Hundreds pack funeral for Roger Fortson, the Black airman killed in his home by a Florida deputy – Metro US

Hundreds pack funeral for Roger Fortson, the Black airman killed in his home by a Florida deputy

APTOPIX Police Shooting Airman Funeral
A mourner stands at the casket of slain airman Roger Fortson during his funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Friday, May 17, 2024, near Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

STONECREST, Ga. (AP) — Hundreds of Air Force members in dress blues joined Roger Fortson’s family, friends and others at a suburban Atlanta megachurch on Friday to pay their final respects to the Black senior airman, who was shot and killed in his Florida home earlier this month by a sheriff’s deputy.

People lined up well before the start of the service at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest to file past the open coffin and say their goodbyes to Fortson, who was shot six times by a deputy responding to a May 3 call about a possible domestic violence situation at Fortson’s apartment complex in the Florida Panhandle. He was 23.

Fortson’s face and upper body were visible in his Air Force uniform, with an American flag draped over the lower part of the coffin. After viewing the body, many mourners paused to hug one another.

“As you can see from the sea of blue in front of me, I am not alone in my admiration of Senior Airman Fortson,” Col. Patrick Dierig told mourners.

“We would like to take credit for making him great, but the truth is that he was great before he came to us,” said Dierig, the commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Florida. “He will live in our Air Force hearts forever.”

Fortson grew up in the Atlanta area before joining the Air Force. He was a senior airman who served in overseas combat zones and was stationed at Hurlburt when the deputy killed him.

His sister Raven Fortson spoke fondly of her brother, but bemoaned how his life was cut short.

“I thought Roger was the coolest person in the world. He was supposed to have a million more accomplishments.”

The funeral came a day after Fortson’s mother vowed to get justice for her son. At a news conference held by the family and their lawyer, Ben Crump, Meka Fortson spoke glowingly about how her son had always stayed on a positive path and had never been in trouble or shown signs of violence.

“Roger was light. There was not a stain on his name. He will not be put to rest in darkness because he was light,” she said.

She also had a message for Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden: “You’re going to give me justice whether you want to, Sheriff Aden, or not,” she said.

The deputy, whose name has not been released, shot Fortson six times within moments of Fortson responding to the deputy’s knocking and opening the door of his apartment while holding a handgun pointed at the ground.

Sheriff’s officials say the deputy acted in self-defense while responding to a call about a possible domestic disturbance in progress at the apartment complex.

The Fortson family and Crump, though, argue that the shooting was completely unjustified, saying Roger Fortson was home alone at the time FaceTiming with his girlfriend and that the deputy had gone to the wrong unit.

Aden has disputed allegations that the deputy went to the wrong unit, saying at a May 9 news conference that he’s aware of comments that “falsely state our deputy entered the wrong apartment.”

Two weeks after the shooting, the sheriff has yet to release an incident report, any 911 records or the officer’s identity, despite requests for the information under Florida’s open records act.

A steady stream of mourners attended a wake for Fortson on Thursday, including some who didn’t know the family. Among them was Conseulla Childs, of nearby Lithonia, who said she hates seeing people so young lose their lives.

“I can only imagine getting that call to say that you have to bury your child and give your child a homegoing before your time,” she said. “So it’s just heartbreaking to ever get that kind of news, so I just wanted to come and pay my respects.”

Charles Dorsey, of nearby Decatur, arrived in a hat emblazoned “U.S. AIR FORCE VIETNAM VET.”

“I was looking at the news and saw what happened … and he reminded me of when I was in the Air Force. As a matter of fact, he had the same rank I had when I was in the Air Force,” Dorsey said. “I wanted to put on my Air Force cap and show my respects for the family.”

Police radio traffic played at the news conference Thursday bolsters the family’s contention that the deputy may have gone to the wrong apartment. In the recording, a dispatcher said all they know about the disturbance was “fourth-party information.”

“Uh, don’t have any further other than a male and female,” the dispatcher told officers. “It’s all fourth-party information from the front desk at the leasing office.”

Crump also highlighted two portions of the deputy’s bodycam video in which the deputy asked a woman who was leading him around the complex, “Which door?” The woman responded, “Um… I’m not sure.” Seconds later, she told the deputy that she heard a disturbance two weeks before that, but “I wasn’t sure where it came from.”

The bodycam video shows the deputy arriving at a Fort Walton Beach apartment building and speaking to a woman outside who described hearing an argument. The deputy then went up an elevator and walked down an outdoor hallway.

The video shows the deputy banging on the door and stepping aside, seemingly out of view of the door. Twice he shouted: “Sheriff’s office! Open the door!”

Fortson, who legally owned a firearm, opened the door while holding a handgun pointed toward the floor. The deputy shouted, “Step back!” and then shot Fortson six times. Only afterward did he shout, “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” The deputy then called paramedics on his radio.

Fortson was talking to his girlfriend on FaceTime and grabbed his gun because he heard someone outside his apartment, Crump said. The deputy then burst into the apartment, he said, citing the account of the girlfriend, who has not yet been identified.

The case is among many around the country in which Black people have been shot in their homes by law enforcement personnel.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating and the deputy has been placed on administrative leave.

Fortson was stationed at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He was a gunner aboard the AC-130J and earned an Air Medal with combat device, which is typically awarded after 20 flights in a combat zone or for conspicuous valor or achievement on a single mission.

He was assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron as a special missions aviator, where one of his roles was to load the gunship’s 30mm and 105mm cannons.

Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.