Florida sheriff’s office fires deputy who fatally shot airman at home

May 31, 2024, 2:32 PM | Updated: Jun 1, 2024, 5:36 am

A Florida Panhandle sheriff on Friday fired a deputy who fatally shot an airman at his home while holding a handgun pointed to the ground, saying the deputy’s life was never in danger and he should not have fired his weapon.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden fired Deputy Eddie Duran, who fatally shot Senior Airman Roger Fortson on May 3 after responding to a domestic violence call and being directed to Fortson’s apartment.

Duran shot Fortson, 23, multiple times two seconds after he opened his door. Fortson was holding his legally owned gun in his right hand, body camera video shows. It was pointed directly at the ground. Fortson was Black. Duran, 39, listed himself as Hispanic on his voter registration.

A sheriff’s internal affairs investigation released Friday concluded that, “Mr. Fortson did not make any hostile, attacking movements, and therefore, the former deputy’s use of deadly force was not objectively reasonable.” Outside law enforcement experts have also said that an officer cannot shoot only because a possible suspect is holding a gun if there is no threat.

“This tragic incident should have never occurred,” Aden said in the statement. “The objective facts do not support the use of deadly force as an appropriate response to Mr. Fortson’s actions. Mr. Fortson did not commit any crime. By all accounts, he was an exceptional airman and individual.”

No criminal charges have been filed, but a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation is ongoing.

Duran did not return a voicemail left at a number listed to him. Email and phone messages seeking comment from his attorney John Whitaker were not immediately returned.

According to the internal affairs report, Duran told investigators that when Fortson opened the door, he saw aggression in the airman’s eyes. He said he fired because, “I’m standing there thinking I’m about to get shot, I’m about to die.”

“It is him or me at this point and I need to, I need to act as opposed to react,” he told investigators.

Attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Fortson’s family, said in a statement that Duran’s firing “is a step forward, but it is not full justice for Roger and his family.”

“The actions of this deputy were not just negligent, they were criminal,” Crump said.

Sabu Williams, president of the Okaloosa County NAACP, applauded Aden’s action.

“We appreciate what the internal investigation has shown and what the sheriff has done to this point,” Williams told The Associated Press. “We don’t think this is the end of it, obviously.”

He said the NAACP has a good relationship with the Republican sheriff.

“Some of us may have wanted things to happen a lot quicker, but I know due diligence has to take place,” Williams said.

Duran is a law enforcement veteran, his career beginning as a military police officer in the Army. He was hired by an Oklahoma police department in 2015 after his military discharge. He Joined the Okaloosa County sheriff’s office in July 2019, but resigned two years later. He rejoined the sheriff’s office 11 months ago.

The apartment complex where Fortson lived is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Hurlburt Field, where Fortson was assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron as a special missions aviator serving on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. One of his roles was to load the plane’s 30mm and 105mm cannons during battles. He 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.

The events leading to the shooting began shortly after 4 p.m. on May 3 when a tenant who lived near Fortson in Fort Walton Beach’s Elan Apartments called the management office to say she heard what sounded like an argument coming from his apartment.

The woman, whose name has not been released, told investigators after the shooting she believed Fortson was in a relationship because she often heard a woman’s voice coming from the apartment. She said she had heard previous arguments, but none like the one that Friday afternoon.

“Before it was just, usually banter back and forth,” she told investigators. “Nothing was ever to the extent it was on (May 3).” She also thought a child was present.

But Fortson, who had no criminal record, lived alone and had no guests that afternoon. He was on a video call with his girlfriend, who told investigators they had not been arguing. She said Fortson was playing a video game.

An apartment complex manager called the sheriff’s office at 4:24 p.m. and Duran arrived three minutes later. He met the manager in the parking lot and she directed him to Fortson’s fourth-floor apartment, telling him there are frequent arguments, body camera video shows.

However, 911 records show deputies had never been called to Fortson’s apartment previously but they had been called to a nearby unit 10 times in the previous eight months, including once for a domestic disturbance.

When Duran arrived outside Fortson’s door, he stood silently for 20 seconds outside and listened, but no voices inside are heard on his body camera.

He then pounded on the door, but didn’t identify himself. He then moved to the side of the door, about 5 feet away (1.5 meters). He told investigators he feared that the person inside might fire through the door or open the door and push him over the rail and to the ground about 40 feet (12 meters) below.

He waited 15 seconds before pounding on the door again. This time he yelled, “Sheriff’s office — open the door!” He again moved to the side. A muffled voice can be heard on the video — Duran said he heard someone cursing at the police.

Less then 10 seconds later, Duran moved back in front of the door and pounded again, announcing himself once more.

Fortson’s girlfriend told investigators that the airman asked who was there but did not get a response. She said Fortson told her he was not going to answer the door because no one comes to his apartment. She said neither of them heard the deputy yell that he was with the sheriff’s office.

After the third knock, she said Fortson told her, “I’m gonna go grab my gun because I don’t know who that is.”

When Fortson opened the door holding his gun, Duran said “Step back,” and then immediately began firing. Fortson fell backward onto the floor.

Only then did the deputy yell, “Drop the gun!”

Fortson replied, “It’s over there.”

The deputy called for paramedics, but Fortson died a short time later at the hospital.

When other deputies arrived, Duran walked into the breezeway outside the unit and struck a wall with his right fist, the internal affairs report said.

“F-—,” he yelled.

___ Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, David Fischer in Miami and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Florida sheriff’s office fires deputy who fatally shot airman at home