
“The uniformed officers reportedly discharged their service weapons, to include a .223 caliber rifle and 9mm handguns.”
So the fact that the gun apparently registered to Tortuguita used 9mm ammunition proves nothing, considering that Georgia State Patrol officers were shooting 9mm ammunition that day.
If exculpatory “forensic ballistic analysis” existed confirming that the bullet that struck the officer was fired from the specific handgun registered to Tortuguita, the authorities would surely have released that by now. The fact that they have not done so suggests that the GBI statement that “the projectile recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Teran’s handgun” means simply that it was 9mm ammunition, like all the bullets that the Georgia State Patrol officers were firing.
Tortuguita experienced at least 57 gunshot woulds within a period of eleven seconds. That offers a hint of how many bullets were in the air during the murder. We don’t know how many rounds Georgia State Patrol officers fired off, but it may have been considerably more than that.
I would say it’s almost guaranteed that there were more bullets than that. It’s been shown that cops tend to miss more often than they hit their targets, so there were probably at least 100 9mm bullets in the air during those 11 seconds. The article goes on to discuss the body cam footage I mentioned earlier, with an officer apparently believing the police shot one of their own. More than that, the police “evidence” doesn’t fit with the video footage we do have:
One more detail remains to be accounted for. According to the “Investigator Narrative” included in the Dekalb County autopsy, “Two empty 9mm shell casings were located under the decedent’s body” by the investigator who arrived on the scene after the shooting. Did Tortuguita fire those shells?
Video footage distinctly shows that the first three shots were fired in a steady, practiced rhythm, followed an instant later by a fourth shot, after which all the other shots began. It seems most likely that an edgy officer—not Tortuguita—fired those four shots, after which all the other officers began firing. If Tortuguita had fired those first shots, there would presumably have been three or four shell casings around Tortuguita’s body—and more to the point, there would have been gunshot residue on Tortuguita’s hands.
Have I mentioned that cops lie, yet? I feel like I might have forgotten to mention that. Cops lie a lot, which makes it hard to believe anything they say, especially since they also have a habit of planting evidence. The Crimethinc article goes on to discuss motive, and some other factors – it’s worth a read.
Environmental activists are murdered with shocking regularity around the world, where activists – often Indigenous people – are pushing back against environmental destruction that is almost universally driven by greed. According to The Guardian, Tortuguita was the first such killing in the US. The biggest driving factor in Atlanta, while greed is certainly involved in the Cop City project, seems to be the degree to which USian cops hate being told “no”. They want their new playground, they want unchallenged authority, and they are clearly willing to kill to get their way.
I believe I’ve said before that I have a great deal of respect for the people on the front lines of this fight, and I hope it’s clear to all of you that using that “military” terminology is important. These activists are not trying to wage war, but a a war is being waged against them, and their lives are very much in danger.
If you want to help, Defend the Atlanta Forest has a few suggestions, most of which don’t involve putting your body on the line:
There are many ways to get involved. You can support online, help organize your community, show up for actions, or any other number of activities depending on your availability and comfort level. The movement appreciates the need for diverse tactics, meaning many forms of struggle that move towards a common goal. Here’s some more ideas:
- You can sign up for sporadic text alerts here: 470.606.1212
- You can Visit the forest at 3251 W Side Place, Atlanta GA 30316.
- You can donate to on-the-ground forest defense and community groups.
- You can donate to legal & bail support fund for protestors.
- You can donate to the lawsuit challenging the Dekalb County movie studio land swap.
- You can organize protests, send phone calls or emails, or help with direct actions of different kinds to encourage contractors of the various projects to stop the destruction. You can find some of the contractors here: stopreevesyoung.com
- Call Brasfield & Gorrie (678.581.6400), the Atlanta Police Foundation (770.354.3392), and the City of Atlanta (404.330.6100) and ask them to cancel the project and to remain peaceful with tree-sitters and other on-the-ground protesters.
- You can form an Action Group in your community, neighborhood, town, city, college, or scene. Together, you can host information nights, movie screenings, potluck dinners, and protests at the offices of contractors, at the homes of the board members, on campus, or elsewhere. You can post and pass out fliers at public places and shows, knock on doors to talk to neighbors and sign them up for text alerts, fundraisers, or actions, or you can innovate new activities altogether.
- You can conduct independent research about the destruction of the forest, construction projects, their funders, their contractors, or lesser-known details about the project using public records searches or other open source investigation techniques and send your findings to us at defendtheatlantaforest[at]protonmail[dot]com.
- You can organize to join or create a camp in the South River/Weelaunee Forest. Respect people’s space and try to be friendly.
- Finally, you and friends or your group could organize to caravan down to the forest from near or far during weeks of action.
Obviously, this fight is ongoing. The twitter account associated with this list has announced a week of action from June 24th to July 1st of this year (2023, for people reading this in the future). As they said, how you go about helping is up to you. Any help is better than none, and it takes a village to raze and empire. Tortuguita’s cause was just, and it’s one that we should carry on, be it in their name, or just because it is necessary. Climate change, bigotry, capitalism, authoritarianism – they’re all different fronts on the same war, and sitting out the fight simply isn’t an option.
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Correcting the Guardian says
Tortuguita wasn’t the first environmental activist killed by the state. Several members of MOVE were infamously killed by Philadelphia police in 2 incidents that took place in the 1980s. The second one involved police bombing their collective home from a helicopter.
Abe Drayton says
I think I made the all-too predictable mistake of forgetting that part of their activism, because of the role race played in their work and the attacks against them.
Thanks for the correction!
Is the image caption yours?
I suspect that’s not the right word.
Abe Drayton says
Yeah that one was a typo – thanks for catching it
Pierce R. Butler says
Correcting the Guardian @ # 1: Tortuguita wasn’t the first environmental activist killed by the state.
MOVE was much more a social/racial activist group than environmental per se. Judi Bari, however…
(Not to mention non-USAstanis like Berta Caceres…)
In the linked article with the pic of the firearm supposedly belonging to Tortuguita, I like how they try to claim it couldn’t have been planted, because none of the agencies involved issues Smith and Wesson firearms.
I don’t have the highest opinion of the intellectual capacity of cops, but even I think most wouldn’t be so short-sighted as to plant their issued weapon…
Abe Drayton says
I couldn’t find the thread, but I saw someone claiming that that particular handgun is one that’s popular among cops as a personal “backup” weapon. It’s not something I’m able to verify though, so that could have been made up? I dunno.
Pierce R. Butler says
Abe Drayton @ # 7: … that particular handgun is … popular among cops as a personal “backup” weapon. It’s not something I’m able to verify …
My little just-now web search indicates the Glock 27 takes top spot, but S&W seems to make all the top five lists.
Abe Drayton says
Fair enough. I was feeling a bit fried by the time I got to the end of this post, and that particular factoid wasn’t exactly crucial to the piece, so I guess I didn’t try as hard as I could have on that particular thing.
The FBI also tried and very nearly succeeded in murdering Daryl Cherney and Judi Bari. If Tortugita is the first, it’s not for lack of trying.
Pierce R. Butler says
Artor @ # 10: The FBI also tried and very nearly succeeded in murdering Daryl Cherney and Judi Bari.
FTR, no court has convicted the FBI or any of its “assets” in this case. But *somebody* did succeed in murdering Judi Bari.