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Family of Black U.S. airman seeks answers after fatal shooting by Florida deputy

Chantemekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Air Force senior airman, holds a photo of her son.
Michael A. McCoy
Chantemekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Air Force senior airman, holds a photo of her son.

Updated May 17, 2024 at 14:19 PM ET

Roger Fortson, a U.S. airman who was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy earlier this month, will be laid to rest on Friday in Atlanta. The service, at 11 a.m. ET, was being streamed online for the public.

But, for the family of the 23-year-old slain senior airman, who was Black, many questions surrounding his death remain unanswered.

In an interview with NPR, Fortson's mother, Chantimekki Fortson and an attorney for the family, Brian Barr, questioned the deputy's training and demanded more transparency around the case.

"He served his family, he served the country, served his friends," Barr said. "And it's just such a tragedy, from all angles that — living this life of service doing what he was told to do — he was killed because he opened the door," Barr said.

The funeral for slain airman Roger Fortson is held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Friday near Atlanta.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
The funeral for slain airman Roger Fortson is held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Friday near Atlanta.

A gifted teen who became "an amazing young man"

At the funeral, speakers marveled at how Fortson transformed himself from a fun-loving teenager into a young man with a sense of purpose.

"He was one of our gifted students," said Fortson's former principal, Loukisha Walker, of Ronald E. McNair High School.

"He didn't always act gifted," she said — but Fortson gained focus, she added, when he notched "an amazing score" on the military's aptitude test, the ASVAB.

Members of the U.S. Air Force pay their final respects to Airman Roger Fortson at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Friday.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Members of the U.S. Air Force pay their final respects to Airman Roger Fortson at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Friday.

"He was able to figure out exactly what it was he wanted to do" and make his mother — and his principal — proud, Walker said. "He was an amazing young man."

Fortson's baseball coach, Marcus Salter, recalled the gangly teen who joined the team with few recognizable skills.

"He just wanted to have fun," Salter said. "However, through commitment and hard work and consistent practice, Roger transformed not just as an athlete but as a person. By his senior year, Roger had become a leader on our team."

Members of the Air Force pay their final respects to Fortson.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Members of the Air Force pay their final respects to Fortson.

The coach described a player who embodied team spirit, working for his team to succeed.

"I also had the privilege of seeing Roger a few years later, as a clean cut, well-fed, tall and proud man," Salter said. "I was amazed at the conversations this young man had — his thoughts, his goals and mindset were all focused on success and personal growth."

Salter said he immediately called Fortson for advice after his nephew was offered a spot at the Naval Academy.

"Because I trusted him," Salter said, adding that his nephew — who has since set a goal of being a Navy pilot — had his life changed by Fortson's guidance.

Air Force members pay their final respects to Fortson at the church on Friday.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Air Force members pay their final respects to Fortson at the church on Friday.

Attendees include many service members

Fortson was "a man of honor, a man of integrity, a man of courage," said Col. Patrick Dierig, commander of the First Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., speaking at the funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, an Atlanta suburb.

Fortson's mother, Chantimekki Fortson, pays her final respects to her son.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Fortson's mother, Chantimekki Fortson, pays her final respects to her son.

Standing behind the airman's flag-draped casket, Dierig credited the community with producing a special man.

Harmoni Fortson pays her final respects to her brother, Roger Fortson.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
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Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Harmoni Fortson pays her final respects to her brother, Roger Fortson.

"Senior Airman Fortson lived the Air Force core values — service, integrity, excellence — not because of anything we taught him, but because of you," the officer told the attendees. "He was living those values before we met him, because of how you raised him."

The airman's military family attended his funeral in numbers, filling at least eight rows in the large church. Fortson was a combat veteran, the colonel said, part of the air commando community and taking part in AC-130 gunship missions over Iraq and Syria, along with special operations. He was awarded an air medal with combat device in 2023.

Chantimekki Fortson and daughter Harmoni Fortson watch as a U.S. Air Force Honor Guard loads the transfer case of Airman Roger Fortson into a hearse at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday. Fortson was killed by a Florida sheriff's deputy on May 3 after answering his door while holding a gun.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
Chantimekki Fortson and daughter Harmoni Fortson watch as a U.S. Air Force Honor Guard loads the transfer case of Airman Roger Fortson into a hearse at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday. Fortson was killed by a Florida sheriff's deputy on May 3 after answering his door while holding a gun.

"As you can see from the sea of Air Force blue, I'm not alone in my admiration of Senior Airman Fortson," Dierig said.

The deputy who shot Fortson claims it was in self-defense

Fortson was shot and killed on May 3 during an incident involving the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Eric Aden said the deputy reacted in self-defense after encountering an armed man.

An investigation led by Florida's Department of Law Enforcement is ongoing. The state attorney's office will determine if any further action is taken.

Members of the 73rd Special Operations Squadron presents Chantimekki Fortson, Roger Fortson's mother, a helmet in honor of her son in Atlanta on Thursday.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
Members of the 73rd Special Operations Squadron presents Chantimekki Fortson, Roger Fortson's mother, a helmet in honor of her son in Atlanta on Thursday.

That afternoon, the sheriff's office sent deputies to Fortson's apartment in response to a disturbance call. Fortson was alone in his apartment, save for his small dog, and was FaceTiming with his girlfriend when the deputy approached his door, according to his family's lawyers.

In body cam footage of the incident, a deputy is seen knocking on the door and announcing himself as law enforcement. Fortson then appears while holding a gun pointed toward the ground. The deputy immediately fires multiple times. Fortson later died in the hospital.

The deputy — whose name has not been released — was put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation and administrative review, which is standard protocol by the sheriff's department.

Family lawyers say the deputy went to the wrong apartment

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who's also representing Fortson's family, said the airman didn't hear the deputy announce himself and grabbed his gun for his own protection.

He's also said that the deputy was never meant to go to Fortson's apartment to begin with. There was a complaint regarding an apartment, but it was not Fortson's, said Barr.

Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard load the transfer case of Airman Roger Fortson into a hearse at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard load the transfer case of Airman Roger Fortson into a hearse at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday.

According to a recording Crump played during a press conference on Thursday, a police dispatch officer is heard saying that the disturbance involved "a male and a female," information he said came via a fourth-party from the front desk of the apartment complex.

"When you make a mistake, you own up to it," Crump said. "You don't try to justify killing a good guy. The Okaloosa Sheriff's Department needs to own up to this. Tell the truth."

In response, OCSO Sheriff Aden said his office is committed to transparency and accountability.

Chantimekki Fortson, Roger Fortson's mother rides in a car en route to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to receive the transfer case of her son on Tuesday.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
Chantimekki Fortson, Roger Fortson's mother rides in a car en route to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to receive the transfer case of her son on Tuesday.

"There are many questions the investigation must answer before we can determine whether the officer's actions are justified," Sheriff Aden said during a news conference.

Crump said the roughly four-and-a-half-minute body cam video released provides some answers but raises "even more troubling questions."

A handwritten note to Airman Roger Fortson is seen to honor his life in Atlanta on Thursday.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
A handwritten note to Airman Roger Fortson is seen to honor his life in Atlanta on Thursday.

"As the officer didn't tell Roger to drop the weapon before shooting, was the officer trained to give verbal warnings? Did the officer try to initiate life-saving measures? Was the officer trained to deal with law-abiding citizens who are registered gun owners?" he wrote on X.

"They took my gift"

Fortson's mother Chantimekki says her son had "the sweetest soul ever," and described him as "her gift."

Chantimekki says her son's death has deeply affected her family in many ways — including, she says, how his nieces and nephews now react to the presence of police.

Chantimekki Fortson touches the transfer case of the hearse of her son at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday.
/ Michael A. McCoy
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Michael A. McCoy
Chantimekki Fortson touches the transfer case of the hearse of her son at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday.

"When my grandkids see the police, they literally start vomiting," she said. "I've taught them to respect the police because of the chaos that goes on and the fact that they get sick to their stomach, it's crazy."

Now, she says, she is seeking justice for her son's death. To her, justice looks like getting the truth from the deputies about what happened — and an apology.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.
Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.