Attorney, family of Black airman fatally shot by Florida deputies say he was a patriot

May 9, 2024, 1:01 PM

Chantimekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Navy airman, holds a photo of her son during a...

Chantimekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Navy airman, holds a photo of her son during a news conference regarding his death, with Attorney Ben Crump, right, Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Fortson was shot and killed by police in his apartment on May 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The family of a Black U.S. Air Force airman who was fatally shot by deputies who burst into his apartment in the Florida Panhandle said Thursday that they wanted to clear his name and that authorities had put forth a false narrative that deputies acted in self-defense.

Senior Airmen Roger Fortson did not know it was sheriff’s deputies who were breaking into his apartment — “his castle” — and that he grabbed his “legally registered firearm” to protect himself, civil rights attorney Ben Crump told reporters. Fortson’s family planned to view body camera video later in the day.

Fortson’s mother, Chantemekki Fortson, walked into the news conference with Crump holding a framed portrait of her son in his dress uniform. She burst into tears as Crump spoke about her son’s death inside his Fort Walton Beach apartment.

“My baby was shot up,” she said.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office planned to hold a news conference later Thursday afternoon. It has declined to identify the responding deputies or their races. Officials have said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the local State Attorney’s Office will investigate the shooting.

Crump said deputies responding to a disturbance call burst into the wrong unit and fatally shot Fortson when they saw he had a gun. He said Fortson had grabbed his gun because he heard someone outside his apartment, got no response when he asked who was there and discovered the peephole on his door was blocked.

“For whatever reason, they thought he was a bad guy, but he was a good guy. He was a great guy. He was an exceptional guy,” Crump said. “They took a patriot from us.”

Crump, a noted civil rights attorney, called the shooting “an unjustifiable killing” and said the sheriff’s office needed to own up to it instead of maintaining that deputies were acting in self-defense.

“He was just in his apartment, minding his businesses,” Crump said. “They could have made sure they were at the right apartment. They had a duty to make sure they were at the right apartment before they busted in the door.”

The sheriff’s office has not responded to an email or voicemail from The Associated Press seeking comment about Crump’s account. In a statement last week, the office said a deputy responding to a call of a disturbance in progress at the apartment complex reacted in self-defense after encountering an armed man. The office did not offer details on what kind of disturbance deputies were responding to or who called them.

Crump said Fortson, originally from Atlanta, was shot six times and died at a hospital. The deputy who shot him was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Fortson had constitutional rights to have the firearm and against unreasonable searches by the police, Crump said. He led family members and other attorneys in a chant of, “Clear Roger’s name.”

“Any law-abiding citizens who feel they have a right to the Fourth Amendment and the Second Amendment, they should be troubled by this,” Crump said.

Crump said Fortson had always wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and enlisted after graduating high school. He was based at the Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field. As a special missions aviator, one of his roles was to load the gunship’s cannons during missions.

“He was living his dream. By doing so, he was going to make it better for his mother and siblings so they could have a better chance at the American dream,” Crump said.

Fortson was talking to his girlfriend, who hasn’t yet been identified, on FaceTime when deputies burst into his apartment on May 3, Crump added.

Without her, his family wouldn’t have known what happened, he said. The girlfriend notified his mother, who drove to Fort Walton Beach to find out that her son was dead.

At the hospital, deputies approached Chantemekki Fortson, and she told them, “’You guys have killed my baby. Just take me to my baby please. I just want to see my child,’” she recounted at the news conference.

“They had taken my gift,” she said. “My heart is bleeding, and they wanted to talk to me. They told me the investigation was ongoing,” she said.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it is unlikely the agency will have any further comment until the investigation is complete.

Crump, based in Tallahassee, Florida, has been involved in multiple high-profile law enforcement shooting cases involving Black people, including those of Ahmaud ArberyTrayvon MartinTyre NicholsGeorge Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was also killed in her home during a no-knock police raid that targeted her ex-boyfriend in 2020.

Fortson’s death draws striking similarities to other Black people killed in recent years by police in their homes, in circumstances that involved officers responding to the wrong address or responding to service calls with wanton uses of deadly force.

In 2018, a white former Dallas police officer fatally shot Botham Jean, who was unarmed, after mistaking his apartment for her own. Amber Guyger, the former officer, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2019, a white former Fort Worth, Texas, officer fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson through a rear window of her home after responding to a nonemergency call reporting that Jefferson’s front door was open. Aaron Dean, the former officer, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

Crump represented families in both cases as part of his effort to force accountability for the killings of Black people at the hands of police.

In November 2023, an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy mistook the sound of an acorn hitting his patrol vehicle for a gunshot and fired multiple times at the SUV where a handcuffed Black man was sitting in the backseat. Sheriff’s officials said the man, who was being questioned about stealing his girlfriend’s car, was not injured. He was taken into custody, but released without being charged. The officer who initiated the shooting resigned.


Schneider reported from Orlando, Fla.

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Attorney, family of Black airman fatally shot by Florida deputies say he was a patriot