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Investigation into shooting of Okaloosa pilot Roger Fortson angers family

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Okaloosa Deputy Eddie Duran told colleagues investigating his fatal shooting of Special Forces Airman Roger Fortner on May 3 that the first thing he saw was an angry look on Fortner's face.

“When I saw his eyes, I saw aggression,” Duran said, according to an internal investigation report from the Okaloosa Sheriff's Office released Friday. “It was a look that was 100% directed at me, no raised eyebrows, no 'Hey, what's going on? Why are you here?' It was a look … that told me there was aggression involved.”

Duran stated that Fortson's aggressiveness, his small step forward when asked to back away, and the inclination of his arm in which he held a weapon led him to use deadly force.

“I thought, 'I'm stuck in this area and I'm about to get shot,'” he said. “He got me, now it's either him or me.”

The deputy's defense of his decision to shoot Fortson did not save his job. The sheriff's office announced Friday that Duran was fired for violating officer response to resistance policy because it was determined Fortson did not resist.

Duran's statement, the release of the report and the identification of the deputy who shot Fortson, all a month after the shooting itself, did nothing to ease tensions between the sheriff's office and the Fortson family. At a news conference in Atlanta on Monday, Meka Fortson, Roger Fortson's mother, said the firing “doesn't represent justice to me.”

“This is not justice. You think you're throwing me a bone and I'm OK with it,” she said. “There are so many lies in this report, so much has been left out. He (Roger) doesn't know how to put aggression in his eyes… You all are still tarnishing his record.”

The family and their attorney, Ben Crump, asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to prosecute Duran for the fatal shooting.

When the family first approached Crump for representation in May, the attorney, who has handled a number of high-profile civil rights cases, including those of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin, urged the sheriff's office to clear his name.

He said the agency treated Fortson as an aggressor who provoked the fatal confrontation with Duran and criticized the agency for quickly dismissing the fatal shooting as an act of self-defense “after a deputy made contact with an armed individual at an apartment near Racetrack Road.”

A video released following Crump's first press conference shows Duran shooting him almost immediately afterward, while Fortson appeared at his door with a gun pointed downward and his other hand raised in an apparent act of submission.

More: Pilot shot dead: Bodycam video shows shooting by Okaloosa County Sheriff

“Upon hearing sounds of a disturbance, he (the deputy) acted in self-defense after encountering a 23-year-old man armed with a weapon after the deputy identified himself as a police officer,” the sheriff's office said in a press release following the incident in early May.

“That statement made people forget about Roger,” said Brian Barr, a lawyer for Levin Papantonio Rafferty in Pensacola who serves as co-counsel in Crump's firm. “You made it sound so convincing that none of you reported it,” he reminded the media at the time. “It didn't get any attention.”

The internal investigation report was released at 3:07 p.m. Friday by Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson, with a statement from Sheriff Eric Aden.

“Since the tragedy, our office has fully complied with legal requirements in a responsible and transparent manner, made numerous public statements, made available body-worn camera footage and other related records, met with Mr. Fortson's family and legal counsel, and communicated openly with the U.S. Air Force and our community at large,” Aden's statement said.

Less than an hour later, Friday's release was followed by the agency's Records Division releasing Duran's personnel file, which the Pensacola News Journal had first requested for inspection on May 17.

The released portion of the personnel file documents Duran's time with the sheriff's office from 2023 until May 3 of this year, when he was placed on paid administrative leave following the shooting.

There is no record of Duran's first tenure at the agency, from July 19, 2019, until his resignation in November 2021.

Documents released Friday show that Duran, who apparently worked as a school resource officer when he left, left the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office in 2021 “to follow his wife to a professional opportunity outside of Florida.”

The Fortson family appeared to question the original resignation on Monday.

“He resigned and came back,” Meka Fortson said. “Let the world know why he resigned and came back.”

Neither Barr nor anyone else on Crump's team was available Monday to discuss the statements made at the press conference.

More: “Acted impulsively, lacked proper training” – Ben Crump talks about bodycam footage of a US pilot who was killed by a deputy sheriff

The released portion of Duran's personnel file indicates that he was a decorated U.S. Army veteran who held marksmanship badges with both pistol and rifle. He served for a time as a military policeman and began his career as a law enforcement officer in Oklahoma before moving to Okaloosa County.

It also shows that he spent his final days as a full-time sheriff's deputy. On April 30, he sent an email to the sheriff's office's human resources department to inform them that he would be leaving his full-time position and moving to part-time, effective May 30, “due to family difficulties.”

In addition to the interview with Duran, the nearly 30-page investigative report, which was published last week, contains some interesting and partly contradictory witness statements.

Due to deletions in the main body of the report, the names of the witnesses are not available and it is not entirely clear how many witnesses were interviewed.

A witness who apparently lived in close proximity to Fortson said that she could hear “everything” that was said in his apartment through an air conditioner in her bedroom.

She said she heard an argument coming from the apartment on May 3 that was different from the “banter” she had heard earlier.

“I thought, 'This has never happened before, and I've been here for six months,'” she said. “So it was kind of disturbing to me.”

The witness also said she never heard a woman's voice during the loud argument. It has since been revealed that Fortson was speaking to his girlfriend via Facetime and was alone in his apartment when Duran arrived.

“I couldn't hear anyone back, but I just assumed because he was so loud,” the witness said. “Sometimes when you get yelled at, you think, uh, I'm in trouble. I just thought, OK, maybe she's not yelling back.”

In contrast, Fortson's girlfriend, who was also interviewed, denied that she and Fortson had argued. She said he was playing video games when the first knock came on the door.

“He said, 'Who is there?' and also, 'I don't know who it could be because no one comes to my house,'” the friend testified.

The friend couldn't remember Fortson saying anything about police, which Duran said he heard through the door. She also said she couldn't remember anyone identifying themselves as a sheriff's office employee, which Duran clearly did based on his body camera video.

She testified that as the knocking continued, Fortson said, “I'm going to get my gun because I don't know who that is.”